Daniel Rodriguez (Elephant Revival) Talks New Solo LP ‘Sojourn of a Burning Sun,’ Writing Process, Inspiration and More (INTERVIEW)

Daniel Rodriguez is a listener. Inspiration knocks and he answers with a pad and a pen. For almost 20 years, the Colorado-based singer-songwriter has been touring, crafting, and delivering beauty in song for fans all over the world to enjoy. People have used these songs in times of trouble, celebration, birth, death, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs (probably), and everything in between. Daniel welcomes good graces in, yet he is in touch with the circular reality of the world that we live in. There is darkness, there is light, and they are both worthy of our love and attention. This is an interview for those who tend to complicate beauty, for those who put song-makers on a pedestal and think, “I could never do that – I’m not creative.” Daniel Rodriquez is here to tell you with his process, with his heart: we all can create beauty, for we all are beauty in form. A man that propels himself into the process of life, song, love, imperfection, and just what means to be here living on Earth. Many people are skeptical of the idea that the universe is audible to those that listen, and Daniel Rodriguez politely proves you wrong. We recently checked in with him about life, his new record Sojourn of a Burning Sun, his writing process, where he tends to pull inspiration from, and just a little bit about the origin of his past project, Elephant Revival

We all know just how strange the last six months have been. Have you been playing any shows? 

I just started to. I did a little tour out to Southwestern Colorado. Played these small, safely distanced shows. Two shows each night. It was like a sixty-minute set and then everyone cleared out, then the second group came in and I played a little longer set because no one needed to be cleared out afterwards. I did two days in a row in two towns. Not a lot of people but higher ticket prices to help balance it out. But yeah, it was pretty good. I was like, ’oh yeah, I have to travel for my job, I forgot about that.’

Have you gone through phases of your enjoyment of traveling? As far as being in a van and on tour. 

I love traveling. I think sometimes when you’re out there with a group of dudes that all have their needs, you end up learning who is easier to travel with and easier to be in a group setting with. So…you end up trying to base your band around that – as well as who suits the songs. I really do like these solo shows though, they’re kind of nice. I don’t have to worry about anybody’s needs, which sounds super selfish but… (both laugh) 

I like them too – it makes sense. Especially when times are a little more fragile and everyone (including myself) is a little more easily triggered. Sometimes it’s nice to travel solo. 

Yeah, I woke up. I could just get my coffee and go out and sit on the hotel porch. I actually wrote a song on the road and I got to walk around by myself. The only people I needed to call were the promoter and my girlfriend. It was pretty nice. 

I want to know about your songwriting process. I love your way with words – the delivery, the phrasing, and the messages. How do you tend to start writing a song? 

It tends to come when there is nothing else going on, nothing pulling on my sleeves, no real-world obligations tugging at me. My guitar is there, a pad, a pen, and inspiration has struck me in some way. Maybe a line comes in or I dig up a line that I had already written and just start building off of it. There’s always that – but then there are times when I’m driving down the road and a melody comes to me or a couple of words strung together come in. It’s never really a set thing. Except for during COVID, where I’ve had every morning with nothing to do except wake up, make coffee, and sit down with a pen and pad and just get after it. If you’re not carving out time everyday to make yourself available and being very rudimentary about it, when inspiration hits you over the head while you’re doing something else, you have to get it down or the inspiration will just knock on the house of the next songwriter. 

That’s a cool image. I dig that. I’ve been seeing you play since 2012 or 2013 – back in my Vermont days. We would go see Elephant Revival shows. I remember thinking, “damn, that guy is tall.” (Daniel laughs)

Yep. Especially compared to my other bandmates. Elephant Revival kind of started in Vermont. I took Sage [Cook] and Bonnie [Paine] to Connecticut and we made some demos. We took them up to Waitsfield, VT and played the demos at this party, and this dude Dan Murphy, who lives in Waterbury, VT said, “let’s get you guys into the studio and make this official.” 

Far out. I know Dan Murphy. Great guy. You have a real gift with ‘mantras’ that come out in the songs. Do you remember when this started happening? When all these cool little mantras just started popping out all over the place. 

Well, I think a couple of things: I’m not a religious person by any means, but I do pull from a whole bunch of different things. I think that there are a lot of different spiritual disciplines that formed into religions where they say something like, ‘the universe was sung into being.’ I think Christians say that, the Hawaiians say that. So I thought, ‘ OK, if our words have some ounce of power, then the way we say things has a bit of power behind it as well. So, if you’re singing something – perhaps this is one of the most powerful ways to speak words and I want to make sure that what I’m saying is something that I truly want to be saying. I don’t know –  I just have always tried to pay attention to the idea that our words and the way that we say them has some value and virtue behind it. And that possibly, if you’re saying something that has a little more virtue in it, and if you say it a few times – like how if you stare in the mirror and say ‘red rum’ three times something weird’s going to happen. I don’t know – that’s a good question.

