Dan Cloutier: Folk Hero

I’ve known Dan and his wife Kalina for two years now. When I first met him, I found out about his full-time job working with individuals with disabilities at the Michael Carter Lisnow Respite Center in Hopkinton, Mass, and I was impressed. Then I found out about his part-time folk music career when he gave me a copy of his cd, ‘Bottles and Seeds’, and I was more impressed.

Then I went to the recording of his second cd, ‘Live at the Masquerade Ball’ which was also a live show (he likes to live dangerously). Not long after that he started talking about co-starting a record label which became Birch Beer Records. Next thing I knew, he and co-founder Kim Jennings had signed a new artist, Levi Schmidt, and were working to put out Levi’s first album.

Then I hear about this whole ‘I Support Local Music in Massachusetts’ Facebook page, which has almost 8,000 fans. Now there’s a blog (we-support-local-music.com) and no telling what Dan Cloutier and friends might do next. That’s just the kind of guy he is. I sat down with Dan at his home a while ago to talk about this stuff. Here’s a little bit of our conversation.

How did you get into music in the first place?

I got into music primarily through the alternative rock movement in the early 90s when I was in junior high school. I felt really good listening to all this teenage angst music. I felt that was really important at the time.

Is that when you started playing guitar and writing music?

Yeah, I started writing poetry first, and my friends played the guitars. My mom had a beat up acoustic guitar. My uncle showed me some chords. And I didn’t start learning other people’s songs. I just started writing songs. They were awful. Just, like, absolute drivel. It took me, I don’t know, like ten years to write something that was quasi-coherently decent.

It’s just like any writing, it takes a lot of practice. I started right off the bat writing. It was even like a couple years before I could really begin to play other people’s songs.

It’s interesting because you hear stories about Bob Dylan, and Dylan did the opposite. Dylan learned thousands of songs when he was in his late teens and twenties. All the old folk songs, Woodie Guthrie, etcetera. All those people. He played all those songs so when he began to write songs when he was like 21, he had a thousand songs under his belt. He began to write brilliantly immediately. It took me a long time to begin to write okay, because I didn’t learn the craft of other people until much later on.

Besides music, what are the other things in your life that you are passionate about?

I’m passionate about traveling. I love to travel. I like to travel to kind of strange, extreme places. When I get my mind set on traveling to a place, I get super focused on it. I do all this internet searching on it. I go to my libraries and rent books and movies about it.

I’m passionate about my family. I’ve got a wonderful family and a wonderful wife. I’m passionate about my job. I work with people with special needs. We have a great time. I’ve been working there full time for almost eight years.

You went to seminary right?

I went to Gordon College. I went to undergrad. So I didn’t go to official seminary. I got my bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and ancient history and I was able to live in Jerusalem for six months studying the bible and studying that kind of ancient history. It was very interesting to study and has a huge influence on my songs.

It was interesting because while I was studying it I had a feeling that this is what I was supposed to be doing, but at the same time I think I was just being ignorant and not thinking at all about future. I was just very in the moment. I definitely didn’t give myself all that many options.

There was a time that first summer that I graduated that I was just– it struck me just how much some people have prepared for this moment, the real world, and how little I had prepared for the real world. It was a very important awakening. And a couple months depression.

(Laughing) I can relate.

I wrote some of my best songs out of that. It was the first time I was really writing good songs, like consistently. The first time I began to write songs that are still in my repertoire now were that summer that I was struggling through the depression and figuring out what the heck I wanted to do with my life.

So do you think artists have to go through a dark time if they want to bring anything good out of their art?

I think maybe people have to go through a dark time if they want to bring anything good to this world. Maybe not everybody. Maybe there’s people who get away with it, but the people who did a lot of changing for the good in this world went through a lot of suffering. I think they run hand in hand.

You mentioned this, but as an artist, how does the song writing and music writing process work for you?

The inspiration for each song is different. A song is an interesting thing. It’s a process.

