Photo: Michelle Baumval
The Wonder Years frontman Dan Campbell is blazing a trail of his own with his debut solo album Other People’s Lives. Known for his vulnerable writing style and roaring vocals, the singer-songwriter delivers a folk album that proves everyone has a story to tell.
In a bid for purpose and structure, Dan started writing songs for and about other people back in early quarantine. He found joy learning about their lives, endlessly searching for details to tell their stories. The songs he wrote let listeners look through narrow openings into the quiet, milestone moments in the lives of strangers.
We had the opportunity to talk with Campbell about his debut solo album and what he learned about himself and people while writing about strangers.
Ones to Watch: Most people know you from The Wonder Years and Aaron West and the Roaring Twenties and all of the impeccably written songs you created for those projects. What made you decide to do a solo project, and how did you separate yourself from those other projects?
Dan Campbell: To be totally transparent, it was born out of need. My life has been centered around touring for the last decade, and when that went away, I lost a lot of “hat keep” me in orbit and the means for supporting my family. I had an 11-month old at home and no idea what I was going to do. My manager suggested trying to write songs for other people, and I gave it a shot and fell in love with it. So when I really needed something to focus on, I had these songs. I would wake up with my son and do the dad thing until his first nap, go down to the basement and work on a song, get a demo of it on my phone, and then go back to parenting for a few hours. I’d listen when I’d take him on walks and make mental notes and when he went down for his second nap, I’d refine the song. Usually, I’d work on 1-2 a week. The routine did so much for me.
As far as separating it from TWY and AW20, it was just about being conscious of the things I do specifically for those projects that make them what they are and avoiding those hallmarks. For AW20, musically, this is fairly similar, but I made a conscious effort to keep these more in my lower and middle vocal range, partially because the subject matter called for it. Also, the real keystone of Aaron West is the story arc, and so as long as I wasn’t in that narrative, I think it becomes something of its own immediately.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the people you wrote these songs about/for?
I think one of the big things was realizing that everyone has a great story to tell. In a way, I knew that, but this really made it plain to me. It can be easy, as a human, to see yourself as the main character of reality and to have this kind of myopic view of the world. Writing these songs helped me remember that every person’s life has its own richness.
What did you learn, if anything, about yourself during the creation of this record?
One of my favorite discoveries was how much I loved interviewing people. That’s where the process of the songs began - I had Skype calls with everyone. They had a story they wanted to tell, but I really enjoyed the process of digging for little landmark moments and asking after details to add depth to the narratives. I learned quickly how valuable it could be for the songs to find out what color paint was used, what model the car was, what street the house was on, etc. It was honestly fun to work with people to help add color to the stories.
This record, as the album title shows, is an anthology of other people’s lives. Is there an overarching story that this body of work tells about people and the lives we lead?
For a long time, I thought the album divided itself into songs about love or death, but the more I thought about it, the more I think I’ve decided they’re all love songs. Some of them are about the joy of finding and cultivating that love, and others are about the sadness of losing someone forever, but they’re all about love at their core. Writing an elegy for someone is its own sort of love song.
Cliche question, but what is your favorite track on the album?
It changes all of the time but this week, it’s "The Kings of Halloween."
Which song was the hardest one to write
Technically, I think “Conversations with the Flowers” was maybe the most challenging, because it’s one song that’s remembering the lives of four different people. Finding a way to structure that to give adequate space to each of those lives and stories while still building a sonically nice song to listen to was a bit of a puzzle. Emotionally, it was “The Kings of Halloween.” The way Leah told that story, the way she spoke about her mom, I really felt it. That’s one that I was nervous to send because I desperately wanted to do justice to the story.
Which track are you most excited for people to listen to that hasn’t been released yet?
It might be “Streetlights Painted You Gold.” Robin’s harmonies and Kristine and Maria’s strings really added so much beauty and life to the song. I think it’s an easy one to fall for.
Dan Campbell's Other People's Lives is available everywhere you can stream it.