Dan Navarro : A History Lesson
Viv: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is Dan Navarro. Dan started his career as a songwriter, most often with Eric Lowen, for artists as diverse as Pat Benatar, the Bangles, Jackson Browne, Keb’Mo, The Temptations, Dionne Warwick, and many more. In the 1990’s, Dan recorded and toured with Eric Lowen in the acclaimed acoustic duo, Lowen & Navarro, until Eric’s retirement in 2009. Dan has since transitioned into a growing solo career, increasingly in demand on the national concert circuit.
John: We spoke with Dan Navarro in front of an audience at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. Viv Nesbitt was unable to be at Woodyfest this year, so our Chief Community Builder, Katie Mitchell, sat in for the interview.
John: It is our great pleasure, at Woodyfest, to welcome to Art of the Song, Dan Navarro. Thanks for being with us.
Dan: My pleasure. Thank you.
John: Dan, let’s get started with some of your personal history. Where did you come from and how did music come into your life?
Dan: I was born in Los Angeles, California. I’m a southern California native. When I was four, my family moved to a small town on the Mexican border called Calexico, California. It’s a border town right opposite Mexicali, Baja, California. My grandparents were all born in Mexico. My grandfather was a journalist and a dramatist and a sometime composer. My mother’s father was an amateur mariachi violinist. So I grew up steeped in music. My dad was a record collector and trained me on all the old stuff and the good stuff. I started playing trumpet when I was eight years old and played all through school. I always wanted to sing and I always knew I could and there was no opportunity, especially at the time growing up. Frankly, in a Mexican-American border community, I got laughed at a lot. I got poked fun at a lot. I was more shy, believe it or not, than some of my friends. I took that to heart and decided that there was no way in the world I’d ever be able to sing a song in public. It changed senior year in high school. Then I went off to college, and I put that away. I went to UCLA and, at the time, the school was three times the size of my hometown, so I said, “There’s no way I can pull it off as a singer here.” I didn’t know how to play the guitar. I bought a guitar. I learned how to play my sophomore year at UCLA and it’s amazing that I’m even doing this. I started writing songs third year, and dove headfirst. Started playing out as soon as I got out of college. Got my first cut on an album two years after I got out of college. Then everything went away. I started working day jobs. I worked for Tower Records as a classical, country, folk, and bluegrass buyer. They used to scratch their heads going, “We have the new Puccini opera, and Karajan conducting and here’s the new Ricky Skaggs.” I’m going, “Ok, that’d be great.” And learned, learned, learned, learned. Learned about guys like Tony Rice. Probably the best revelation of that whole time was a group called The Seldom Scene, a bluegrass band out of Washington, DC. I was gob-smacked. These guys did it different. I listened, like everybody had to, Flatt & Scruggs, and Homer & Jethro. A really seminal album for me that came on out in Atlantic called Southern Mountain Music. I don’t remember even who the band was, but it was the best bluegrass I’d ever heard. Seldom Scene popped it up a little bit. A little slower. A little kinder. A little gentler. Not quite so breakneck. You ever wonder why bluegrass players always look so grim? It’s because stuff is so dang fast that if they break down, they’re going to blow a note. They’re concentrating like crazy. The Seldom Scene was different. But I wasn’t sure I could continue to do it, so I worked day jobs. I went to work for a music manager in London for a year. I was managing the Moody Blues. I learned a ton. They made a number one album that year. It was 1980. It was thirty-five years ago. Oh god. I was four. I decided after living in London and working in management that I had no interest in management, but I learned a lot. So I had partnered up with Eric Lowen a little bit and I said, “Let’s start a band.’ And he said, “No.” And then I said, “Let’s produce some people.” And he said, “No.” So I moved to England. And, two weeks before I moved, he said, “Let’s start a band.” And I went, “I’m moving away.” Bottom line is, I came back, after almost a year, and he picked me up at the airport, and we walked straight into a partnership that lasted for almost thirty years. Pretty much until he passed away in 2009.
John: How did you meet him?
