Daniel Romano: The Wanderer

Daniel Romano with guitarist Kay Berkel. Photo by Sebastian Buzzalino

If you’re an artist making music in the current genre-obsessed landscape, there are several ways to stomach the world’s insatiable desire to categorize and over-categorize your work: you can ignore it. You can play into it. You can Taylor Swift-it, declaring the end of one era and the start of another. Or, like Daniel Romano, you can just go ahead create your own.

Mosey. Merriam-Webster defines it as “to walk or move in a slow and relaxed way.” Romano, however, sees it to mean both everything and nothing at all.

“In reality, it’s an excuse to not belong to any particular club,” he says, a few days before he heads to SXSW. “It’s supposed to work as a safety mechanism. And obviously it doesn’t work, because comparison is the name of the game.” Two years ago, Romano was fed up with the state of country music – bro’d out and watered down, he started calling what he did “mosey” as a way to align it less with the radio-friendly truck-drivin’ mantras and more with the slow crooning, storytelling-driven culture of classicists like Hank Williams Jr.

But Romano — who got his start in a punk band and eventually put out several traditional country records but never declared himself to be anything but an evolving artist playing with different styles and influences — morphed again. He started to write new songs that paid more attention to complex worldplay and lush instrumentals than anything twangy, inspired by his quick-fire poetry. And instead of looking for another way to sum up this new sound for the devil of oversimplification, he just decided to call it what it was: Mosey. Because, at this point, if you look up Daniel Romano in the Merriam-Webster, he’d hope you see “mosey” beside his name — a way to let the art define the work, not whatever club it belongs to.

“It’s been an ongoing tragedy since the fifties: style vs. song,” he says. “People like to categorize, but it’s not actually about the musician’s identity at the end of the day. If you belong to a gang, and your gang leader says, ‘We aren’t going to ride motorcycles anymore, we are going to sell cupcakes,’ you’re probably not going to accept that.”

Romano’s already left the gang plenty times before — after tenure in the punk outfit Attack in Black, he began flirting first with folk and then classic country. By the time he came to his 2011 solo record, Sleep Beneath The Willow, he was listening almost exclusively to George Jones; by 2013’s Come Cry With Me, he’d taken to wearing Nudie Suits, which only punctuated the LP’s steel guitar weepers even more. But he never meant it to be a statement of commitment — Romano doesn’t marry ideas, he dates them, and then moves on when the romance has faded.

“I don’t feel like I belong to country music,” he says. “That type of music is in the well from which I drink, but I’m clearly not a purist and never claimed to be. That was a title given to me.”

2015’s If I’ve Only One Time Askin’ found him still dipping in the country waters, but his sound was drifting — some performances, he’d play the entire show on an electric guitar, and he’d long ditched the embroidered suits. He’d also become just as disenchanted about what was on modern radio as he was the trend of “vintage” country, where 23-year-olds wear boleros and try to sound like Waylon Jennings, but listened to Coldplay just two years ago.

“That’s mostly why I’m not that interested in that aesthetic anymore,” he says. “It’s become a secondary joke on itself, or at least it feels that way. And that terrifies me.”

Mosey the LP is complex and varied — it’s pop-forward, but evoking the kind of pop created by the Beatles, Lee Hazelwood and Serge Gainsbourg, not current Top 40. From the first few notes of the opener, “Valerie Leon,” which combines a bit of “Day In the Life” dissonance that quickly fades into soaring horns, it’s clear that he’s once again following that experimental muse. Take the piano balladry of “100 Regrets Avenue,” or “Toulouse,” a duet with the actress (and fellow Canadian) Rachel McAdams that evokes Gainsbourg’s partnerships with starlets like Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot.

Self-produced and recorded in mono at his studio in Fenwick, Ontario, Romano played most of the instruments on Mosey himself, linking the exotic arrangements and sonic ride through the lyrics, not a genre conformation — it almost sounds like a soundtrack to a movie that exists only in his most unbridled dreams, playing just as freely with pop history as he did with country and folk.

“I feel like pop music just explores the human psyche a little bit more than beers and broads,” he says.

It’s hard to predict what direction he’ll go next, but everything after Mosey both will and won’t be “mosey” — a great conundrum for classifiers, a great victory for an artist looking for freedom, not walls.