For many years, Danny Schmidt has been releasing critically-acclaimed albums, full of consistently exceptional songcraft and intelligent lyricism. The Texan singer-songwriter is known for his delicate, folk guitar, warm voice and poetic approach to his subjects. A genuine troubadour, Schmidt’s songs of wit and wisdom have a timeless quality. Although Schmidt usually performs solo, he’s also released music with his wife, Carrie Elkin, who is another acclaimed singer-songwriter. Schmidt’s considered approach to lyrical content and musical arrangements mean that he can tackle powerful subjects in subtle ways. His recent record, ‘Standard Deviation’, is his tenth recording and all his experience as a writer and performer has worked its way into this well-received album. In the middle of his American tour to promote the album, Americana-UK caught up with Schmidt to find out a little more about the title track.
Danny, ‘Standard Deviation’ is an intriguing exploration of love and human relationships. Can you tell us the ‘story’ behind the song?
‘Standard Deviation’ is a strange sort of love song. Or instead, I guess maybe it’s more of a very ordinary love song for strange people.
The first inspiration for writing it popped struck me when I was at a party listening to a girl talk about some incomprehensibly arcane subject with incredible passion. And I watched the expressions of the other folks in our circle of conversation start to fade out and, one by one, their eyes started to glaze over. They continued to nod and say uh-huh and nod some more, but I could tell she’d completely lost each of them. But I don’t think she even noticed at all, she was so lost in her own inspired rant. And I don’t personally remember what she was talking about, but I distinctly remember being completely captured and enraptured by her fervour. And I thought it was sexy as hell, that she could explode with passion for a subject that no one else could understand.
But the way that the song writing process often works, some little momentary seed of emotion like that one for me, grew and morphed and spun sideways once I started putting pen to paper. And as the main character in the song started to take on finer and finer detail, and as the story itself started to become more three dimensional, the song ended up taking on some other tangential themes. Eventually, I ended up with a song about two women falling in love over a sketch pad, a few non-Euclidean proofs, quantum entanglement, and an infatuated moment together in the library in the middle of the night. And it ended up touching on all these tangential themes along the way:
– It touches on the pushback that smart women can face when expressing their smarts in traditionally male-dominated arenas.
– It creates a sort of poetic metaphor of human attraction to quantum entanglement and string theory, and how particles which don’t appear to be in direct contact with one another, can somehow touch each other by way of their connection in unperceived dimensions. [Note: I tried really, really hard to make the math and theory of this metaphor hold up to critique and rigour from people who actually work on theoretical physics problems. I ended up doing alright I think, after a decent bit of refinement along the way. But like any metaphor, it can unravel a bit at the edges.]
– It makes a statement about human attraction via descriptive statistics, that there’s so many of us in the world, regardless of how unique and complicated we might be, there’s someone who’s looking for someone exactly like us, somehow, miraculously. It’s just the nature of the distribution curve. And I find that to be comforting, curled up in the long tail.
– And it simply speaks to how attractive it is when we see someone fully engaged in their passion.
The song’s about all that. Or all that grows out of the characters and their story.
The hardest part about trying to take the song off the paper and bring it to life through the recording and production process, was trying to balance the very linear telling of the story in the early verses with the sort of fantastical bridge segment, which gets multi-dimensional and literally goes through a wormhole. And then we had the challenge of trying to somehow move the characters from being relatively flat and matter-of-fact, emotionally, to being in an almost ecstatic heightened emotional state, and to have the production and orchestration somehow mirror that transition in a way that the listener could feel as though they went through that same transformation, all in a seamless and organic way. It was one of the more challenging songs I’ve ever worked on in the studio.
Luckily, the producer Will Robertson is a musical genius, and also has the patience of a saint. We ended up choosing to start the song in a very stripped down solo acoustic manner, like a traditional folk ballad, and then slowly introduce thin bits of organic colour with an upright bass and piano, and let the sound almost invisibly become three dimensional over the course of the first couple of verses. And then when the bridge part came, and the song turns from major to minor, we started piling up layers of less organic (or less obviously placable) tones, like the mellotron. And then as the bridge built to its ecstatic climax, we introduced all those ethereal female harmony layers, and let them tear open the wormhole as the language in the story tries to shoot us through a wormhole sort of emotional space. And then the production dissipates and settles us back down into three-dimensional space-time again for the conclusion of the song.
It’s really hard to allow a song to move that severely through different kinetic and sonic landscapes, and to be that jarring without somehow being disruptive to the story. So, we worked really hard to somehow balance those competing desires. I’m really happy with how it turned out. Hopefully we were successful. I thought Will did an amazing job pulling all the instrumental parts together. And I think all the girls who sang in the bridge were absolutely magical and other-worldly. It was Mira Stanley-Costa and Cara May Gorman (both from the band The Sea, The Sea) along with my wife Carrie Elkin, who’s also an amazing solo singer-songwriter in her own right.
