Dan Zanes got his first taste of fame during the 10 years he spent as front man of the 80s rock band the Del Fuegos. It’s been almost 10 years since he switched to folk music and critics across the country, from The New York Times to The Los Angeles Times, love what he’s doing. Zanes calls it “family music,” traditional songs and original compositions meant to bring people together and revel in the days when old and young alike sat on front porches singing.
His concerts are also designed with a community experience in mind. Audiences, which are largely made up of parents and their toddlers, sing and dance their way through the aisles while his good time band stomps its way through a catalogue of multi-cultural gems.
I talked with Zanes about his album, “Nueva York!” and relayed questions to Zanes on behalf of his fans. Many of them know Zanes and his brightly colored suits and big, floppy hair from his Disney Channel videos.
Gene: The first question is from Sophie (age 5), who caught your show recently. She would like to know how you can perform in front of so many people?
Dan: It’s always good to perform in front of any number of people because we try to make it feel like a party and less like a performance. It just means it’s a bigger party if there’s more people. It’s not scary in any way. We think of all the people as our friends anyway.
Gene: CJ Kerin who is 6 and 1/2 years old wants to know if you ever get stage fright.
Dan: Oh, that is a good question. I don’t really get stage fright, but I always get a little bit nervous. But the nervousness gives me energy. It helps me to jump higher.
Gene: Do you get butterflies in your stomach?
Gene: What do you do when you get that feeling?
Dan: The only thing to do, really, is you just go through it. You still go out onto the stage.
Gene: Isabella, who is 6, wants to know why your hair is so spiky.
Dan: (Laughing) That is just the way it is when I wake up in the morning and I let it stay that way. I did cut it all off once, but it made my head look really small.
Gene: I have a follow-up question to that one. Where do you get your suits?
Dan: My suits come from many different places, but a lot of them come from thrift shops.
Gene: And that is where the song “Thrift Shop” comes from?
Dan: Yes. I wanted to celebrate thrift shops. When I was young, all of my clothes came from thrift shops because my family didn’t have a lot of money. I was sort of embarrassed by that. So I thought, if we did a song about thrift shops, maybe there were other people who might feel a little embarrassed about having used clothing and at least they would know that some of us out there celebrate that idea.
Gene: Isabella’s dad, Tom, is also a fan, so is her sister Ivy and his wife. Tom says he’s impressed with your interpretations of folk songs and he’s happy that you don’t water down the saltier lyrics.
Dan: Oh that is pretty great. I really appreciate that. We don’t try to water the songs down because we feel like the audience is up for everything. Even if it’s a drinking song, we have one on “Sea Music” and another on “Panoramas and Parabolas,” I feel that people know it is just a song. I don’t think there is any need to water them down. A lot of the things that people might find questionable are humorous. I believe that our audience knows how to separate the humor from the reality. But a lot of the humor is very social. It’s meant to bring people together.
Gene: It is funny to hear a kid singing, “I takes my whisky clear.” (“Son of a Gambolier” on the album “Parades and Parabolas: 25 Songs Collected by Carl Sandburg for The American Songbag”)
Dan: (Laughing.) I thought it was funny too! But I was also questioning whether or not we should have that song on there, on the CD. I asked my mother about that and she said, “Of course you have to have it on there! That’s the best one!”
Gene: What CDs are in your car these days?
Dan: I have been listening to our new CD, “Nueva York!” mostly, because it’s new. We work really hard on these things and once we finish working, I like to sit back and listen to them and appreciate everything that all of the musicians put into it. So I have been listening to that most. But I have also been listening to a lot of Puerto Rican music lately. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was in New York, so I was listening to Ramito, who I love.
Gene: Let’s talk about the new CD. How did you gather material for it?
Dan: I had a lot of help from my friend, and one of my first Spanish teachers, Bernardo Palombo. I went up there to take Spanish lessons and he is a musician. When I gave him my CDs and we started talking more about music, I told him that my dream was to someday make a record of all songs from Latin America, he said, “That could really happen.” He would make me compilation CDs and I would tell him what I liked. He would say, “You clearly like Puerto Rican music.” I really couldn’t tell Puerto Rican music from Colombian music…He was one of those teachers that only comes around once in a lifetime. Over the last few years, I have learned so much from him. Once he got me going, I was able to go off and do my own listening-my own research. But he really got me started.
Gene: Sean, who is 6, wants to know how many songs you’ve written.
Dan: I wrote dozens of songs when I was in a rock ‘n roll band. Since I have been playing family music, I’ve been spending my time looking for old songs. But I usually write about five songs for each record. But I didn’t write any of the songs on “Nueva York!” because I hadn’t gotten to a point with my Spanish yet where I could feel that I was doing a good job with it. Also, there are so many songs from Latin America that I wanted to sing.
Gene: Sean also wants to know what your favorite color is…
Gene: Tim is a 39 year-old fan. So, his question is a little more involved. He said he would like to know what advice you would give aspiring children’s performers. He says there seems to be a vast gap between you and the small-time people who perform at kids’ parties. “How did [you] go from the playgrounds of Brooklyn to the Grammys?” he asks.
Dan: I have been incredibly lucky and the people that have been around me, help me out. I can’t take credit for anything. But one thing that I always thought was important was to play live as much as possible. That’s where I have been able to grow musically and get a sense of what works for everybody. I’ve been able to move on down the road quite a bit more because of what I’ve learned playing live. And I think my goal is a good one. People in our audience feel inspired by what we do.
Gene: Your concerts feel like community events in contrast to a lot of shows where the focus is on the star on stage. Your shows seem more like sing-a-longs…
Dan: I was in a rock ‘n roll band for 10 years. I had plenty of opportunities to let my ego get completely out of control. I’ve already had that. This is something new for me. As far as the participation goes, that is something that I learned by going to Pete Seeger concerts. If, in my lifetime, I ever get to be 1/10 as good as Pete Seeger is at getting people to sing along, that would be a huge accomplishment. There is something deep and spiritual in what he does.
Gene: Dillon Sparks is 10. He plays the recorder. He wants to know how to get a show on the Disney Channel.
Dan: I don’t know! (Laughing.) I really didn’t want to be on TV because I feel like everybody watches too much TV and I didn’t want to be part of that because I feel like it takes too much time away from more important things. But I thought about it and I realized if we had a show on TV focusing on making music-that could make people want to make their own music-maybe that would be a good thing in the end. Clearly, it didn’t matter if I suggested that people throw their TVs away or not. They weren’t going to. So…the answer is, I don’t know. But keep practicing that recorder!