Daniel Ahearn on writing, those long nights at his ‘day’ job and his new album ‘Long Way Home’


Portraits by Laurie Scavo
Downloads and videos appear below

There is a felicity to Los Angeles about which I never want to become cynical. The waitress who hands you pancakes at Millie’s might be in a big movie two years later. The kid at the Apple store is working on animation that’ll knock your socks off. The nerdy clerk who types listings at the newspaper has the makings of an electro-pop star. The barista is making progress on a novel. The other barista has a gallery show of striking architectural photographs. The production assistant who just got a latté from those baristas has a screenplay. And the bartender who mixes your third gin & tonic has a song or two that could change your life, or at least give you shelter from the storm.

Though not exclusive to L.A., the aroma of possibility pervades our city of dreamers and tryers, schemers and liars. Skeptics will tell you it’s easier to get drunk on the idea of these possibilities than the possibilities themselves, but it’s better for your mental health to imbibe the Kool-Aid of romantics than the pisswater of naysayers. Of these things I think every time Daniel Ahearn mixes my third gin & tonic at the Echo.

Ahearn is 35 and a chronic chronicler, the kind who carries a dog-eared notebook in his shoulder bag lest he miss the fleeting moment, late some night, “when everything can be the total truth,” he says, because, “you’re surely going to wake up the next morning and think, ‘What was that truth?'”

His weapons of choice are an acoustic guitar, a lilting folkie’s voice and and a frankness that doesn’t end in the genteel twang of his Everyman Americana. Ahearn considers things, like inveterate readers do, and whether making conversation or taking a drink order, his steely blues reveal not a world-weariness but world-wariness – a healthy vigilance being a tool of both his trades. He’s seen some things, done some things and, owing to his nightly station, heard some things.

After all, a simple “how’s-it-goin’?” can unfold into a Shakespearean tragedy in the clink of a ice cube. “When you work behind a bar, people tell you anything,” he says, “and the less they know you the better. People you hardly know will tell you some far-out shit, but they are so lonely they just want somebody to talk to. It must be like being a shrink or a priest.”

Neither shrink nor priest, Daniel Ahearn is a songwriter. And how’s it going?

“I’ll let you know how songwriting is going when I’m 80. Because right now I have no idea.”

â—Š ———– â—Š ———– â—Š

||| Download: “Rumors”

We meet at Stories bookstore in Echo Park to talk about the solo album he is self-releasing, “Long Way Home.” It’s been a long time coming, but there have been other projects and interruptions. He’s married since the last of his three albums as Ill Lit was released, and become a father. I find out some things I never bothered to when I was on the customer side of his bar.

Ahearn was born in Indianapolis, the youngest of four children. His parents separated (including two divorces) and reconciled nine times. He moved to California when he was 6. He liked country music, then classical, then punk rock and rap, then electronic, and worked in the techno scene in New York City in the ’90s. He speaks in reverent tones about the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Patsy Cline, Leonard Cohen, John Prine, Tom Waits and Todd Snider … “especially John Prine,” he says. His list of life-changing albums would include “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” by the Flaming Lips, “Liar” by the Jesus Lizard, “Songs of Leonard Cohen” and “Goldberg Variations” as performed by Glenn Gould. The entertainment at his sister’s 16th birthday party was a then-unknown punk band called Green Day.

He’s paid his bills by selling Christmas trees in New York City with a convicted heroin dealer, working in farmers’ markets and participating in consumer test groups. He financed the third Ill Lit album, “Tom Cruise” (2006), by selling his slumbering self to a sleep study clinic in Orange County.

That album, and the first two Ill Lit releases “Wacmusic” (2002) and “I Need You” (2004), were well-regarded efforts – lush alt-country with electronic backdrops. Managing a band, though, became a little much for Ahearn – although that’s not the main reason he struck out on his own with an acoustic guitar. In 2007, his garage was burglarized and all of his gear was stolen. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just cut my losses and play acoustic guitar all the time,'” he says.

In 2009, Ahearn and fellow musician Michael Rozon collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright on “Readings From Wheeling Motel,” an album that featured the poet’s reading of his work to the music of Ahearn and Rozon.

