Doran Danoff: King of Crown City

Doran Danoff has an impressive musical resume, but he’s quick to brush that off as second to what actually matters in the industry—a combination of unbending drive and a love for the craft that is so ingrained, doing anything else is out of the question.

We spoke to Doran back in 2016 about his musical roots and his first album, The Ghost & The Scratch. Doran has a new album, King of Crown City, coming out August 17. It’s funky and hot, a step in a different direction from his earlier stuff, and a testement to his inredible dexterity.

The seed for this album was planted years ago, not long after The Ghost & The Scratch was finished. The recordings were made, but shelved because the first album release happened, fatherhood happened, life happened, time flies. Until one day, Doran played the raw tracks for a friend, who demanded they see the light of day, and to that friend we are indebted. We roped Doran back in to talk about it.

King of Crown City is faster and funkier than your first record, The Ghost & The Scratch, which has a folky feel. Tell me about the path from that record to this one.

Yes, indeed it is funkier than The Ghost & The Scratch. I set no boundaries as to what kind of songs I write and what styles I might explore. I have an eclectic mix of influences and I am always mixing and blending them into my songs. I hope that my fans will keep coming back with a curiosity as to what I might do next. Subsequently, the funk, soul, blues, and jazz on King of Crown City is an exploration into a different world. The music is different. The lyrical themes are different. Even the recording techniques we used were different. But hopefully, the quality of song and musicianship that we had on The Ghost & The Scratch will be apparent here too, and my hope is that listeners find it exciting and different but still connected to the music of The Ghost & The Scratch.

The actual making of the recordings for King of Crown City is somewhat of a long story. The process of working on The Ghost & The Scratch took some time (as making records does), and during that period I was writing new material, much of which would become King of Crown City. When the album finally dropped, we had been performing some of the music out in clubs around L.A. and the band was really tight. So I booked a session at a great studio in Pasadena that is now sadly shuttered (like so many great studios in the US these days). The studio was called Crown City, run by an amazing engineer and producer named Eric Lilavois. I got the full band in there including a 3 piece horn section, and we recorded 6 songs live to tape.

The process was fast, raw, and totally authentic. I was extremely satisfied with the results we got. Then recordings became somewhat forgotten until a few years later, when I played the tracks for a colleague. He punched me in the shoulder and said, get that music out there. I thought perhaps too much time had passed and the music didn’t feel relevant anymore, but that was just fear talking shit in my ear. So I decided to try to finish the tracks up. Problem was we couldn’t find the session drives anywhere! We thought it was all lost. We ended up recovering the original tapes and then started going through the process of finishing the arrangements with some additional tracks and the mixing.

Throughout that period I had also been working on some newer recordings on my own, including two songs So Bad and Winning, which I wrote with an incredible producer in Nashville named Tony Esterly. Those two songs have done really well in the sync world already with placements in a few movies and some TV shows. Those two songs, plus my song Young Love were added to the album. Now after all of these years and a true fight, the album will be released this August.

This album, unlike The Ghost & The Scratch, is much more of a collection of songs, rather than a concept record. There is a consistent theme throughout the material—the existential struggle for love, success, and ultimately happiness. But honestly, what record isn’t about those things. Ha!

Has the songwriting process changed for you as you’ve evolved as a musician?

Sure, I would hope so. When I first started writing songs I had no idea what I was doing. It was a totally raw, throw something against the wall and see if it sticks kind of process. Some of that is still in me for sure. I record dozens of melody snippets, riffs, and lyrical ideas into my phone on a daily basis. I’ll need many lives to finish all of them! After all of these years and having written hundreds, if not thousands of tracks, I have definitely learned a lot more about form and structure and the technical aspects of the songwriting craft. But the truth is that the art of songwriting always circles around to the emotion behind the song.

I have done more co-writing over the last few years, which is very fun. Collaborating is an extremely generous and positive process, but I find that my most honest and real songs come to me through my own process, usually at the piano really grinding away at a story or a melody or a chord progression until boom! the magic is there.