Once we’d finished trying to bring the song to life in production, the folks who make the hit podcast, Welcome to Night Vale, were kind enough to debut the tune in one of the episodes of their show, which really was the perfect premier for that song. If you’re not familiar with Night Vale, the show transcends dimensions quite frequently itself, and blends the mundane with the fantastical all the time, into a weird beautiful stew. And they often give voice to under-represented people and sub-cultures. So, it just felt like the perfect way to launch the song into the world. I can think of no more fitting bottle of champagne to smash upon its hull.
The response to this song has been more interesting for me to follow than most songs, if for no other reason than it’s more complex than most, and so then allows for a broader range of interpretation. Most people follow the literal thread of the story, but the points of emphasis seem to vary quite a bit from listener to listener, and reviewer to reviewer.
Also, the lovers in the song happen to both be women, and I’ve received quite a few sweet messages from some folks in the queer community thanking me for portraying a queer romance. It’s funny, though (and maybe this speaks to a sort of “colour blindness” on my part) but I really did just think of the story as a “human romance” more than a lesbian romance. The humans just happened to both be women. I was aware of playing on the term “standard deviation” though, and I guess I was conscious of the beautiful contradiction within that term, of someone living in a simultaneously “deviant” and “perfectly normal” state at the same time. And I can imagine that might be how someone who identifies as queer might feel in a world that doesn’t wholly accept them yet. I mean, it’s implied in the co-opting of the word “queer” itself, I guess.
I’ve also gotten a few notes about writing the song from a woman’s perspective, and for touching on the issue of women struggling to be heard fully in academic settings . . . in the math and science realms in particular . . . and more broadly, in most realms that are traditionally male-dominated arenas generally. I think this theme began to emerge in the song as I wanted a main character who felt like a “deviant” or an outsider, and felt unheard and misunderstood and under-appreciated. And a strong woman with a strong mind trying to thrive in an arena where a voice like hers is often stifled just seemed like a good character for the story. I will say this, though, my father is an engineering professor at the University of Texas and helped start the women in engineering program at the university way back in the 70’s, back when there were almost no women at all in that department. So, I have heard a lifetime of stories of challenges women have faced in that realm, and so I suppose it’s only natural that some of that perspective would leak out into a character in a song.
As far as how this song fits into the rest of my work, it’s actually not as far afield as you might guess, somehow! I don’t really write this way with intention, but I somehow seem to end up with a fair number of story songs that take unexpected turns, and bridge various planes of existence. I do like magical realism, both as a literary genre and literary device, but also as a worldview, and I think that seeps out into my music. Songs like ‘Stained Glass’ (from the album ‘Parables & Primes’) and ‘Cry On The Flowers’ (from the album ‘Owls’) have similar narrative arcs interwoven with transcendent moments the way ‘Standard Deviation’ does. But there’s a bunch of others, now that I think about it.
I’ll be touring the ‘Standard Deviation’ album for next few months still, and then will get to work on whatever project is next. I’m not 100% sure which project that’ll be, cause I’m stewing on several at the moment. I do have a three-year-old daughter now, though, so I’m thinking I might work on a kids’ record I’ve written some songs for. It just seems like a good time to flush that project out, while my daughter is young enough to enjoy it, and so I can use her as a guinea pig to test the songs out! I have a free (and adorable) focus group living conveniently at my house. I would be a fool not to take advantage of that.
Thanks for checking out ‘Standard Deviation’. Americana UK has been so wonderfully supportive of my music, and of this new album in particular. I’m most appreciative!
Read Americana UK’s review of ‘Standard Deviation’ here:
A chalkboard full of secrets, it was like some kind of code
To tell the stars and planets how to fall and how to glow
But when she turned to face the classroom there was chalk upon her nose
Like the ghost of Madame Curie or a clown in women’s clothes
And the boys dismissed the work so quick, they laughed at her instead
As just a girl who spilled some numbers from her head
Late night in the library in the basement by herself
Alone amongst the books again, at home between the shelves
She was searching for some answers when she stumbled in the dark
On a girl with colored pencils and black eyes like question marks
And they said hello in stereo, then they both just stood and stared
As a normal sort of silence filled the air
The girl asked her what she studied and what she read so late at night
The thoughts that filled her notebooks and the stars that filled her eyes
But she said she couldn’t tell her, she said she’d just get bored
It was story told in numbers not a story told in words
But the girl just laughed and leaned right back, said “Try me if you dare
Cause a story’s when there’s something more to share”
So she shrugged and her hands began to speak
A dance of differentials and of poetry in Greek
She solved for new dimensions and vibrations of the strings
And from a single derivation all the worlds could rise to being
She drew concentric circles with her finger in the air
And they glowed where there were nodes along the manifold they shared
To be in perfect symmetry, joined in all degrees
They touched in ways that no one else could see
The girl’s eyes lit with fire, like milk and kerosene
It was the smartest thing she’d ever heard and the hottest thing she’d seen
So she grabbed her by the brainstem and she threw her to the floor
And they kissed like their equations had never balanced quite before
Cause every lonesome thesis just describes the unobserved
There’s always one who’ll fall upon the tail of every curve
There’s so many locks, so many doors, so many twisted keys
Within the standard deviation from the mean