The Austin, TX R&B musician discusses his classical background, evolution, & previews his upcoming KMFA performance
Creating sounds that expand genres and listening craft is one of the best ways to remember why music is a rare medium. With its auditory ability to push nostalgia, emotion, creativity and even rage, the art is a gem of our world. Musicians attempt to explore this realm over and over again, with a variety of memorable results. In this age of seemingly endless rabbit holes to fall through, some musicians stay true to their path and make it worth their while. Daniel Fears, the Austin, TX based R&B musician, is a perfect example of that quest in action. With his pairing of his classical training and the R&B universe, he lifts up all music fans alike with a sound that soars.
On February 23rd, Mr. Fears will be releasing a live taping of his song, “Keep On”, with a string quintet arrangement followed by a release of his third song from his upcoming EP, Close Quarters and an official SXSW artist showcase in March. To top that all off, on April 8th, there will be a concert of his discography with a string ensemble in partnership with Austin’s classical radio station, KMFA, of which fans can contribute to the ongoing Kickstarter campaign here!
Regarding the campaign, Daniel shared:
“We’re creating a beautiful in-person and online experience for fans and supporters. This event hosts a diverse cast of composers, musicians, audio engineers, production crew, and lighting techs, and we intend to pay a fair wage for their time and energy. By supporting this event, you’re helping us create the tunes, pay the musicians, composers and the many hands it takes to make something sound, look, and feel compelling. Our intention is that this work opens up my music to be appreciated by a wider audience and can eventually be taken to different cities. You can be one of the people that makes that happen!”
The man does not seem to stop, nor does he plan to. He is dedicated to his craft and understands the waxing and waning of the scene from every step of the way. To elaborate, he took some time to delve into his methodology and path.
Give us the nitty gritty Daniel Fears story. What is music to you and how have you been a part of it throughout your life?
Music is and has always been a way for me to connect with people or with myself! I’ve done workshops, concerts, events where I’m performing with or for people that I don’t have much in common with… if I play them some music, perform something that people love or recognize in some way, you’ve just made a connection that was not so easy to find otherwise. I grew up in a conservative religious household – church three times a week – where secular music was not allowed. So it was a lot of christian bands for a while…I’d hear hip-hop and R&B at my cousin’s house and fell in love with that. Meanwhile I’m playing drums weekly in our tiny church, in marching band at school, orchestra on the weekends, and even had a stint playing drums in a ska band. We had a lot of restrictions, but my family supported my music 100%. Eventually I went to musical school for classical trombone at the University of Texas.
I’d been making up songs since I was a little kid, but the first song I wrote and finished started in grad school. I went to the Yale School of Music for trombone performance, with a bunch of high-performing classical musicians. In my second-to-last semester I developed an injury to my lip, yes that’s possible, which forced me to really reduce the amount of playing I could do—from three to four hours a day to maybe five minutes a day. I had to completely rebuild and relearn how to play. I was pretty depressed—this thing that I had worked toward for a decade was now at a serious halt. It was during this time that songs started coming to me, and I actually had the space to develop them. I eventually learned to play the trombone again and still play now…In the process of that injury, I got to learn a whole new skill for myself; songwriting, singing, and production. Several years passed before I created my first EP, but my injury really put me on a path to doing what I do now. If I could see myself ten years ago doing what I do now, I think I would have been blown away. I didn’t know my life would look like this. I just followed what I enjoyed doing and doors have opened up for me.
You pair orchestration and string arrangements with your music in such a compelling way. How does that process work for you? What are the challenges that come with it?
I learned early in this songwriting process the power of bringing on great collaborators. That’s how I created all of my music that’s out in the world right now. “Keep On” is no different. In this case we had the song “Keep On” in its original form—synths, programmed drums, etc. Nathaniel Earl, who arranged the string version, worked closely with me to make something that matched my vision for this song. For me, the biggest challenge in collaborating is clearly stating your vision and ideas in a way that is clear, and giving feedback to help it match that vision. Songs like; “Keep On,” “Ode” and “So Clear” were created almost with a string arrangement in mind, just using synthesized instruments and recreations of vintage gear. I was working with my producer at the time, crafting these songs from demos to fully fledged songs, obsessing over every moment, wondering how we could make something that felt special and compelling. If you listen to those songs, they sound like they transfer really easily to the string world.
