Daniel Romano, Rock Chameleon, Tries On Some New Colors
'Finally Free,' the implacable artist's eight album in as many years, has him trying to break away from genre and convention.
Photo: Lauren Spear
Daniel Romano is a prolific guy. Finally Free, which comes out on November 30 via New West Records, will mark his eighth full-length album in eight years, and that’s not counting Ancient Shapes, his blistering punk band who released their self-titled debut album in 2016. In those past eight years, on record, Romano has been a tradition-embracing folkie; a country singer whose albums you’d swear were unearthed early 70s gems; a mercurial rock 'n' roll star dabbling in classic 60s pop and technicolor psychedelia; a wild-eyed punk hurricane, launching across sweaty stages kicking and jumping and screaming. He’s drawn from countless sources, but his work has always been so sharp that it’s never felt like pastiche, which speaks to the value of approaching art as a skill to be honed. (Coincidentally, he’s also an accomplished producer, leatherworker, and graphic designer). Many artists clamor their entire careers to come within reach of a fully realized identity; Romano seems to change to and from multiple ones as easily as he makes the switch from bedazzled Western wear to Adidas track jacket.
Most of his albums up to this point have focused on exploring the boundaries within a group of sounds—Mosey is a rock 'n' roll record, for example, but cops from psych, country, Westerns, blues, you name it. Finally Free, as its name suggests, is more nebulous. While it sounds like shards of every Romano incarnation that came before it, it’s also deconstructed, unshackled by any sort of stringent boundaries of form. For writing and recording, Romano trusted in a push from the universe and gave into it, granting whatever it is that was guiding his hand.
"All the words were written within like, two hours, on a drive one day," Romano tells me over the phone from Wales, where he's touring with Ancient Shapes. "And I feel like I blacked out, and then they were done." Finally Free is consistently dreamy, shaded with vibes that touch on the mystical and evoke the glory of the natural world. But it’s also punctuated with explosive moments of joy, like the climactic blast of its lead single "Empty Husk," or the vocal bursts that emerge all throughout "Have You Arrival," as Romano delivers what sounds like a gentle cosmic sermon over fingerpicked guitar. Today, Noisey is premiering the video for "All The Reaching Trims." The song, Romano says, is "about giving oneself to the limbs of nature and begging forgiveness to the various supernatural powers around us."
"I relate to it deeply," Romano says of Finally Free, just before reception becomes too sketchy to continue over the phone. "And at the same time have no idea where it came from."
Noisey: So, how do you keep this pace up? Is it natural or do you force yourself to create or is it a bit of both?
Daniel Romano: I think it has become routine at this point. I treat it like going to work and I try to get to work everyday. It's yet to become burdening and I'm still very much excited to create and explore as often as possible.
Do you have any fear of suddenly finding yourself in a situation where you’re not creating something?
I do, yes. I'm sure to some degree everyone does. That is probably a part of the reason I try to work in a militant fashion. I want to try to make everything I want to make before I can't, should that ever happen.
It sounds like, from the brief chat we were able to have, that the writing process for this album was dependent on you being open to operating as a conduit of sorts, which, in itself, seems like a way of safeguarding against stagnancy. What was that writing experience like?
I struggle to express the experience of this particular collection of songs. The words all came at once in about a two hour burst of clarity that I felt very much removed from and yet at the same time, the closest to anything I've ever felt. It happened while I was on the road and I was nervous to get home because I knew that I had to somehow make music worthy of these words. I ended up setting up two microphones into a four-track tape machine and setting the words in front of me. I just hit record and followed the words. I had no prearranged melodies, I just tried to channel the same power that the words came from. All the lead vocals and guitar on the songs are the first pass of ever singing these words. I then only added what I felt necessary to carry it through. I'm not sure how any of that happened or worked but I feel the most proud of these songs against anything else in my catalogue.
What "stream of consciousness commitments" were you making during recording?
All of them. The only thing I knew I wanted to do was to limit myself to four-track cassette. I dumped down a lot on some of the tracks, all of which took instant mixing and committing.
How did you feel about that process then, and how do you feel about it in retrospect now that the album is finished?
I feel beautifully removed from this record. But I also feel that it best represents me. The mysteries of this record are very special to me and have very much elevated my beliefs in the powers of song.
What makes Finally Free stand apart in the context of your body of work?
It feels like the only true collection of music I've made.
Is there a theme that runs through this record for you? Specific ideas you found yourself exploring?
I think there is an overarching theme of beauty in hopelessness and oneness with the universe. But I remember everything coming out of me when it was being written and feeling almost paralyzed in its power. I can only hope to ever achieve that height again. If it only ever comes this one time, I'm still so grateful that it ran itself through me.
Last time we sat down and talked , a lot of our conversation revolved around self-mythology. How do you feel your identity as an artist, both inwardly and outwardly, has evolved or changed since then?
I think I've escaped from the daunting and oppressive nature of genre and expectation. My only interest is to further myself in the exploration of music and art. And also never give in. And also do whatever I want. And upset some and enlighten others.
This might be kind of a heady question, but—over the course of taking on so many guises as an artist, have you ever been concerned about whether there is a 'real you?' Or is it more of an acceptance that the 'real you' is constantly changing?