Daniel Tashian on Bacharach collaboration, songwriting
I first heard of singer-songwriter Daniel Tashian when I listened to the excellent EP he did with Burt Bacharach, Blue Umbrella, released in July. As I read more about Tashian, 45, and dug into his catalog, I was struck by the sheer variety of music he creates.
For over a decade, he’s been writing hits for country artists in Nashville, among them Josh Turner, Billy Currington, and Martina McBride. He won an Album of the Year Grammy for his work on Kacey Musgraves’s 2018 album Golden Hour, co-producing and co-writing seven of the 13 songs.
He also makes ambient music and has recorded several children’s albums. Earlier this month, he released a Christmas EP, A Tashian Family Christmas, with his three young daughters on backing vocals. On top of all that, he fronts the indie rock band The Silver Seas.
360°: What’s it like having so many irons in the fire?
Daniel Tashian: There’s a couple of people who have been mentors to me in my life, Burt [Bacharach] is definitely one of them, and another is Kerry O’Neil, who started the company with Carla Wallace that I write songs for, Big Yellow Dog Music. I used to go to coffee every week with Kerry when I just started there about 12 years ago. He said, ‘If you can be prolific, you can be successful.’ So far, I’ve found that to be true.
You see these guys that are into fly fishing and the vests and the flies. They get out in the river in the morning and they’re never happier than when they’re fly fishing. It’s very addicting. Music, for me, is something along those lines. If you can imagine a really passionate hobby, but I just do it every day and I’m never happier than when I’m out there fishing for trout or whatever.
I understand you met Burt Bacharach at a Grammys party. Tell us about how the EP came together and your experience working with Bacharach.
Burt is a great light in my life. He is so sharp and so funny. I always feel like when I’m talking to Burt, I just want to listen to him, but he listens to me. We’re just really good friends. He’s of another generation than me. There’s a tone and a feeling that that generation has in the way that they think and how they are. They lived through the Depression. They’ve seen wars come and go by. They’ve created for decades and decades. We were talking about being prolific, and Burt’s got that. He’s a multi-decade hitmaker. He’s just a role model and a good friend.
He’s my No. 1 favorite of all time. I just thought maybe we’d write just one song or something but we’re still writing. We’ve got two new ones we’re working on. He’s just a lovely, lovely person. People have had interactions with their heroes where they maybe felt disappointed. But with Burt, he’s just so sweet always.
You were quoted as saying, “Tears came to my eyes when I heard what he did with the short little stanza of lyrics I’d sent him. It was an unforgettable memory for me that I’ll cherish, always.” Was that a stanza that ended up on the album?
That was the It was a cold night/the stars were just right/you would have liked it, the beginning of “Blue Umbrella.” He played that for me, and it was just really moving. It was an unforgettable experience sitting in his sunken living room in a wonderful armchair and he’s just sitting there playing for me. He’s got his Patagonia space jacket on, Ray-Bans, he’s just a cool dude.
“Bells of St. Augustine” is a beautiful song. It begins with vivid imagery and then you talk about this mysterious girl. What was the inspiration for that song?
It seems like it has a lot of Catholic imagery. I’ve never been to St. Augustine. I’ve only seen pictures of it. Sometimes I like writing about places I’ve never been to. I call it a hum-and-strum because I just strum the guitar and hum and don’t know what the lyrics are yet. [Bacharach] had a play-and-hum on the piano that he had voice memoed. He played it for me on the phone, and I said, ‘Burt, I gotta have that!’ I took it home and I just sat at the piano and worked out what he was doing and just started working on the words.
I’m really proud of those words because I picture a guy who, maybe he sees, like a really beautiful girl. I don’t know if she’s a nun, but he’s transfixed by this woman that he’s seen by this church. He’s obviously a really naïve guy because he thinks that that’s all it is, you see something beautiful and that’s what drives everything.
Were there times where Bacharach’s melodies inspired your lyrics?
A lot of times I would text him a little stanza and then he gets it from his phone and prints it out and sets it on the piano. I don’t ever give him too much. I just want to give him a little bit because I don’t wanna overwhelm him. I text him a few lines and that gets it started. Once he establishes a flow of where it’s going musically, he’ll send that to me and then I can write more words for what we need.
You can listen to this EP and know it’s Bacharach. What is it about his chords and melodies that are so unique?
I don’t know what it is about it. It makes sense to me. He is a composer. He’s on the level of someone like a Duke Ellington or a Miles Davis. He’s operating on a level of understanding of music and what it’s doing that is beyond just songwriter. It’s blurring the lines of composer and a songwriter because when he orchestrates, he’s just a brilliant arranger. There’s nothing that has to do with music that that guy can’t do. These chords have power and they have properties that he understands how to wield the properties like no one else. It has to do with the people he studied with when he was coming up.
A lot of your songwriting for other artists has been as a co-writer. Do you prefer it that way?
I do. I don’t mind doing songs on my own. I can if I have to. My preference would be to have a team or a collaborative situation where you can really get out of the same things that you would normally do. You can get fresh ideas. That’s why I like collaborating. Someone like Kacey [Musgraves] is going to take an idea that I might have and take it so much further, and it’s going to reach so many more people. She’s an excellent songwriter. Excellent lyricist. Excellent vocalist.
Tell us a little about your ambient music.
Well, one of my great heroes is Brian Eno. Brian Eno tells you what to do. He has an opinion, and a lot of times I think it’s the correct one. One of the things he talks about is creating a musical room for people to come in and out of as they wish. It’s different from a song that you put on where you’ve gotta stay with it if you wanna get it. You have to commit to listening to it if you want to get what the point of it is or where it’s going to lead you with the melody, whereas ambient music, you don’t have to stay with it.
You can just weave in and out of it. It can just be background. That’s something that I find very interesting as an artist. I think each one of my ambient releases is better than the one before it for that reason that I’m starting to understand what kind of room you could make that people could walk in and out of.
Your songs have appeared in TV shows like Breaking Bad and Pretty Little Liars. A number of musicians have told me they’d like to get into licensing. What advice would you give them?
Just get weird. Whatever the thing is about you that’s unique, my advice is to magnify it, emphasize it, make it your calling card. I’m like a relic of the 20th century. I grew up on ‘80s music and listening to the music of my grandparents, songs of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, Tin Pan Alley stuff. I knew all that stuff as a child. I’m a weirdo. So, I’m not gonna make that not my thing. That’s like my uniqueness. Don’t copy someone else’s sound too closely.
Is your band Silver Seas on hiatus?
We’ve got an album in the works. That’s another great joy in my life. Jason Lehning and I have been collaborating on some new songs. He’s a wonderful writer and a wonderful musician. It’s going to be a good album.