Dan: We were singing waiters in that restaurant. He was hired to replace me because I went on a short tour and he had my job. And he was 6’2 and built like Viggo Mortensen and he had a D35 and I had a D28. I hated his guts on sight.
Katie: Good way to start a partnership.
Dan: Let me tell you. We were a marriage. We did everything together. We thick and thinned. We stuck it out through everything. Had high points, low points, had each other’s back, fought like crazy, and never had sex. We were an old married couple. But it was the best partnership and the best friendship anybody could imagine because we complimented each other in a pretty amazing way. I had issues with work ethic at that point in time. He was a novice songwriter. He’d only written two or three songs his whole life. So we started a band together. We were side guys. It went well for a while. Then it stopped going well. I was working a day job that was becoming kind of lucrative and it was also a family business that my uncle owned and he had gone through a personal tragedy so I was running the place. The band says to me, “You’re spending too much time at the Ad Agency. Time to pick.” This was 1983 and I was making $32,000 a year. I thought I was rich. So I quit the band and immediately got angry and bitter and snotty and rude. After two months of not talking to me, he called me up one day and said, “Let’s write a song.” I went (mockingly) “Let’s write a song. You kicked me out of the band.” I didn’t say any of that. I said, “Yeah, ok, let’s write a song.” But in my head was basically venting. That evening, we got together and, in ninety minutes, wrote “We Belong”, that was a big hit for Pat Benatar exactly a year later. Our lives changed overnight.
What Do Pat Benatar, Dionne Warwick and The Bangles All Have in Common?
Dan: We knew we had written something very strong but I was also still very afraid of the song. It was very personal and it was a ballad. So Eric said, “I want to take our songs around to some publishers.” And I said, “Good. Whatever you do, do not put that ballad on the tape.” Eric did what he always did with me, he said, “No problem buddy, I’ll do that.” And then, promptly did whatever he pleased. We had thirty years of that. “Absolutely, Dan. Whatever you say.” Then he’d do whatever he’d wanted.
Dan: Luckily. Well, in this case, thank God. I’d be sitting there going, “You want fries with that?” if it wasn’t for that. He took it to a bunch of publishers, all of whom rejected it. The demo was horrible. The demo was one of the worst-sounding things. It’s laughably embarrassing. The original writing demo is suitably rough because we had just written the song, but the so-called finished demo, we called the “fly-swatter” demo because we didn’t have a drum-machine, so we got a keyboard and put it on white noise and just went, “Tssh”. It was a little like that Bette Davis-ized, just like you’re slapping somebody’s face. That’s what we took around. We had taken it to a particular record company who had given it to the publishing wing and the guy at the publishing wing said, “Yeah, there’s nothing here.” Four months later, calls us out of the blue, and says, “I have an idea for this one song. Come do a handshake deal with me.” So we did. A week later, he says, “Pat Benatar is going to record it.” We had found out through the grapevine since that it ended up in a box of tapes that went to her and she pulled it out like a lotto Ping-Pong ball. It was the tenth tape she listened to and she said, “I want to do this one.” Literally changed our lives in a microsecond. There’s before-Benatar and after-Benatar in terms of how I lived. I was thirty-one years old when I wrote that song. I was thirty-two when it came out. So I’m sitting there thinking, “It’s over. I’m over thirty. It’s over.” Then it happens. I remember the feeling we had. The look on our faces when we heard it on the radio for the first time. We were terrified. What have we done. What kind of rocket ship have we gotten on? Don’t they know how uncool we are? But we just figured; let’s just keep it going. You know what I equate it to? God, forgive me, because this is the way my mind works, “Princess Bride”. “Good day Wesley, I’ll most likely kill you tomorrow”. “Let’s go do it again, we’ll probably be out of business tomorrow.” And we did that for twenty-five years of “Wonderful day, Wesley, thank you, most likely kill you tomorrow”.
John: Did you get any other significant cuts after that?
Dan: Very quickly. I co-wrote a song with another guy, a guy named David Bryant, the Dionne Warwick cut. It was supposed to be the follow-up single to “That’s what Friends Are For” that did two million singles and was a number one record. “I’ve got the follow-up single!” Click click click. Not so fast. They switched singles a week before release, and it wasn’t a single, but the album did about a million and a half. I was making a living as a songwriter. Nile Rodgers, the producer, cut one of our songs. We had three cuts in very short order. Then, we started getting little ones here and there. Then, in 1987, we started writing with the Bangles. Lowen’s first wife was high school best friends with Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles. We’re all sitting around New Years Eve 1986, watching the Bangles on Rockin’ New Years Eve in New York. But they weren’t because it was taped. So we’re sitting there in Los Angeles with Susanna watching Susanna on TV in New York. Eric and I were feuding for a little bit. We were a couple of years in. A band got started out of the success of “We Belong” that I wasn’t allowed to be in. I was typically angry and bitter and mean. I was hurt. I finally decided to request an open marriage. I said, “I’m going to write with other people. I’m going to sing with other people. I’m going to start singing because you won’t have me in the band.” Eric got spooked and said, “Why don’t we go be a duo someplace. Just for the heck of it.” But as all that was happening, Eric and I were not on great terms but we were hanging out. Susanna turns to us and says, “We should write together!” And in microseconds, we looked at each other; it was that instant (talking very fast), “Everything’s forgiven. Is it ok if.. We don’t have a problem here. Let’s get over that. …Yeah, we’ll do it. No problem.” It was one of those little flashbacks between the eyes, solved all the problems, all was forgiven. We used a chord progression that Eric had started. I had been taking copious notes on Susanna talking about her personal life and wrote the beginning of this lyric, “I hear you through the wire. The words all sound like noise. What happened to the fire in your voice? Don’t try to hide the distance. It’s just too big to ignore. We work it out like business. That won’t work anymore.” “God it’s like you’re reading my mail!” “Well, girl, I’ve been listening to you.” So, she contributed some and we all basically hammered this baby out and kind of looked at it and went, “Wow, that’s not too dang bad!” It was intended at one point to be the first single off the album. It went on. We wrote a couple more with Susanna and one with Mickey Steele, Michael Steele, the bass player. and gave us a new little kick start into the late ’80s. In 1988, we decided we wanted to start being a duo and we go play in a little bar someplace and two years later made our first record at thirty-seven and thirty-eight years old.
Dan Navarro The Solo Artist
Dan: We kind of went from there. We figured, “Let’s see how long we can keep the ball in the air.” We thought, if we were lucky, we’d get two or three or five years. And we got twenty-five. When he got sick, we had a long conversation. We agreed that I’d continue, but we went until he couldn’t do it anymore. So I did a period of overlap where I would do a couple of weeks on my own and then a couple of months with him. By the time he retired in 2009, I transitioned into solo full time and it’s a hundred dates a year. I love my job. It’s crazy, but I love it.
Katie: So how has that been transitioning from working with Lowen to working on your own?
Dan: Big adjustment. The adjustment happened in private. I did it during the overlap and I went to markets where we didn’t matter or we couldn’t really do anything so I could work it. It’s a little like opening a show on the road. Doing some road work before you open, either on Broadway or off. It was terrifying. I had to figure out how to be both comic and straight man in the same body. My songs are decidedly poignant. They’re bummers, you guys. They’re a real drag. They’re depression upon loss upon craziness upon idiocy.
John: Folk music at it’s best.
Dan: Folk music. Exactly. So, we had a really nice sense of humor that would cut this edge of these, they weren’t downer songs, but they were quite poignant. So I have to do that alone now, and it’s a little weird. It’s a little like playing Ping-Pong with yourself to try to make it work.
Katie: How has your writing process changed?
