Messing Around: A Q&A With Dan Reeder

Photo courtesy of the artist

In the early 2000s, Dan Reeder sent John Prine a CD that inspired Prine to sign Reeder to his label, Oh Boy Records. Since then, Reeder has balanced his impressive career as a visual artist with writing and producing music. The refreshingly frank folk singer has since become known for his cheeky, candid and unfiltered lyrics, and is in control of every step of his recordings — from making his own instruments to designing his album art.

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Reeder, who currently lives in Germany, is releasing his latest EP Nobody wants to be you. today. AS caught up with Reeder below.

When did you start working on Nobody wants to be you? What was the inspiration behind it?

I started working on a new record about 8 years ago and it’s still not done. The EP is sort of a compromise. I have a bunch of songs that are all recorded and ready but they just don’t fit together. Some are just old. Some are going to be hard to fit into any record. Some I don’t like any more. 
The inspiration was to put out one last CD. Now it looks like I’ll be putting out two last CDs — a full CD in 2018 if I get it done.

One really interesting part of your music is that you make a lot of your own instruments. How did you get started doing that?

I started making dulcimers when I was still living in California. They weren’t very good, but I learned how to bend wood and hammer in frets. The first instrument I built here in Germany was a bass. I thought if you were going to have one accompanying instrument, a bass would be the one to have.

Do you have a favorite of the instruments you’ve made?

I think that bass is still my favorite. I’ve made 5 steel string acoustic guitars, but only one of them sounds like you want a guitar to sound. I have no idea how I did it.

Your lyrics are known to be blunt, irreverent and witty. What does your lyrical process look like?

I do it like this: I mess around. I could stop right here, and it would be a complete and accurate description of what I do when I paint or make music. I mess around with some instrument. I look for new chords, or rhythms, or anything interesting. Some instruments sort of suggest a playing style: just a couple of strings, or pound away. Anyway, when I’ve found something I like, I start singing to it. Just anything. Placeholder singing. Do wah la la dang hop. Then I have a melody. After that, either something pops into my head, in which case I replace the placeholder words with the pop into head words, or nothing pops into my head, and I have to start looking, which means using little strategies. One strategy is to try to write a super harmless, sweet song. The birds tweet sweetly and so on. This strategy usually leads to the nastiest shit you can imagine. Works for pictures, too.
Another strategy is to make fun of myself. Always works, though I rarely follow through; it’s easier on the soul to make fun of somebody else. Then I try to finish it, which is the hard part.

You’ve been successful as both a visual and performing artist, how do these two connect in your life?

Now when I put out a record, they want pictures. When I do an art show, they want me to do a concert.

What goes into designing your album art?

The first CDs I made, I burned on a computer. Then I would draw the covers. They were all different. It was great fun. Anything goes. Now, I’m a little less spontaneous. I do try to stay relaxed, though.

What has it been like working with John Prine?

John is a very easygoing, likable guy. His band and crew are great. 
I don’t really know what to say. He’s a hero of mine. It 
was a huge honor to be able to tour with him.

Has living in Germany influenced your work at all?

Germany has a very good social system, which makes it possible for me to work as an artist at all. People here also buy pictures. Regular people. It’s important to me to know that if I have to go to the doctor, I can. Makes it possible for me to concentrate on what I should be concentrating on.

Yip Harburg and The Wizard of Oz