Inside Daniel Romano's Legendary 2020: How He Became Canada's Most Prolific Musical Genius
He has released nine albums so far this year — and they're all great
Published Sep 24, 2020"I'm always making something," says Daniel Romano. "It's not necessarily music, but yes — I wake up every day and I work."
This explains a lot about the Welland, ON-based songwriter, who just released How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, his ninth album so far in 2020. It's been an incredibly prolific year, but it wasn't meant to go like this: he was supposed to spend most of March 2020 playing shows across the U.S., but after playing only a handful of shows, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to cancel the rest of the tour.
Under a 14-day self-quarantine back home, Romano — a multi-disciplinary artist and producer — decided to surprise release Visions of the Higher Dream. It's a bubbling rock record that he mostly made himself (with a few guest contributions) at his home studio before leaving on tour. That was just the beginning. As lockdown rolled on, Romano continued to roll out releases.
First was the previously announced live record Okay Wow, recorded with his band the Outfit (David Nardi, Roddy Rosetti, Ian Romano, Julianna Riolino and Tony Cicero). Then came a string of albums released independently on Bandcamp: the country record Content to Point the Way, the psych-leaning Dandelion, a tribute to Bob Dylan's 1983 album Infidels, and the punk-inspired Super Pollen and Spider Bite. He released a collaborative folk album under the name Alias Ensemble, the Outfit and Tool drummer Danny Carey collaborated on the 23-minute prog track "Forever Love's Fool," and he even released a book of poetry entitled At Last There Is No End (The Love Poems of Daniel Romano).
So which of all these 2020 albums is his favourite? "I haven't gone back to listen to anything and I honestly probably won't," he admits. "Dandelion was the most personal and probably the most selfishly rewarding one to make, but also I loved making Spider Bite and the weird Infidels record. I wouldn't be able to choose one, I don't think."
The genre-spanning releases from this year are a blend of material that has been kicking around, the details of which are often hazy to Romano, and projects that were quickly conceived and executed in his home studio in Welland and with remote contributions from collaborators. In an announcement about Super Pollen, for example, Romano is quoted as saying, "I have no idea when any of it was recorded and I definitely don't remember doing it."
What makes the quantity of these releases even more impressive is how well-crafted each one is. Romano, alongside his dynamic Outfit and a gifted collection of contributing artists, is consistently captivating on his 2020 releases — and this is just a taste of Romano's seemingly infinite artistry.
Romano grew up in Welland surrounded by music. He was raised on folk, country and rock, and his parents played in bands. Romano would pick up the various instruments around the house and figure out how to play them. He latched onto the drums first, and for a time was even the drummer in his parents' band.
In high school, he played in mostly punk bands and eventually helped form the twangy rock band Attack in Black, who had a string of releases largely from 2005 to 2009.
Like his 2020 output, Romano's solo discography — about thirteen releases in total, excluding the recent additions — is a mix of sonic styles. He easily moves from psychedelic folk to traditional country to various rock forms and, under the name Ancient Shapes, ferocious punk. On his ambitious 2016 record Mosey, Romano is everything at once: a punk, a rock star, and a cowboy in a tie-dyed suit. In a delightfully unexpected album moment, Romano duets with actor Rachel McAdams on the jangly rock track "Toulouse."
"Daniel is one of the most creative and authentic people I've ever met," says McAdams via email. Characterizing collaborating with Romano at his home studio as "easy breezy," McAdams also notes that his multifaceted creativity extends beyond music.
"He's obviously a wildly talented and prolific musician but he seems to love making art of all kinds just for the fun of it. I recall staring into an intricate mosaic of a wolf on his bathroom floor," she remembers. "I came out of the bathroom and said 'cool wolf floor' and he said he just threw it together one winter, trying to keep himself busy. So add modesty to his list of qualities. I think he was also making chairs out of leather scraps at the time, collecting antiques, and he also paints! Then there's those nine albums he made this year…"
When starting a new project, Romano relies on intuition: if he feels like playing drums, he'll likely make an Ancient Shapes record. If a thought comes to mind that he deems worth writing down, it will be either the main line of a chorus or the last line of a poem. The answer is clear in the moment.
"[An album's style] is really just [reflective of] whatever I happen to be feeling like. Whatever the first song sounds like, I roll with that when starting a project," he says simply.
It's a boon to his collaborators, like Constantines member Steven Lambke, who praises Romano's fearless approach to his craft.
"What I really admire about Dan is his ability to not second-guess [himself], and it's part — a small part, but part — of why he is so productive," says Lambke, who has worked with Romano on multiple occasions (including on this year's Spider Bite) and co-founded the label You've Changed Records with Romano and Attack in Black's Ian Daniel Kehoe in 2009.
"He's created an approach and a mentality for himself where he can do bold things and not worry about them. Whether that's changing musical directions or the presentation or the approach, he's quite fearless, and I think that's amazing. Fear is such an enemy of art. I see it in myself and I see it in so many of my peers. With Daniel, I admire his — I won't say lack of fear, because I'm sure he has moments when he doubts — but he knows how to put that aside and keep going."
Kehoe, similarly, commends Romano's creative instinct and sees it as a reason why he is able to maintain a continuously strong output.
"Dan has always had a natural intuition for being exceptional at creating things," says Kehoe. "Dan has such a refined and honed instinct to make things beautiful, which I think is the rarest thing. He's also the hardest worker I've ever seen. He's really in a league of his own."
Recorded over a few days in late 2019, the newly released How Ill Thy World Is Ordered, like many Romano albums, was built with a set of self-imposed guidelines that allowed him and his band to honour their instincts. Romano's Outfit played each song in full, without having previously heard them, and had three takes to capture the version that would appear on the record. From the scurried synchronized movements of the crackling first track, "A Rat Without a Tale," the band's delicious chemistry is immediately felt.
The guidelines Romano sets for projects are to both excite and challenge him. He expresses frustration over the times he spent too long focused on little things, like an instrument's tone, and describes the freedom connected to being spontaneous. "I don't like to fix mistakes," he says. "I prefer when they're there."
The Weather Station's Tamara Lindeman, whose 2011 album All of It Was Mine was produced by Romano, concurs.
"The biggest thing that Dan taught me, which I really carry with me, is that he brings spontaneity to the moment," she says. "If you don't feel right about what you're playing, you shouldn't play it. That's part of why his recordings sound so alive, because they're documents of a feeling and a moment."
She adds, "He's not a saint. But as a musician, he's extremely generous to everybody around him and always has been."
Romano is often laconic when answering questions about the specifics and the volume of his output. By jumping from project to project, he says, plainly, that he doesn't experience burnout. In response to gratitude for providing continuous entertainment during tough times, he says, "Oh, it was my pleasure." Romano is devoted to his work and the work makes him happy.
"Hopefully that [joy] is translated in all of the things that have come out in the last little while," he says. "I certainly felt that way."