Danny Katz: New Album, New Home, More Music

Not just anyone can go around saying that he’s a proud gay Jewish Japanese musician, but singer and songwriter Danny Katz is not just anyone. Recently, I was able to interview the performer who presently lives in Japan. With his informative answers came such an abundance of quips about many things (mostly his sexuality), that by the end of the interview you not only got to know Danny but had a good laugh as well.

On Katz’ PasDanny Katzt:

When I asked him to give me a summary of himself, he easily joked that it sounds like an online profile. He even opened the summary with the his astrological sign (Aries) and the fact that he likes walks on the beach. He’s played piano since he was four, guitar since he was 13, and has been playing the jiuta-shamisen for the past 7 years. Danny quickly added, “I used to play the violin and viola too, but kinda sucked at em!”

Katz, 33, explained how he doesn’t recall ever declaring he wanted to be a singer, “and if I did, I probably forgot that decision about 5 second after I made it.” According to Danny’s oracle, though, it just sort of happened a long time ago. In fact, Danny could not remember a time when he saw himself as anything but a musician, at least in one form or another. Danny had enjoyed performing from a young age (from recitals to school plays) but it wasn’t until high school that he started stepping out of his “super-shy shell” to perform his own songs in public, telling people he was doing it to get the girls. “Ha! More like their brothers,” Danny quipped. Speaking of family, Danny’s parents have been there for him from the start. In the beginning, they went to all of his shows in coffee shops and bookstores. Since Danny doesn’t perform at either of their places in the suburbs anymore, his parents can’t make all of the shows. None the less, Danny thinks his parents have been supportive enough by not pestering him with fairly reasonable questions about his job choice. They have also helped partially fund all his previous albums. “You can’t ask for better encouragement than that!!” He also stated that they didn’t evict him when he chose to move back home in his late 20s so he could focus 100% on his music.

When I asked him about professional training he recalled his 4 weeks with one of the more well-liked voice teachers while in college. “I found him to be a bit of a pompous a** and I just wasn’t interested in studying further with him.” That’s not to say that Katz refuses proper singing lessons when his schedule gives him the time. “I’m usually good with the high notes but once I hit the low notes I sound like I could use a good T-Pain autotune session.”

Songwriting for Danny came naturally during his time in junior high school. His influences at the time were the B-52’s, Erasure and Genesis, followed shortly by R.E.M. and Billy Joel. But just because the idea of being a musician came easily to him, Danny asserted that pursuing music as a solidified career option was in many ways a post September 11 decision. “I mean—I had been performing for years at that point and had several albums under my belt already, but I was also seriously considering putting music on the back-burner to go do something respectably painful and responsible like law school.” The tragic events of 9/11 changed things by showing the musician how short one’s life can possibly be and, “and that doing something creative and true to myself was essential for my sense of fulfillment and happiness.”  Katz added, probably with a smirk while typing, “If I can’t match my socks in the morning how good a lawyer could I possibly be? Flirting with the judge will not a good trial make.”

Given that he’s satisfied with his life, Danny would not change anything if ever given the chance to go back in time. That’s not to say that he would not mind telling his younger version to hurry and join Hairclub for Men. He typed, “I was in denial that I was losing my hair forevah!” Musically speaking, he’d tell his 23-year-old self to have more confidence in himself and his music. He also wants to tell himself to relax and enjoy the process of music making and performing, but to not get so caught up with the business side of things. Another thing he’d ask himself to do is to avoid the clunkier forays into political songwriting or the attempts at channeling his undergrad major of Queer Theory. “Listening back now, some of those songs make me wanna roll my eyes, although the intentions when writing them were, well… I mean well.” He finished off by reassuring me that the desire to be a Japanese/Jewish gay male Ani Difranco only suited him for the first half of his 20s.

On his new album and moving to Japan:

Currently, Danny just wrapped up his 7th studio album, “Japanese Satellites.” (Available on Japanese and Amazon.) Though his musical tolerance ranges from classical to hip-hop, Danny chooses to stick to 80s flavored folk-pop songs when it comes to writing his own music. He describes “Japanese Satellites” as a “mix-90s U2, Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, and The Shins.” He then says that the album will “make your ears sparkle and your hair shine with delight. You cannot resist.”

80s flavored folk pop bliss. That was Danny’s reply when I told him to describe his new album in 5 words. The album was mean as a personal thought on the potentially fleeting nature of New York City relationships: “How the pace and culture of the city can create and destroy the most amazing and intense bonds between lovers, friends, one night stands and everyone figuratively (or literally?!) in between.” Just as his 2006 album “Strangely Beautiful” was about his experiences in his 20s, this new album is about his life in his 30s. Danny traveled quite a bit while these songs were written and any time he was in a new city he would wonder if relationships were easier then than in New York, “and also what makes people come to New York, what makes them leave, etc.” Going into the studio to work meant he would be leaving NYC. Tokyo was a possible location to call home, or at least a place where he could go to figure out what he really wanted from New York when he returns. “Hence the distanced observation of a ‘Japanese Satellite.’” He also divulged that it made for some very cute CD artwork by Joe Wu.

