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Dan Israel emerges from a midlife crisis with ‘You’re Free’

Dan Israel

Dan Israel Steven Cohen

When Dan Israel walked away from his day job of 21 years at the Minnesota State Legislature’s Revisor’s Office last year, he felt free.

The liberation was a long time coming. “It really wore me out—physically, mentally—and there was this constant tension with my music career,” says the 47-year-old St. Louis Park native. “I was so intent on never letting it be an issue that I overcompensated and worked crazy hard to dispel any notion that I wasn’t giving it my all. And I always gave it my all. I gave all things my all.”

When people would marvel at his ability to balance work, music, caring for his two children, and ask “How do you do it?” Israel would often think, “I don’t do it. It’s not like I’m managing. My body’s falling apart. I’m frazzled.”

When the legislature was in session, his job was all-encompassing. Late nights become all-nighters. Towards the end of his career, there were three all-nighters in five days. In the midst of one, Israel was granted permission to leave to play a show but had to come back to work afterwards. Some of his colleagues supported his musical endeavors but others looked down upon any notoriety he garnered in his musical life. When MN Original filmed Israel at his desk for a piece on musicians and their day jobs, “people were giving me dirty looks,” he says. “All it takes is a nemesis or two above you in an organization to make your life hell.”

When he felt he had enough gigs and financial stability from a retirement fund, he quit, and with his newly found free time he recorded You’re Free, his 14th album. The instrumentally upbeat tracks reflect his struggles in lyrically wrought songs like “Stay on the Run,” a tune about failing to maintain that image of “the hardest working man in town” who in reality isn’t getting anywhere, or “Make This Life Mine,” about a desperate man grasping for hope.

“I’m pretty autobiographical and not even opaquely so,” he says of his songwriting style. “At this point, I’m not willing to totally change who I am for other people anymore. That’s part of the liberation of the album, too. I’m going to be myself. You can like it. You can not like it. That’s the honest truth. That’s who I am.”

Jettisoning his job isn’t the only transformation Israel’s life has undergone lately. In 2013, his marriage unraveled; the divorce, finalized in 2014, “kind of came out of left field,” he says. The couple met at the Uptown Bar in 1996 and have two children, now 12 and 9 years old. “I was not the perfect husband, so it’s not like I expected that there would never be problems,” Israel says. “Maybe I was never meant to be married—that occurred to me—though I’d always had that dream of making that perfect and having that hope for the future that it would work.”

Israel lost 60 pounds in six months due to stress and digestive issues; his health was so precarious hospitalization was considered. Depression and anxiety, longtime afflictions, became more severe. To get through, he admits to leaning on “artificial enhancements,” which haven’t always been healthy, but he’s not interested in getting sober. “Some people might look at me and say, ‘Dude, you’ve got a little substance issue there still,’ and I would probably say, ‘Yeah, I probably do a little bit, but that’s how I am,’” he says.

Though Israel says he’s “never really not felt in a crisis in my adult life,” things eventually settled down, and “everything’s cool” as far as co-parenting with his ex-wife is concerned. He even entered into a new romantic relationship, though it’s “no longer in existence, sadly,” he says. Still, a few songs on You’re Free bear witness to that love, which feels odd to Israel post-breakup. “It’s another thorny, tricky thing in my life that I sometimes have to navigate. But I write what I write. If something affects me at the time, I’m gonna write about it and I don’t think to myself, ‘Will this still be relevant in a year?’”

Accepting relevance (or lack thereof) is another skill Israel is learning. Though he’s received accolades over the course his long music career, he hasn’t reached the level of notoriety that he longed for, perhaps because his music doesn’t fit neatly in any genre. Though often labeled a folkie, he grew up on classic rock and is a “rocker at heart” but never felt at home on the indie rock scene, which he describes as “insular and self-congratulatory.” Now decades into his music career, he acknowledges that he’s beyond becoming the next big thing. “My conception of success has, by definition, had to change or I was never going to feel successful,” he says.

In lieu of fame or mass popularity, he prides himself on sincere songwriting. “I think people are looking over their shoulder and not allowing themselves to create art that’s honest sometimes,” he says. “I see a lot of pretense. A lot. Layers of pretense. I can’t stand how much of stuff is…I can’t relate to it. I don’t know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t sound like any emotion I’ve ever felt. It doesn’t sound like it comes from the heart.”

As for his own heart, Israel is trying to be less bitter and more grateful. He wants to embrace the joy in his life, be it from music or his children. “I’ve been obsessively focused for a long time on negative things,” he says. But his newfound freedom isn’t without its challenges. “I have a little tendency to be a little reckless and self-destructive, so I have to watch that the joy doesn’t turn into 24/7 partying. Especially without a day job—it’s a little bit more of a risk.”

Dan Israel
With: Rich Mattson and the Northstars
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed. May 9
Tickets: $12/$15. More info here