Interview: Danielle Todd

BackBurnerArtwork.jpegCanadian artist Danielle Todd has found success on Australian airwaves this year with her single ‘Crazy’ – and now with the new release ‘Back Burner’. Her style is eclectic while being identifiably country, and it’s all driven by her powerful voice. Todd is heading for the Tamworth Country Music Festival in January – but it won’t be her first visit to Australia.

‘I don’t remember the year,’ she says, ‘but it was a while ago.  I really just wanted to travel so I travelled over there and then I really liked it. I ended up getting like a working visa that allowed me to play gigs. But I was just playing little pubs, little hotels, RSL clubs and stuff like that, mostly around the Sydney area. And then I did travel up to Queensland. I went up the coast. I also visited Hamilton Island and Adelaide – I have some family in Adelaide. So I did as much travelling as I was able to do and then performed whenever I could when I was there. I loved living over there and experiencing it. It was just a different lifestyle altogether than my Canadian life.’

 

It’s partly the love of travel – and of Australia – that’s bringing Todd back here. There’s also the fact that ‘I feel like Australian country radio has really embraced my music. And I think that you have to listen to what your fans are saying and what the radio is saying.

‘So when I applied for Tamworth and started to release my second single, the response was so strong from country radio. I’ve gotten so many interviews and a lot of spins immediately. So it’s kind of a no-brainer. You gotta go where the support is.’

While it can be very hard to break into country radio in the USA, Todd says of Australian radio, ‘It seems to me with country radio over in Australia, if it’s a good song, they play it, which is really cool. There’s not as much politics behind it.’

Fans have also found her online. ‘I have fans that have found me on YouTube or found me on Instagram,’ she says, ‘and I think, How did you ever do that? What were you searching that you found me?’

Streaming allows fans all over the world to find music much more easily than they used to – although it can also mean that it’s very hard to keep up with everything that’s available. But for Todd, it’s all part of her work.

‘Sometimes I work between 20 to 40 hours a week singing cover music. That’s my job. That’s how I make my money. So I have to stay on top of what is on radio, especially country radio. I do find that because I’m in Nashville, I really focus a lot on country music. When those big artists release new albums, I always try to make a point to listen to the whole album. Even – I know it’s more so pop now, but Taylor Swift released her album [Lover] and I made a point to sit down and listen to it front to back. And same with Miranda Lambert. She released her album just a couple of days ago and I listened to the whole thing front to back. But I don’t get a lot of time to just sit down and appreciate music any more because I’m so submersed in it all the time. When I get home from a 12-and-a-half-hour shift of singing, the last thing I want to do is like turn on the radio in my car. So I drive in silence. You have to find those times when you can listen to the music and really take the time to appreciate it.’

Given how physically demanding singing can be – especially the amount of hours Todd performs each week – she has to take care of her voice, and herself.

When I first moved to Nashville, I, people used to laugh and say that I was like an aerobics teacher,’ she says, laughing, ‘because I was doing cartwheels on stage. I would be jumping up and down and all over the place, every single show.

‘Now that I’m working so much, you do have to kind of preserve your energy and like take care of yourself. And when I’m not on stage, I literally spend 100 per cent of my time taking care of myself. Okay, I need to buy this tea. I need to work out at this time. I need to rest my voice. I need to warm up my voice. I need to learn. I take vocal lessons and so I do a lot of stuff to protect myself and protect my body.

‘And also emotionally, I really have to find different outlets because my whole life, my music was my hobby and my favourite thing to do. And now it’s my hobby, my job, my career. It’s literally everything in my life, which is amazing. But at the same time, you have to have a little bit of an outlet. So I find other things that I can do to have a balance in my life and not have everything just be sound all the time.’

Todd admits that there are times where she has burnt out but says she’s learnt to Danielle Todd-3261final.jpegrecognise the signs before she realises she has worked too hard or doesn’t want to sing any more because she’s hurting her voice.

‘Before you get to that point you have to make some decisions,’ she says, ‘and say, “Okay, I need to drop this gig or I need to add extra songwriting into my life.”‘

Todd has been steeped in music for most of her life – her father gave her a Patsy Cline song to learn when she was four, but her musical memories go back further than that.

