An Old Kentucky Waltz With Daniel Martin Moore: An Interview

Photo by Michael Wilson

Daniel Martin Moore, a Kentucky native, is young in his career and already the stuff of legend. In January 2007, he was signed to indie mainstay SubPop Records on the strength of an unsolicited demo he sent them. Years to come found him releasing a debut album and another album, Dear Companion, an album designed to help raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining. Those years have also found Moore opening for the likes of Iron and Wine, My Morning Jacket, and The Swell Season. His most recent release, In the Cool of the Day, began as a project to record hymns as he remembered them and give the record as a Christmas gift to his family. Once SubPop got wind of this, it became his next album, released to soaring praise. I talked to Moore as he was about to head out on the road again with My Morning Jacket. Possessed with one of the most soothing speaking voices I’ve heard, Moore was a treat to speak with for his openness and intellect.

ELM: You have the most pleasant outgoing voicemail I’ve heard.

DMM: Oh, good. Did you recognize the tune?

ELM: No, I’m very bad at recognizing whistling. And humming.

DMM: Well, that was ‘The Old Kentucky Waltz.’

ELM: Is that you whistling it?

DMM: Yeah. You know that Bill Monroe song, ‘The Old Kentucky Waltz?’ That’s it. One of my favorites.

ELM: I grew up in the Blue Ridge mountains, so it’s kind of nice to talk to somebody else from Appalachia. I was reading a lot about your campaign against mountaintop removal mining. That was such a pressing issue where I grew up that I was really glad to see somebody taking a stand against it.

DMM: Yeah, there are so many people that are realizing what a destructive and detrimental thing it is. And I feel like we’ve only been working on it for a few years, but there are people who have spent decades trying to raise awareness about it, really heroic people, and I think slowly, ever so slowly, this tide against it has been growing. Right now we’re kind of at this–I feel like it’s almost like a tipping point. I feel like there’s so much opposition, so much education. There are people who have studied it who understand what it means in the big picture and what it is actually doing, not just to the mountains, but to everyone who lives around it, the water. The movement is just growing strength all the time. There’s a lot to be hopeful about. You have first-hand experience on how negative and crushing it is, but there’s just a lot to be hopeful about right now. A lot of people are coming together around it.

ELM: Do you think that’s part of a larger pattern of change?

DMM: Maybe. I hope so. I think that there’s a lot of talk about change, but it’s a word that’s used so much it almost doesn’t carry any meaning in its present political context. But I hope so. I do think there are a lot of people who are becoming more interested in the world, the way it works, and their part in it. I just hope they don’t get folded into some kind of generic version of what they’re feeling or believing, which is sort of the way our system tends to work. I don’t know if ‘awakening’ is the right word. People are starting to recognize that the way things are working really aren’t in everyone’s best interests; it’s just in a handful of people’s best interests. Hopefully that’ll continue to keep its own steam and power.

ELM: I was reading one interview with you where you were talking about the connection between religion and politics, and you were talking about growing up around good people and about putting the burden on religion to do more politically. What denomination were you raised?

DMM: I was raised in a couple different denominations. The First Christian Church, and then, later, a Baptist church. Southern Baptist church. *laughs* I feel like it gave me a lot of valuable lessons, including lessons that were unintentional on its part. I think there’s a lot of beauty in religion, but I also feel that the way it’s executed is a little bit lacking in how closed-off and–I’m not sure what the word is I’m looking for here–prejudiced, maybe, I think? Particularly with respect to the way that women are treated a lot and the way that people of other lifestyles and ideologies are treated. Those are lessons you can learn from religion that they’re not trying to teach you. It was an interesting way to grow up and I’m glad it worked out that way.

ELM: Where I grew up, it was a really big deal about whether or not you were immersed all the way when you were baptized or if you were just sprinkled.

DMM: We were of the full immersion cloth. The interesting part about the Baptist church is that there are dozens, maybe hundreds of different varieties of Baptists. Are you familiar with all this?

ELM: Vaguely.

DMM: There actually is a church called the Full Immersion Baptists. It is really important to them how they carry out that ritual. We were of that belief.

ELM: How do you think your new record relates to your current spiritual beliefs?

DMM: I feel like it is a reflection of them. I hope. It’s really built on my memories of those days. I feel like we were trying to take all the beauty and all of those positive things that we learned. I say ‘we’ [but] I don’t mean to speak for all the musicians; I can’t say how everybody on that record feels about some of the ideas, but I feel like I was trying to take all of the positive, beautiful things about those days and hang onto them. It can be difficult when you grow up and you realize that maybe some of the things you were taught when you were a kid don’t resonate with you anymore. It’s kind of a challenging circumstance. But it doesn’t mean that everything involved with it isn’t valuable or isn’t still beautiful or isn’t still true or isn’t still a good way to carry out your days. Hopefully, that album just hangs onto the good stuff and lets some of the bad stuff go.

ELM: I was reading the story behind the creation of all the album, and it got me thinking about all the different pianos that I’ve played. I’m of the belief that different pianos have different presences.

DMM: Oh, sure.

ELM: I was just wondering if you felt that this piano, this Steinway was an integral part of the creation of these songs.

