Dan Layus opted for a stripped-back approach to his debut solo album after spending 12 years as the frontman for US roots-rock band Augustana.
Following years of critical and commercial success, once the group made the decision to disband, Layus kept the name and subsequently released another album and toured twice more as Augustana.
But it was a move to Nashville in 2013 that saw him change his vision again, focussing on songwriting for country and pop artists and rediscovering what his next step in music would be.
Employing minimal production and recording techniques, he used the experience gained away from the spotlight to hone his energy and talent into the new release, Dangerous Things.
I spoke with Dan during his tour of the UK and Europe this month, before he hit the stage to perform at his Manchester gig.
What’s been the reaction while you’ve been out on tour so far?
It’s been a very healthy response. We’ve released three or four tunes on streaming sites and it’s been really positive. It’s really nice to be doing something under my own name and taking a jump like that and having fun with it.
Was it a big decision to make music as a solo artist under your own name?
It sort of was a big decision but it didn’t feel like it once we decided. I feel like it held a lot of weight and then it seemed incredibly obvious once we said the words, ‘why don’t we call this ‘this’’ and it was like, ‘ah, done. That feels great, let’s do that’. It felt like being able to move forward from the band name and all those years – there’s so many great memories too though – but at the same time it’s life. You’ve got to try and do new things, take new adventures and take risks. As far as risks go, this was a pretty small one.
Did you have any set direction in your mind of how you wanted it to come together?
Creatively it was really organic. The record was already made when we decided to call it something else so in that way the artwork was the same, it sounded the same on Spotify but for me it just felt like it gave it a different feel. I don’t know why. All of a sudden it seemed fresh whereas it didn’t feel fresh before that, which is really weird because again, same songs, same tracks, same recordings, everything. Sometimes that’s what you need – a little recharge.
How long did the entire process take?
Well the recording actually was over the course of a week. I cut the tunes in Nashville. I did my parts over two days, just sat at a piano and sang at the same time. I wanted it to feel live and real, with cuts and bruises on it. I did the same thing on the guitar and we had The Secret Sisters who are wonderful, they sung on half the record. And then we put on some fiddle and some pedal steel and called it a day, it just felt right. No drums, no bass. I just wanted to try something left of centre, for me anyway.
And you also opted for minimal production. Why was that?
Yeah, I would almost say there was no production essentially. In terms of what people consider as production. I mean there’s backing vocals and there’s warm guitar and two fiddles and that’s really it. For me, it was stepping away from perhaps over-producing sonically, and I think that was a necessary step for a second. You can only add more down the line.
There’s a real focus on songwriting and storytelling throughout this album. Was that something that was important for you to prioritise?
Absolutely. That was the main priority. The sound always matters, but the storytelling and the characters’ perspectives and the songs, whether they were my stories or somebody else’s or a made-up one, I wanted to make sure that came through very clearly and was the main focal point. It was more important to get the ‘voice’ of the character into the song, as opposed to trying to showcase what I can do with my voice. What’s the inner voice saying and feeling?
Do you generally write about what’s going on in your own life or prefer to angle it from a character’s perspective?
I guess it varies and on this particular album a little bit of both. Some are very direct in correlation to my own life or history, or feelings, but a lot of the stories are very much derived from observational perspectives, people around me or even fictional. But they’re still informed by my own experiences.
How did you come to team up with The Secret Sisters and what did they bring to the album?
They are very well known for their vocal abilities obviously. My manager and I were looking for background vocals on some of the songs and we initially wanted to get them on one song and they ended up on four or five. They’re great, just way too talented.
Any chance you’ll be able to do some live shows with them anytime soon?
I think it’s certainly a possibility. It’s just a matter of finding the right situation to do that.
How does it feel to know that it’s been 12 years since the beginnings of Augustana?
It’s been 12 plus years from the day we put ink on paper for our first record deal. It’s somewhere between 12 and 14 years ago. A lot has changed.
What have you been focusing on in the interim between projects?
For about two years straight I’ve been in Nashville and I was writing almost on a daily basis, generally for outside projects; country and pop. It was a good time for me to step away and do that. I was a little oversaturated with my own thing and so it was good for me to get in the head of some other artists and songwriters and get a helping hand there. I learnt a tonne about the songwriting process. I learnt good habits with songwriting and bad songwriting habits, like anything. So, long story short essentially a lot of those bad habits had caught up with me and I needed to relearn how to write my own music by myself. That was the next challenge and over the last year, that’s kinda what I did. But some of the really important songs on this record did come from some of those sessions in Nashville and that alone was worth it.
I’m really loving what I’m doing right now. I’m in a happy place, it’s fun, creative and what we’re doing on the road is great.
How important has country music been in influencing your writing now and in particular with this record?
For me, the country thing kinda got into my blood a little bit. It’s definitely snuck up on me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I’ve always been a fan of country music, especially Americana-folk type stuff but I just fell in love with it because of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss and some bluegrass-leaning stuff like Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Old Crow Medicine Show… When I got to Nashville I thought if I’m going to write country music for pop artists, I should do some deeper research about where the songs came from. I’d already loved Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but I hadn’t really listened to George Jones, or Hank Snow, or Ray Charles’ country record, or Dwight Yoakam, things like that. So I spent some time with it and I fell in love. It kinda hasn’t come off the radio for me and it’s kinda become my favourite genre of music – especially the good, old stuff.
How would you describe your new sound to Augustana fans?
If they’ll give it a chance, if they want to and that would be great, they’re gonna find there’s really not too much of a difference other than it’s pulling back the overcoat a little bit to let it be a little bit more vulnerable and I hope that’s a welcome thing. It definitely sounds like an alt-country record but I think a lot of our fans are cool with that and have always suspected that was where I would take the music at some point, a little bit more deliberately. I definitely feel musically very at home. Even if it’s not the sound, hopefully the songs and the lyrics and the stories connect to them.
And what’s it been like performing live to UK and European audiences?
They’re great. We absolutely love it over here. It’s good to take a break and get a new scene change and different perspective and play for European audiences.
It’s funny, it’s a strange thing but you realise how American the music is when you’re playing over here. I’ve got the lap steel and the music is very traditional in a lot of ways. It’s cool, I feel like there’s an identity there and there’s definitely something to grab onto. You feel like you’re giving a piece of our experience to somebody in France that is maybe not part of the local musician’s repertoire. So that’s very cool.
Dangerous Things is released today (21st October 2016). Watch the video for the new single Driveway below: