When Daniel Smith began playing music with his siblings in 1995 as part of a senior thesis project at New Jersey's Rutgers University, his inspiration was God. And so it's been since then. On the handful of records he's made both as leader of the Danielson Famile (a rotating ensemble containing Smith family members as well as friends and acquaintances) and on his own as Brother Danielson, Smith has explored his relationship with Jesus Christ in great detail.
For his latest project, Ships, Smith also took inspiration from another source: Danielson: A Family Movie, filmmaker J.L. Aronson's documentary about the band. "As the movie was happening, I was realizing things about Danielson," Smith says over the phone from his New Jersey recording studio. "Different people have been coming and going in and out of Danielson over the past 11 years. What's the common thread? Me writing songs. My family's available sometimes and not available other times, and friends are available sometimes. So Ships kind of turned into a celebration of that realization."
The celebration became a big one: Ships features performances by more than 25 Danielson associates, including Smith's brothers David and Andrew; his sisters Megan and Rachel; his wife, Erin; and longtime Famile member Christian Palladino; as well as indie music bigwigs such as Sufjan Stevens, Why? and Deerhoof (who served as Smith's backing band on the first six songs he wrote and recorded for the album). It might be the best Danielson record so far. An elaborate production defined by expansive arrangements streaked with strings and horns and keyboards, it takes Smith's cracked indie-pop sound to dizzying new heights where the conviction in his notoriously distinctive voice (it might be described as a sort of nasal whinny) is satisfyingly reflected in the joyful noise swirling around him. Not unlike Stevens's similarly ambitious Illinois, Ships is the rare record in which a highly collaborative process serves to focus and intensify one individual's vision.
Daniel Smith, Dilana
"It's not a new idea," Smith says, explaining that collaboration has always been his modus operandi, even if Ships finds the method functioning on a larger scale. "It's the way I work. Half the story is me writing these songs, usually alone." (Indeed, some of the most compelling parts of Aronson's film capture Smith at work by himself in his basement lair.) "But the other half is really presenting the songs and welcoming as much input as possible."
The outfit Smith is leading on the road this summer is, by necessity, pared down: a six-piece group including two drummers, an organist and a marimba player, doing mostly stuff from Ships, along with a few older numbers. Smith acknowledges that "some of the new songs are pretty big monsters," but that with more than three weeks of rehearsals beneath their belt, he's confident they've got the material down. "It's gonna be a very full sound," he says, the excitement audible in his voice. "There'll be snapping and clapping and singing along." Danielson appears Thursday, July 6, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-862-2513.
She's A Star, Baby
A local would-be waits with hard nipples for her big break
We admit we didn't catch last season's Rockstar: INXS until toward the end, when it seemed clear that the cheesy J.D. Fortune (owner of quite the porn name) was poised to win. This year's permutation is Rockstar: Supernova, a "Tommy Lee Project" made up of Lee, former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted and guitarist Gilby Clarke, late of Guns N' Roses and the MC5. Quoth Lee of the band's name: "It's a bunch of stars colliding. And that collision is a supernova, and that's what we have here."
Riiiight. We had our TiVo set to "thumbs down" -- until we heard that a Houstonian, Dilana (ne Dilana Robichaux), had made the cut and is one of 15 contestants hoping to front Lee's big collision. Dilana, a native of South Africa who moved to Scotland and regularly gigged in the Netherlands, moved to H-town in 2001, where she's been playing spots like Shanahan's Bar & Grill and Mike's Place. When she heard about the Rockstar auditions while recording her album in Holland, she banged out the CD in 75 hours, jumped on a plane for the Austin auditions and rocked the house. The Mark Burnett-produced show debuts this week on CBS, and we were granted a few minutes with Dilana before she was whisked back to the manse where she and the other hopefuls are holed up.
"Our schedule here is so fucking crazy man, you can't breathe." Yeah, living in a decked-out mansion in L.A. must be rough. "Seriously, it's a never-ending job," she says. "If you want to work out -- and that's under supervision -- you have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. We've got cameras and mikes following us around all day long. Then there's rehearsals every day with the house band. I'm in bed by 10:30." Ten-thirty? What kind of rock star life is that? "Dude, you heard my schedule," she says. "When I win, then I can call the shots and say, 'Hey, fuckers, I'm getting up at ten."
True to the Gestapo-esque regulations of a Burnett reality show, the cast is completely cut off from society. "We don't have televisions, computers, telephones," she says. "We know absolutely nothing about what's happening in the outside world. Can you call my boyfriend? Tell him my nipples are hard for him and that I'm dying to see him."
(Slight pause as we jot down the digits for Steve, her boyfriend.)
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Dilana has the Rockstar look down. Her long hair is dyed in shades red, pink and a little orange. She rocks a nose ring and piercings under her bottom lip. She has tats everywhere, including a phat ankh on her left shoulder, and she has a penchant for chain-link jewelry. "If they're going just on looks, I've won," she says with throaty laugh.
Besides several guys, she's up against some serious female competitors, such as Dallasite Zayra Alvarez and Austinite Patrice Pike -- who looks a lot more rawker since the last time we saw her, but whatev. There's also the cute Jenny Galt from Vancouver and six-foot-tall Storm Large (seriously, how WWE is that?) from Portland. So who are the ladies who look like they can win it all? "Nobody, baby," Dilana says. "I wanna fuckin' win this thing. Really, whoever wins it, that's great, but I hope a chick wins it. We need a chick rocker out there."
If she wants to be that winning chick rocker, Dilana's gonna have to bring it in front of celeb judges who include Moby, Macy Gray and last year's Rockstar winner, Fortune. But she's not intimidated (especially not, we're guessing, by Fortune). "I'm not starstruck at all," she says. "They'll either love me or hate me, but this is my one minute and 30 seconds -- or however the hell long I have each week -- to show them what I can do. Sure, you get nervous when you get on such a big stage. But at the end of the day, Macy Gray's shit smells the same as mine, you know?"
Sorry, Dilana, what? We missed that. We were talking to Steve about your nipples. -- Steven Devadanam