Daily BR!NK would like to introduce you to Danny Ross – a New York-based musician with a sound proportionate to his city’s size. He recently played at SXSW music festival and is rapidly gaining recognition as a self-made musician with a big future in the business. What strikes us most about Ross is not that his songs have been featured on various television shows, but that his lighthearted sense of humor and kind determination are drawing as much attention as his talent. We caught him on Skype (his first Skype experience, in fact!) last week, and were in awe of his self-taught beginnings and humble self-reflection. We found out he’s a bit of an encyclopedia of musical history (he ended the interview by discussing his newest influences – everything from Afrobeat to Beethoven), and he’s got a couple really adorable cats. Make sure to take a look at the exclusive performance Danny did for Daily BR!NK right from his Brooklyn apartment.
The first thing I wanted to clarify was the composition of the “band.” You’re identified always as Danny Ross, but I know you work with other musicians.
What I like to say is that I have a band but I’ve also got veto power. I started out in a band in high school and I quickly realized that if I was serious about making this my career and taking my musical abilities to their full potential, I’d need to be able to stand on my own two feet first. It’s like any other type of relationship; you want to know yourself and know that you can succeed on your own. Instead of working with others as a clutch or because you need them, you want to work with them because they complement you. To be honest, I’m still not at a place where I’m co-songwriting because I feel like I have so much work to do on my own – as a songwriter and composer and bandleader. I feel like I have a lot to prove, still.
What types of instrumentation do you use in your songs?
When you’re going to see one musician, you very much expect to see one dude with a guitar or piano but I have a big sound, and the great thing about having this under my name is that I get to use different variations of instrumentation. My favorite is playing the big “rock show” at places like Mercury Lounge in New York City. Taking the 9-piece band and horn section and doing a soul review kind of show. But I also could play in a more acoustic room with a string quartet and a banjo and a pedal steel.
Tell me a bit about your background in music.
Around the age of thirteen I discovered The Beatles for the first time. It just changed my world, and I said, “I want to be like Paul McCartney.” And I pretty much didn’t look back. I had no musical training, no one in my family is a musician, and so I started going down to my basement where there was a piano and I just started coming up with ideas late at night by myself, not knowing what the hell I was doing. I couldn’t play cover songs when people asked me to, because I didn’t know how! I only knew how to play my rinky-dink ideas. When I went to college, I said that I wanted to do it for real. So I started my own major at Cornell called…Popular Music Composition and Performance… [Danny flips the camera around to show me he’s reading off his diploma on the wall]
I created my own program there because I couldn’t get into a music program because I wasn’t proficient enough in any instrument or theory. And through that program I worked with professors in jazz to learn theory and to notate for some of the instrumentation I was hearing. And I worked with a poetry professor for lyrics. And for my senior thesis, I wrote this album and performed it live with a 17-piece band and orchestra for a couple hundred people.
It’s really interesting to me how musicians have begun to market themselves, especially in terms of social media. I know you send out a newsletter that’s a bit different from what most artists do. I’m wondering how you have found your audience over the years, and maybe some advice that you would give a musician who’s a step behind you.
[thinks] I would say that marketing is…tough. Because you have to bother people. But it’s okay if you make it entertaining and not awkward. Unfortunately because of X amount of reasons, this is something that you have to do as a musician. I don’t necessarily want to do it, you don’t necessarily want to receive it, but it has to happen. So I might as well make it as entertaining and painless for you as possible.
You can totally see that in the letters you send out. Because they’re fun, and they’re light, and they talk about other things – not just the music.
Because it wouldn’t be any fun if I wrote, “Hey guys, I’m playing next Tuesday! Come see me, thanks!” But that’s what 99 percent of musicians do. I just think to myself, “If I were in your shoes, what would I want to hear?” You start to say, “Okay, well, I’m not going to be able to quit my day job tomorrow, and I’m not going to be super-famous in two weeks, so I better start enjoying this.” So I’d tell anyone in the arts, take baby steps, and allow yourself to really go through the process instead of over it – and that will influence the way you market yourself and every other aspect in your career.
Tell me about your other day job, because I hear it’s not the typical musician day job.
So I work for Congressman Jerry Nadler, he’s a democrat representing Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s a really great job. I don’t have any Blackberries, there are no nights and weekends, and basically it frees me up to do music – whether it’s practicing at home or marketing myself or performing. It’s a wonderful thing to be a public servant of New York’s 8th congressional district. Government is my second passion, and I’d be pursuing that more than eight hours a day if it werent for music.
I find this really interesting, because normally when I talk to musicians, they say they teach an instrument during the day or something else music-related.
People say there’s something to be said for keeping your head out of the creative world to make money.
So is this job a completely separate facet from your music life?
Totally. And I like it that way. I have my head in one world and I come home and have my head in another world.
What’s your take on the state of music right now?
Because essentially the record industry collapsed in on itself, it turned out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing because the gate keepers fell; it’s no longer just a matter of who you know, it has a lot more to do with merit now. The bad side of the industry collapsing is essentially that everyone on the planet with a Mac, a keyboard, and a microphone was in the same place as everyone else – the playing field was leveled.
More than anything it’s about practice, fulfilling your potential as a musician. I’ve played a show once every month for the past four years…
That’s pretty impressive.
It might sound impressive in retrospect, but at the time it’s like, okay, I need another show. That’s the motivation. The longer that I’m not in a place that I want to be – the longer that I’m not that guy playing Madison Square Garden, and the longer that I’m at my day job and not playing music eight hours a day…
So that’s what motivates you – what inspires you?
[thinks] I’m inspired by other great art. The times that I want to rush to a piano…when I hear music that inspires me and makes me believe that I can do it to. It makes me run into my room and want to start practicing because I want to be that.
Who are you looking to connect with? What would contribute to your success?
I want to be connected with someone who is interested in helping and learning and absorbing new interesting music – and seeing an exciting live performer. In other words, I don’t give a shit about being hooked up with someone’s industry friend. Down the road, you have to have enough faith in your music. What you want as an artist is an army of fans who are excited about being a part of your movement. I want to make the artist experience meaningful for the people who are listening. People who are open to art affecting their lives. The more people I am connected to that are like that, I’d like to think the quicker and more lasting my success.