Dan: Really badly. Because we collaborated so much, and we were known as collaborators with each other, I decided that I needed to spend some time writing completely alone, because that’s where I had come from. And it was hard, and my output plummeted, but I did it. Every song on the new album, I do three or four covers just for the fun of it, two by friends of mine, one unknown song by a famous person, and one extremely well known song by a guy from Oklahoma who shall remain nameless. His parents are named Webb. I’m doing “Witchita Lineman” on the record and it’s one of the high points of my whole life. So now I’m back to collaborating and it’s fun again, and I don’t have to prove anything to myself anymore.
Katie: Do you find that you’re finding different sources of inspiration than you found earlier in your career? Or you’re looking for different inspiration in different places?
Dan: Yes, but kind of as a natural consequence of aging. The things mean different things than they did. I know the things that mattered to me when I was in my twenties, are not the same things that matter to me when I’m in my forties and now, that I’m in my nineties, I want songs about insurance and fiber. It changes, what you prioritize. I used to write about loss, now I write about change. There’s a subtle but very distinct difference to me. And I write about that stuff because it’s stuff we can all relate to. There isn’t a single one of us that hasn’t gone down a blind alley, or invested in something that wasn’t worth it, or had the really best time of your life be something you let go of and you went, “Oops, there it was. That was it, man.” And this is where I go but it’s because I paid attention and I love pretty openly, and that’s why I’m here. That’s the job.
Katie: When you sit down to write a song, how do those lyrics come to you? Do you set out time specifically each day to write? Do you just, whenever it comes to you?
Dan: Lately, whenever it comes to me. In the old days, it was a job, and I would do it every day like a ritual. Lately, I’ve been finding that when I do that, nothing comes out as much, so I’ve been letting it happen when the muse hits me, but I’ll have stuff swimming in my head all day. Then, a little something, kind of like sliding down banister and then finding that sliver, it’s like, “Ok, that’s where I go.” Then I sit down and start working on it because a little something will get caught in the trap and that’s what I build on. It can be a kernel of anything, a little line about something, that particular song (“A Place Where I Belong”) all came out of “Hope I don’t say something I really mean that comes out wrong”. You know that, it’s “I love you”. Oh no! Was that my outside voice? And that’s what that’s meant to mean. No, I meant that, I just really wish I hadn’t said it. Yet. But we all have done that. We all know what that is and I really do try, I don’t mean like as an exercise, as a ritual, but to me the whole job, in some ways, is no different than acting. It’s like getting out of the way and letting the real emotion and the real sentiment come through. It does at some point, eventually, something will bubble up and you go, “There it is” and you skim that bit off and you go off and you make something out of it. And that’s kind of my process. So my output has declined a little bit, but I like everything I write lately. I haven’t written anything I don’t like in a long time.
Katie: Now you mentioned acting as well, and you do voice acting, I want to know what your creative process is like with voice acting versus songwriting. Is it similar? Is it different? What’s that like for you?
Dan: For me, they’re completely different. The idea when I’m writing songs is to try to get closer and closer to the essence of what’s going on inside my head and my heart at that moment, try to draw some sort of connection between head, heart, skin, whatever, the visceral, the mental, the emotional, the cerebral. When I’m doing an acting bit, I try to get the heck out of my own way and just let it out and go for the fences and go beyond. I do this lyrically sometimes, but go beyond the line and then pull it back, because I feel like if you go right up to the line, you’re going to be a little bit short. So I will literally go right past it and do some part where it’s just “Blahhh” everywhere. A lot of what I get asked to do, or at least what I audition for, is character voices. Really crazy, weird character voices. I do accents and I’m a little on the unbalanced side so it comes out that way. I did a part in the film “The Book of Life” that came out in October last year. Halloween-themed. Day-of-the-Dead themed. And I played a character called Chakal. *in Chakal character voice* And I did the whole thing like this. “I hate bullfighters! Give me the medal or the girl pays!!” And I’m sitting there getting paid for this. My mom, God love my mother, Josephine Lucero Navarro, who passed away 21 years ago, said to me when I was about fourteen, “Danny, you will never grow up as long as you keep making stupid noises with your mouth!” Light bulb. Yes! I ‘ll have some of that please. I told her about it at one point in time, she kind of rolled her eyes like, “Oh God, what did I do.” But we grow up in spite of our upbringing or because of it. Or combinations of the two and I have wonderful parents, but there were certain things that I grew up in spite of, because we all do, and certain things because of. But, when I do an acting part, it’s part of getting out of my own way and letting the part dictate what it is. When I’m writing, it’s a different process. When I’m performing, it’s back to the acting process and letting the song dictate what I do, whether it’s a vocal intensity or volume or whatever. I don’t do the songs the same way twice. I’m not as bad as Dillon that way, but I let the particular performance situation determine the tempo, determine the attitude, and go from there.
