Having just released his latest album, Carnation, his third solo album to date, Daughn is steadily producing music that resides a little outside of its time – think David Lynch walking the Appalachian Trail. We applaud him for having the courage to speak his mind so openly to us. Tired of pleasing his fans, fearful of being stuck and struggling with self-belief, we sat down with Daughn to dissect the underbelly of his world and his work.
Daughn, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We’re based here in London, you said earlier that you have a real love for Europe. Can you start by telling us a bit more about that?
I love European cities, I love the way European people look (I know that sounds kind of strange because everyone looks different, but it’s still exotic to me). So, when I’m writing I don’t make a conscious effort to say, “Let’s use Europe”. I think it just feeds into my experience and feeds into the colours I choose for certain songs.
It’s interesting you say that because your music doesn’t sound European at all to me.
Yeah, it varies from song to song I think. I think it’s okay for an artist to be a lot of things and of course I’m fed on the American country sound – certain American tropes find their way into the music I make, but I’m definitely more interested in the juxtapositions of, not culture so much, but feelings. It’s getting the intangible vibe of a place and trying to translate that into sounds. Sometimes, to me certainly, this last record (Carnation) feels like Gainsbourg or it feels like I’m hanging out, not drinking bourbon but drinking something a little more exquisite in front of a Paris hotel, and infusing that with some weird cold country vibes is where it gets exciting.
Do you ever feel like you’re trying to do something that perhaps doesn’t represent you?
I don’t have a definition of me; I don’t know what I am. I think my well runs pretty deep and I haven’t taken the time to sort it out, that’s why I do this; so I don’t step out into places that I’m uncomfortable with or think are garbage – all of these things are me. It’s just that I’m a morphias; I have a lot of different facets and a lot of different interests, a lot of different hates, a lot of different loves. I’m never working in overdrive to deliver something that is out of my bounds, it’s just that I have a big yard to play with.
Perhaps you’ve already answered the question for me; if you haven’t really thought about it or you don’t know then perhaps you haven’t overtly created something that you’re aware of; you’re just doing something that you’re tapping into and I think that’s the most genuine thing.
Absolutely, yeah. Of course no record is: “I’m going to make this kind of record – here’s the theme and go…” It’s nowhere near that. 70% of this is totally accidental and it’s about discovering that and saying, “I like that.” then moving on, finding other accidents and putting them together.
I’m going to throw a bunch of references out to you and you can tell me what your first impressions are. When listening to your music these are what emerges from my subconscious.
Howe Gelb, Scott Walker, the Appalachian Trails, True Detective, George Jones, JJ Cale, Sam Baker, John Prine, the documentaries The Overnighters and Rich Hill, and Daniel Lanois.
Wow, I could probably give you answers to 8 of those. Are you asking for the aggregate of all those things together?
No, I just think it’s fun to play off someone and see what they think. You probably think of your music differently, but that’s what I see and feel when I listen.
Oh, I see. Wow. Well that is awesome. It’s funny you mention Rich Hill, the documentary; I just saw that. I watched it 3 times. It’s amazing. The first time I thought, “God, I love this so much but it feels a bit like poverty porn.” There’s a distinction – my favourite movie of all time is Gummoand that’s been since high-school, I watched it on VHS and it kind of melted me a bit. As I get older I think, “Was that wrong, is it wrong to enjoy that so much?” and even now watching Rich Hill, is it wrong to enjoy this as much as I do? Because it’s really just revelling in other people’s pain. I know that on the face of it I don’t look at it in that way. Watching that documentary, I see something political and something real in that state of, let’s say, modern capitalism, that nobody ever wants to talk about unless they’re talking about GDP or unemployment rates. Nobody wants to talk about the real smell of what our capitalism has brought.
Yeah, the stench. I mean, everything is just, “no no no, everything is good. We’ll go to this festival, we’ll post about it on Instagram, everything’s fine.” And I think that world (poverty), we brush it underneath the carpet and when it comes out it’s upsetting and people don’t take it well. It needs to be addressed in some way that’s accessible.
Did you see The Overnighters? If you like Rich Hill you’ll love The Overnighters. It’s about the largest oil field in America, in North Dakota. It’s a really beautiful observation of desperation and economic disparage and low socioeconomic classes in America. But, the reason I’m talking about these documentaries is because I find that your music is kind of an idilic representation of, not only how you see the world – which is quite gritty and raw and poor – but also a good representation, like you’re a documentarian. You just tell it like it is.