Has your base in Texas helped shape your sound? If so, please explain. If not, where is the best spot for you to create or gain inspiration?
I think Texas, specifically Austin, has really shaped my sound! I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin. By my final year, a lot of my friends were just starting to make records, recording, and playing live shows. I started playing with some of them. We had no clue what we were doing, but it was fun! Hearing a live, rowdy crowd at a performance was so different from my experience with classical music concerts at school, which often felt stuffy and quiet. I used a lot of those experiences—watching what worked for my friends’ bands, what was challenging, what I liked, what I didn’t like and put that into the creation of my EP.
What has been your most memorable experience as a musician? Is there a performance, moment or burst of creativity that has stood out in your mind to date?
There are a lot of moments that stick out to me that often involve collaboration—either with another musical partner in the studio, on stage, or with the audience themselves. At my best, I’m looking for ways to connect with people through music. The one I remember most was in 2021, on a big stage in Cedar Park. I was opening for Gina Chavez, an OG on the Austin music scene, and a Latin Grammy nominee. My whole family came in from Houston, and my mom and sister flew in from Kansas City. It was the first time I performed my original music for them live. We were outdoors, under the stars, with a few hundred people in the audience. My family got to see a new side of me. Felt like a real homecoming.
For green musicians, what is some advice you wish you had known when you started? What can help prepare them for the scene?
Find community in whatever you love doing—people that can see what you don’t see, that catch your “blind spots.” That are as passionate about what they do as you are about what you do. We are social creatures and we need community not just for our work but also for our mental health, for our well-being and longevity.
Who are some musicians in the space right now that excite you or are pushing the boundaries in the craft, and why?
Grace Sorenson – Modern R&B dripping in soul, spirit, and intention. She’s clear on the aesthetic and message of her music and visuals. Big things on the way for her.
BLK ODYSSY – Feels like Kendrick Lamar / D’Angelo / Parliament rolled into one thing. You can’t not bob your head to this music. The live show is next level too.
promqueen – my friend who I’ve known for a decade has gone from writing cheery pop singer-songwriter into creating powerful, fierce music. She’s dancing, singing, rapping in Vietnamese, and “playing” with her music freely! At first I was like, where did this come from? But that person has been there all along. Produced and co-written with another standout up-and-comer, waverly.
Mobley – composer, songwriter, director, producer, multi-instrumentalist that brings crazy energy and intricate details to each aspect of these skills…He talks about some real shit affecting our world in a way that doesn’t beat you over the head.
Are there other mediums besides music that help you stay in the creative zone? Is it film or painting, etc?
I denied it for a long time but I love films. For years I thought I didn’t have enough time to watch movies or shows at all…One of my friends framed it best—life as a creative can’t be all output. We need time to take in new sights and sounds—to “inhale.” Last thing I watched was The White Lotus, season two!
Is there a dream place you wish to perform that you haven’t?
For my band that’s electric and synthesized and loud, I wanna perform at Lollapalooza. I saw 6lack perform there for a crowd of like 20,000 people—and that had a huge impact on the way I perform shows. Calmly commanding the stage. For these more intimate, string-led concerts, smaller spaces are ideal. If we could do an outdoor venue at night, in the woods, fully surrounded by an audience of maybe 200 people, that’d be perfect.
What bothers you most about music in 2023? What would you like to be different or improved?
Honestly, I don’t listen to what I don’t like for that long haha…I try to keep a fresh perspective on things. I love seeing folks from the African Diaspora creating these cross-cultural, cross-generational songs that feel good, breaking down musical barriers. Rappers doing house music, singers doing afrobeats, reggaeton, and remakes of old soul. Artists singing in multiple languages, doing things that reflect their heritage in a deep way. I feel like some of today’s artists really have to think about the big picture. Not just what does your music sound like, but what’s it feel like? What visuals could represent it? Where does it fit in the world?
What activity do you like to do to relax and get back into a fresh mindset?
I’m not that good at sitting still haha. So to relax I like to get outside and move! The cheap ways to do that are biking, working out, dancing, or getting into nature. Also, taking a moment to read, uninterrupted. The more expensive way is traveling to a new space, getting out of the routine.