The music of Daniel Knox transports the listener to an imagined past: a soft-focus blend of pre-war Parisian cafés, the haunted estate invoked in Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” or the boudoir of a film noir seductress. This is a kind, if romantic, way of stating that Knox’s musical signifiers are decidedly archaic — or, as he fondly puts it, “old-timey.” In this age of bleeps and bloops that stand in for melody, it is refreshing to hear a songwriter return to the basics of the form.
Daniel Knox’s writing and performing style were on full display when he opened for equally unique headliner Rasputina at Double Door. Knox was ostensibly on a solo tour and performed a mix of songs from his first two records, and new works written during his residency at Watermill Center.
Knox is an interesting character in ways beyond his musical performance. Perhaps most remarkably he is entirely self-taught as a musician. He originally moved to Chicago as a film student but dropped out when he found the constraints of the university system stifling. During this time he got into the habit of sneaking into the ballrooms of Chicago’s grand old hotels and tinkering with the pianos he found there. In interviews he has described plunking away with two, then four and now nine fingers (he doesn’t use the pinkie on his left hand, as a classically-trained cellist recently pointed out). He also taught himself to sing by first howling at the top of his lungs late at night in Chicago’s towering steel and concrete canyons, and more recently in crowded nightclubs. When you see him perform you’d never guess at his non-traditional background. His musical style is based on clear, powerful piano playing and his voice is effortlessly pitched and nimble across an array of vibratos and other inflections.
At the heart of Knox’s music is an ironic discontinuity between the often rollicking music he writes, and the sad, sometimes violent stories he tells through his lyrics. For example, in set closer “Ghostsong” he sets the mood with a dark yet agile piano riff. He then casually invokes his plans as a phantasm: “When I come back to life I’ll find you / Push my thumbs into your eyes and blind you.” All sung with a casual, almost light-hearted air.
On stage Knox is a consummate performer. He opens most songs with rambling anecdotes about the song’s source, or maybe something he saw on the side of the road while driving to the show. His asides are disarming, but once he begins to play a hush falls over the audience and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the trance. Knox’s music is cinematic in scope and tone. Each song is a rich, sepia-toned narrative waiting for you to climb in and play your role.