Well thank you. Wow, that’s nice to hear. I mean, I don’t set out to do it, it’s just you’re into certain observations naturally without shying away. I still live in a small town and in parts it’s commerce and everyone has offices and everyone has a place to go, and then other parts are lost and they’ve been cursed by circumstance. If I see those things, whether I go to some shitty dive bar or I hear somebody came home from Afghanistan and wanted to talk about it, I listen and I discover new things about people – I discover that the human heart is as deep as the ocean. Just because you can’t put it on Facebook and CNN can’t report it, it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot there to talk about.
And, what is your feeling about the state of America right now? We just did a piece with a political scientist at MIT and he talks about the serious state the United States finds itself in, but you touch on similar things in songs like Pisgee Nest and Back With the Family, I mean they’re real stories. So, what’s your feeling about America right now?
Well, I think – I don’t know if it’s now more than ever – but I feel like there is a kind of grand illusion that we’re living in. We’re living in this resonant wave of decades gone by and we’re trying to maintain that thing that happened in the 50s and 60s. It’s not that we’re coming up short, it’s just that we’re not seeing how quickly the wave is going to end. I think that gets kind of technical with economics; what currency is and how we purchase things and the things that make us happy. In some ways it’s despicable, it’s scary as hell, and in other ways I see this as a place where people can experiment and try new ways and play with capitalism. It doesn’t need some communist revolution or some other anomalous economic system, it just needs a little bit of conscientiousness.
Or common sense?
Yeah, or common sense of course. Then we can get to this place. We have to get over this utopia wave we’re living in and get real with it.
Your music is a very real representation of how you see things around you. It was interesting trying to research you; I don’t know if you know this – obviously you know your name was Josh Martin – but it says on Discogs that you played in thrash metal bands?
In thrash metal bands?
“I discover that the human heart is as deep as the ocean. Just because you can’t put it on Facebook and CNN can’t report it, it doesn’t mean there’s not a lot there to talk about.” — Daughn Gibson
Yeah, it’s bizarre, you’re listed as playing in Pearls and Brass? But before that you played in a band called Anal Cunt?
Oh, no. No no no, oh my god, you’re not serious? That is not the same Josh Martin.
I worked that out. But I was thinking, “Oh God, is he a neo-nazi or something?”
Oh man, that’s a bummer. I mean, Anal Cunt were around for years, they were notoriously vulgar and vile and no that’s not me. But, I did play in Pearls and Brass which is more or less a naughty Black Sabbath/Cream stoner band.
Just wanted to clarify, that’s all. Maybe you can go back and clear it up. I hope that didn’t offend you.
No it doesn’t, it scares me. But, you’re the only one who’s ever brought it up so… it’s fine. There was another thing like that. Somebody went on IMDB and found a Josh Martin who played that goofy children’s character, Barney. So that became, like, “This Daughn Gibson guy plays Barney”.
There could be many different aliases of Josh Martin, you could be many different people. But, actually it leads into the next question. You’ve had many different lives and you’ve talked about it a lot in many different interviews, so I don’t want to harp on about it too much because I know people often ask you about your truck driving and the sex shop and I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it, or are you?
Yes. Haha. No, it’s fine.
No, but the thing that I found out, and have only heard mentioned once, is that you were a court reporter?
Yeah. When I moved from Philly to the town I live in now, Carlisle, this court reporting job popped up and I thought, “Yeah, let’s do that, what the hell? There’s nothing else to do here but work in a warehouse”. So I took it and – it wasn’t stenography; it wasn’t typing on a little machine, it was whispering all the court proceedings into this little jockstrap-shaped mask. You whisper everything the judge says, you whisper everything the lawyer says, and it translates the sound of your voice into words and then you send the file off to be digested by the other court reporters. That was a pretty wild job. Not a lot of criminal cases. A lot of workman’s club, a lot of department of welfare, this and that. You’re saying all these things that the judge and lawyer are saying and then you start speaking like them in your off-hours.
That’s an interesting job. Of all the jobs that you’ve done, I’m sure that’s given you a lot of knowledge and understanding of people. I think that’s fairly interesting, considering the world that you portray. You have a canvas and you go into the studio and you paint your colours and do what you do – it’s a pretty dark world that you portray, but it’s kind of addictive as well; you want to know more about it, it’s like a nihilistic energy in there.
