This past January and February, Midwest songwriter Dan Tedesco went on a unique tour. He played two complete albums in two sets: Tom Petty’s Wildflowers and his own Starin’ at a Green Light (his first release). The show proved how ambitious Tedesco is, not to mention his good taste.
His latest album, American Darkness, explores the heart, mind, and soul of contemporary America with warmth and subtlety. His singular mixture of rock, pop, and Americana evokes ‘60s Dylan, ‘90s Tom Petty, and Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo.
Tedesco is playing the Entry tonight in support of American Darkness. He sat down with Music in Minnesota before the show to discuss his new album, his past work, and the enduring influence of Tom Petty.
MiM: When did you begin writing American Darkness? How did the recording come about?
Dan: I wrote the majority of the songs in the middle to latter half of 2016. I passed a handful of demos off to my producer, Duane Lundy, who works out of his own studio in Lexington, KY under the name Shangri-La Productions. Duane, in turn, passed the tracks off to executive producer, Brian Brinkerhoff, who he had recently partnered with to fund certain projects and Brian gave us the green light. After that, it was just a matter of scheduling studio time. We cut most of the album over an 8-day period in early May ’17, completing a few remaining overdubs and all final mixes by the end of that year.
MIM: The songs on the album definitely have a socially conscious side to them. How do you balance creativity and subtlety with the messages you want to get across?
Dan: It’s all in the storytelling for me – the details. I try to use characters and a narrative structure versus a more literal “preaching” tone. I believe it’s my job to show, not tell. This album, in particular, was built the old school way. It’s very much a concept record. Not only are there storylines within each song, but the track listing follows an overarching narrative. The songs, and their respective storylines, build on each other, much like chapters of a book. By doing this you are able to voice certain ideas, while still giving the listener credit. It allows them to find their own connection and their own meaning.
MiM: The sound on American Darkness is very warm. It sounds like it was recorded at Abbey Road. What was the production style?
Dan: I imagine Duane is going to really appreciate that comment. He engineered, as well as co-produced, the album. I was interested in getting a very raw drum tone, much like on 50’s and 60’s jazz records. We only put like two or three mics on the drums. It’s a really natural feel. As Duane would say, we were trying to “leave a smudge on the lens,” so to speak. It was a very simple production process in terms of the basic tracking. One or two guitars on each track, piano on a handful, little bit of wurli/rhodes keyboards. Duane and I both talked a lot about the fact that I’d be performing these songs mostly solo, so the production was done with a very sharp awareness to not overdo anything – just to enhance where needed. I really love the feel we captured. I think, sonically, it takes you into a world where these songs really come to life.
MiM: The last time you were in the Twin Cities, you played Tom Petty’s Wildflowers in its entirety. American Darkness definitely has a Wildflowers feel, in that it’s a warm folk and rock record with meaningful lyrics. Tell us about the influence Tom Petty has had on you, especially Wildflowers.
Dan: The biggest influence I’ll always take from Petty is economy of words. He had such a knack for nailing a certain feeling, or saying quite a lot, with so few syllables. I’ve always had a hard time with that and I constantly challenge myself to trim things down. Keep it tight and to the point. In our current culture, with attention spans frying up, I think it’s even more important to try and master that skill.
MiM: During your last show, you also played your first album, Starin’ at a Green Light, in its entirety. It still holds up very well. What are your thoughts on that album?
Dan: It was my first record – you only get to do that once. We had so much fun making that album. I was playing with some of my best friends. I lived in Chicago at the time, and we traveled over to Grand Rapids, MI to work with an engineer who had invested in making the album with me. In a lot of ways, I couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity. I would have been about 26 at the time. I’m still proud of the songs. There’s a lot of emulation on that album, but that’s ok. It was my first one, and you’ll hear that from just about any artist at that point in their development. I used to give myself a harder time about that, but I don’t anymore. Playing those songs completely solo this past winter, as you mentioned, also showed me that they’re good songs. I think I proved them to myself for a second time. It was very rewarding to get to re-interpret them ten years down the road.
MiM: How has your music evolved since the on Starin’ at a Green Light?
Dan: Per my comment about Petty’s influence, they’ve gotten leaner. I’ve learned a lot about how to trim the fat. And I feel like I’ve come into my own voice.
MiM: Anything else you’d like people to know about American Darkness?
Dan: You can listen to it just about everywhere that music is streamed, download it at DanTedesco.com and pick it up on vinyl in June.
Be sure to catch Dan tonight at the 7th St. Entry.