Spirituals for Atheists
A conversation with Daniel Romano
On Finally Free, his latest solo album, Daniel Romano begins a deep exploration of emotional territory. The record is an acoustic delight, a folk-flavored album that floats effortlessly above the fray of day-to-day life, despite the density of its multi-layered sonic approach and the often-perplexing nature of its poetic lyrics.
It was Canadian folk music that first prompted Romano to pick up the guitar and, while those sounds are the template for the arrangements he’s created on Finally Free, he’s not married to traditional methods. He compliments his restrained, melancholic vocals with masterful fingerpicking, subtle washes of ambient synthesizers, quiet electric guitar solos, plaintive violin accents, strummed autoharp and intricate, polyrhythmic percussion tracks. Using only a four-track cassette recorder, he explores the existential dilemmas that make everyday life so mysterious and rewarding. The journey he takes us on, as he reconnoiters these familiar, yet often unfathomable intricacies, gives us a psychic roadmap we can use for our own convoluted philosophical musings. The thoughts Romano shared with the Globe about his creative process were marked by the same subtle humor he displays in his songwriting.
Why did you choose Finally Free as the album title? It seems rife with irony, since the songs deal with the limitations of human thought and existence and our efforts to make sense out of them.
Finally Free, for me, represents the feeling of giving in to that existence and accepting that, as an individual, all one can do is their best. But I’ve never been above irony.
How long did it take to write these songs? They’re very dense, melodically and lyrically.
The words were written in the passenger seat of a car, somewhere between Regina and Winnipeg. I don’t remember much about it, except that I had a wild impulse to write and then it all came out in a flash. I felt as though I was riding alongside something much more powerful than a human mind as I was writing words. I remember having the impulse and I remember the sunset as I completed the last line. I didn’t visit the words for a week or so until I got home. I had already decided to limit myself to a four-track cassette recorder. So I set that up and placed the words in front of me and started. I followed the melody of the mood of these words. Most of the songs are the first pass attempts at melody and arrangement.
Where did the inspiration come from? Have you been reading a lot of religious and philosophical books of late, or are you deeply familiar with the material?
I am familiar with the material, yes, but I was not reading or referencing anything outside of my mind at the time of writing these songs. I couldn’t begin to understand where these words came from, but I am certainly humbled and grateful that they did.
The sound of this album is a radical departure from everything you’ve recorded before. With the exceptions of a few brief explosions of electric guitar noise, this is an extremely subdued album. Why did you choose an acoustic setting for the songs?
I think the arrangements took form in the way that they did for a few reasons. One: I had limited myself to very few tracks. Two: The words felt very dense and important to me. I wanted them to be more in focus than on previous records. I also think that the process of recording whilst making the arrangements, made it easier for me to surrender to simplicity.
Records can quickly become black holes. In an effort to avoid that, I make rules for myself. Every record is different, but with the content of these songs, I already felt a deep sense of liberation, having fabricated the prose. I was in a state of new acceptance and committed to complimenting the words with the same impetuousness as they were formed.
The record took four days, including the writing day. Three days, when I started to incorporate the music. I would say it was the most fluid and enjoyable musical experience (whilst alone) that I’ve ever had.
The songs explore Biblical themes about the meaning of life, while “Celestial Manis” uses images from the Kabbalah. Is this a religious album?
Not in any traditional or institutional sense.
Listening to the record makes one realize how Christian perceptions of life, love, relationships and happiness, permeate American, Canadian and British music. Even the songs written by artists raging against the machine, still speak a Christian language. It seems these songs are both questioning and honoring that mindset.
That language has become a difficult parameter in music, because it’s how we think the language of western song should sound. In a lot of cases, it’s true. Its relationship to Christian prose has more to do with the rhythmic nature of western music, obviously originating in the church. I am not religious by any means, but I am glad that something dramatically freed of the confines of religious thought can have it’s roots deep within it. Like I said, I’ve never been above irony.
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