Yeah. To me, it’s less about the storytelling and more about a single second of a scene. A lot of times I’ve gotten slogged for not being explicit, not delivering all the gritty details or the whole plot, because I don’t find that very interesting. I can read that in a short story but, in song form it’s just more interesting to paint the moment of a scene. There’s a song on Carnation called I’ll Let Him Deal and it’s about a bartender who’s in love with a heroin dealer, and that’s it. There’s no beginning or end, it’s just about their interaction, it’s about their love and it’s about the bartender’s point of view; what goes on and why he lets this dealer continue selling dope.
Is that based on a real story?
I don’t know. Put it this way, I went to a shitty mountain dive bar and I saw some sly winks and nods, something of a crush between someone, who was obviously the local drug dealer, and the bartender. I fixated on it and just thought there’s some kind of an allowance here and I feel like it’s probably based in romance.
So, you’re not dramatising or exaggerating. You’re just kind of, well, what are you doing?
I guess in that case it’s a bit of speculation. I certainly don’t know if that’s the case but I thought if it’s speculation it’s still interesting and it’s worthy of a couple verses and a couple choruses. Again, it’s nothing more, it’s not like, “and then the guy gets locked up.” I could make it that, I could tell that story… but that’s not interesting to me, I don’t really want to know.
Why don’t you want to know?
There’s something about the finality of a story. You get this when you watch a film or read a book, you think it’s a little bit disillusioning, like, “and then it all works out…” or “and then this happened…” and you get the sense that human lives have finality. I never want to do disservice to the length of time and the length of misery we have here by giving someone an abrupt ending. I feel like it’s corny to do that, and it’s not real. It’s good enough, for me, to just paint the picture. In part, it requires work from the listener to fill in the details. If they choose to read the lyrics and let the music serve as a back-drop, then it’s not up to me, it’s up to them. I’m not going to hold anyones hand through this scene, you have to come up with your own conclusion. If I give you an ending it’s like you don’t have to work… I feel like it’s cheap.
I watched this documentary yesterday – you can tell I’m a fan of documentaries – but I’m doing a story at the moment on this documentary, it’s riveting. It’s the biopic of Nina Simone. I don’t know if you’re a fan of her, but there was so much misappropriation about her and so much misjudgment about her. I mean, if you learn her real life story, you just won’t speak for a week. It’s the most tragic story. The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s a little bit similar in the sense that she approached the music incredibly articulately, spoke for a generation, really thought about the lyrics, tried to channel a lot of this energy that she had in her own life and in what was going on around her, politically. She’s an incredibly terrifying free-spirit and that was definitely a great example of it.
That’s amazing, all I know of Nina Simone are a few of her songs. I never heard anything about her, and that’s my bad, so I’m excited to check this out.
Yeah. She was allegedly raped and beaten by her husband. But, she channelled it into her music, and that’s the important thing.
Wow, yeah. We live in such a high turnover world, culturally speaking. Not to make any comparisons to Nina Simone, but in the process of writing it’s taking a lot of pain, personal pain, and trying to figure out – like I told you before, I don’t know what I am – I’m trying to figure it out – there is a lot of pain in it and what happens in it is, the pain goes upfront into these songs and then they’re delivered, and it’s just, “Okay that’s great, thanks. Next… ” – it’s not necessarily digested the way the artist wants it to be.
I remember hearing this from a friend of mine, and it might not be true, but you know the film-maker Nick Roeg? He did a lot of movies in the 70s that all had rockstars – one was called Performance, it had Mick Jagger. One was called Bad Timing, it had Art Garfunkel. One was called The Man Who Fell To Earth, it had David Bowie. These are 2 hour-plus movies and they are wild. They’re very non-linear, they’re very challenging films – very beautiful and very disorientating. At the time, he got totally panned; people just thought it was rubbish. But, years later he collected a life-time achievement award and he got on stage and said, “Every movie I made I thought would be a hit” and then he left the stage. Really the most crushing thing ever, here’s a guy who pushed himself to the human limit, pushed his crew through the human limit – it’s like passing a kidney stone – trying to get this thing out of you can be really painful, and to deliver it to a world who doesn’t want to look for it can be even more soul-crushing.
That’s what I was talking about with Nina Simone. There’s this great scene towards the end of the movie: she’s playing one of her last shows – she’s a very very volatile person towards the end of her life – she’s on stage and she starts playing piano and someone gets up at the back of the audience and she points to them and says, “Sit down!”
