Interview: Dana Fuchs, Dynamic Singer-Songwriter, to Play Evanston SPACE July 27

If you’ve never listened to Dana Fuch’s solo music, you might still recognize her voice. The powerful singer played the role of (Sexy) Sadie in Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical Across the Universeas well as the starring role in the off-Broadway musical Love, Janis. But acting is not her biggest love – instead, she commands the stage mainly as herself, wielding a dynamic presence as she plays her soul, blues, and rock n’ roll inspired music. The New York singer-songwriter has a show with her band this upcoming Friday, July 27th, at Evanston SPACE, supporting her new album, Love Lives OnDana exudes a genuineness and warmth that is present both in her music and in speaking to her. Last week, I talked with her to get a little insight into her upbringing, musical influences, and what it’s like touring with a toddler.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today!
Of course, and thanks for helping us get the word out!

So I have some questions today, to preview your upcoming show. That’s so great that you’re playing at Space, have you ever played there before?
No, but I’ve heard such great things about it, I’m really looking forward to it.

It is such a great space. It’s one of those places where everybody truly sits and listens, and it’s so intimate. Anyways, congratulations on your new album, I love it!
Thank you!

Tell me about your favorite song on this new album.
I would say my favorite song, right now, is “Sedative.” I just like the groove – the way it came out was a bit of a surprise, because all of these songs started out as acoustic demos. And that one came out really spooky, and I love what the musicians did with it. It really captures the sentiment of the tune, which is about someone having panic attacks in the middle of the night.

I get the sense that a lot of your music deals with a lot of heavy stuff, but it’s done in such a way that maintains that levity and that driving force that makes it fun to listen to.
That’s the goal.

I really love the title track (“Love Lives On”), it reminds me a lot of Otis Redding.
I really felt like I was channeling Otis in the studio that day, with these guys. That’s why I went to Memphis, because I’m such a big Otis fan, and that one was probably the most personal track. It’s really about being with my mom in her last days, and then finding out I was having a child just before she died, so it was all very – that’s the whole “love lives on.”

I was reading your bio, and I’m curious as to how you feel your upbringing and these experiences that you’ve had as you’ve been building your career have impacted your artistry and your writing?
Well, we draw from these experiences – I think any lyricist, especially, that has to get on stage every night and be convincing – I have to draw on these personal experiences that I’ve had. And then at the same time, the older you get and the more you travel and meet people, you find out that our experiences are not that dissimilar. So, it gives that more universal appeal, I hope, but everything I’ve gone through has ended up in a song one way or another, or a story that someone I’ve met along the way has gone through that I could relate to. I think between that and growing up on music, being the youngest of six kids and hearing every genre played through our house. I was so fortunate, because my parents and my siblings loved music so much, so I had every style – I was exposed to all of them. So that also shaped being able to really draw on the soul roots but go to that rock n roll vibe, country – my dad was a big Johnny Cash fan. That’s why there’s a Johnny Cash song on the album and part of the reason I went to Memphis.

Dana Fuchs © Kirk Stauffer

I can so clearly hear all of those influences in everything that you’re doing. I also wonder: your music comes in this long lineage of classic rock n roll, soul, and blues, and you’ve gotten to act and play these very classic roles. I notice also in your bio that it says you’ve “never dealt in nostalgia.” What does the balance between past, present, and future look like for you?
I think really just, with the past, there’s this catharsis of moving beyond it for me through songwriting and performing, and it’s like “that’s a moment in time,” if we stop and dwell and wallow, there is no future with that. I get this stuff off my chest, I get it out there, and it really helps me move on, because that’s life. There’s always a moment, and music really helps me say, “Ok, that was a moment in time but here I am now, and I’m ready to face what’s next, and who knows.”

Just out of curiosity, who would you say are maybe the top 3-4 musicians who you feel have had the most impact on you personally, even if it doesn’t come out in your music?
Wow, I would absolutely have to say Bob Dylan. When I realized I needed to write my own songs, someone gave me the best advice and said, “Go buy Dylan’s full book of lyrics,” and I read that every night before bed. I felt like I was constantly getting immersed in these amazing stories, and I went on a Dylan Diet for a while. So my music as it manifests in the actual recordings is maybe nothing like Dylan, but he was one of my – if not my biggest inspiration, in terms of songwriting. And then I’d have to say Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin as far as singing and performing. Then I got into Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, as far as performance. Queen was a constant. He was the consummate performer, and I always aspired to have that sort of control onstage – just really owning it. There’s so many. Tom Waits is another great one. I discovered him a little bit later after I came to New York in my 20s, but a huge impact. And then stuff I grew up on.

I like to ask musicians that question of “Who has meant the most to you even if it doesn’t come out in your music,” because I feel like what you said – even if those particular sounds don’t come out directly in your music, there’s always something that worms its way into your soul and manifests in other ways.
Absolutely. If I had to add one more, Lucinda Williams is another one who really knocked me off my feet when I heard her in my 20s, and helped shape my songwriting style.

