Dan Layus discusses the natural transition leading to his first solo album Dangerous Things, being at home musically and content with songs living on their own, plus what the future holds for him and the Augustana name.
You just got back from Europe this week. How did those shows go?
Man, it was great. It’s kind of tough to beat Europe, you know? It’s always somehow a new experience and a ton of fun. It’s completely foreign to an American tour, no pun intended, but it is very different. It’s always good to get a different perspective for a few weeks, get outside and see a different landscape.
It’s seems like you’ve been spending a lot of time overseas recently. Do you have a bigger following over there than you do in the States now?
I wouldn’t say bigger, but it’s certainly catching up. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re certainly establishing a presence over there. We’re proving that we’re definitely interested and willing to come back very often. That’s something that we’ve wanted to do for 10 years, but didn’t have the means to accomplish that.
We just decided that we were going to invest in it anyway and expand our reach, whatever it takes. So we’ve been undertaking that venture for about 12 months now and gone over there four times in the last year, both on headline and support tours. It seems to be going very well, so that’s really exciting.
I remember talking to you for the self-titled record five years ago and doing a stripped-down solo record was very much on your mind then. Why was 2016 the right time for this project to come together and for you to finally release a record like this?
It’s a combination of a lot of things. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it was more of a feeling than a decision. It just sort of happened. It felt like the songs I had written were meant to be exposed sonically like this. That doesn’t mean they don’t work in more of a full band presentation in a live setting, and that’s certainly something I want to explore down the line, how to present these songs live with more elements rhythmically and stuff like that.
As far as the record is concerned and touring right now, I feel like these songs have a bigger impact on me and those around me when they are stripped-back like this. Actually, calling them stripped-back is almost not the right term. It’s just that they never went beyond this. I wrote them this way and they stayed there. I liked it like that. It felt right. It just kind of fit right. I don’t know how to describe that.
Over the last year you’ve done some of the biggest tours that Augustana has done in a while, opening up for One Direction and Dixie Chicks. Do you feel that gave you a lot of momentum to release something under your own name now?
It was a bit of a conflict. We had quite a bit of momentum going there, and it seems a little bit silly to take a name that was opening and was around bands like that and then say, “Well, OK, I’m going to do something else [laughs].” It seems a little counter intuitive, but that should prove to you that I’m in this for the right reason.
I’m in it for the music. I’m not in it to build a brand. I’m not in it to go make as much money as I possibly can. It’s about presenting these songs under the right circumstances, and this circumstance felt correct to me.
I was personally and am personally in a place in my career where I feel very energized and invigorated by the idea of a bit of a fresh start. Sometimes you just got to try something, even if it’s uncomfortable or unproven. You just got to give it a shot. It felt like this was it.
I don’t think I’m making any particular decision to walk away from Augustana forever or anything like that. I’m just very much focused on the place I’m in right now. I’m very happy with where I’m at. I don’t know where it goes from here, other than putting out this record and playing these songs live for a while. I’m already starting to write the next one and it’s feeling like it’s evolving very naturally from this.
You’ve lived in Nashville for a few years now and in that time have gravitated more towards that singer-songwriter, folk sound you do on this record. As someone who grew up in San Diego and spent a lot of time in Southern California, and then obviously all over the world, what’s that transition been like for you?
It was pretty natural. The South is very different than Southern California, that is true. If you grew up down in Southern California, you know it kind of goes on its own time. There’s not a big rush to get anywhere at any point. It kind of feels like that down here. In that way that was very easy to transition into, and moving to a big city you have to fight with such close proximity of hustle and bustle. It was an easy transition, as far as lifestyles are concerned.
There’s certainly more open space and it’s a wonderful place to raise our kids, as far as big open farmland to go run around in. It’s gorgeous. I’m driving home right now and there’s fall leaves everywhere. It was nice to get away from L.A. and try something new, where it was the same weather every day. It’s easy to get stuck in the valley and wonder where your life is going when the weather’s the same every single day. It’s nice to feel the world changing around you a little bit and move with it.
Musically, it was natural and absolutely crept into my creative process. I had always been a fan of what we would call alt-country or what is being coined as Americana now. It’s always been a part of my musical makeup for as long as I can remember, or at least the informative times of me listening to music in my late teens. That was a very smooth transition as well.
