Photo by Justin Clough
Though it’s true that many artists trade California for Nashville in hopes of both literal and metaphoric greener grass, to categorize Dan Layus as such would be a bit of a disservice. Since the Augustana frontman made permanent residence of the 615 a couple years ago, he’s been listening: to the history, to the community, to himself. Whether your approach to the music is as a new listener or an Augustana die-hard, you’ll find a work steady and strong, as impressively crafted as it is raw and compelling. On Dangerous Things, Layus achieves both a stellar debut of alt-country musings and a work of self-reflection from an artist in a new chapter.
When we meet in downtown Nashville on a sunny morning during AmericanaFest, Layus himself seems to embody a bit of both. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, articulate self-reflections born of major-label-success training and bred by a thoughtful artist’s study of himself and the world. Though he’s had massive success since the breakout of Augustana’s “Boston,” it’s clear he’s been as much a student of Nashville as an all-star transplant, as much a devoted father and husband as the focus of spotlights.
Though Dangerous Things is Layus’ official debut as a solo artist, Augustana’s previous two albums were essentially Layus, who retained the name after the band parted ways in 2011. “I wasn’t ready to give up on the name yet,” the current Franklin, Tennessee, dweller says. “The catalog never came into question – I always knew I’d continue to play songs from those records for years to come – however, from a presentation standpoint it felt like it was time to move on. I felt that that chapter had gracefully, very delicately ended. It’s hard to say why it felt like the right time. We all, in all our various careers and jobs, know when something feels like it’s time to move on from a certain position or a certain employment opportunity, and a lot of times we make that transition and this is really no different.”
For fans of Augustana, Dangerous Things feels notably different: Layus intentionally kept himself to only two instruments on each song, resulting in a sound that’s stripped and organic. “I wanted to take away a lot of the bells and whistles that I was used to relying on in a studio stetting,” he says. “In a live setting generally you never have any of that stuff. I wanted to keep [the record] very stripped, very focused, and very vulnerable instrumentally. I found over the years that some of the biggest sounding moments at my shows are the ones that are sonically actually smaller but they’re more dynamic in some way with the audience, with myself, and [I needed] to make an album like that.”
The result is dynamic. “Four Rings,” a piano-bodied ode to relationship complexity and strength, soars with harmonic help from the Secret Sisters, who lend vocal support on several songs on the album. Vocals stand at the forefront of much of Dangerous Things, much to Layus’ credit; throughout the album, it feels as if Layus has unleashed the character in his vocal, allowing it to waver in Tom Waits-ian tone or shake as it soars.
“In the past, [the band, producer, label executive, or I would] be looking for a pitch perfect presentation of a melody and a lyric, which could be tiresome, and I found over the years it seems to suck the character out of a song,” Layus says. “I felt this time around I was gonna basically burn that whole thing to the ground, just focus on the feeling that came across from the character’s point of view. The emotion and the crack in the voice or it’s a little bit flat or it’s a little bit pitchy. On this [album] it was about delivering the take in front of a microphone live that felt like closer to what I do onstage.”
Aside from the live performance, geography played a part in the shaping of Dangerous Things. “A massive part of the sound and the composition of this record came from the direct influence of being here and making a new home in Tennessee,” Layus says. “I’d always loved country music. I especially loved and gravitated towards guys like Gram Parsons – and kind of my gateway drug to alt country would have been Bryan Adams back in high school. Then I ended up discovering bands – very well known bands and many other people that I was still new to – guys like the Jayhawks.” Artists including Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan soon found a spot in his catalog.
“When I moved here, I said, I’m gonna try to write country songs for other artists, whether for pop or whatever, which was part of the goal moving here was to do some of outside songwriting for other artists on the side,” Layus continues. “I said, I’m gonna be knowledgeable about this, I’m going to see where this all started. I just dove headfirst into George Jones and Patsy Cline, Don Gibson, even more modern artists like Dwight Yoakam, Tammy Wynette, people who immediately spoke to my inner songwriter. I just went, that’s it. That approach of how they can seem to have so little going on as far as sonic production and it truly just gets to be, through a truth here, and that just captured me and I haven’t let go.”
“I’m really having a heard time not writing songs in that world, in that vein,” he continues. “It’s almost as if it was, I don’t know, like a past life.” He laughs. “I don’t believe in that, but if I did, I would say maybe I was around that scene in the 1960’s, 50’s. Hank Williams, or Ray Charles on his country record, or Ray Price, “Crazy Arms,” I just completely latched onto that and I continue to write newer material even now that is certainly in that same lane. Unintentionally, it just is what’s coming out, and that’s what happened on this record is it just came out, traditional country just spoke to me.”
Sonic influence aside, it’s clear that studying the craft of Nashville style has had a lasting impact on Layus. “Call Me When You Get There,” a quavering mid-album romance, features a slightly different lyric building to the same hook – “call me when you get there” – which is framed in a slightly different context by the lines before it. It’s simple and effective, much like the Nashville ethos itself.
“That was fun to explore, absolutely,” Layus says. He penned every song on Dangerous Things, mostly by himself; only four on the album are co-writes.”[It’s] only worked a few times for me, I’ve swung at that style of turning a phrase many times. There’s guys that build 40-year careers in Nashville on turning a phrase that’ll just heartbreak. It’s a talent.”
“[I] essentially journaled my own stories for a couple years, wrapped them in three and a half to four and a half minute songs, and released them and sung them onstage,” Layus says of his writing. “That will never change; I’ll always have a natural desire and outlet for that in my owns songs. Generally at least a quarter of any new record will have something to do with me in it, for better or worse, or at least infuse my own experiences in some way, [my] outlook.”
“My life is very happy,” Layus continues. “There’s guys that are really good writing [happy songs] – Paul McCartney or something, “Good Day Sunshine” – I can’t write that. I felt, okay: my life is so happy, I’m so in love, I love my job, I love my kids, I love my wife, I love where I live. I need to find some drama somewhere. So I just thought about some of the people I knew, I imagined some characters, I took influence from the outside world and my surroundings and created like an author would, a fictional character or story or scenario.” “Driveway,” a quavering-vocal and mournful-pedal-steel-laden track, was inspired by a neighbor’s divorce, and seeing him parked in the driveway. “That was a new challenge,” Layus continues, “and made me realize, okay, I can do this. Whether it’s professionally or not I don’t know, but I know till the day I die I can conjure up [something.]”
One such song is “The Nightbird,” which closes the album. The song is the first-person narrative of a bird, “singing songs for you.” “I was kind of straddling the line a little bit between human or literally a bird,” Layus says. It was a conversation with his manager that pushed him towards the latter extreme. “I was like, alright, I’ll write a song about a bird, all the way,” he says. “It has to make sense as a bird, like a children’s story almost. It’s consequently my kids’ favorite song. And mine. That song in particular made me feel like I could do this for as long as I wanted.”
Grab Dangerous Things on iTunes.