I feel that. The power in words. I’m personally scared to sing or write songs that say unnerving things in them. If I’m freestyling and something comes out like; ‘you’re dying slow, suffocating.’ I’m like, uh, changing those words I don’t want to sing that shit. 

(freestyles) Yo, you die slow, suffocate – na, fuck that. I ain’t doing that. That shit’s whack (both laugh)

Yeah, exactly. You have to turn it around. Nope, that’s not happening. I’m living slow and long. (both laugh) 

Totally.

Your new record is called Sojourn of a Burning Sun – the whole album is beautiful, from start to finish. It’s great songwriting. The delivery is natural and so well-timed. The title-track is timeless – one of those tunes that I wish was 20 minutes long, so instead I just listen to it over and over again. I’d love to hear where it came from.

I wrote it on an airplane. I was on a red-eye from Portland (Oregon) to Boston. You know when you get on an airplane sometimes, and you’re watching a movie or just staring out the window – maybe you’re more apt to be emotional, sometimes tears are coming and you’re thinking about things. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes, whatever it may be, I’m on an airplane and I get struck with these feelings. In this particular case on the red-eye, I was struck with that song. I wrote it as a poem – I didn’t have a melody. It just came out from head to toe. I remember that I couldn’t wait to get off the airplane and just put a melody to it. When I got off the plane and took out my guitar, the chords and the melody just happened right away. It was definitely one of those songs that lyrically and melodically seemed destined to happen. It didn’t feel like I made the song happen – more that it just fell out of me. It’s written in a way that is personifying the universe. Looking at the universe and humanity and linking them together – the micro and the macro. It’s tough to describe. It’s like looking at how a star is born, and looking at how a human is born, and relating them poetically. It was easy to write – was one of those songs where you write it and you’re like, ‘I just wrote that?!’ 

Totally. Folks may tend to think that writing a song is a very cognitive process when in reality it seems to be more someone just ‘getting out of the way of themselves’ and letting inspiration come in – writing it down and then editing the shit out of it. 

Exactly –  take the best of the whole thing. I like that approach. The good songs that I write tend to be ‘just get out of the way’, and let something else sort of take over the pen. On stage too. I remember reading in the Bruce Springsteen book (his autobiography), and he says something like, ‘the best thing you can do on stage is just not think.’ I always remember that. You’re on stage and you think that the set isn’t going very well, or you’re projecting in your own head that something isn’t right. Well — what’s not right is that you’re in your fucking head. You just have to stop thinking and play the songs, and play them the best that you can. I feel this way about songwriting too. You have to somehow be inside your head enough to be kind of clever, and simultaneously get out the way, so that some greater ‘cleverness’ can come in.

I love that. We might as well be focused on what we’re doing and not being so critical of ourselves. 

Yeah, the other day I’m playing a show and I hear this table and they’re whispering to each other about something, and then someone laughs. Then I have this thought, ‘what – are they laughing at me? Am I a fucking goofball?’ And I could have gone down this rabbit hole and the rest of the set could have spiraled into this whole head trip. I thought ‘ fuck them, I love these songs and I’m going to play them like no one is in the room.’ It’s the little tricks where you have to force yourself back into the moment, or else you’re in a mousetrap. 

You had a bunch of dates scheduled this summer with The Lumineers and Gregory Alan Isakov – as of now are they considered postponed or are they cancelled? 

They are postponed as of now. It’s being talked about as if it’s happening in August / September (2021). Obviously no one knows if they will happen or not – but hopefully they will. 

What’s in your tape deck? 

I’ve been listening to The Barr Brothers – Sleeping Operator. I can’t take it out of the tape deck. As far as the first five songs of any album – I mean the whole album is great – but as far as a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 slammer at the beginning, it’s better than any album, or just as good as any album. I’m a man of the record. I love a good playlist but there’s nothing better than just putting on a full record. This is an art, this is capturing a period of time and a vibe of one particular artist. I’ll never give up on the album. 

You’ve made records and you know what goes into it. We just wish people will listen to the album straight through. You put it in an order, everything is intentional. It’s important to give the artist that respect and the most enjoyable way to hear track 5 is to hear tracks 1 through 4 first. 

Exactly. 

Listen / Purchase Daniel Rodiguez’s full album ‘Sojourn of a Burning Sun’ here.

Photo credit: Madeleine duPont

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