‘I have memories of like sitting on my dad’s knee and hearing family members singing,’ she says. ‘Boxing Day every year is my Todd family Christmas party. And I can remember being in a little tiny living room with thirty Todds and everyone’s singing Christmas carols. And I would always have one or two songs that I would have practised that I could go up and sing along with the CD.’

She also remembers going out to see her musician father perform. And, ‘I used to learn how to line dance, which is funny. I don’t remember how to do it now, but when I was a little girl I would line dance at matinee shows that he would do.’

Given her upbringing, it does seem inevitable that Todd would pursue music as a career – and she says, ‘To me, that is just the only course that you would go. I didn’t even know another way to go.

‘When I was in high school, I created my own jobs because the town that I was from had some music [venues]. Most of them were bars so I couldn’t get into them. So I would go around to coffee shops or little restaurants and say, “Hey, you don’t have live music here. How about I come here every Friday night and sing for you?” And they’d say, “Nah, I don’t know. Send us your CD.” And I didn’t have one. So I would say, “No, I don’t have one here. I’ll just sing.” And I’d start singing.

‘They’d say, “Okay, okay”,’ she remembers with a laugh. ‘Anything to stop me. They would just book me on the spot.’

While Todd might have been confident enough to sing on the spot in local venues, she didn’t start off feeling so comfortable. At her very first performance, ‘I was terrified,’ she says.

‘I actually really did get super nervous. I sang “I Will Always Love You” at my school talent show. And I was in fourth grade and I cried through the whole thing. I was almost throwing up in the bathroom beforehand. I was so terrified. And then I got through it and everyone clapped for me and I thought, Wow, they’re clapping for me after that performance. If I actually did a good job, maybe we might get something going here.

While performing takes up a lot of Todd’s time, songwriting is also a significant part of her work. She started writing songs in Grade Nine, although by then she’d already been playing guitar for a long time. As it turned out, though, guitar was not to be the instrument that led her to write.

‘I came home one day,’ she remembers, ‘and my dad was literally jumping up and down at the front door and said, “I have a surprise for you.” Then I walked into the living room and there was an upright piano. And he said to me, “If you learn piano this summer, if you teach yourself how to play, then you don’t have to get a summer job.” And I said, “Okay.”

‘So I sat down at the piano and I would have my CD player beside me and I would listen to the piano in the song and I would play what they were playing and play it all by ear and learn it by ear.

‘And then I started to write my own stuff. Most of it was sad teenage heartbreak songs [when] I didn’t even know what heartbreak was,’ she says, laughing. ‘I was 15 or whatever. But that’s when I really started writing.’

Todd also worked very closely with a mentor who became a great friend, Canadian singer-songwriter Ambre McLean. ‘She really pushed me to write a lot as well,’ says Todd, ‘and that’s when I really started to get into to songwriting over [doing] covers.’

Performing cover songs is, however, a large part of her work, and that means she does get to perform a lot of music she really loves – and also some that she doesn’t. She says that when she really emotionally connects with a song it’s usually because of the lyrics.

‘For example, one of my favorite songs lyric wise is “Vice” by Miranda Lambert. That’s such a cool song. And I think that she did such an amazing job capturing that feeling of just being kind of a hot mess express, you know? And that really speaks to me. When I get to sing that song, I’m in this crazy crowded drunk bar, two in the morning and I can just drown everybody out and get to that spot where she was when she wrote that. I feel like I connect with it, and then I think that I perform it differently.’

Todd’s passion for and extensive knowledge of music means she isn’t confined to one particular style in her own songs. Her three singles released this year – ‘Crazy’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Back Burner’ – each have very different musical elements. Yet they also sound like her. Todd identifies herself as a ‘writer chameleon’ when writing songs for others – and she’s written hundreds – because she writes to fit the artist’s style. For songs that she writes for herself, ‘I am a firm believer of writing what the song needs. If I hear a melody or a lyric idea that just really speaks to me, no matter what it is, I will take it and run with it.