Dana Fuchs © Marco Van Rooijen

I know you said that a lot of your songs start as these acoustic demos. How does that function within your band? Do they help you co-write or do you bring something to them and it becomes something else? What does that process look like?
Well for this album, pretty much all the albums, but this one since we used an outside producer who picked the other musicians, it’s always my guitarist and I, Jon Diamond. He’s really the bulk of the music and I’m all the lyrics. So we’ll make acoustic demos in the studio. What we did this time was just record a bunch of songs that way, the songs we wrote together, and then we brought them to the studio, and we didn’t give any of the musicians the music before we got there. It was their request. They wanted it to be spontaneous. And it was my first time doing it like that, but I had Steve Potts, who’s a Memphis icon on drums. He’s done all the sessions over the years, he’s like a machine. I had the Reverend Charles Hodges, who was in Al Green’s band. I was in great hands. And of course my bassist, who’s done the Joss Stone, Lenny Kravitz – I knew I was with world class musicians. So we would just bring in the demos and they’d say, “Ok, what do you feel like playing for us?” And we would just go down the list and they’d say, “Alright, let’s cut that.” I don’t think we did more than two or three takes of any song. That’s how great these guys were.

It kind of struck me when you were just talking and when I was reading on your website, that the start of your career in New York paralleled a lot the character of Sadie in Across the Universe. I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about playing her and about playing Janis Joplin in the musical Love, Janis. How did you feel that your own performance style influence the way you took on these roles, and alternately, how did these roles find their way into your solo work, if at all?
Absolutely. Well the Janis thing was really a big turning point for me. It wasn’t anything I was that interesting in doing. I was just starting my own songwriting, signed with a label at the time, and the guys in the Janis band and I all knew each other. We were all playing the same clubs in New York. They were the house band for the play, and they asked me to come audition because they were having a hard time keeping singers. I kept saying no, and when I finally saw the show, I realized it would be an amazing opportunity. So I auditioned, and they literally offered me the part on the spot. And funny enough, I had been compared to Janis a lot. But she was the one artist I did not get much exposure to. I knew a few of the hits, but that was it. I had eight days to learn these 20 songs, and so I lived, ate, and breathed her music and was utterly blown away. I brought that into the show, and the director said, “Learn the music, learn the dialogue, but don’t mimic Janis.” And I thought that was such great advice because I poured my heart into the songs like she did, but in my way. On my own show, I realized playing her gave me the permission to lose any remaining inhibitions I had on stage. It ain’t about looking good, it ain’t about looking cool, it’s just about the music and letting go. That was a huge lesson to learn in my 20s. From that came Across the Universe. Julie Taymor had seen me performing in a little club and I got an email from her office the next day that she wanted to meet. I did this song for her that was totally unrelated to Across the Universe. After I was done, she said, “Can you act? I really liked your show” – ’cause you know, I tell little stories about the songs onstage – and she said “You might hear from me.” About a year later, I got called to audition for Sadie and found out I had the part all along. No one told me. They kept calling me back to try out different boyfriends, because I’m six feet, and they needed to find a Jojo who would look strong enough against me. Meanwhile, I had no idea I’d gotten the part. I kept getting frustrated that they kept making me come back to try out different guys. I said to the casting agent, “Well who’s playing Sadie?” and they said, “Well, of course, you are!” Julie came in and started laughing and said that she had actually written that part for me, based on what she had learned about my life and loosely based on Janis, of course. That one was easy, I just stepped into it. Both acting things I’ve ever gotten have been something where I really get to express myself musically the way I normally do, so that’s been a real gift.

Do you hope to act more in the future?
I love it. I mean, I don’t love it enough to quit touring and spend a year of my life auditioning, but I love doing it. There are great actors out there. I’ve spent my whole life honing my music. If someone offered me a really cool part, and I could pull it off, absolutely. But I wouldn’t shift my focus right now for that.

I guess my last question is really just, what’s next for you? I know you’re touring right now, and your album just came out. What are your general plans for your musical future?
Well, we’ve gotta get through this year, there are a lot of shows. I haven’t toured this heavily in a while, and I have a toddler now that comes with me. So it’s a whole new ball game.

Well thank you so much for talking to me, and good luck on your show, and congratulations again on your album!
Thank you!
Catch Dana with her band at Evanston S.P.A.C.E. on Friday, July 27th, at 7pm! Get tickets here. Purchase/stream her new album, Love Lives On, here.

Mariel Fechik
Mariel Fechik

Mariel Fechik is a musician, writer, and program coordinator for a Chicago nonprofit. She fronts the band Church Booty, sings backup for Chicago musician Emily Blue, and also recently started a duo project with Blue. Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals. She holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois, as well as an Illinois Professional Educators License.