Jeff Daniels has a deep resumé on screen. His acting work dates back to the early ’80s when he broke out in films like Terms of Endearment and extends to his recent Emmy Award-winning lead role in the HBO series “The Newsroom,” which ended late last year after three seasons. Lesser known, though, is Daniels’ prolific output as a singer-songwriter. He’s penned (by his estimate) 400 songs and released six albums since 2004. His first record benefited The Purple Rose Theatre Company, which Daniels opened in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan.
Also the author of 15 plays, Daniels takes the craft of songwriting seriously. He’s shared the stage with John Hiatt and Keb’ Mo’, and his latest album, the December-released Days Like These, delivers a satisfying set of acoustic-based modern country-folk that will please fans of Lyle Lovett. With lyrics that are both thought-provoking and humorous, Daniels is currently playing songs from the new album on tour, backed by his son’s group the Ben Daniels Band. The show comes to The Southern Café and Music Hall on Sunday night.
C-VILLE Weekly: When did you first get the songwriting bug?
Jeff Daniels: I wrote some really bad songs before I went to New York in 1976. When I got to New York and started at the off-Broadway theater company Circle Rep [the now-closed Circle Repertory Company], from day one I was in front of playwrights. I didn’t know anything about their process and was immediately fascinated by it and wanted to learn about it. The safest place for me to learn and fail was songwriting. I had always been attracted to the lyrics of Arlo Guthrie and James Taylor, but [at the theater company] I was with guys going, “If you want to write, just write.”
I’d go back to my apartment, pick up my guitar and try and get better. It took years.
Days Like These features a mix of folk, blues and bluegrass. What inspires you to take your songs in an acoustic direction?
I wanted to center Days Like These around the acoustic guitar. I’ve studied guys like Stefan Grossman and Doc Watson. Guys that devoted years to getting good at it and never reached for the Telecaster.
With the simplicity of the acoustic guitar you’re limited in a way, but in the same way it opens things up. I like that. There are few effects, and when you pair it with the mandolin, fiddle and upright bass you get real interaction with the instruments from 3′ away. It puts more pressure on the playing and the content of the lyrics. You’ve got to be saying something and saying it well.
Tell me what the audience at the Southern can expect in this collaboration with your son’s band.
It’s a joy. The whole father-son aspect is just great. This will be the third time we’ve gone out. It started with me giving Ben some of my songs and seeing if his band could incorporate them into what they do, and it really worked.
This isn’t an actor up there navel-gazing. These guys can really play, and if they aren’t feeling one of the songs, then we cut it. The show is also upbeat and funny. It becomes a combination of good songwriting, great musicianship and entertaining as hell. I know expectations are pretty low when an actor comes out with a guitar. My job is to make sure everyone has a good time, and if that doesn’t happen, I’ve failed.
Where does music fit into your overall creative equation?
It’s the one thing I do all the time. I write plays when my theater company needs me to, and I get to go act when the phone rings. I don’t consider myself a musician first, but the woodshedding on the guitar happens every day. That keeps me creatively alive. Jim Carrey and I were talking during the [promotional] tour for Dumb and Dumber To, and he told me he has to create something every day. I’m the same way. He paints and he sculpts. I have a guitar and a theater company. That’s what I do when people aren’t calling me to act.
During your three-season run on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” you spent more time as Will McAvoy than any other character in your past work. Was it bittersweet letting go of a role that was so respected?
It was bittersweet, but it was a lot of work. We were controversial, which I enjoyed, but it was a big load. Every two weeks Aaron had to turn in 80 pages of brilliance, and it was hard. For me, it was a great role, and a great three years with Aaron, but when it ended my weekends cleared up, as did my head. I no longer had 80 pages of Sorkin-ese up there floating around, waiting to be spoken.
You postponed this upcoming show at the Southern back in January for an acting role. When will we see you next on the big screen?
I got called to do Steve Jobs [the upcoming film written by Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle]. I had to go to San Francisco for a week and there was no getting around it. That’s the reason for the reschedule. I’m also part of the Divergent trilogy that Shailene Woodley is doing, so I’ll be working on movie number three. I could be busy acting for the next year and a half, so I’m really looking forward to this tour and the stop in Charlottesville. We’ll be there with bells on.
Jeff Daniels & the Ben Daniels Band play at The Southern Café & Music Hall on May 17.