There are songs where I’ve written the lyrics first and I knew how it sounded in my head. There are songs where I wrote a guitar part, worked on it for a year trying to force lyrics on top of it. There are songs that I’ll begin to write lyrics and I have no clue what the lyrics are really about, then eventually by the end of the song they mean something to me. There are songs that I want to write a song about this specific situation and I’ll write a song about that specific situation.

It’s an interesting question. It all comes down to this concept of– an artist would usually call it the muse. How does the muse speak to you? It’s almost more like we’re fishing. You know, where you can be out there fishing for a long time and never catch anything, but you need to kind of know when to reel in when you have something good. You need to know when whatever that idea is is a worthy enough idea to write down.

How did the label come about? How did that get started?

It’s called Birch Beer Records. It started about a year ago. I was recording a live cd, my second cd, of thirteen brand new songs. One of my good friends was working on it with me. She was a piano player and a singer on that album. Her name is Kim Jennings and she was coming out with her own album later that fall. So this was in the spring, and I knew that my album would probably drop around the fall too, so we sat down together after the show in May and we were like, how do we go about getting this music out to the people? Like, what needs to happen?

When you’re a solo independent artist, the first thing most people say is well you need a record label to do anything. So Kim and I decided let’s make our own record label. And the more and more we talked about it, the more and more we became determined around the idea that people who are small, independent artists really don’t have a good shot, because all the big labels aren’t in Boston anymore.

We originally thought this idea for a record company was just to promote our two albums, but about three months into it we decided we’re just going to take all our proceeds from our albums and put it into the company so we can begin to sign some other people and begin to get this thing off the ground and begin to try to change the way the local music scene is looked at.

There’s a value to having somebody in your town you might want to see play. The way it works now in America, there tends to be like the fifty acts that get played on the radio and they just kind of roam from town to town, but there’s a beauty to that concept [of local music] just as there’s a beauty to the concept of like, you know, locally grown produce, locally grown stuff.

If there’s people out there who you could talk to who are wanting to get started in the music business, either just locally playing shows or they want to go all the way and make it huge, what would you recommend, you know, in 2010?

I’ve learned an awful lot the past few years. The most important thing is to be true to your craft. I still hold to the same thing I held to a year ago. Play a ton. Write, write, write. Listen to great artists of whatever genre you’re listening to.

But is that going to get you signed or even get you fans? No, probably not. There’s so many people doing it. Two years, three years ago, the way I was playing, for me to have real success at music I needed to win the lottery. That’s the position I put myself in. I needed to have somebody at some show who’s really important see me and love me, which is just– the chance of that is like finding a diamond in a sea of sand. There’s so many other people who are great.

You need to do things differently. You need to think outside the box. You need to promote yourself. You need to think about how you can help the greater community. You need to work your tail off in terms of promotion, and it’s not for everybody. That’s where it’s completely fine to be an absolute brilliant songwriter and have, like, your ten friends and the people at your local open mike know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But, if you want to do [music] full time, seriously, you need to almost have a business degree. Even if you stand way out you need to have that business sense of having the good websites, doing the good promotion, talking to the right people, playing as much as you can, playing four times a week, doing it that way. That’s how you slowly build a fan base and then people will try to give back to you.

I’ve had a lot of success with doing this Birch Beer Records thing. I started this Facebook page called ‘I Support Local Music In Massachusetts’ and there’s 7,000 people associated with it now. A newspaper might be interested in what I’m trying to do musically, but also I’m trying to do these other things. It just gives you greater options and greater resources. It’s more interesting.

There’s a lot of singer-songwriter troubadours, there’s a lot of people who are great bass players, a lot of people who are great piano players, but what are you doing that’s different and interesting? What’s your purpose? What’s motivating that? Why should people pay attention to you?

If after hearing this people are wanting to get more involved in their local music scene and try to support that, whether they are musicians or just fans of music, do you have some good ways they can begin that process?

You gotta find some people who are local, brilliant locals, and when you find somebody who’s local, then you need to be their big supporter. They need you. You know, telling your friends about them, inviting them to shows, and trying to get them as excited about it as you are excited about it. It’s important.

And go see more shows.

Images courtesy of Dan Cloutier.