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Seven Questions with Dan Israel: First gigs, favorite books, being Bob Dylan, much more

Seven Questions features deep dive interviews with local bands, songwriters, and personalities. Their music, their influences, what makes them tick, their earliest memories, what books they’re reading, what movies they love, and any other random ol’ thing is on the table. It’s a great way to get inside the head of Minnesota’s most important music personalities.

Dan Israel is one of Minnesota’s most renowned songwriters. 

He’s released 15 albums of his singular blend of Americana, rock, and folk in the last 25+ years. He was the first artist to appear on The Current’s Local Show, won Songwriter of the Year at the 2006 Minnesota Music Awards, and has played beside or opened for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Iris Dement, Trampled by Turtles, Todd Snider, Blue Oyster Cult, Rick Springfield, and more.

Dan’s 16th album, Social Distance Anxiety Disorder, was recently released. He also currently does a livestream show every Wednesday night on his Facebook page. 

Dan was kind enough to be the first person to participate in our Seven Questions series. Find out about what books he loves, what his earliest gigs were like, how his songwriting has evolved, and a whole lot more.

Question 1: You play Bob Dylan at a local tribute to the Band’s last concert, The Last Waltz, nearly every year. It’s one of my [Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland] favorite shows of the year. What is it like channeling Dylan? What impact has Dylan and the Band had on your songwriting?

Huge. Thanks, by the way, I am glad you enjoy those shows. I do too.

It’s a real thrill to play Dylan. I grew up with Dylan being this huge rock star who also happened to be another Jewish guy from Minnesota so I saw the possibilities, early on, that maybe that was something I could do too. And then of course he’s Bob Dylan, so he’s one of the biggest songwriting influences on everyone in the rock era, whether they realize it or admit it or not. 

I love playing and singing his songs – I learn so much from doing that. And with all due humility, it comes somewhat naturally to me (playing Bob). I go into my “Bob zone” and try to just approach it as some weird combination of imitating him (but not too much) and paying homage to him. 

I love the Band too, of course – it blows my mind that Dylan and the Band ever teamed up, it seems like it was destined, with the Band having that great rootsy sound and Robbie Robertson also being a quite formidable songwriter in his own right.

The impact they’ve had on my own songwriting is hard to quantify. I would just say “an enormous impact” and probably leave it at that.

Question 2: Which of your albums do you think are the best “gateway drugs” to the rest of your catalog? Why do you think so?

I honestly think my last few (Dan in 2015, You’re Free in 2018, Social Media Anxiety Disorder in 2019, and the new Social Distance Anxiety Disorder coming in 2020) because I feel like I have finally hit my stride in terms of songwriting and production. I was figuring it out for years, and since 2015 I think my approach has crystallized a bit and my ability to convey what I want to, with honesty and purpose, in terms of songwriting and making records has improved to the point where I would direct listeners to primarily those last four albums to understand what I’m trying to do. 
 
None of which means I shun my previous records – I’m proud of them all!  So I encourage listeners to check out my recent stuff but also go back and hear the older titles, there is a lot there for anyone who wants to really dig in.

Question 3: What are two books that you love from two widely different genres? What do you love about them?

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is a favorite. I was supposed to read it in high school and somehow got so lazy that I only read the Cliff’s Notes. About ten years ago I decided to read it for real and was pissed at myself that I ever took that shortcut, as it is now one of my favorite books. 

But I tend to read nonfiction – history, biographies, you name it – I just love nonfiction. So most of what I read is nonfiction.

I’m currently reading a book about Richard Nixon’s presidency – President Nixon:  Alone in the White House – by Richard Reeves.  It’s quite good – gives you a ton of insight into the inner workings of a mind like Nixon’s (not that he comes across as a good person – no, not really much at all – but it does help you understand the thinking process of someone like that at the time they had the most powerful position in the world).

I just love depictions of life that feel realistic – so I tend to shy away from fiction, often, because it sometimes doesn’t connect to my experience of what real life feels like. The Grapes of Wrath is that rare fictional book (for me, anyway) that feels quite real and powerful. But I tend to seek that out more from non-fiction, for perhaps obvious reasons (well-written non-fiction should put the reader right into the situation, and I love that).

Question 4: What are some of the best live shows that you’ve seen in person? Biggest legends that you’ve seen? What made them memorable?

Oh, wow – I’ve seen so many of my heroes from when I first got into music – the Stones, McCartney, The Who, ELO, Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, the Police, the Replacements, Bob Mould, the Jayhawks, and on and on.

Sometimes the experience now, when you see an older act, can be disappointing, but I will say that I took my son Isaac to his first real rock concert last summer, to see ELO, and he was SO into it and that made me so happy – the concert was really great for me too.

Sometimes the mere presence of those living legends onstage in front of you is enough to thrill you, but there have been let-downs too in recent years – I prefer not to rip on my heroes in print so you’ll just have to guess at who has disappointed me in concert in the last few years, but I bet some can guess a bit at that…

Photo by Steven Cohen.

That said, I have been lifted up by seeing my heroes more than I’ve been let down. Got to see people like David Bowie live too (back in the ’80s). I’m glad I got to see so many shows, especially when they involved people who are no longer with us and one can’t see them anymore. 