The lady doesn’t sit down because she doesn’t know what’s going on, and she points to her just like a teacher and just says, “Sit… down!”, and she’s basically telling them, “You will listen to my art, you will pay attention and try and understand it.”
Amazing, and that takes a lot of self-belief to command that. Anyone with not enough of that self-belief would just say, “That’s okay, you can walk out of my show, it’s fine, I know I suck.” You know? The most interesting thing to me about these iconic classic artists is the depth of their self-belief – which is required to put yourself in front of the world. I certainly don’t have enough. In a way, it’s a constant struggle to build that up and find it in places where it probably doesn’t exist as much as it once did.
“I went to a shitty mountain dive bar... I saw some sly winks and nods, something of a crush between someone, who was obviously the local drug dealer, and the bartender.”
Tell me, Daughn, what are you afraid of, what are you fearful of?
Hmm, wow. I think I’m afraid of being stuck. My greatest fear is ultimately being stuck in something miserable, some kind of prison that’s necessary to make money and not being free enough in my own spirit to go off the grid and abandon it. So, I constantly find new things to do so I don’t feel the bite of daily melancholy.
For instance, I just took a job as an engineer at a TV news station last week. Mostly because I thought making music for other people was crippling me. Sitting down and making music and knowing it will be listened to by others, it depresses me a lot. It’s been a source of pain for the past few years and taking this engineer’s job has been a way to balance subjective lines of work and objective lines of work; as an engineer I can fix something and it will be done and I know it will be done. In a creative role it becomes way more elusive and a much bigger burden. And that’s not to suggest that that’s it and music is done for me, because it never has been since I was 13, it’s just the way it is. It’s disenchanting and not at all what I want to remain in.
I’ll do whatever I do and put out whatever I put out. The bite of wanting to be recognised for my work will come back but, as it is now, it’s a really difficult thing to grapple with. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and relieve the pressure.
That’s a lot of food for thought there. On one hand it seems like you’re comfortable making music and you’re building a repertoire, and on the other you’re feeling disenfranchised or not very challenged by the process.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a strange thing. Certainly, making music with no expectation is the way I communicate, it’s the way that I couture my spirit, but it’s not necessary to show someone else. I made my first record, All Hell, with absolutely no intention of showing anyone and certainly the magic of being recognised and validated is real intoxicating, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I changed the way I write; I can only write the way I write. I didn’t sit there with the blinds open encouraging people to watch me. All the records are fully me, without compromise. But, they take different shapes; they can be awkward, they can be strange, they can be non-accessible. I certainly love the freedom to do those things, but I don’t want to hear the feedback about it.
That makes sense. We’re all susceptible to criticism. That’s mainly why we started this magazine. We felt something had to change somewhere in the music machine, it’s just how we accept it and how we appropriate our music and it’s just so boring – I find it really boring.
Super boring, yeah. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the artist who wants to remain in solitude, and I don’t think that their art is compromised by wanting to remain in solitude; I don’t think that they’re not an artist for wanting to remain in solitude. I don’t think it’s a cop-out or a sell-out not wanting to deliver it with regiment in the way we are now, like, “Okay, here you go, here’s the release day and then so and so will praise it or shit on it” and you have to take that final decision from the judges or whoever… and then steer your career that way. It’s totally boring and crazy.
Why is it just artists that have that image or persona of being vulnerable? You’ve got accountants with manic depression and lawyers with bipolar. Vulnerability and susceptibility affects everyone, not just “poor artists”.
Yeah, exactly, yeah. No one’s talking to their accountant saying, “Use that bipolar misery and give us good numbers”!
I feel like artists need resilience training. Like when sports stars start their training and they have someone who is like, “This is going to happen to you and then this is going to happen” getting them media trained. Artists don’t get any of that, they get a sachet of cocaine and are told, “Off you go, go and make your record.”
Yeah, right. Especially if the artist has put all their eggs in that basket, then it’s a more potent force. You have to be this way or you’re literally not going to be doing this for a living, or you’ll become an embarrassment. You have to find resilience somewhere.
I’m reading Europe Central right now. I find all of this man’s work frustrating and challenging. I hate him and I love him in equal measure. If you get to page 400 of Imperial, Ill kiss you in Slab City.
I’m a sucker for Soviet Cinema. My favorite movie of all time was Come and See by Elem Klimov. It’s the story of a boy alone on the eastern front of WWII. That is until I saw the Ascent by Shepitko. That one rattled me good.