I first saw Dan Dukich onstage in Open Eye Figure Theatre’s delicious production of Elijah’s Wake in fall 2009, and I was immediately smitten by his commanding stage presence and quirky sensibilities. In January 2010, I had become fast friends with artist Laura Lechner, who just so happened to be roommates with Dan. While Laura and I devised puppet shows out of her living room, I tried not to fangirl out when I would overhear Dan writing music from his upstairs bedroom just above us. As he’s developed as a musician over the past decade (now going by the moniker Daniel Bonsepur), I’ve kept close tabs on him and his career (my favorite album of his is Daniel’s in Love, which you can listen to in full here). Over the years, I’ve frequently worked with Dan as a sound designer, but I’ve never had the opportunity to closely collaborate with him as a composer. When Sofia and I decided to curate an evening of phantasmagorical fairy tale puppet shows that riffed on the transformational power of love for our fall 2019 production (entitled Into the Darkness), I immediately knew that I wanted Dan to create original music and lyrics for us. Before the script was fully “on the page,” Sofia and I commissioned Dan to write a “concept album” of sorts that I would then interweave into our eventual script. I gave Dan copies of the two tales that I wanted to adapt, a very early proto-draft of the script that I had written, and some inspirational source material. From there, Dan has been pecking away at seven original songs for the past several months, which culminated in a development workshop earlier this month. I recently sat down with Dan to chat about his musical history and his songwriting process. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation...
Composer-lyricist Dan Dukich sips coffee while donning his favorite musical theatre memorabilia.
DAVID HANZAL: What’s your first memory of learning to play a musical instrument?
DAN DUKICH: My grandparents had this old piano from the 1930s that had real ivory keys--it was a gorgeous antique pianette--but my brother had bashed in the keys with a baseball bat. I remember playing the piano and cutting my fingers on the broken, jagged ivory.
DH: How old were you at this point?
DD: I think I was thirteen. Around that time I took one year of piano lessons with this elderly woman named Molly. She was a very beautiful, sweet person. We would basically hang out and play music in her cottage once a week. It was totally not at all a strict, regimented process. After that, I learned how to play the guitar. That was better because I could just be in my room by myself. I would listen to music and play along with songs that I liked.
DH: You mean you taught yourself to play the guitar by ear?
DD: Yes. I would listen to music and try to play what I thought should have been in the song--not trying to play with what is recorded but trying to add what I would have done had I been there on the day of the recording.
DH: At that time, what kind of music were you listening to?
DD: I really liked REM as a kid. I didn’t quite understand what I was listening to. It was opaque and oblique and open. I didn’t understand the words and I liked that. But there was still some kind of logic to it; it wasn’t complete nonsense. In high school I was also in a band with my friend John, and we grew up playing music together and learning about music together.
DH: When did you start writing music as a solo artist?
DD: Right out of college. After my friend John moved to South Dakota, our band Gladiola became a solo thing and I recorded an album of my own. Then I moved to the moniker of Daniel Bonespur.
DH: How did you make the transition of writing music for theatre?
DD: I was always doing theatre and music, but separately--I didn’t see how they could overlap at first. Now, the music that I make for theatre more and more gets turned into the songs that I write and record on my albums.
DH: I’m always fascinated when I learn about different writers’ processes. For example, Fiona Apple is a wordsmith and will collect new words or phrases, and then after months of things spinning around in her head will sit down at a piano and write a new song in 45 minutes; whereas, Stephen Sondheim will fill up a thimble full of vodka and sip it while he lies on his couch and starts writing a song right away (re-filling his thimble full of vodka whenever it goes empty, as a means of gently letting go of his inhibitions). What’s your songwriting process?
DD: Maybe a combination of both? There’s some thimbles involved and some gathered lines and words. I’ve recently been on a thing of starting at the end of the song and working my way to the beginning. Like, with the song “Where All Eyes Can See” [to be featured in this fall’s Into the Darkness] that started with the title and then I had to work my way to the beginning.
DH: What was the process like writing songs for Into the Darkness?
DD: This was a unique process in that it lined up very cosmically with my own life. [One of the tales within Into the Darkness concerns a princess who loses her vision while she is in the midst of questioning if love exists in the world.] I found a personal connection to this princess. I am blind in my left eye right now, and I’m also in a place of pondering the transformational powers of love; specifically, being out of love. I had to find the inner logic that I needed for myself to form the point-of-view for this character. Before I could write the melody, lyrics, or chords, I had to first understand that inner logic. I had never done that so intensely before.
DH: What was the biggest challenge for you?
DD: I don’t usually write the songs before the play exists. That was a challenge--having such a great freedom. You often hear the classical thing--having restrictions and limitations can open up choices. Not having those limitations, it was hard to know which choices would fit well in the structure of the whole piece. Once I came to the understanding that the songs were like a concept album, it was a lot easier to let go of the intellectual understanding of how the songs would work in a theatrical plot with characters. Also, practically speaking, learning how time works was also a challenge. You can think on something, and think on something, and think on something, and it’s just with you all day every day for many days, and then it all comes out in the thirteenth hour. I learned to appreciate being in that head space and have songs be with me all day while walking through the world.
DH: Why should audiences come see Into the Darkness this fall?
DD: They will get to see a performance that is not only beautiful and dreamy, but is also critical of some of the oppressive systems in the world. Hopefully, this piece will inspire people to create a better world to live in.
DH: What’s your next adventure, now that you’ve finished writing the bulk of the songs for Into the Darkness?
DD: I’m developing a new play with Lisa Channer and Savannah Reich called Denim. We had a workshop of that with a group of students last fall, and we will continue to workshop the project again this coming summer. I’m also going to start recording another album this summer as well.
To keep up to date with Dan and his music, you can follow him here. And, to support artists like Dan working on our upcoming fall production of Into the Darkness, please consider making a tax-deductible gift on our GiveMN page here. Thank you for your support!
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