I think part of what makes those shows memorable is hearing the songs you grew up with (when you previously only heard them on the radio or in videos on MTV or on records) now playing those same songs live. That can really blow your mind, sometimes.

Question 5: What memories do you have of the first gigs that you ever played?

My first gigs were in high school with various bands I was in, where most of the songs we played were cover songs.

My first solo gig was an open mic in the Twin Cities at the old Artist’s Quarter on Nicollet, hosted by songwriter John Fenner (who I’m still friends with). I think I played a couple of my original songs at that – but then when I went to college (at Northwestern, in Chicago) I started to play little parties at the dorm I lived in and got hired to play at other dorms and that was really the start of my live gigging career. 

Those were fun – a relaxed way of breaking into live performance, and I took the confidence and self-assuredness I got from playing those and started to play in the clubs of Chicago with another guy named Brad Bouten, and we called our duo One Town Horse.  That’s when it really got going.

Then I moved to Austin, TX for a few years and had a band called Potter’s Field. Then moved back to my hometown (Twin Cities) in late 1995, formed Dan Israel and the Cultivators, met my wife, had kids, worked for the Minnesota Legislature for 21 years, and so on…but you didn’t ask for my life story, did you?  🙂 

Question 6: Describe a time when your songwriting really turned a corner.

I don’t know if there’s one time in particular…but your question got me thinking – I think around 2004 or so…I think I was feeling like I had run out of things to say and ways to approach the melodic aspects of songwriting and wanted to just quit (one of many times I have felt that way about the music business).

And so I went back to writing a lot and got a 16-track recorder to start to make better demos at home. That sparked a lot of writing and making of records (I have used elements of my home recordings on many albums, though I need [local producer, drummer, and multi-instrumentalist] Dave Russ to clean up the audio mess I’ve made with my home stuff, as he is a pro at that). 

I think just being in the groove of songwriting and having that in the forefront of your mind can be enough to get it going and really express yourself freely. I have a digital recorder to collect song ideas and then use a composition notebook to sketch out lyrical approaches to go along with the melodic ideas. I don’t know if I answered your question, though. 

Photo by Steven Cohen

Question 7: What are your favorite Minnesota establishments and why? This can be live music venues, bars, coffee shops, record shops, etc. Though this is a tough question during the current COVID-19 crisis…

I miss everything right now – especially those places that are “regular” venues for me and/or me and my band, as either a performer or a spectator, like the Hook and Ladder, the Turf Club, First Ave/7th Street Entry, and so on. 

I play a ton of solo acoustic shows too, and I love those, so I’m really missing all the breweries/wineries/distilleries/corner bars that are the foundation of my solo acoustic live gig schedule, usually. 

And all the record stores – yes – that’s something I maybe didn’t realize how much I loved stopping into during the day until it no longer is an option. 

So this sucks and I hope we can get things open again soon, once it is safe to do so.  But only then…no point in opening everything up only to have to shut it down again if the pandemic situation gets horrible again (and I realize in saying this that it never STOPPED being horrible for many people – it is an ongoing terrible struggle for so many people right now).

Honestly, I just miss my friends.  I miss people.  I miss going out.

Bonus Question 8: How are you holding out in these trying times? Are you and yours doing alright? How are you and your musician friends coping with the loss of work?

Thanks – I am doing ok, and my kids are ok. My parents are ok. Everyone is healthy in my immediate circle, so I’m grateful for that. 

My friends seem to be ok too. We are all trying to figure out our way through this new reality. Many of us are applying for unemployment and that should help (normally would not be able to as a self-employed person, but of course the rules have changed a bit, thankfully, for this pandemic). Doing online livestreamed shows is one way to do that – I have been doing at least one a week since this all started and that has helped me stay sane and keep some income coming in too in the form of tips/donations.   

I have another album coming out soon too – Social Distance Anxiety Disorder – it’s the sequel/follow-up/companion to 2019’s Social Media Anxiety Disorder.  It was recorded with primarily my core band (Dave Russ on drums, Mike Lane on bass) up at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sound on the Iron Range (the fourth album I have recorded up there).

I was going to have a release show at the Hook and Ladder’s Mission Room on Sat. May 2, 2020 but of course that got postponed so I’m going to just put out the record soon and worry about a release show later (maybe this fall). I have the discs already (happy to get you one) – it’s more of a question of how soon we can get promo materials (like a new one-sheet for it) together and then it will just be released without a “real” release show for now (maybe I’ll call one of my livestreamed shows a release show, you never know!). 

I livestream every Weds at 6 pm, by the way, via my fan page on Facebook, in case anyone is interested! 

But yes, lots of challenges right now, but am just trying to do my best. Haven’t written a single song about “all of this” yet – not sure if/when I will, but maybe. Feel creatively a bit quiet, but then I am about to release my 16th album so I think I won’t worry about that much at the moment! 

And hopefully we can get back to playing some real live shows soon – whenever it becomes safer to do that.

Erik Ritland
Author: Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

Written by Erik Ritland

Music in Minnesota editor Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from the east side of St. Paul. He has released 7 albums and 8 EPs featuring his unique blend of rock n' roll, modern rock, and Americana since 2001. Rambling On, his personal blog and podcast covering music and sports, was launched in 2012. Erik was also Head Staff Writer for Minnesota culture blogs Hometown Hustle and Curious North.

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