I also should say that over the years my tools as a songwriter have evolved. On my first EP, The Icarus Suite, I was really just writing on the piano and so much of the rawness was there because at the time, that was all I knew how to do. But over the years I’ve acquired new musical skills, studio equipment, and the knowledge of how to write for different types of musicians, like horns and strings.

Also, as a young writer I really turned to my own life as the source of material for the subject of my songs. More recently, I have been exploring new avenues of storytelling, like contemplating social issues, or describing different types of people or experiences of others—things that are far from me that I want to understand and study. I used to just write about my feelings, but that can get boring. I mean, how many sad love songs are already out there LOL! I think the minute things become rote or mechanical, the music becomes stale. And who wants to do that for a living?

Who were some of the inspirations behind this record?

I think King of Crown City definitely shows my love for vintage styles like funk, soul, R&B and jazz. I grew up listening to everything under the sun. My musical education was just a total immersion into everything from classical, jazz, blues, rock, hip-hop, electronic genres, and everything in between. I think with this record I was really trying to write songs that were fun, toe-tapping, and passionate, but also that told stories that were outside of myself.

Some of my jazz influences like Dr. John and Professor Longhair could be heard on the song Dr. Solution, which is one of my personal favorites on the album. It has a spooky New Orleans jazz vibe that paints a story of how I feel about music in general, and the ghosts hark back to my last record, tying the music together. The wild and swinging blues track Gertrude’s Blues was actually inspired by the character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The music definitely channels some Van Morrison and maybe even some Allman Brothers (who I listened to a lot growing up). The song Amazed is probably the most personal on the album. It tells a difficult story about being hurt by someone close to me. The music there is almost like some old Italian ‘70s pop. There are some seriously obscure and funky gems that came from outside the U.S. during the late ‘60s and ‘70s that I have been obsessed with.

The song Lady Be Good is actually a topical subject (something new for me at the time). The story is about the WWII plane The Lady Be Good, which disappeared without a trace on its first combat mission during the war. It was later discovered, accidentally, in the Libyan desert in 1958. The song tells the story of what I imagine the crew might have gone through in whatever simplified way a song can. The music has a kind of ‘80s groove, but the band is definitely playing like a ‘70s rock band. It all makes for a pretty cool mix of ideas and sounds.

Queen of Hearts is about Alice in Wonderland and about using your imagination, but also the dangers of going too deep into the world of dreams and losing your grip on reality and your relationships. The songs So Bad and Winning, which I co-wrote with Tony Esterly, are written from the somewhat ironic perspective of a character who thinks he’s some kind of badass, someone who is just exuding ultra-confidence to the point where it’s over-the-top and arrogant (kinda like one of our new world leaders who’s really all about #winning). Those songs are just straight up soul/funk bangers.

Young Love is a bit modern compared to the rest of the record. The idea is based around that concept of the title, love and youth and figuring out how to navigate the complexities of all of that. I really like that song. The last song on the record “Over The Roll” is much more rootsy Americana-influenced sound, and the message behind the song—that hope and love will bring us through the hard times—brings the collective story of the album to a close in a way that nods to my past work, and also hopefully to my future work.

A self-produced record exhibits an impressive level of artistry. Tell me about your role as producer. What are the benefits and the challenges that come from producing your own record?

I have always produced or co-produced my records. I’m a perfectionist, sometimes to a detrimental degree, so I need to be involved with every aspect of my recordings, which is both a curse and a blessing. My role as producer for most of these songs boils down to writing the music and lyrics, composing the arrangements, working with the band in the studio on all of the details of the performances, working on all of the overdubs, vocals, editing of the tracks, and overseeing the mixing and mastering process. I really love producing because I get to interact with everyone at every stage, and I get to realize my vision in every nook and cranny of the recording. Even though as producer the final decisions are ultimately mine, there is so much collaboration and exchange of ideas and experimenting that involves everyone in the process.

