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Daniel Knox Delivers Gritty-Beautiful Music On His New Album

By Carrie McGath in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 27, 2015 4:00PM

Daniel Knox in his studio.

Daniel Knox has visited just about every pocket, nook and corner of the city, treating those journeys as an exercise in salvaging the storied imagery in an array of objects and memories, forging an archive. We spoke to Knox in his studio, itself a kind of archive, discussing his talent in excavating the complex beauty in what most would see as the mundane landscapes and images of life. As evidenced on his Instagram page, a Walgreens parking lot holds a winsomeness for Knox, a discarded chicken wing on a sidewalk becomes a poignant abstraction, passengers on a bus take on a muse-like quality. He lives in Humboldt Park where he rents a room from a friend. There, he is able to focus on sleep, relaxing and spending time with his daughter. He states the importance of keeping his home and his studio separate so he can “live more fully and work more fully” in each individual space.

“My favorite moments in songs are these little islands in a song that exist unto themselves, but need the support of reality to live in,” Knox explains. The catalysts for these “islands” may be language, an image or a series of images. “Unconsciously, the cataloging of things and places have resulted in songs.” He spoke more about this idea of cataloging, archiving and focusing on memory as well as an attachment to place, habits and things. “Archiving is a way to focus your brain to put a bunch of things together and while one part is doing that,” he says, “all the other parts of your brain is free to do so many other things, to be a mess apart from you.”

Cover for Daniel Knox's self-titled album, a portrait by Gregory Jacobsen.
Place is important to Knox, too. So many buildings in his hometown have went through numerous incarnations—a Starbucks is in a building that was once a Taco Bell that was once something else. What Knox finds fascinating about place is the human drive to attach meaning to even the most banal spots in a landscape. “The places we attach a lot of importance to hold very little importance, like parking lots. These are places we go in our life that are intensely pregnant with history, but they’re not at all landmarks.”

His self-titled album was released this week by Carrot Top Records and it has a different feel than his previous albums, while hanging onto the dark, funny and poetic backbone his music consistently possesses. His compositions are a bit more instrumentally complex here, resulting in a sound that creates a large, soft orb that encapsulates a listener. Knox's deep bravado weaves through his piano compositions, conjuring a singer-songwriter mythos. But he goes beyond this omniscient narrator role, bringing the woes and joys of the everyman we are all in tune to, rail against and hover toward as listeners. Unspooling snippets of contemporary life through colloquial storytelling, the songs occupy a tonal space tinged with both sadness and a deeply timeless glory.

“Don’t Touch Me” has an immediate humor that grows into a song about frustration and the possible turmoil of human connection. The video for the song recently premiered on Vanity Fair, signaling again Knox’s ability to intrigue with his music that is quickly creating its own path amid the oft-interchangeable sounds so prevalent right now. Audiences are hungry for the uniqueness he brings so naturally; he is never contrived but is instead utterly genuine in his art and as an artist.

The cover of the new album is a portrait by Chicago artist, Gregory Jacobsen, and depicts Knox so well with a furrowed, thoughtful brow and a palette that is strong as it is soft, just like his voice and his sometimes robust, sometimes fragile lyrics and the narratives they spin.

The official release of the new album is this Saturday during two shows at Constellation (3111 N. Western Ave). The 9:30 p.m. show is sold out, but a 7:30 p.m. performance has been added and tickets are still available. These performances should be a treat for fans old and new of the musician since he possesses a showmanship that delivers a Midwestern sensibility of edginess meets kindness, modesty meets a work ethic, birthing formidable songs that have an ability to touch the bare bones of the human condition.