Dan Reeder: Finding the Extraordinary in Everyday Life

Dan Reeder builds his own instruments, designs his own cover art, and records all of the vocals and instrumentals for his songs. (PHOTO BY MARIA IVEY)

In a recent poll, Iowa residents selected John Prine as the musician they most admired. Prine’s combination of humor and pathos in such songs such as “Paradise,” “Angel From Montgomery,” and “In Spite of Ourselves” fits right into the Hawkeye wheelhouse of what a good tune should be.

So who is John Prine’s favorite musician? The singer-songwriter is too polite to name one, lest he inadvertently insult someone. But Prine’s admiration for Dan Reeder is clear. Prine signed Reeder to his Oh Boy Records label, toured with him four times, and released all three of Reeder’s previous records: Dan Reeder (2004), Sweetheart (2005), and This New Century (2009). Reeder’s newest effort, Nobody wants to be you, comes out on November 10 on Oh Boy.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that fans of Prine’s will probably be fans of Reeder’s. The two share a cosmic comic sense of the absurd. They write and sing about the extraordinary nature of the ordinary. On Reeder’s latest effort, which is just a five-song EP in advance of the 2018 full-length release, he coarsely croons in a voice that resembles Prine’s about things like “being a worm” and “the pond in the park.” Reeder doesn’t elevate the common as much as celebrate with wonderment what already exists in this world, not to mention the ways in which people behave and relate to each other.

Reeder, who’s been living in Germany for over 30 years with his German-born wife, earns his living as a painter, which he says he can’t imagine doing in the United States.

“Here, I’m in the artist’s social insurance system [Künstlersozialkasse],” he says, “which provides inexpensive insurance for artists. And regular people buy pictures.” He has designed all of his album art, exhibited his work, led art seminars, and issued an overview of his work entitled Art Pussies Fear This Book. He has also published several practical titles on making art, like Make Something Ugly . . . for a Change! and Papier-Mache Monsters: Turn Trinkets and Trash into Magnificent Monstrosities.

“I think of my songs as little works of art,” he says. “Some ideas work better as pictures. Some work better as songs. Whether I’m making music or painting pictures, I try to keep the attitude that anything goes.” Like the best paintings, his works are often deceptively simple.

Reeder makes his own musical instruments, so the sounds on his records are not always identifiable. “The thing about making musical instruments is it’s fun,” he says. “I do it more for me, though. It inspires me. You build a guitar, you want to see what you can get out of it. You build a cello, or cello-like instrument, and you learn to play it a little. You figure out a way to fit that sound into a song—difficult with a homemade cello, by the way. They tend to sound like dry farts . . . out of tune dry farts.” His deadpan humor comes through, even though he communicates from far away.

“You can write a song about anything, anything at all,” Reeder says, and mentions John Prine as someone with the same nonchalant outlook. “You don’t need to be a great guitar player to play them. Three or four chords are usually enough. You don’t have to have a great voice or a big range to sing them. And even if you screw up the chords and sing off-key, the lyrics will save the song.”

Reeder has a similar approach toward his own music, although he admits to being apprehensive. “I worry about everything. The world has gotten almost too complicated to deal with. Cultural appropriation—what can you do? What shouldn’t you do? Is it okay for a white guy from the suburbs of LA to use African rhythms? And so on. Political correctness is just a set of rules to avoid offending people, which is a good thing. It does make life complicated, though.”

The best way of dealing with such issues is through humor. Reeder offered a joke that works as a metaphor for his musical creations. “A guy goes to the doctor and says, ‘I bought some beef jerky. There was a little packet in the bag that said, do not eat. I ate it anyway. Am I going to die?’ The doctor smiles and says, ‘Well, we’re all going to die.’ The guy buries his face in his hands and says, ‘My god, what have I done?’ ” At the heart of the joke is an anxiousness that belies one’s good fortunes.

Reeder confesses that his life is fine. That itself makes him nervous. “There’s a German saying,” he says, “that loosely translated goes, ‘When things are going too well for the donkey, he goes out onto the ice.’ ”

Reeder’s past musical works have been praised by some of the nation’s top critics. He knows that sales of his new release will be too small to have a financial impact on his life. He plans to put it out there anyway and wait to see what happens.