I could never achieve any of this without the help and talent of everyone involved, the immensely skilled musicians who put their passion and soul into every note of every song. The engineers Eric Lilavois and my long-time friend Emile Kelman were like magicians that captured every nuance of the sound in such rich fidelity. Tony Esterly wrote and co-produced with me on our two songs, which was an incredibly inspiring collaboration. The mix engineer Ari Raskin worked tirelessly with me over many months to get each song to the perfect balance and vibe, and our mastering enginner Richard Dodd took us to the finish line and made this record a finished product. This record in particular was so long and emotional, and at so many points I tried to just throw the whole thing away. Seeing it through to the end has been one of the greater accomplishments of my career.

I imagine this record was incredibly fun to record. How did you assemble your band?

The record was really fun to record. I mean we get to play rock-n-roll and call it a job. I feel very lucky to know so many amazing musicians in many cities. The L.A. band features some of my oldest friends and bandmates, all of them brilliant musicians and artists in their own right. Nick Rosen on bass connected me to Shay Godwin, the drummer. I met Zachary Ross, who plays guitar on the album, at a taqueria in Silverlake. He was a friend of a friend. Tim McKay, Wes Smith, and James Blackwell, the horn players, were all cats that ran with our scene, and are all just monster musicians.

The NY band on Young Love is Taylor Floreth on drums, Scott Metzger on guitar, and Jay Foote on bass. These geniuses are old bandmates and collaborators from my NY days. And the Nashville band are all new friends I have made in the last year and a half while living in Nashville. I am on a quest to have bands in as many cities in the world as possible….LOL.

You have a degree in Composition from Columbia and a graduate degree in Composition and Film Scoring from NYU. You’ve been a composer, singer, songwriter, collaborator, producer, AND you’re extremely well-versed in a variety of genres. Since you’ve done it all, I think it seems fitting to ask— how has the music industry changed over the course of your career? What advice would you give the next generation of aspiring musicians?

Well first of all, thanks for all of that. Don’t let the pedigree fool you. It’s all just a lot of hogwash in the end, and I don’t think I have even come close to doing it all. I still feel very much like I am reaching new levels of discovery every day. It’s a neverending job to just create and release my music out in the world, especially as an independent artist. As far as the music industry and changes and all of that, I don’t think change is new at all, it’s just a different kind of change. The medium for record production and distribution has been evolving since the beginning of the recording business in the 20th century. It will never stay in the same place, but I think it will always come back to the same thing: honesty and quality.

The one thing that I think is so exciting about right now, is that all of us have so much power and potential right at our fingertips. Technology has given us access to so many amazing tools, enabling artists to push the boundaries of the expected. There is a real opportunity to reach millions of people around the world from your bedroom. That’s fucking crazy. It’s a serious power that we all have, and it’s up to us to find a way to seize that opportunity and make it our own. It’s really kind of the best time to be an artist because you can truly be independent, find your audience, and get your work out into the world.

And that’s why the only advice that matters at all isn’t even advice, it’s just the truth: just be yourself in whatever ways that are relevant to your creativity. Write from the heart and try to make the best recordings you can. If you keep doing that, and you really want to make a life of doing that, then you will find a way. There is no easy way to anything when it comes to art, especially music, so if you don’t want to be making music with every fiber in your body, then this is probably not gonna work out for you. Also, have as much fun as you can and be a really nice person.

What’s up next for you?

More music! There is a film coming out in September that I did the music for called Active Measures. It’s all about Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Also, I’ve got another EP of my music already in the can ready for release following King of Crown City. I have stacks of songs and arrangements that are waiting for their chance to get out into the world. I’m looking forward to doing some touring to promote King of Crown City. I haven’t done a lot of touring in my career, but hopefully this year I’ll figure out how to make it work.

I just wanna give a big thanks to all the people who listen to my music and support me as an independent artist. I’m going to keep making records until I drop dead, so I hope you stick around to hear what I come up with.

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