Daniel Romano’s Novel Approach to Traditional Country

The same Daniel Romano who launched the Canadian post-punk band Attack in Black and the left-of-center indie label You’ve Changed Records is also the Daniel Romano who indulges his obsession with sentimental honky-tonk balladry on his latest solo album, Come Cry With Me.

As popular as it is right now for younger acts to revive rougher-edged rootsy sounds, he’s headed down the road less taken, writing and singing the sort of country heart songs his grandparents would love.

CMT Edge: I’ve heard people talk about searching for authenticity and finding it in stripped-down instrumentation or discovering a kinship between punk and Johnny Cash. For some young acts, going country is more an ironic statement. But what you do seems different from all of that. What was it that made you want to start exploring classic country balladry in earnest a few years back?

Romano: That’s accurate, for sure. Let me think. I don’t know exactly what it was. [Country music has] always been in my life, and I’ve always appreciated it. But I guess at some point around that time, I fell in love with it again but harder than I ever had, you know? I was really focusing on songwriting at the time, and every song I fell in love with the most was a country one. Then I just kept exploring and kept discovering all the greatest songs I’ve ever heard in my life. The writing in particular is just like the smartest and most clever and straightforward and meaningful. Everything about it — the production, the delivery, the performance — it’s all of the highest quality that I could find.

Had you gotten tired of hearing contemporary approaches to songwriting that felt more abstract?

Most definitely. That’s never really been my thing. I can appreciate a good poem as much as the next guy. But I’ve always preferred songs that tell you stories — you know, stories with a melody.

Leading up to this album, you’ve progressively stripped away the punk elements from your solo work. And you’ve arrived at this purely vintage country look, sound and songwriting sensibility. How’d you get there? Why was it important to weed out that other stuff?

Well, honestly, I probably always wanted it to get there, but I was either intimidated or afraid of what people would think, or I just wasn’t certain how it would go over to go all the way to where I wanted it to be. It was a learning experience. You kind of just have to get to a point where you say, “I’m just gonna do it because that’s what I want to be doing.” And people are gonna think what they’re gonna think, regardless of what you make. There’s no sense in this day and age to try and reinvent the wheel because everybody’s doing that, and they’re just mashing genres together. And [what I’m doing] isn‘t a throwback. It’s not ironic. It’s just plain and simple that I’m just making country and western music as it was.

And you didn’t want it to be any kind of hybrid.

No.

Who are your reference points?

Specifically, as far as singing goes, I feel like everybody should want to sing like George Jones. You just try your hardest to sing like that. That’s what I do, anyway.

Is that a moral imperative? Everybody should?

Well, you’d think so, in my opinion, anyway. [laughs] I don’t know. I have an extremely vast country and western record collection. There’s a whole lot of songs in there and a whole lot of amazing album covers and a whole lot of amazing suits and this and that in there. So when you’re surrounded by that all day and obsessing over it and studying it, it doesn’t seem drastic to you to just do that — or to me.

You’ve positioned yourself as the alternative to alternative country. You’re doing these ballads that are so openly emotional and tug at the heartstrings. They’re dramatic, maybe even melodramatic. Did it feel natural to you to write that way?

It did. It’s actually the most comfortable I’ve ever been writing songs. The formula, whatever that may be, for those types of heart ballads, it just comes the most natural. I don’t even have that much actual personal experience with any of the scenarios that spring up in my brain or whatever. But for some reason, it’s the most comfortable, maybe because I’ve obsessed over it for so long that I just sort of somehow developed an understanding of how it’s supposed to go. Those are the songs that hit me the most. I just basically wanted to give my own approach to that to whoever wants it.

You’re reaching back to this mode of expression that feels really different from what people are doing now. We’re several generations into the confessional singer-songwriter thing or the ironic distance thing or the make-a-show-of-being-clever thing. And you’re doing something that’s not supposed to be any of that.

It’s not supposed to be personal. It’s supposed to be relatable. That’s the difference.

That’s a significant difference because we’re at a point, and have been for years, where people take music more seriously if they feel an autobiographical connection between the singer and the song. That’s not important to what you’re doing or to a lot of those classic country records you’ve been listening to.

No. Most likely [they didn’t write their own songs]. Maybe the odd song. But mostly their job was to deliver it with conviction. That’s it.

Is part of the art for you mastering that old sound and feel and performance style?

Oh, big time. Authenticity is my main goal. It’s funny that you brought [the autobiographical songwriting thing up] because there’s so many interviews I’ve done where people are asking me, first and foremost, about my personal experiences with all of these songs and then also if I’m being ironic. Those are like the first things on everybody’s minds: “Oh, man, are you the character in ‘Middle Child’?” No, of course not! That’s just a really sad idea I had, and then I made a song out of it.

They’re looking at it through the lens of …

How contemporary songwriting is.

Yeah. When you say authenticity, you’re talking about fidelity to detail.

Exactly.

You’ll hear lots of other people talk about authenticity but mean something completely different. For them, it’s more authentic if it’s more ragged.

I’m just trying to capture the feeling that I get from listening to the songs that I like and trying to capture it in a way that can be delivered to people who don’t have that source yet.

In your experience, is there any difference between the way that people in Canada and people in the United States — audience members, journalists, whoever — interpret what you’re doing?

There’s less questions, that’s for sure. I noticed that especially in Texas. Anyone who’d approach me would just be like, “Those are good songs. You’re doing a good thing.” And that’s it. Whereas in Canada, they’re just a little more bewildered, slightly more confused. It’s funny because Canada has a vast history of country and western music.

Yeah. Like Hank Snow.

Exactly!

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