A Q&A with Dana Louise
By Geoff Gehman
Dana Louise went to the Azores intending to spend a month and a half painting the magical beauty of wild hydrangea hedges and volcanic gardens. She ended up falling in with some magical scenes that inspired her to learn to play the guitar and write songs for the first time. She left the island of Flores with a new calling to paint music.
Six years later, Louise is a folky chanteuse who composes jazzy tunes with slinky lines (“Your smile’s too big for your face/But you’re nobody’s clown”). Her breezy voice and bohemian vibe are among the main attractions of the Glorious Birds, which consists of Adams Collins, a vibraphonist/banjo player with two last names; bassist Keith Grimwood, one half of Trout Fishing in America, host of a family music party for five decades, and percussionist Ezra Idlet, Trout Fishing’s guitarist and Dana’s dad. The quartet makes spry music and sly videos in atmospheric settings ranging from the front of the back of an antique tour bus to a cave-like amphitheater.
Louise will perform with the Glorious Birds on Oct. 20 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation from her Arkansas home, she discusses her debts to her father, Flores and flower-power intuition.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, mind and soul?
A: Jonatha Brooke’s “Because I Told You So.” I remember riding in our old black Ford pickup truck, going to the dentist with my dad, sitting in the parking lot listening to this huge stack of beautiful harmonies in the middle of the tune. Around the same time, when I was 12 or 13, my aunt gave me a best-of Joni Mitchell album with songs from “Blue” and “Hejira.” That really caught my ear, too
Q: What was the first song that made you and your dad musical partners?
A: When I was really young and going to sleep he would sing “Lullaby” from Trout Fishing’s album “Over the Limit.” That was probably the first song that connected us. The first song that connected us as adults was “Forgive This Town,” which I wrote five or six years ago. I was new at songwriting and I knew I had way too many words and they all felt important. I was able to sit down with him and talk through it. He helped me cut and shape it until it wasn’t 12 minutes long. That was very cool.
Q: Did you tour as a kid with your father and his Trout Fishing partner, Keith Grimwood? Did you make your stage debut on the road with your dad and your honorary uncle?
A: My dad didn’t push me too much musically; he let me figure it out on my own. Growing up, I was never interested in singing and playing in front of people. I definitely listened to a ton of different music at home. I remember the volume was incredibly loud. I also remember listening to Bruce Hornsby; I still think of my dad when I listen to him.
We were on road once when my dad left me with a friend of his named Emily Kate. We were in Austin in a park where a river runs between the stage and the audience, with a building that looks like a castle. I was five or six, maybe younger, and I went wandering and Emily completely lost track of me. My father couldn’t see me from the stage and he was panicking. So, no, I think it was a little too much for me to go on the road when I was a kid.
Q: How much did you raise for the Kickstarter campaign that funded your painting residency on the Azores island of Flores? And what was it about Flores that made you think less about making paintings and more about making songs?
A: We raised about $5,000. It turns out that the residency I was trying to be a part of never existed. There was a Web site for it and I tried applying to it and making phone calls, but I ended up talking to some guy in New York who had absolutely no idea of what I was talking about. I decided to go to Flores anyway. I found a little house to rent in this village and on the second night I wandered up to this property, where I found these magical people. I made a bunch of friends and someone lent me a guitar. I figured out how to play it; it was familiar enough from growing up with a guitarist. Somehow it made sense to my brain how to make the chords happen.
One of the guys from [Flores] told me I would like this album by Eliane Elias [Grammy-winning pianist, vocalist and specialist in jazz and Brazilian idioms]. I became totally obsessed with it. I needed to sing her words, to get inside their spirit. One of the Kickstarter incentives was updating people on my residency. I was inspired by Elias’ beautiful music and the island’s beauty–there was major visual stuff going on–to write, even though I wasn’t good at writing and didn’t really enjoy it. As I was writing I felt that it could evolve into writing songs.
I had everything I needed. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have to worry about money or food or a place to stay. I was encouraged by an aunt who is a creative writer; she helped edit my words. It really freed me up to put the time into learning something new, something that still feels surreal. All of this happened because I was following my intuition; I discovered that following your intuition is the only way to go.
Q: What’s the best lesson your dad taught you about being a professional musician?
A: I’ve learned so many things traveling with my dad and Keith [Grimwood]; it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing. One of the biggest lessons they’ve taught me is if you have a gig, you make the gig. You don’t cancel, even if you’re sick. I’ve played through a lot of really difficult things, including sickness and death. Playing under difficult circumstances can be really healing, even if it feels impossible in the moment.
Q: Have you picked up any tips along the road from Uncle Keith?
A: Both Keith and my dad are incredibly supportive and sensitive. I’m glad that our touring schedules are really comfortable and safe. I think Keith is on the extreme side of leaving early, but I also appreciate his concern and consideration. He and my dad have taught me not to negotiate with band mates who aren’t on time, or who want to party all the time.
Q: What do you really want to improve about yourself?
A: Pretty much everything musically. Songwriting. Singing. Guitar playing–I can get a little lazy as a guitarist. Thinking. I need to open my mind; learn more demanding chords; push myself, and my songs, harder; play them louder on electric guitars. I plan to stretch out in this new side project called Ladies Night, an all-girl band. It’s really fun, and refreshing, to travel with women and sing three-part harmonies. I could also get better at social media; I’m terrible at that.
Q: What do you do to keep centered and sane on the road?
A: I take my dog Lennie with me. I try to eat healthy food; vegetables are good. I like to be free to do things that have nothing to do with music. [Vibraphonist/banjo player] Adams [Collins] and I like to walk along a creek or run up a hill. The idea is to keep your eyes and ears open for those magical moments.
Q: So, Dana, what tops your Bucket List?
A: I would love to tour the world, although I would not love to be famous and have no privacy. It would be awesome to travel to high schools and colleges to talk to women about body image. It’s something that concerns so many women, including my friends and myself; I grew up in a school without any sort of orientation about sexuality issues. I would love to talk about body image and sexual assault and abuse and focus it around songwriting, so we can express things that are difficult to express, so we don’t have to feel isolated or in the wrong. That’s something I want to do if I have a voice or a platform
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Donald Trump. And anything out there that crushes the spirit of people, especially kids.
Dana Louise: The Scoop
She played accordion and piano before learning to play guitar. “I had piano lessons for maybe five or six years. It was kind of torturous but I’m really glad I did it. It’s a huge reason why I’m a better musician.”
She sings Trout Fishing in America’s “Buffalo Shuffle” on the Glorious Birds’ first album, released in 2015 by Trout Records, the label created by her father, Ezra Idlet, and Keith Grimwood, his Trout Fishing partner.
Her father convinced her that the Glorious Birds needed a mallet percussionist; he also introduced her to Adams Collins, the band’s vibraphonist.
She wears ripped, butterflied jeans in the Glorious Birds’ video rendition of Sylvan Esso’s “Coffee.”
Her song “No Diggity” has a soulful ’70s Curtis Mayfield vibe and funky lyrics (“You’re a perfect 10/Can I get in?”).
Trained originally as a visual artist, she painted her father’s six-string guitar and banjo.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Dana Louise & the Glorious Birds’ “No Diggity.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.