First-year Songwriter to Watch
A few weeks ago, I stopped in at the Cat and the Cream between hectic bits of living and saw Danny Cohen, first-year voice major, perform a show made up entirely of his own compositions. The setting was simple, just Danny and his guitar, but the simple melodies partnered with insightful lyrics made me late for work.
It was November of his first year in college, and here he was, already going solo at the Cat. But why should this be strange? Then it occurred to me: Oberlin tends to cultivate this sort of performance. This is a place that is extremely conducive to songwriting and supportive of its performance. Is there a difference when you have not been raised on Oberlin’s music culture?
Danny started playing guitar in fourth grade. Like any other elementary school kid, he was drawn in by the cool factor. Given a half-sized, nylon string guitar for Christmas, he looked at it for about a year before putting it to actual use.
“It was more the childish, ‘I want that!’ than any sort of actual act of will,” he said.
But after learning basic versions of Beatles songs, Danny, age 11, began to write his own.
“I remember being really enchanted by the fact that I knew all these chords from other songs I’d learned and the realization that they could be put together in a different way, that I invented, and that I could sing over it seemed really great,” he said.
“I could sing their thing or my thing, and my thing was pretty dreadful but I liked it at the time.”
And so it began. Later, in his sophomore year of high school, Danny’s songwriting started to evolve. Inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel’s album In the Aeroplane over the Sea Danny made his way through that tricky time of teenage troubles by recognizing the poetry of music, letting lyrics from this and other albums shape his ideas of beauty.
So he began to write songs that he still plays now, drawing inspiration from both life experience and literature. Despite the number of songs he writes based on books, Danny does not aim to be difficult to understand. Intellectual engagement is not exactly what he asks of all those listening to his songs.
“I don’t want to require of my audience that they research my shit,” Danny said.
Ultimately, Danny is inspired by those artists who are able to produce very stream-of-consciousness, intimate works. Describing a recent discovery of a Portland band called Thanksgiving, he said, “There’s a sort of stumbling quality to that guy’s lyrics, you feel like you’re seeing his inspiration in its rawest form, everything as it flooded through his head.”
Despite the large repertoire of songs Danny played at his show, he says he doesn’t just float through the songwriting process. Especially since entering the Con, where schoolwork dominates his life, Danny can take months to write a song.
“I’m sort of content with that — to have a long-term project,” he said.
Danny has not recorded a solo album yet, but he has recorded several demos, giving them out as Father’s Day presents and sending them to friends. This past summer he recorded an album with his band, Tristero, back in Texas.
“The summer was insane, but I’ve got this product at the end of it that I’m immensely proud of. It was good. Thumbs up,” Danny said.
Danny surrounds his music with positive energy, and not in a way that’s even approaching narcissistic. He comes armed with several instruments in addition to his guitar – amongst them optimism, clarity and insight.
And is he different from the seasoned Oberlin musician? Well, there’s the old Oberlin adage that you grow more cynical as you progress through your years here. I see little of this cynicism in Danny. More subtly, his refusal to intellectualize his music, even those songs inspired by books, is not exactly a product of this school, where we are taught to analyze and at times over-think.
Danny Cohen writes music that is emotionally engaging and not condescending. Maybe we should reverse the norms. Maybe he will influence Oberlin and not the other way around.