Feature Stories

Daniel Hart, Dallas' Native Son, Is Riding a Dragon to L.A.

Daniel Hart is best known in his hometown of Dallas as the lead singer of Dark Rooms, a hip-hop meets-classical, R&B electronic project that he started four years ago. But next month he'll be walking the red carpet as a film score composer for Disney's upcoming remake of Pete's Dragon.
He stands at his favorite spot in the city, a stunning vista of White Rock Lake where he can point out a house in the distance. It belongs to his violin teacher, an SMU professor and member of the Dallas chamber orchestra, with whom he studied weekly as a child. "This is the best intersection of my experience growing up in Dallas and coming back as an adult," he says.   
He's become a tour de force of talent. He speaks three languages with exquisite pronunciation, and has the sophistication of an English professor, which is displayed in his Montblanc-and-Limoges level of musical taste. Hart's a former jazz musician, playwright and theater actor. He also drove a city bus for six years.

Hart, the son of Episcopalian church musicians, moved to Dallas' Lake Highlands neighborhood at age 10. He earned a Playwriting degree from SMU. Although he admired Shakespeare and Stoppard, back then his dream was to become a movie star. "I've been away from that world for a long time," he says. Until now. He admits he's still not sure what he'll wear to the red carpet premiere of Pete's Dragon, set to be released August 8.

His first significant musical moment came when he met jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, who was teaching a workshop at SMU, right after winning a Pulitzer for music writing. Hart's jazz group was performing Marsalis' music at a nearby coffee shop, in hopes that he would come by. Marsalis indeed stopped in, and joined in on the jam. "That changed the way I thought about music," Hart says. "He was so generous. I wanted to give to people the way that he was giving back."

The T-shaped street where Hart grew up may one day have a historical marker for musicians. The neighborhood included the home of now enormously successful musician Annie Clark and two members of Polyphonic Spree. He became good friends with Clark and joined her band St. Vincent, and she also produced his only solo album, The Orientalist. Though he toured China three times through that effort, he made no money and barely broke even.

But through his touring with Clark, the Polyphonic Spree and Other Lives, he's collected many memories that most musicians only dream of. He met David Byrne, toured for a month with Radiohead and another month with David Bowie. Hart remembers Bowie fondly: "He was a sweetheart and called us his pretty pollies," he says.

In 2010 Hart began scoring films for friends, and he now has nine feature films and six short films under his belt. He's also written commercial jingles, such as a Chinese Mercedes Benz ad. Convinced that he wasn't good enough to make it as a jazz violinist, Hart went to North Carolina to found a record label with friends, which ran from 2002 to 2008. He recognizes now that he was unprepared, and the label made no money. During that time he met his now girlfriend and bandmember Rachel Ballard as she was at an event in Washington handing out free ice cream. He declined the offer. "That was the dumbest decision I made that day," he says. "So I came back with: 'What are you doing over here handing out free ice cream at a festival?'" He laughs at his lack of originality: "Valentino over here." 
Ultimately, Ballard moved to Dallas from Los Angeles, and joined Dark Rooms, which started out as a backing band for Hart's solo project. She plays the synthesizer, xylophone and percussion, while Hart plays guitar and violin. They also have a guitarist in Dallas, Richard Carpenter, and one in L.A, Casey Trela. Their drummer, Bobak Lotfipour, is a master of momentous precision.

Dark Rooms' 2014 debut album was so well produced, it didn't have one bit of wasted, unembellished air. As a singer, his voice wanders in an out of falsettos and falls occasionally into an enveloping grave space. Words like "Beyond the lens, I am something more sinister," evoke an imaginary soundtrack to sublimely psychotic sex. He lists his fascination with people who follow webcam models, his crush on actress Olga Kurylenko, and the influence of foreign film and literature, as themes that shape his sound. 

The band has a following of cult-like worship, which will trail them to a small house show. "It's my favorite project," Hart says of Dark Rooms. "It feels the closest to what I'm after and what I'm trying to express musically." In our opinion, his is the most original Dallas band at the moment, yet only an obsessed few are in on the secret. 

Dark Rooms had several tour dates lined up in Europe for this year, and were in mid-recording process when Hart got a call inviting him to L.A. to come work for Disney. Although different composers' names were prematurely announced by various outlets, the honor was ultimately Hart's. He'd been summoned directly by director David Lowery, having scored all of his previous films.

Hart has no particular memory of the original movie but is impressed with the new version: "It's a beautiful film," he says. "Bryce Dallas Howard is incredible, and the 10-year-old boy who plays Pete has an incredible emotional range. He has all the feels."

"It's the biggest score I've ever written," Hart states, describing a 94-piece orchestra and 32-person choir. He didn't select the soundtrack, but he did co-produce a cover of Karen Dalton's "Something on Your Mind" with St. Vincent for the film. Clark sums him up by saying: "Daniel Hart is a rare and special breed of artist; he has created a language for beauty and innocence wholly his own. He is the next great American film composer."

Hart has all the street cred of a veteran, with the ambition of a newcomer. With many scoring projects lined up, he and Ballard will be moving to Los Angeles in December, where they say they have a similar fan base. "We have lots of friends, a small community," Ballard says. While they're looking forward to the move, they say they'll miss family, the music scene, Spiral Diner and the cheap Dallas rent. "And I am really going to miss Dark Rooms," says Carpenter, who will be staying in Dallas.

And those familiar with the group would probably agree that Dallas is about to lose the greatest band it most likely hasn't heard of.