Freedom of expression is the distinguishing mark of independent music, so long as one’s freedom doesn’t encroach on anyone else’s. Independent music is in many ways, postmodernism embodied. There are no absolutes. There is no right or wrong way to make music. Furthermore there is no right or wrong way to write lyrics. Everyone is free to flit about writing music full of happy grays. Thus the only kind of music that is unacceptable to the postmodern generation is music that deals with absolutes, particularly absolutes about God and the human condition–those kinds of thoughts are rarely allowed to be freely expressed in the indie scene. This is what makes guys like Sufjan Stevens a diamond in the rough of independent music. Sufjan writes songs about the human sinful condition, God’s sovereignty over even evil events, spiritual new birth, and even Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But before there was Sufjan Stevens, there was another diamond in the rough of independent music and this week you can watch a full length documentary about him for free! His name is Daniel Smith, otherwise known as Brother Danielson, the lead man and song writer for the band the Danielson Famile which is now simply called Danielson. The documentary is called Danielson: A Family Movie and for one week only, the indie music super-site, Pitchfork, is showing the documentary in 9 Parts.
Daniel Smith is responsible, in many ways for getting Sufjan Stevens his start. In fact, Sufjan plays a very important part in the documentary. Sufjan toured with Danielson Famile playing in their band as well as opening for Danielson. Daniel Smith was one of the first openly Christian artists to break into the independent music scene in a significant way. He and his family (which comprise his band) were touring all over the country, making headlines in independent music magazines and newspapers. They played all the big indie music festivals and did so without sacrificing their commitment to Christ. Danielson’s lyrics though eccentric at times, are filled with profound truths of the human condition and exhibit a deep love for Christ. The Danielson Famile even toured for a time in doctors and nurses uniforms to symbolize the healing power of Christ’s blood.
If you are like me, you may find Danielson’s music almost inaccessible. The first time I heard Danielson, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it ever again! Its odd, its eccentric, and even grating at times. While living in Louisville, I heard they were coming into town, shortly after the release of their most recent album, Ships. Being vaguely familiar with the story of Danielson and how Sufjan got his start playing in their band, I thought I should check them out. After attending the concert, I immediately became a Danielson fan! Danielson cannot be appreciated through one brief listening. Its not like Coldplay or something where you can immediately pick it up and immediately find the melodies engaging. Danielson’s lyrics are painstakingly thoughtful, provocative at times and other times irritatingly simple. But the songs are clearly written from a Biblical worldview and many of their songs are beautifully original and refreshing.
Daniel Smith admits toward the end of the documentary that writing songs are a way for him to grow in his relationship with God–they are a way for him to connect with his creator through making music that reflects his relationship with God which is full of both praise and struggle. His music serves to remind himself of the gospel–a reminder that each of us need every day as we struggle to praise our creator despite the sin still present in us. Growing to appreciate Danielson takes time, patience and the willingness to think about the lyrics and let them affect you–much like our relationship with Christ! It will certainly take you time to grow to appreciate Danielson but, I think the best things in the world likewise take time and patience!
The story of Danielson, much like their music, is in many ways one of both praise and struggle–they are possibly the most unlikely band to make it big on the indie scene and yet that is what makes them so compelling. They have recently been largely overshadowed by their good friend Sufjan Stevens, but that is ok with Daniel Smith, he just wants to make music that reflects his relationship with his creator and he simply hopes it encourages you as well!
Since I cannot upload the video of the documentary directly to the blog, I will leave you with the music video of one of my favorite Danielson songs, Did I Step On Your Trumpet? I think its about the futility of always living to try and please people and simply resting in God’s love for us. The video is eccentric but tons of fun!