Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen Revisits Solo Catalog, Townes Van Zandt on Live Album

After releasing five albums with Grizzly Bear, Daniel Rossen set a personal challenge for himself: to perform solo. At first, playing more intimate gigs felt awkward for the guitarist and singer, until the live exchanges became a necessary connection to his songs.

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“It made all the songs feel so much more human and communicative,” Rossen tells American Songwriter, “less abstract or veiled in whatever aesthetic came along with the marketing of a band.” 

Several years after breaking himself in, in 2022 Rossen released his debut solo album You Belong Here. He also ventured into an intimate series of shows with just a few acoustic guitars and an amp packed in his car with a collection recorded for Live At Pioneertown & Santa Fe. Featuring live renditions of songs from You Belong Here and Rossen’s 2012 EP Silent Hour/Golden Mile, Rossen also shares a cover of Bill Monroe‘s 1946 song “Kentucky Waltz” and a piercing rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Kathleen.”

[RELATED: 3 Songs You Didn’t Know Townes Van Zandt Wrote for Other Artists]

“It’s a bit of a departure from the original, which is the only reason I would consider releasing a cover of any Townes Van Zandt song,” said Rossen in a previous statement of Van Zandt’s stirring ballad, which he originally released on his 1969 Our Mother The Mountain. “This song holds a lot of memories for me.

Recently collaborating with Fleet Foxes for their live cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 classic “Hejira,” Rossen also embarked on another “learning experience,” when he reconnected with Grizzly Bear drummer Christopher Bear to score the 2023 film Past Lives.

Rossen spoke to American Songwriter about the freedom of writing for himself now, the future of Grizzly Bear, and why he may go back to school.

American Songwriter: These 12 songs encompass more than 10 years of your life, from Silent Hour/Golden Mile through You Belong There, and outside of Grizzly Bear. Sonically, everything has a different movement on the live album. How did these songs transform for you during these live performances?

Daniel Rossen: I first decided to try a solo tour back in 2014 as a personal challenge. I was never that comfortable in front of people, and the idea of performing alone seemed insane for an introvert like me. But as it turned out, I loved the tour. After lots of big shows on big stages with the band, I was glad to have such a direct exchange with smaller audiences. I would say it made all the songs feel so much more human and communicative, less abstract or veiled in whatever aesthetic came along with the marketing of a band. 

After finishing You Belong There, I was sure I wanted to try solo performances again, even if the songs on that album weren’t as obviously well suited to a solo setup. Those new songs required a lot of concentration and a lot of focus on fingerpicking techniques to function in a solo setting, while the older material was easier to carry with the voice and less focus on the guitar. I’d like to think it created a nice balance for a solo live show, weaving more meditative or intense instrumental passages with more traditional song forms. 

AS: Has your relationship with your songs from Silent Hour or even You Belong There shifted over time? 

DR: After performing for this long, I have reached a point where older songs hold a lot of memories of previous eras of my life, old ways of thinking about the world.

The songs from the Silent Hour EP are, at least to me, closely related to songs on You Belong There, though they are separated by a jolting chapter break in life. The EP songs came from a very forward-looking time, just after I had moved to a place in upstate New York and found myself delving into a new sort of life up there. Writing music and interacting with a plot of land were ecstatically connected. I wanted to chase off some old demons and reestablish myself in that new place.

By the time I got to making You Belong There, so much had changed. I had a young daughter and was living with my wife in New Mexico, and of course, we were all dealing with the pandemic and all the disconnection and uncertainty that went along with it. I found myself looking back on the time I had upstate, and especially the kind of ecstatic connection I had with the land there, and the way that connection felt intimately tied to music. I wanted to try and channel that feeling into an album and bring that landscape back to life, even though I was so far away from that place and time. It was all about distance and longing, maybe even mourning a sense of self and a sense of place that I no longer had.  

AS: Aside from it being more collaborative, writing songs for Grizzly Bear is a completely different process from pulling together your own stories. Is there a certain switch you turn on when you’re writing for yourself?

DR: With the band, there was both more restraint in the writing and also more room for off-the-cuff improvisation, which doesn’t come as naturally alone in my studio. The goal became more and more open writing in the band. It could have amazing and surprising results, but it gradually gave us less of a discernible narrative for each song. There was a give and take. That said, the feedback and momentum of working collectively could be a lot of fun, and I miss it a lot these days. 

I enjoy the full freedom to see an idea through and maintain a personal sense of narrative, but I think I took the solo approach a bit too far on this last album. I think a bit more playful energy between collaborators could have made the album less rigid and maybe even added some lightness to the songs. I hope I can reach for that next time.

AS: Thinking back to Yellow House [Grizzly Bear, 2006], and for you, Silent Hour, are you the same songwriter you were 10-plus years ago?

DR: Probably not. I am a very different person, and I absolutely do not take my ideas as seriously anymore, nor do I remotely expect anyone else to. I think that alone has greatly changed how I write and who I think I’m writing for, if I’m writing at all. Recently my songs have become something close to meditations, addressing some kind of spiritual void. I guess that sounds kinda serious. I suppose I’ve done that in the past with something like “St. Nothing,” but the perspective and expectations are totally different now.

AS: You recently scored Past Lives [with Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear]. How was the experience, and is film something you want to explore more moving ahead?

DR: It was a great learning experience. I scored two films last year — Past Lives and another called The Line that will hopefully be picked up soon. Both are very different films that called for very different energy in the score. I love that in scoring you can keep a stylistic identity in the music work while reflecting the movement of the scenes and needs of the director. It’s a new kind of collaboration, and it brought a lot of unexpected ideas. I’m very much hoping to continue with that work.  

AS: What’s next for Grizzly Bear, and for you?

For the foreseeable future, Grizzly Bear is off. I’d love to do more with the band, but I understand that we have all more or less grown into lives that are incompatible with touring and making albums together into our old age. Who knows.

I will probably make more albums, though I move slowly. I suspect I may need to move to a platform outside the traditional music industry channels — maybe Bandcamp or even Patreon. The way things are going, music will not be a sustainable path for me unless something miraculous happens. 

I’ve been thinking recently that I might like to go to community college and acquire some practical skills. It could serve me much better to become an electrician rather than try to record music for money. That’s just the way of the world. Who knows. Maybe it would be liberating.

Daniel Rossen – Live At Pioneertown & Santa Fe | Track list

1. “Unpeopled Space”
2. “Silent Song”
3. “Shadow In The Frame”
4. “Golden Mile”
5. “Repeat The Pattern”
6. “Made To Rise”
7. “Phantom Other”
8. “Kathleen”
9. “Return To Form”
10. “It’s A Passage”
11. “Saint Nothing”
12. “Kentucky Waltz”

Photo: Natalie Escobedo / Courtesy of TCB PR

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