DMM: Yeah, I feel like it was. That piano is what stopped me in my tracks, and the things around it too kind of helped. It sounded beautiful and this studio was really small and very cozy. It’s just two rooms; there’s the tracking room and the control room. There’s no isolation booth, there’s no reverb chamber, it’s really small and modest but beautiful. They had a lot of great old microphones as well. When I heard the piano, and I’d been kicking around the ideas of making this record for my family, it was just like ‘well, here’s where we’re going to do it.’ I called Dan [Zorf] and told him about this piano, and we checked it out. We were really lucky in that when this project turned into an album project instead of a for-fun project, the studio–it is a recording studio, so we were able to make the transition without having to go anywhere else.

ELM: How much did you plan for the record and how much did you work out while you were recording?

DMM: It’s probably 75% planned, 25% worked out while we were playing. The arrangements and stuff–how the songs would go were figured out ahead of time, but there was still room for improvisation, and I feel like you have to leave doors open like that for every single player. If you don’t trust the people that you’re working with, in my opinion, you shouldn’t be working with them. I trust all those guys, including the engineers and everybody. You just have to trust them to make the right choice. So a lot of it was open, but the general roadmap was sketched out ahead of time.

ELM: How did you choose the songs?

DMM: I didn’t put a ton–I don’t want to say I didn’t put a ton of thought into it–but I didn’t really sit down and labor over the songs. These are the songs that immediately popped to mind. It was more like, ‘I’m going to make these recordings for my family. What songs did we sing all the time? And what are my grandfather’s favorite songs?’ My grandfather loved to sing. Not the ones, I wrote, of course, but the hymns were just ones that were always around.

ELM: Do you have a routine for your writing and practicing, or are you less structured about your time?

DMM: I’m less structured, unfortunately. I wish I had a more solid routine. I work on something every day. I’ve just been recently getting into the recording side of it, the engineering side of it, and the gearhead side of it. So lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with it, with recording gear and microphones and learning with it and experimenting with it. That’s actually what I was doing this morning. I was testing out a microphone at a buddy’s studio. I was getting some noise with it yesterday and I wanted to figure out if it was the microphone or something else. Good news: it’s something else. That’s what I’ve really been focused on lately.

ELM: And you produced Joan Shelley’s forthcoming album?

DMM: Yes, I did. We recorded that back in January. It’s finished. It’s beautiful. Joanie did an amazing job. She’s a great songwriter. Her first album is solid and gorgeous. Some of them are just classics. You feel like you’re hearing them be sung by Patsy Cline. And her new album is the same way, lyrically beautiful, and her voice is beautiful as well. That’s the beginning of wanting to get into the technical side of it, working in the control room the whole time and watching Kevin Ratterman engineer, watching him to his thing, and weighing in on minor sound choices that seem huge when you’re sitting in the sound room, like choosing how much compression. It just sparked that interest. I’m getting ready to work on Daniel Joseph Dorff–the guy who produced In the Cool Of the Day for me–a solo album for him. I’m producing and recording it, and we’re starting that this weekend, actually.

ELM: I found myself wondering if you do any other kinds of writing.

DMM: I love to write letters. I’m a big letter writer to friends and such. I do enjoy that. I think I used to write–I don’t know if essays is the right word–just kind of sit down and think about stuff and get it out on paper. I don’t do that so much anymore. I think that’s kind of turned into letters, and it’s gotten smaller and smaller and hopefully more economnical, and it’s turning into songs at this point.

ELM: I would rather have a song written for me than get a letter, so I think it works out okay.

DMM: And probably a letter rather than an essay.

ELM: It depends how good the essay is! Who are your favorite writers to read?

DMM: I really love to read Wendell Berry. I really enjoy the way his mind moves, and I really really love to read a lot of Daoist poetry. There are many great Daoist poets, but my favorite is probably Tu Fu. He has this quiet, unassuming intensity. If you’re not paying attention, you might not realize that it’s some of the greatest stuff you’ve ever read. So you have to be very still. His stuff kind of creeps up on you and you might not realize it until a few days later when it strikes you how profound it was. I really like to read his stuff a lot. Any kind of thoughtful ancient writing, I tend to enjoy quite a lot. I also really enjoy, of course, Kurt Vonnegut. He’s just hilarious and really insightful. And Jimmy Carter, too, oddly enough. I’ve been enjoying his books lately. It’s really compelling. I feel like he’s a very good writer. There’s a book he wrote a few years ago called Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, and he got kind of reamed for it. He got really slammed for it because it’s very critical of Israel’s position and their violations of all the UN resolutions and everything. It’s also an interesting take on the situation over there from somebody who’s intimately involved and has been for decades. He’s just got a very generous, true spirit. He does’t really have an agenda. His only stake is trying to figure out what justice could be achieved. He doesn’t have political stake or financial stake. It’s interesting to hear someone speak from almost an impartial perspective, but a really well-informed one.

ELM: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

DMM: I can’t think of anything. We’ve got these tours coming up this summer, and I’m pretty excited about that. We’re going on tour with Haley Bonar who’s almost local up there, just in neighboring Minnesota. I’m sure she probably plays in Wisconsin quite a lot, doesn’t she?

ELM: I just moved back here in January, so I’m not sure.

DMM: She’s one of my favorites, just an awesome musician and a really good friend. Daniel Joseph Dorff will be on the tour. Kevin Runion, who’s been in my band since before day one, and it’s going to be really fun, a lot of collaboration and everybody singing on everybody else’s stuff. I wish we were playing a show in Madison, but it just didn’t work out, it’s mostly east.

ELM: I’ll check out Haley’s music.

DMM: Yeah, do. Her new record is called Gold Earth, and if there’s any justice in this world, it’ll be a smash hit.

Daniel Martin Moore Homepage


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