Katie: You mentioned that because of, or in spite of, your upbringing, you turn out the way that you do, and it seems like you had a lot of roadblocks from being teased in high school to leaving the band to go to straight jobs, and then you overcame those obstacles, how did you do that?
Dan: Complete idiocy. Complete, utter refusal to face facts and deal with what was in front of me. I had dreams of doing this and there’s no reason why it should have ever happened. Except I didn’t quit, I didn’t want to quit. I came to a conclusion, quite some years ago, that there are three elements to success: talent, persistence, and luck. And, of the three, the most expendable is talent. Because, with persistence and luck, you succeed. With talent, persistence, and no luck, you don’t. But the issue of persistence is, if you think of luck as the space station coming down and not burning when it hits the atmosphere and landing somewhere, it usually lands in the desert or out by Ayers Rock in Australia. If you’re everywhere, you’ll be wherever that luck is when it falls. If you do five auditions a year, if you do ten shows a year, you’re not going to be lucky. You might be, but if you do fifty auditions a year, even some that you don’t want to take, or if you do 100 shows a year, there’s more opportunity for that luck to fall on you. So that is what Lowen taught me, is persistence, “Let’s get up, let’s do it now.” “I really want to…” “Shut up, do it now!” “Ok, let’s go!” And that’s what I learn from him, and that’s what I continue to apply.
John: Creativity. Do you think that it’s important for everyone to find some sort of creative outlet?
Dan: I can’t imagine life without it to be honest. I actually can imagine life without it and it wouldn’t have been pleasant. I volley between being really, really silly and being quite serious. But no, the things that Katie was talking about, I had some tough issues in my life, as everyone has. My life is no worse or weirder than anybody else’s, and my parents were amazing, wonderful people. I don’t mean to denigrate either one of them in any way whatsoever. They were amazing parents. But we had issues, I had issues, the time of life had issues. We had some family tragedies that hurt us all pretty deeply, and turned me into a little bit of an introspective type. Wanting to know, where does this pain come from and where’s the relief? And I did find relief in silliness. And I did find relief in extremely poignant songs, movies, art. In terms of visual art, there’s certain artists that speak to me. Turner, the English artist. Michelangelo always. Albrecht Durer, who really blew my mind. He drew this self-portrait when he was fourteen that’s amazing, and it was in a medium that didn’t allow erasers. And that made an impact on me when I looked at this and go, “This guy was fourteen. And I’m, whatever I was then, nineteen, and I was going, I don’t know, what is it?” So I learned, and decided to keep trying and keep going. And realize that the only true failure was quitting.
Talking Streaming, Digital Media And The Age of Free Music
John: We’re going through some big changes in the music industry. We’re switching to actually consuming our music by buying records, buying CDs, to now, mostly, streaming and digital media. How do you see the future of the music business?
