Discovering his muse on his new EP
By Jeff McCord
When it comes down to it, many musicians have similar origin stories: Older siblings and/or parents deeply into popular music, playing songs and dragging them to all sorts of inappropriate shows at a very young age.
Yet for Daniel Fears, things went another way. Growing up in a religious Houston household, secular music was strictly forbidden. Fears caught the music bug from a different source.
He explains. “We were going to Lakewood Church in Houston. My mom was the music director there. I’d go to rehearsals with her, so I’m hearing these excellent church musicians probably three times a week as well as on Sunday morning.”
“And then I started in [school] band playing trombone when I was 11. And eventually, we moved to a much smaller church. And I started playing drums for services and stuff and played every week until I was about 18.”
Walled off from the enveloping curtain of pop ephemera, Classical music became Fears’ passion.
“I had this really wonderful teacher. He was a freelance musician who was playing with the Houston Symphony and he’d play as a contractor for churches. I had in my head that a musician would be a sort of starving artist, I guess. But he was like driving an Acura, he’s playing classical music. He was successful. He got me into classical music. He helped me get into the University of Texas, just introduced me to this whole world of music that I really wasn’t exposed to.”
Fears would graduate from UT, and go on to get a Master’s degree from Yale, all with the intention of making a living in the classical music world.
But along the way, outside life seeped in. Fears was initially scornful of the R&B his grandmother put on her radio, or of the hip hop he sometimes heard his cousins play, “But now, when I hear music that is reminiscent of that, I just absolutely love it. It feels nostalgic. All these seeds were sort of getting planted and at a young age, whether I wanted them to or not.”
Fears’ own initial discoveries were haphazard. “I had a really sheltered childhood. There was a John Mayer song called ‘Dreaming with a Broken Heart’. I remember listening to that at the lowest volume possible upstairs in my room, just waiting, you know. If I heard anything, anyone coming up the stairs, I’d turn it off. It’s a pretty sad song, and it just hit. It felt so good to feel whatever it was that I was feeling, because up until that point, it was all these uplifting and encouraging Christian songs. But to feel something that’s like, oh, this is what heartbreak must feel like.”
Fears was also moved by Frank Ocean’s music. ”His storytelling, his voice. I felt I could really relate to him. Most of the R&B I had heard up until that point was only about love, I want you you want me, you cheated on me, that kind of stuff. I felt like Frank was one of the first artists I heard that was talking about life. There was so much contained inside of his version of R&B. And that really got some wheels turning about what if I ever wrote music as a singer, what that might sound like.”
Still, that was far from Fears’ mind. Before attending Yale, he was finally persuaded to write some horn parts for a friend’s song. Having spent his musical life interpreting the works of others, it was a foreign concept to him. And ultimately, a liberating one. “The music that I grew up with, it was always according to what someone else wanted. And in this case, I can decide what I think fits. And then I’m going to record them myself. And oh man, that really flipped a switch in my brain.”
Yet it ultimately took a lip injury while at Yale to sideline Fears from his initial goal. Forced to stop playing for a time, Fears needed to heal and relearn his instrument and knew there was a pool of friends back in Austin he could count on for support. Instead, he found himself gigging with them, collaborating with the likes of Mother Falcon, Ley Line, Wild Child. Onstage at Utopia fest with the latter, the light bulb finally lit. “I’m playing with the horn section, we’re having a great time. People are singing every single word of these songs and I’m like, wow, if I were in the middle, if I was just a little bit over to the left stage center, it wouldn’t feel that crazy. I think I could do that, too.”
So slowly, methodically, he started to create. “I decided I would write something every single day, whether it be a verse or a chorus or an instrumental part. I’ll play piano or something or a loop.”
Working with producer Moses Elias, Fears culled hours of studio time down to a powerful six-song EP, Canopy. Recorded and released during the pandemic, the music is intimate, intense, sublime. An impressive video companion is also available on YouTube.
Fears is rightfully proud of the work, and now that he is able, he will celebrate Canopy’s release. Stay tuned for a show announcement at the end of the month. And he’s already working on new material, all of which falls under the same emotional grip. It’s as if he’s making up for lost time.
“The things that I really enjoy doing, interacting with other folks, producing and writing for other artists – I really love performing on stage, and so we’re creating opportunities for me to do that and looking for opportunities for me to go on tour and then to continue writing my own stuff. The more that I get into this, the more excited I am about what’s possible. The more I keep following a path of the things that I’m passionate about, the more these wonderful opportunities are going to continue to open up.”