Japanese Satellites by Danny KatzWhile Danny is very attached to all of his songs (“They’re my BABIES!”), his favorite would have to be “Taipei.” The lyrics  about ‘a crushed out high school girl’ apparently summarizes Danny Katz in a nutshell. Danny admitted to always having a hard time when recording songs: “I always ‘freeze up’ in the studio—it’s like when I see the red record button come on suddenly I start making all sorts of whacky mistakes…” Emotionally, though, “Modesto” was the hardest to record as the break-up that the song talks about came back to mind each time Danny performed it and the lyrics are so specific. “I couldn’t distance myself from the subject matter. At all. And in the studio you’ve gotta do take after take after take.” But Danny also found the recording session a little liberating. He was able to acknowledge how his ex and him both grew immeasurably during their time together and how sometimes a song can allow you to come to closure, “to incorporate the experience into your life fabric and move on.”

He came to Japan with numerous goals ranging from taking a break from NYC/America and learning to understand both environments more to leaving behind both comfort and heartache. He always intends to improve his Japanese for music and other career options, better his understanding of Japan from a worker’s perspective (instead of his past experiences as an exchange student and a vacationee), gain a more global understanding of the world, and to take a stab at the Japanese music industry. Since he’s only lived in Japan for 7 months, he still sees achieving those goals as a continual work in progress.

One moment he considers memorable is when he met his new and “very cute” co-worker. “He goes to bow; I go to shake his hand. Much confusion ensues and I almost accidentally smack him in the crotch.” He jokes, “I am THAT coordinated. And that culturally insensitive, apparently.” Japan has also taught Katz that he can be as out as he wants about his sexuality and they’ll still ask him if he’s found a girlfriend, which confuses Danny to no end.

When Danny was asked to compare the two musical epicenters of his life, New York and Tokyo,  he found it hard to answer. “…Both cities are quite different from each other and because I find musical talent relative.”  Though his songwriting hasn’t changed since moving, Danny does hope to incorporate some Japanese instruments into his recordings again. (He feature a jiuta-shamisen on a previous album, but decided to not use it on “Japanese Satellites.”)

On Music:

Insofar, musicians of different genres have inspired Danny. For earnestness, being out and proud, and having excellent melodic sense – Erasure. For songwriting and musical chops – Billy Joel and Paul Simon. For political savvy and confrontational wit – Ani Difranco. Other inspirations consist of Spitz, Lady Gaga, Missy Elliott, and of course The Beatles. But day-to-day inspiration comes from Danny’s indie singer/songwriter buddies. While practicing solo usually leads Danny to not focus on practicing, “band practices are always fun and since most of my musician buddies have shorter attention spans than I do, it forces me to focus on everyone…”

With lyrics such as ‘Lost in translation, I am nothing without you…’ I asked Danny if he was ever without music, would he consider himself “lost in translation.” He replied with a definite “absolutely.” He explains how a common language wasn’t always spoken, especially collaborating with foreign musicians. “It amazed me how we were all able to communicate through music. Though come to think of it, alcohol helped quite a bit…”

In the present day music world, originality is key. Danny feels he’s at a slight advantage with his life experiences—being gay, half Japanese, half Jewish, in his 30s and living in Tokyo—and it feeds into his understanding of how this business (and life) works. But other than that Danny is struggling to get recognized as much as anyone else. He constantly attempts to balance the “desire to create something unique with the desire to be heard and successful.” He believes he is a bit more balanced, humanistic, ethical, and giving than some other musicians, but concedes that may all be relative.

He tries to stick to some advice he was given which revolves around staying true to oneself without ignoring the fact that it’s a business as well. While he tries not to sell out, Katz knows that he has to listen for what the general public wants to hear. He also knows that he should appreciate his fans because he understands that without them this wouldn’t be possible. The best advice that Danny has gotten, though, would have to be, “if you’re not enjoying it, why do it?” Trite as it may be, Danny believes there’s a lot of truth to that one statement.

His message to fans was short and to the point: “Do it – there’s nothing better than creating and sharing with folks.” He also suggested you have thick skin if you want to enter the business. He informed me that the business can be brutal and “sometimes what you’ve created with blood, sweat and tears will fall on deaf ears.” But whether or not your music gets picked up by the higher ups, Danny said that nothing is more amazing than being able to connect with a fan and to know your music is making a difference in someone’s life.

Other facts:

If ever you catch Danny as a karaoke, he would probably be singing some American and British 80’s pop and mid 90’s Japanese pop. “And I have to admit, I can’t pass up a good sing-along to ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ ‘Take On Me,’ ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ and ‘Living on a Prayer.’” He also prides himself in doing Young MC’s “Bust a Move” better than any other folksinger in the history of “folksingerness.”

While he thought about taking on a more conventional job way back when, Danny is sticking to music for as long as possible. He may take a break from time to time, but never permanently giving it up.  In five years, he sees himself definitely making music. The idea of geographically where, however, is still up in the air. He wrote, “Maybe living with some amazing sugar-daddy on a California vista? Maybe being a geisha. Maybe becoming kosher. Stranger things have happened.”

“Even I Have Standards” Music Video by Danny Katz from his 2006 Album, “Strangely Beautiful”

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