Dan: I think we’re on a runaway train that we cannot stop. No nascent technology has ever not been adopted. They have been stale-dated really quickly. I think of things like quadraphonic vinyl albums. I think of the red lazer discs as opposed the Blu-ray that lasted about a year and a half. We look at beta video, that was a superior format to VHS, but it did not survive. We all know why. I won’t say it on the air. But there’s a reason for it. And streaming is too danged convenient. When I realized that Spotify, if you pay your subscription fee, will allow you to save a song and listen to it offline, when you’re not on the internet, anytime you want, as long as you pay your subscription, I realized that streaming will replace sales, except for certain places. There’s still nothing like the tactile experience of being in a show, meeting somebody, giving them a hug, selling them a CD, signing it, and having that connection. CDs have become souvenirs of the show with an autographing surface and that’s fine. The people that come to my shows don’t want download cards. They’ll take the CD home and rip it instantly. They won’t even wait, but they don’t’ want to buy a download card. They want something a little more tangible. As far as streaming goes, I really do believe that when it’s pandemic, the rates will go up, as far as I’m going concerned. I’m a little inside baseball on that stuff in my role, I’m the National Recording Artist Vice President of SAG-AFTRA, the merged union. I just chaired negotiations between the union and the three major record companies and we did put a lot of energy into streaming. Toward that end, once it’s everywhere, we will be paid better. Part of the reason we’re not paid so well, Spotify can’t sell our music, give it away, without our permission. They made deals with the owners of the record companies, sometimes even our own people. The deals they were offering, and the deals we accepted, weren’t that good, because it wasn’t everywhere. The other factor, and I’m not an apologist for Spotify or any of the streaming services, when my songs get played on the radio, I make between 7 and 12 cents per play. Every time it gets played on the radio on a particular market, it represents anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people that might be listening at that moment. Potential audience. You stream through Spotify, it’s one set of ears. Real audience. So, if I get seven cents for half a million people, why shouldn’t I get a microcent for one person? I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying understanding it this way has kept me from getting angry at it and going with it until we can change it. That’s because the anger doesn’t help me, doesn’t help people who listen to music, doesn’t help our community, to get mad about it. At the end of the day, don’t get mad. Get good. Solve the problem.
Katie: And what would your ideal solution look like?
Dan: The ideal solution would be the ability for independent record companies, meaning us, to make deals that work for us but that proliferate the music. To have the option to pull back from those services, or to work with certain services and not others. To maybe even develop our own service. Once upon a time, we couldn’t publish a book at our desk, but we can now. Eventually, we will have our own streaming services. It’ll be Joe DaDa, Dan Navarro music, whatever it is, and come to my place. I’m already doing direct downloads of my stuff on my website, so you don’t have to go to iTunes to buy my stuff, download it. You can go on my website and do it. Eventually, I’m looking forward to being able to stream from my website for some kind of small fee, subscription fee. It’s true that that changes the paradigm on how you get paid, but I really don’t think we can put the genie back in the bottle. We just can’t. The more we try, the farther behind I’m going to get shoving this genie back in the bottle while the train is going that way. I want to be on the train. I want to solve the problem on the train and then tell the people behind me, “Hey! We figured this out! Come on, let’s go!” That’s my job.
John: Awesome. That’s what we’re doing with the Standing “O” Project.
Dan: I’m reading your banner here going, “Ok, what do I do to get involved?” And I’m not thinking so much for a profit motive, the 50/50 split is fabulous. That’s a business model that makes the record industry tilt its head like the Nipper dog going, “Huh? What do you mean?” Oh, don’t even get me started. This is something that is not common knowledge. I know some of you, and many of you know it, but not everybody. It’s understandable that when you are signed to a record company they pay the bills and they recoup their expenses from the sales, but they don’t recoup off the top. They recoup off of your share. So, let’s say you’re on a 90/10 split and you spend $100,000, and you take in $100,000 in sales. They get their 90, you get your 10. You get the 10 back, apply it to the 100, they have 90, you owe 90, and you have nothing. There’s an economic model for you. And that’s the economic model that the record business was built on. 50/50 is a miracle in the record business. So, my concern, not negative concern, my interest is, “How does this get to people? Let’s build the community. And how can I get involved?”
John: Alright, we’ll talk later.
Dan: Yes, we’ll talk later for sure.
Katie: We’ll get you signed up there.
John: Well, we thank you all so much for coming out today at WoodyFest. And, Dan Navarro, thank you so much for being with us on Art of the Song.
Dan: Thank you guys very much.