When Daniel Smith began playing music with his siblings in 1995 as part of a senior thesis project at New Jersey's Rutgers University, his inspiration was God. And so it's been since then: On the handful of records he's made both as leader of the Danielson Famile (a rotating ensemble with Smith family members, friends and acquaintances) and on his own as Brother Danielson, Smith has explored his relationship with Jesus Christ in great detail.
For his latest project, Ships, Smith also took inspiration from another source: Danielson: A Family Movie, filmmaker J.L. Aronson's documentary about the band. "As the movie was happening, I was realizing things about Danielson," Smith says over the phone from his New Jersey recording studio. "Different people have been coming and going in and out of Danielson over the past 11 years. What's the common thread? Me writing songs. My family's available sometimes and not available other times, and friends are available sometimes. So Ships kind of turned into a celebration of that realization."
The celebration became a big one: Ships features performances by more than 25 Danielson associates, including Daniel's brothers David and Andrew, his sisters Megan and Rachel, his wife Erin and longtime Famile member Christian Palladino, as well as indie-music bigwigs such as Sufjan Stevens, Why? and Deerhoof (who served as Smith's backing band on the first six songs he wrote and recorded for the album). It might be the best Danielson record so far: An elaborate production defined by expansive arrangements streaked with strings and horns and keyboards, it takes Smith's cracked indie-pop sound to dizzying new heights where the conviction in his notoriously distinctive voice (a sort of nasal whinny) is satisfyingly reflected in the joyful noise swirling around him. Not unlike Stevens' similarly ambitious Illinois, Ships is the rare record in which a highly collaborative process serves to focus and intensify one individual's vision.
"It's not a new idea," Smith says, explaining that collaboration has always been his modus operandi, even if Ships finds the method functioning on a larger scale. "It's the way I work. Half the story is me writing these songs, usually alone." (Some of the most compelling parts of Aronson's film capture Smith at work by himself in his basement lair.) "But the other half is really presenting the songs and welcoming as much input as possible."
The outfit Smith is leading on the road this summer is, by necessity, a pared-down one: a six-piece group including two drummers, an organist and a marimba player, doing mostly stuff from Ships, along with a few older numbers. Smith acknowledges that "some of the new songs are pretty big monsters," but that with more than three weeks of rehearsals beneath their collective belt, he's confident they've got the material down. "It's gonna be a very full sound," he says, the excitement audible in his voice. "There'll be snapping and clapping and singing along."
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