I didn’t just jump out here and say, “I’m going to make a country record now cause I live in Nashville!” It was a very long, drawn-out, three-year process of absorbing my surroundings and writing songs with some Nashville writers. Only a few, really. There’s only three songs on this that are co-written, but taking in all of it and letting it naturally seep into the music. It was very natural, yeah.
One of the things you said about this record was at the start of it you were trying too hard to write a perfect song, and it didn’t really start to come together until you stopped treating songwriting like songwriting. Can you talk more about that and what the process was like of finding this record for you?
The best way I can describe it is sometimes the more you do something, the more mediocre you get at it. I picked up a lot of really good songwriting habits here over the last few years, and I picked up some bad ones. I had to detach for a second, stay at home, not drive into Nashville every day and try to write a bit ol’ hit. I had to remember how to love writing again, without the purpose of continuing my career, let’s say.
It sounds a little harsh, but I guess we all do it sometimes. We have different reasons for doing what we do. For a little while there, I think I was a little confused on why I was even in music in the first place. It was very refreshing and exciting again to think that I’m going to make this album for me.
It sounds selfish, maybe it is, but I wanted to make it for myself, for my family, and I wanted to make the music more fitting to where my heart is and has been for as long as I can remember. This feels more at home than it ever has, musically.
At what point did the title Dangerous Things come into being?
It came off the song. I don’t even remember when I wrote it. Sometime in the last couple years. I just had this electric guitar out in my little space where I have a piano and an amp. I had this vibe, and I wrote this song out real quick and recorded it. I ended up cutting it with an acoustic, but the original demo was kind of that slap-back vibe.
It felt like the right title. I don’t know really how to say why, but the cover and the name kind of all fit together. It made sense to me.
What lyrical direction did you want to do on this album? One of the things I picked up on was maybe do a little bit more storytelling.
Sure. Yeah, definitely. You’re right on it. I definitely wanted to explore some stories outside of my own direct narrative and experience. I felt that I had exhausted that narrative a bit over the years. I wanted to challenge myself to try and tell some other stories.
Now, that’s not to say those stories are not informed by my own viewpoints or life experience. They’re definitely in there in those characters, but I wanted to get outside of myself and see a bigger picture than just essentially putting my journal down into a song every album, which is also important and therapeutic in a lot of ways. And that’s certainly in this record. But there are more moments about either fictional characters of my own making or real people that I know that I’m sort of narrating their perspective on.
One of those storytelling songs is “Call Me When You Get There.” Can you talk about how you wrote that one?
Yeah, that was written with a really wonderful writer named Emily Wright in Nashville. We really connected on a very pure songwriting level. It was a really good match and we wrote some great songs together. We wrote “You Can Have Mine” and “Call Me When You Get There” on this album.
So a long story short, I was walking out of my house that day. I was going to go write with Emily. I was going to the garage and going to get in the car, telling my wife, “OK, I love you.” She’s like, “All right, I love you.” I’m like, “OK, I love you.” She’s like, “I love you [laughs].” I was like, “I’ll be back at dinner time” or whatever, and she’s like, “Call me when you get there.” I was like “Ahh! That’s the song I’m writing today.” I was like, thank you very much for another wonderful title.
So I went in with Emily and I was like, “I think this is the title. Let’s go off of it.” Sometimes that’s how songs are written. A lot of times in Nashville people work off a phrase or a title. Generally that doesn’t go so well, but this one worked. It was very fluid, very natural to write this story out in a more traditional country approach, using and twisting that phrase to match various characters in the story.
You talked a little about the inspiration behind “Driveway” when you premiered it online. Being that’s a fairly delicate topic, was that a difficult song for you to write?
It was. It was very difficult. The person I’m describing is very close to me. It was hard to witness what was happening in real time. It was also hard to go home and write that. I couldn’t get away from it. Sometimes a song comes along, and it sounds ridiculous, but I really mean it. Sometimes a song comes along and it takes you over. You can’t deny it and you have to write it if you’re built this way, which I definitely am.
Another anecdote here with that song is I had that idea after passing this guy in his driveway. It was a late night and I went home and started getting that melody. The tagline popped in my head immediately. Most of my favorite songs come very naturally like that.
I went upstairs. My wife’s sitting in bed, having a drink and relaxing. I pulled out the guitar and was like, “What do you think about this? I’m kind of writing this.” She’s like, “Yeah, it’s heavy. It’s really good.” I was like, “Well, how do I finish this phrase? I can’t quite finish the thought.”
