Doran Danoff is a bit of an everything man, musically speaking. The LA-based composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist grew up listening to an array of music that spanned gangster rap, ‘60s rock, and jam bands. Then, during his college years, he spent his time emulating iconic stride pianists like Art Tatum. He’s also studied classical composition, released an excellent orchestral folk album called The Ghost and the Scratch, and played in a live hip-hop group called The Herbivores.
An adaptation of the name—Urbivore—has come to encapsulate everything Danoff does, from film scoring to songwriting. His most recent output is a funky pop-rock single called “Young Love.” The new track, which premiered on The Huffington Post in February, prefaces a yet-to-be-named, quasi-live EP that will arrive sometime this summer.
I spoke to Danoff while he was waiting for a flight to Nashville, where he does most of his composing. En masse, his career has existed—and still does, to some extent— between LA, Nashville, and New York—again demonstrating his penchant for artistic variation. Over the phone, we talked about that career triangle, his many musical loves, and the future of his own sound.
So, you live in LA. You’re from LA. Spent some time in New York. Now you’re splitting time between Nashville and LA.
Cool. So how do you alternate your time? What do you do in each place?
D. As of lately, in LA I’ve been working on a couple different record projects that I’ve got going with some other artists. I have a side project—an original project of mine—an electro pop thing called Little Fortune. We’re working on an EP and then I’ve been writing and working on a record with this other artist, and I come out here for gigs and stuff. In February when I was out here, I had the single release party at Hotel Café, which is a really well known venue here in LA. So yeah, when I’m here in LA I’m working on a lot of different record projects, and when I’m in Nashville I’ve been doing a lot of my composing work. I’m doing stuff for film and TV and other media projects. And I’ve been getting into some songwriting projects with some local artists there as well; some different people through my publishing connections, like at Downtown Music Publishing. And in both places I’ve been working on my new stuff.
I’m surprised you have time to work on [your own stuff] amidst all these other things you’re doing.
D. Very little sleep [laughs], just doing it, you know? I don’t stop. This is what I love to do; music is my full-time everything. If I’m not working on a specific project or gigging,
I’m writing with other artists or writing my material. I’m practicing. Just constantly creating.
When did you decide that music was what you wanted to do with all your time and energy?
D. I really felt like it was going to be my path when I got to college, like 18 or 19. I wasn’t a classically trained musician. I didn’t really play as a kid growing up. I started playing a little bit later in high school and played in some bands, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I really felt like that was what I was supposed to do. I got really into it. Studying music, practicing music in different ways, more formal stuff. But for my musical journey, I always remember this story.
When I was really little, my parents had me taking some piano and I totally hated it and gave it up. But I still had some of the basic skills and I would sit down and improvise and make things up at the piano. And then, when I was about 15 a friend of mine had been taking some jazz/blues piano lessons from a teacher and he taught me the 12-bar blues. That was a real revelation for me, kind of framing improvisational energy into the form of the blues, and that really sent me off on a journey. 20th century piano music—like jazz and blues and ragtime—has been a really big influence on me. And then after that I went back to classical and studied classical piano and classical composition.
When you first decided that music was going to be your life, were you still pretty entrenched in that world of blues and jazz?
D. For sure. At that point, I was really only a keyboard player. I was only a pianist and I loved it. I wanted to be a great jazz piano player. I think I quickly realized how good real jazz piano players are and I thought well maybe I should try some other stuff, which I did. I started writing songs and I started producing tracks and thinking a bit more outside instrumental music, which led me to songwriting and singing.
Who were some of the jazz pianists that you really loved?
D. Oh man, that’s always such a hard question to answer because I listened to everyone. I listened to so much music – I mean my record collection is pretty deep. I think the real cornerstones of what I loved were the bebop guys, the stride piano guys like Art Tatum. Oscar Peterson. Bud Powell. Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock of course. The blues stuff like Pinetop Perkins. People like Dr. John. Professor Longhair. I mean it just goes on man. I’m a big fan of Thelonious Monk and how he was just a man from outer space [laughs].
Yeah and that’s what me and my friends would do every day after class in college—it was just full-on jazz class. We would share records and totally chill out, smoke a joint and listen to piano shit. That was what we did. And then at night I was shedding in the rehearsal room, trying my best to learn what they were doing.
What was the natural progression from there to get where you were for The Ghost and the Scratch – what was the next evolution?
D. I think the next evolution of my musical journey was when I started writing songs. I had bounced around the country a little bit. I lived for a while in Colorado; I had my first band there, which was like a funky soul kind of thing. But I was always writing my own stuff on the side. And then I moved to New York and that was when I really started to connect the dots of my musical education that I had given myself. Because before I had ever listened to jazz—actually, ironically, the first music I ever listening to was strictly rap and gangster rap and hip-hop. And the first band I ever played in was a live hip-hop band called The Herbivores. And actually the guy who I started that band with – his name was Robert Paulson—was a really famous rapper that goes by the name of Cadalack Ron. But he actually just died just two months ago from a heroin overdose.
Ah that’s brutal. Really sorry for the loss.
D. Yeah it was a big blow. A blow to his music community, to me and my friends and his family…
So the rap thing was first, but after that I was super into ‘60s music, pretty exclusively. Like ‘60s rock and folk, pretty much everything from Neil Young… Bob Dylan was fucking on repeat. Had every Dylan album. The Doors. All that stuff, and jam bands too. That was kind of an early influence.
Wow you’ve been everywhere!
D. Yeah I really have [laughs]. That’s why it’s taken me a really long time to boil all of it down into something that’s really mine, something that feels really honest. And it draws from all that all the time. It’s kind of cool. When I look back at all the music that I’ve listened to, all the music that I’ve gone to see, all the music that I’ve bought over the course of my life: I can hear it in all the different stuff that I do, and I feel like I’m genuinely part of the musical evolution.
One of the things I noticed when I listened to The Ghost and the Scratch was that it’s pretty orchestral. You combine a lot of different instruments – it’s reminiscent of Patrick Watson. Do you know him?
D. Yeah for sure. Yeah the [orchestral sound] was a really special part of that record. I got to work with this really amazing orchestrator, this guy Olivier Manchon who took my orchestral sketches and my ideas and helped bring them to life. He’s amazing. So that was really exciting. And The Ghost and the Scratch we recorded at this really amazing studio that just closed down called The Magic Shop, which was in Soho. It got priced out of Soho and it was super sad. That place was really legendary and we recorded all the songs live to tape; we did it the old-fashioned way. That was a really special experience to get to work at this incredible studio, and to do it that way and work with the band in the studio like that. I think that really contributed to the lushness and the richness of the tracks.
And then “Young Love” has more pop sensibilities that The Ghost and the Scratch – what was the impetus for that?
D. For sure. I wouldn’t say it’s a departure, but it’s definitely an evolution. Because of all these influences, all these different styles that I’ve played and listened to, my songbook reflects that in every way. After I had gotten all The Ghost and the Scratch songs in a can, I had started writing a bunch of soul-rock material. Eventually I kept writing songs in that vein, and some more American songs, but the newest song, “Young Love,” is a song that I wrote late last year. I was excited about it. It’s a fun song. It’s a feel-good song. It was super fun to record. I recorded it in New York and finished it up and mixed it in Nashville. Actually I kind of did it in my new life triangle. I did the rhythm section tracks in New York. I did the vocals in La. And then I mixed it in Nashville, so it was perfect representation of my new life triangle of music in America.