Jeff Daniels & The Ben Daniels Band play two shows in Maine this weekend: Friday at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit and Saturday at Stone Mountain Arts Center.
Jeff Daniels is an Emmy Award-winning and Golden Globe-nominated actor. But what you might not know is that Daniels, 59, is also an accomplished guitarist/singer-songwriter. His latest record, “Days Like These,” has taken him on tour with two stops in Maine.
Daniels’ film credits include “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Gods and Generals” and “The Squid and the Whale.” He’s also half of the silly duo of the two “Dumb and Dumber” comedies with Jim Carrey. On the small screen, Daniels portrayed Will McAvoy on the hit HBO series “The Newsroom.” The show just wrapped up its third and final season, and Daniels won an Emmy last year for outstanding lead actor in a drama series.
A dozen or so years ago, Daniels’ recording career began in earnest as part of a fundraising effort for The Purple Rose Theatre, a nonprofit he founded in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan, where he penned several plays. Once he started down the road of music, Daniels saw no reason to stop.
Before getting into the music, congratulations are in order for “The Newsroom.” That second-to-last episode of the final season certainly left viewers in tears (no spoilers).
My family was able to watch the episode together and they got to the last moments of Episode 5 and I’m going “Boom! Boom!” because it was just so well done. I turn and my entire family is bawling, just bawling. I’m going ‘But wasn’t it well done?’ And they go, “We’re just bawling, Dad. Shut up!”
Getting into your sixth record, “Days Like These,” can you talk about the song “Holy Hotel?”
That’s kind of coming to grips with organized religions and all religion in general and why one is supposedly better than another? And suddenly it all becomes meaningless so you check out. It’s more just focusing on today and right now and what’s right in front of you.
“Back When You Were Into Me” is a gorgeous, painful song. What inspired it?
I’m glad you think so. I had written it in the spring. A crew member from “Newsroom” was sitting around – you sit around a lot on the set and you say things about yourself because you’re with these people forever – and the crew member was talking about her marriage and how he used to do this and he used to do that. “But you know, that was back when he was into me.” It was heartbreaking, and I stole it and immediately turned it into a song.
What made you decide to feature Amanda Merte on lead vocals?
It’s written from the woman’s point of view and I could do it, but I said, “Amanda, try this.” We put it into the August show and it stops the show. So we literally pulled the CD out of the mastering and threw that on the CD. Now it’s gonna be a part of the show when we come to Maine. It’s something.
You’ve been writing songs for many years now. Are you a write-a-thought-down-on-a-cocktail-napkin kind of guy? What does your songwriting process look like?
You gotta wait for them. You (think) that was one and it isn’t. Then all of a sudden one drops and you’ve written four verses in 15 minutes. It’s just maddening, the inconsistency of the ideas. But there’s always a next song. There’s always something that’s in the file that you’re trying to find or finish or get back into. It’s a constant process and hard to describe. A writer friend of mine (uses) the cliché, “You never finish something, you abandon it,” and I think that’s true. It’s a very fluid process.
Are there similarities between writing songs and writing plays?
I think the thing that you learn, as a novelist told me years ago, is “garbage in.” In the first early drafts of a play you just put it all in there. Get to 100 pages because then you can start. It’s hard. It’s hard from beginning, middle and end to write a play that you know isn’t good enough and the jokes aren’t funny. but you have to write the first draft to get to the fourth one. Songwriting is the same way. It’s like painting. Throw the paint on the canvas and figure it out. That takes a long time. That stops a lot of people from creating. When they stop on the bottom of page 3 and say, “I can’t go any further. I don’t know what happens next.” That’s when you play the what-if-he-said-this game. What if she does that? What if? It’s the same thing with songwriting. Stephen King wrote a book on writing and one of his (ideas) is to chain yourself to the chair. Any writer knows what that means. Songwriters know it. Pick up the guitar and go back into it. It’s not good enough? Go back to it. I love that, I love that meandering your way through whatever this is and coming out the other end going oh my god, it’s completely different than I thought and it’s better.
Are there moments of self-discovery along the way?
Oh my god, yeah. Whether it’s a lyric, or a line in the play when you just get up and you go, all right, I’m done for the day. I just can’t do anything better than that.
Does it spill over into acting?
You know when you’re in the zone. When you’re just bouncing. Usually for me it’s when the other actor is throwing it back. Certainly it happened on “The Newsroom” and it happens with me and Jim on “Dumb and Dumber” when we’re completely ping-ponging back and forth. It really happened in “God of Carnage,” a play I did on Broadway with Jim Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden. It was just a four-person tennis match that was thrilling every night. That’s kind of what you look for in the writing process.
With your hands in so many things, what do you do to unplug?
The guitar. It used to be golf and then that got maddening. The guitar has always been that creative home, the deserted island where you can shut everything else out. And the writing has done that for me. Getting better as a player has done that for me. The guitar’s been a great friend over the years.
Are you looking forward to coming to Maine, despite the cold?
I love Maine, it’s a great part of the country. My manager lives in Freeport and I love going up there. It’s a great excuse to visit and then I get to play as well, so we’re excited.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Jonathan’s, 92 Bourne Lane, Ogunquit
TICKETS: $37.50; jonathanogunquit.com
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Stone Mountain Arts Center, 695 Dugway Road, Brownfield
TICKETS: $40; stonemountainartscenter.com