‘I think “Blue” obviously is very different from “Crazy” and “Back Burner”, but “Blue” is actually a very close song to me because I really love storytelling. I love imagery and I love really drawing in, and I feel like you can do that with those types of songs. A lot of my longtime fans will say that that’s the closest to what I was before I started to get into full production, because I always performed with just me and a piano or just me and a guitar. “Blue” is really kind of broken down and it’s just that raw emotion.’

‘Crazy’, by contrast, was ‘so much fun,’ says Todd. ‘We were laughing. We were at a writer’s retreat and it was the first day and we were thrown into a room together and we met and we started writing this song. And I remember we wrote it and … I was just so excited about it.

‘Then “Back Burner” the whole time I said, “This is just such a kick-ass kind of in-your-face [song]. And it’s just what the song called for.’

‘Back Burner’ was written with Natascha Myers and Curt Gibbs.

‘I had caught up with Natascha right before the write,’ says Todd. ‘We went out for coffee and we were talking about a bunch of other stuff. And then when we were walking in to the write and she said, “I have this idea that’s just been bouncing around in my head for a really long time, but all I have is back burner.” She didn’t have a melody, she didn’t have the storyline, nothing.

‘I came up with the “you light me up and then you put me on the back burner” idea. And as we were walking in I said, “That’s totally what we should write today.” Then Curt really brought in a lot of the musical aspects of it and that stomping beat going through it.

‘It just became this really feisty, confident song. And I was pumped. I was standing up when we were writing it. Everyone else was sitting, really concentrating, and I was saying, “Guys, we’re doing it!”‘ she says with a laugh. ‘I just get overly excited and excitable and whenever I’m writing.’

Todd finds structured writing sessions to be productive, but sometimes there is pressure attached, ‘especially if initially you get into a room and for whatever reason you can’t decide on an idea or you throw an idea out and everyone really likes the idea, but then they want it to go in different directions. I feel like if it doesn’t come together in the first half hour of at least a solid plan for a song, it can get frustrating and you can feel like you’ve either been there forever or you’re never going to have enough time to finish it. It’s a really bad feeling to leave a write without anything or without finishing a song. ‘I always like to try and finish it before we leave. Then you can obviously tweak it later.

‘So there is that pressure to it, but there’s also the flip side where it’s, “Okay, we have three hours, we booked this time, let’s be productive.” And so it makes everyone really want to get something done, as opposed to “Oh, we have the whole afternoon and you want to come hang out and drink wine or whatever.” I feel like when it’s booked like that, you can really get down to business.’

Those sorts of writing sessions are part of the fabric of Nashville, as is all the live music on offer. For a musician like Todd, it seems like the logical place to be – except it’s a long way from home.

‘I had been visiting Nashville a bunch before I moved down there,’ Todd says, ‘and every time that I went down there, everyone kept saying, “You need to move here. If you want to make something happen, you can’t go home. Or else people just forget about you.” And it’s true. So every time I was leaving I would feel bummed out because I felt like I was putting everything on hold.

‘The last time that I visited Nashville was actually the first time I had ever visited Broadway. I jumped up with a bunch of bands and almost every single band said to me, “Are you busy on Thursday?” Or, “Hey, are you around every Saturday from two to six?” They just wanted to hire me on the spot. And I thought, Well, if I already have a job, just come down here.

‘So I went home and was said, ‘This is the date I’m moving and I’ll see everyone later’, you know? It was hard to leave. But at the same time it felt like if I was going to stay where I was, that’s as far as my career was going to go.’

That’s not to say that Todd had an easy re-entry to Music City.

‘It was really hard for me to actually find good, solid, steady work,’ she says. ‘It took me about a year to just settle in and make enough money to survive in the city before even started to look into songwriting or anything else. Just getting a job that I could support myself took quite a while.

‘And then it was a huge learning curve. Working on Broadway, but it’s a really good way to get kinda your 10,000 hours in of performance,’ she says, laughing.

Ten thousand hours is the amount of time said to lead to expertise in a subject. Given Todd’s early start as a performer, she likely passed that before she was even out of her teens – and the breadth and depth of her experience shows in the quality of her music, and her dedication to the art and craft of music.

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