She actually helped finish that out. She’s not a self-proclaimed songwriter. I would like to say she is [laughs], but she won’t take credit. I’m begging her to take credit, but she won’t. She really helped get that one over the top.
Do you have a most meaningful song to you on the record?
Most meaningful song? I don’t know about meaningful. I have a favorite song that I like to listen to and play. “The Nightbird,” the last song on the record, that’s my favorite. Not sure exactly why, but it is.
Is that about your wife?
No, it’s a fictional story. It’s actually kind of literally about a bird. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but I was thinking about this bird in this story. I humanized it and blended these emotions I had felt at the time, the isolation and depression, but also mixed in people that I know and a friend of mine. I kind of worked it all into one narrative from beginning to end.
I was sad when I finished it because I wanted to keep writing it. It was one of those songs that come around every once in a while that you’re bummed when you actually finish the idea. I feel like there was more that I could have said, but you got to finish at some point.
How did the Secret Sisters become involved in the record and what was it like being able to play around with some additional vocalists?
It was completely new, which was exciting. I had never been able to, or asked to, have anybody feature on a record of mine in the past. With this being a quote-unquote “solo record” and having the freedom to do whatever I want on it, apart from a label or any other influences on the outside, I felt really free to say, “This record feels really good, but something’s missing. What is it? Maybe it’s a background vocal thing.” And it totally was.
The Sisters nailed it. They were our first choice to come cut some vocals on the record. We started with they were going to sing maybe one or two songs, a very limited performance, but they just kept going. I was like, “Keep going. How about this song? Sing on this one.” It ended up being about half the album that they’re featured on, so it was really wonderful. I feel very fortunate to be able to put their names on it and have their voices on it.
Over the last several years you’ve played a lot of songs live that didn’t get included on either Life Imitating Life or on this record. Songs like “Happily Ever After,” “Easy Lessons,” “Comeback Story.” There’s a bunch of other ones, too.
Wow, that’s some deep knowledge, man. Whoa! Damn.
What will become of those and will they ever find a home, do you think?
Maybe? I don’t know. They may just live on YouTube forever. It’s not that they don’t have a place in my heart or are not important to me. For whatever reason, they haven’t found a home on an album yet. I think some of those songs will always be a part of the live approach and catalogue. Perhaps that’s something that if you’re a fan you just know maybe lives in that world.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t come out on like a watershed record or a b-sides type thing. Maybe you just release the demos or whatever it is. The options are pretty limitless at this point with the way the music industry works and all of that. They’re not locked up by a label, so there’s certainly a way to get those out there.
You need to release a Side B EP.
Yeah, I know. That’s the big joke, that maybe there’s never a Side B [laughs]. I don’t know. We’ll see.
At the start of this you talked about how you’re already looking ahead and how the Augustana name isn’t necessarily permanently retired. How much thought have you given to what the future holds for you?
I think about the future a lot, in music certainly. Like a lot of people our age, we’re all trying to figure out how to be more mindful of our current state of being, enjoying and appreciating what’s happening in front of us and around us, as opposed to what’s coming around the corner.
That’s not to say it’s not good to be mindful of smart choices and how to make the future better, but I’m very conscious of just being here right now, appreciating all of this and the attention this record is getting, and the support that I get from my team and my wife and my kids. I feel very loved and very appreciated. That’s a good place to be.
You almost remind me of someone like Ryan Adams now, where you’re able to balance between these different projects and wear all these different hats and stuff.
Well, that’s a very nice compliment. I will take that. Thank you [laughs]. We’ll see. I don’t know what the next record will be. It could be anything, yeah, but that’s exciting.
I’ll close this out with a last question here. What do you think was the biggest thing you learned about yourself in making this record and just releasing something under your own name for the first time?
I realized a few things. The first thing that comes to mind is I can be OK letting the songs live on their own without overthinking a lot of the production around them on a record. It was nice to rely on the lyrics and the voice of the characters in the songs, as opposed to how big the drums sound or how many guitars I’m stacking on it or how many vocals I’m putting on this particular chorus.
It was really, really nice to let go of that kind of expectation and really keep it simple. That’s something I certainly learned, so I know that’s there. I can do that. I can pull this back, just be myself and it’ll be OK. You can always put more on top, but I had to burn it all to the ground a little bit to start from zero and go from there.
’Dangerous Things’ is out now on Plated Records.