He co-wrote a song with Mads Langer that became a hit in Denmark and has collaborated with others. He’s also embarked on a children’s music project, Storytime Funland.

His new album has already gotten a boost thanks to his song “I Will Let You” having appeared in the movie “No Strings Attached.”

There’s a meditative beauty in “Long Way Home” that’s only part of the album’s allure. In his song “Do Not Be Afraid,” Ahearn confronts the voice inside his head, the one that dwells on the possibility of failure, the one that nags, “Why even try?” Yes, why?

“I don’t know, I just write, man,” Ahearn says. I wish there were something cool about it. It’s tedious and lonely. I don’t necessarily want to dedicate my life to this – I mean, I want to make money and take care of my wife and son. It’s confounding that this is what I’m doing.”

â—Š ———– â—Š ———– â—Š

Our hourlong meeting at Stories meanders, touching on William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson and other writers. Ahearn likens the process of songwriting to “a gentle tugging” – a feeling captured, he notes, in “The Thread,” a poem by Denise Levertov.

Later in an e-mail, he apologizes for our conversation being a “bit ethereal” and writes “in the interest of facts, here are some:”

i’m a vegetarian
i don’t drink and i don’t get high
i meditate daily
Because I have worked in a club my hearing is a bit messed up
the only radio stations i listen to are KUSC and BBC radio 3 on-line –
I appreciate the space in the stereo field.
When moving from Indiana to LA when i was six
we drove and listened to two tapes the entire way
Beatles hits from 50/60s and The Wall
I have driven across the US 11 times
I froze in my tracks the first time i heard Leonard Cohen –
I think John Prine is the greatest songwriter that ever lived
I think Franz Wright is the greatest poet alive
Dead poets tie (rilke, sexton, hart crane)
I cried every time i read Visions of Gerard (4 times)
The two books I read in one siting were American Psycho (on a train
from Moscow to St. Petersburg when i was 17) and The perks of being a
wallflower (two years ago on a cliff in Malibu)
I have only been arrested and jailed in Mexico
My mother is my hero
Lelana Cassidy was the first girl i loved. I hear she is a check-out
girl at a grocery store somewhere in California.
I write every day
My son is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me

â—Š ———– â—Š ———– â—Š

||| Download: “San Vicente”

Slinging drinks at the Echo to folks who probably associate Rainer Maria with the band, Ahearn marvels not only at his aural intake but the fact that after doing this for more than five years he isn’t very jaded. “Who’s seen more live bands? I mean, four a night …,” he says. “It’s tiring and debilitating and desensitizes you, and it encourages you be a little bit dismissive of people trying to do stuff. But night work also gives you an amazing perspective on culture, how people operate, the sensuality of everything, the lubricants … There’s something kind of mystical about it.

“People go out and they drink, and as they get drunk they get to project this idea of themselves, the way they want to be seen,” says Ahearn, who has worked downtown and in Santa Monica and has witnessed the subtle differences in the flow of humanity. “Here, everybody wants to be a rock star, or an anti-rock star, or some postmodern conglomeration of the idea.”

It feeds his flow of ideas – not that it’s the only way to derive inspiration, or even that it’s glamorous at all.

“I was told early on that if you want to be an interesting writer, have an interesting life,” he says. “But the biggest challenge is that you have to define what is interesting. Some great writers never left their room. Your life doesn’t necessarily have to be busy; you don’t have to be involved or popular. You just have to find what engages the part of you that wants to write.”

||| Live: Daniel Ahearn celebrates the release of “Long Way Home” with a show Tuesday at Lot 1 Cafe in Echo Park, as part of  Buzz Bands LA’s SecondTuesday songwriter series.

||| Watch: Pete Shanel’s video for “I Will Let You Go” (featuring Angela Correa, Mindy Jones and Jillinda Palmer), from the movie “No Strings Attached:”

||| Watch: Franz Wright’s “Night Flight Turbulence,” from the album “Readings From the Wheeling Motel,” featuring music by Daniel Ahearn and Michael Rozon: