Dan Reeder: An Accidental Musician
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
It is rare to meet a musician whose work you love. It is even more special and life affirming when that person turns out to be a mellow and funny individual with whom you share a lot in common. I was lucky enough to virtually sit down over coffee with a musical hero of mine, Dan Reeder. There was the mandatory five minutes of trying to work around the technical difficulties of the Zoom call before his kind, smiling face finally popped up on the screen.
Reeder was first discovered by John Prine and signed to his label in the early 2000s. Now in his 60s, Reeder is still making music. He has a gentle and sage singing voice and often sings his own backup vocals. A lot of the instruments he plays are handmade himself. In turning his camera around and showing me his studio, he points to different instruments. “This is a homemade cello, there’s a homemade guitar, there’s another guitar, that’s a homemade saxophone made out of paper mache and plywood...it doesn’t sound good.” Reeder leans heavily on blues and gospel harmonies but retains the wispiness of folk. In asking him how he would describe his music, he replied, “I would describe it as homemade. That’s the best I can do.”
He told me that he thinks of himself primarily as a painter. He designs all his album artworks, further contributing to his homemade style. The artwork for the latest album, Every Which Way, is more of a collage of doodles. He said, “On Sunday mornings I sit at the breakfast table and make little drawings and I wanted it to have that sort of character.” I asked him if music has always taken a backseat in regards to painting. He replied, “I’m sort of a musician by accident.” He elaborated when I asked him about playing live: “I always had the feeling like I was a guy from a cartoon where he goes looking for the bathroom and gets sort of lost and ends up on stage by accident.” Reeder is always creating, whether that be through painting or music making. If that makes him a musician, then he is a musician. Reeder is a humble, mild-mannered tinkerer; an inquiring mind with the playfulness of a child. Even though the intended “topic” of our conversation was his new album, he seemed more interested in what I was up to these days.
Reeder's lyrics are witty, brutally unpretentious, childishly funny yet deeply philosophical. His song “Born a Worm” has become an anthem for his fans. It contains only one lyric: “Born a worm/spins a cocoon/goes to sleep/wakes up a butterfly/what the fuck is that about?” Reeder’s music is definitely homemade and his lyrics make it clear he has a healthy appetite for the absurd. Some might describe his music as preposterous. I lean toward the conclusion that hidden in those lines is accidental or intentional profundity. I showed my dad the song “Born a Worm” and he laughed the hardest I think I've ever seen him laugh. He recognized the wonder Reeder communicates in those simple lines. If philosophy begins in wonder, then Dan Reeder is the most philosophical songwriter working today.
The first song that unlocked Reeder’s musical world for me was “Beachball.” “The weak spot on a beachball is the valve/if you don’t count the smell/or the fact that the harder you hit it/the slower it seems to go.” This song and many others have a nursery rhyme-like charm and, like any good nursery rhyme, it tells a grown-up message. Then I discovered his song “Maybe,” a cool, collected yet somehow funny lament on death in which Reeder sings in the chorus, “Maybe Jesus beat that rap we’re not sure/Maybe you can live forever if your heart is pure/Maybe you’ll come back someday as a king prawn.” Reeder’s humor in his lyrics could be labeled as dark humor, but they leave you feeling light and endow the listener with an ability to laugh in the face of life’s biggest questions. The chorus concludes: “Maybe angels come and take you away to heaven or the other way/but from down here it appears that when you’re gone, you’re gone.”
His songs range from sincere and melancholic like “Beachball” to ludicrous and hilarious like “Born a Worm” or a song like “Pussyboy,” which makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. He has a talent for delivering X-rated lyrics in such a soothing and emotional way. “Maybe I sing, oohooh, like a pussy boy/But that don’t mean I ain’t got no..../testosterone.” Every song carries the same amount of honesty and the songs that are funny are no less full of meaning. Many of his songs are very short, some even under a minute. I told him that I admire this quirk in his music and that it takes guts to end a song like that. Echoing the lyrics of “Maybe,” he replied: “When you’re done, you’re done.” He continued, “Yeah, actually what I’ve noticed is when you paint a picture, I paint too, I actually think of myself as a painter, you notice at some point that anything I do now is just gonna make it worse. So, yeah, even if half of the canvas is empty that doesn’t really matter. Or if there is something that hasn’t been fixed it doesn’t matter. You just leave it that way. And actually if you listen to a lot of music out there, they didn’t stop in time.”
In trying to articulate what it is about Dan Reeder’s music that is so enlightened, I have encountered the problem that he sings about in “Beachball”: The harder you hit it, the slower it seems to go. The harder I try to articulate his music, the further I seem to get from its essence. Luckily, I am aided by Reeder himself in his own words. Reeder’s music reaches into the deepest and oldest rivulets of the brain, where humor, imagination and wonder are housed, disarming you in the process. Trying to deduce Reeder’s songs would be a fruitless task, for the zen character they possess leaves the listener without any need for stubborn words. All Dan Reeder songs find themselves somewhere in the middle between nihilism and utopia, between love and hate. He perpetually putters in the middle and uncomplicates the world.
Dan Reeder’s music is that beach ball. It sails effortlessly through the air. It is light yet full of character. It is sincere yet playful. It is something everybody recognizes yet distinctive and fun and most importantly, the harder you seem to hit it, the slower it seems to go. Dan Reeder is a mild-mannered genius and I hope he will be tinkering with sound and color for a long time to come. ▲
Tristan Geary is a jazz pianist and a recent graduate from Bard College in upstate New York. He has been performing and teaching for many years. In addition, Tristan is also a composer, most recently writing for The Orchestra Now. Tristan lives in Boston and writes for music blog Sound of Boston.