"I never really know what I?m playing. I just follow what sounds good in my head and keep going." - Daniel Powter
That?s a good word to begin with as you get into Daniel Powter, the debut release from this singularly
unique talent. Sure, it doesn?t sound "different" - i.e., weird, spooky, bizarre - when you listen casually at first. If anything, it sounds like superbly crafted, edgy pop: The songs are catchy, the rhythms infectious, the chords rock-solid beneath hooks that dig into your brain and don?t let go. It?s upbeat, though Powter does pound those changes aggressively. ("It?s keyboard music on steroids," he explains.)
Ah, but listen again, a little closer. Dark lyrics thread through those happy melodies, some of which he sings with a hint of sarcasm and anger tightening the quiver in his falsetto. He focuses on everyday life, though he doesn?t miss the dirt swept under society?s rug. It surfaces on "Free Loop," in which a low-life jerk suggests to a girl that they both cheat on their partners. It lurks beneath the elegant flow of "Styrofoam," in a bleak self-portrait that even asks, "Isn?t this an ordinary song?" (Answer: No.) It?s wrapped in polyester and spun out onto the dance floor on "Hollywood," about as nasty a depiction of showbiz sleaze as you?ve ever heard.
All of these songs are mercilessly catchy. If you didn?t understand English, you?d be left with a grin on your face and a hum-along riff in your head. And if you do, your response will be the same - except a minute or two later, you?d be thinking, "Wait a minute. Did he just sing what I thought he did?" (Answer: Yes.)
If you break Daniel Powter down to the basics, the key elements are two: brilliant musical skills and wicked candor. Maybe this comes from the contradiction of being raised in the pastoral splendor of the Okanagan Valley (British Columbia), yet coming to believe that as an artist he has nothing to lose. The lesson began sinking in between ages four to thirteen, when he spent a lot of time at home, practicing violin, as his mother accompanied on piano. Daniel never joined a youth hockey team in order to bash into a bunch of other kids. He didn?t have to: other kids, spotting him with his violin case, would bash into him instead.
"I had played at this talent show at my school," he remembers, "probably in grade five or six. I was walking across a field with my violin case when a couple of bullies from the school just beat on me. That was my turning point. I went back home with a black eye and announced, ?You know what? I?m not doing this anymore.?"
There were other reasons why the violin lost its appeal. "I was dyslexic," Powter says, "and my teacher focused very much on being able to read. I remember her looking over at me during one lesson and saying, ?You know, your music is upside down.? That?s when I realized I had to break off from that structured idea of music and find my own way."
His parents? record collection lured him from the classics. "I used to listen to their Beatles and Fleetwood Mac albums until I?d absorbed them and it started to make sense. I heard a lot of the Motown stuff that my mom played. And Duran Duran was massive for me; even now, I have to turn up the radio when ?Hungry Like The Wolf? comes on. More than that, though, I was into Prince. I even had Dirty Mind as a kid; my parents had no problem with that."
Soon he was spending most of his time at his mother?s piano, picking out original tunes. "I?d always messed around on it," he recalls, "but when I made the shift from violin I realized that it was so great to be able to play multiple notes at once in the bass, the midrange, and the high range. Also, girls loved it; they?d never go out with me if I were still playing a violin."
Still, Powter didn?t start performing until late in high school, when he got his first band together. It was, he admits, not exactly a triumph: "Gigs petrified me. I was the lead singer but I had to turn my back to the audience; I couldn?t even look at them, it was so terrifying."
That didn?t take long to change. By their second gig he was beginning to channel the energy of the audience. Before that night was over Powter had committed himself to music. His first record, which he cut while still living in the Okanogan Valley, won airplay in Rocktoria, a radio contest held in Victoria, British Columbia. And as his senior year wound down, he got himself admitted as a music student to Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton.
There, the issues that had derailed his career as a violinist resurfaced. "I got A?s all the time in ear training. But in theory I got an F because I didn?t read well. After a while I started to hate school - and I realized it was better for me to create on my own."
Dropping out after two years, Powter moved to Vancouver, where he hooked up with a collaborator named Jeff Dawson. "Jeff and I bunkered down in this apartment with a little studio. I started writing songs, and he and I would come up with these great production ideas. I got so addicted to it that I was working on these songs all day and all night. It was like a door opening. Everything became easy. Before, when I was making a record, one song would take me a week. Now I would have the song written in just a day, and Jeff and I would get all these bass parts down and start making loops. It just encouraged me to keep going."
Over the next year, Powter wrote a body of songs, from which the material on Daniel Powter would be drawn. When he and Jeff started sending out demos, response was strong. Major - even legendary - executives flew him to New York to audition. Unfortunately, in polishing his writing and recording, Powter hadn?t worked on his stage act - the idea of performing still made him nervous - so, at this stage, nobody bit. "I wasn?t ready," he shrugs. "I got killed. And once a record company says no, it?s difficult to come around again. So I decided to forget about it, get back to Vancouver, and keep writing songs."
Credit an enterprising manager, Gary Stamler, for saving the day. After getting Powter?s demo to Tom Whalley, Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Records, he set up a meeting in L.A. It was, as someone once said, the beginning of a beautiful friendship - or two. Like his search for the right label, Daniel?s choice of Mitchell Froom to produce Daniel Powter owed more to hanging out than to aggressive pitching. "It was tense until I got together with Mitchell," he explains. "After two or three days, just before Christmas a year ago, I knew that he was the guy I wanted. Tom asked us to do three songs together, and when we turned them in he gave us the green light."
Working with Froom is a special treat if, in addition to being an idiosyncratic artist, you?re a keyboard player. Before earning production credits on projects with Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Crowded House, Paul McCartney, and other giants, Froom made a name for himself through session work and a series of his own albums. This partially explains the textures throughout Daniel Powter - richly varied yet never, as keyboards can be, gloppy or superfluous. "I got to play all of Mitchell?s collection," Powter enthuses, like a kid back from Halloween with a bagful of treats. "That guy has got old Chamberlins, Wurlitzers, B-3s - it?s unreal."
The connection between Powter, Froom, and Jeff Dawson strengthened as the recording sessions began. "Mitchell helped me arrange parts," Powter says. "For instance, there?s a part in the middle of ?Lost In The Stoop? that?s from the original demo; we changed the progression but the vocals stayed the same. I just fell in love with this kind of attitude. Most people are protective and territorial, but I was comfortable from the start with Mitchell and the way he works."
Froom knows that the key for a producer is to stay out of the way except when he can help the artist bring an idea to life. Daniel Powter, then, is all about Daniel Powter: All the idiosyncrasies, the bursts of brilliance and volatile collisions of innocence and irony, mark this young man from the North Country as an original, whose debut is only the first of what should be many mini-masterpieces to come.
"I?m a realist. All I really want is to connect with an audience that feels the way I feel. Of course, if that happens on a bigger scale and I?m massively successful, that?s okay too."
- Daniel Powter