Dan Israel talks 'Crosstown Traveler' and staying grounded amid life's traffic jams


Dan Israel has been a constant in the Twin Cities roots music scene for over a decade now, and has proven himself to be a consistently high-quality songwriter and a witty, self-deprecating performer. 

Israel is getting ready to release his 11th album, Crosstown Traveler, at the Aster Cafe this Saturday night, and we caught up with him beforehand to find out more about the new album, his inspirations, and how he's managed to stay sane and grounded throughout his lengthy music career.

Gimme Noise: Does the title Crosstown Traveler have anything to do with the Crosstown (Hwy. 62)? Are there other meanings behind the album's title?
Yeah.  I went to and from the studio where we recorded most of the album (It's a Secret studio, run by our drummer and engineer/producer extraordinaire David J. Russ) on Hwy. 62, which is why I got the idea -- but I actually commute to and from my day job (I work for the nonpartisan Revisor's Office; I'm a legislative employee, basically) on I-94, which is a pretty rough commute these last few years.  So I go "crosstown" every day.  And the commute is so much a part of my life -- it's my time alone -- to think, to come up with ideas, to be filled with overwhelming rage at the stupidity of other drivers and the world at large. But when it comes down to it, it's anywhere from an hour to two hours of my day, every day.  So a lot of time "alone with my thoughts."  And with sports talk radio.  And my disc collection.  And, sure, with the Current and classic rock radio too.  

What has been inspiring you lately? You've always had a bit of an alt-country influence and I can hear that on the new record as well. Are there bands that you've discovered recently in that vein?
I haven't been writing a lot lately -- I'm in "album release mode" at the moment, which means the creative process kind of shuts down for a time while the "promotional machine" takes over.  But I usually find inspiration once that promo thing dies down after a new album comes out and I'm forced to actually look at "where my life is at this moment in time."  I fear that time is coming soon, and to be honest, I kind of dread it, but I need to go through it at some point.  I'm definitely still enamored with a, for lack of a better term, "rootsy" kind of sound.  I just love all those acoustic and electric instruments interacting, and I imagine my next project might take me even a bit further into that direction. We'll see.  As for new stuff out there, after many years of being a total curmudgeon about most new indie rock/new music in general, and only sticking with my Dylan/Beatles/Stones/Petty/Byrds/Big Star nexus (with exceptions made for Jayhawks/Westerberg) I am genuinely excited about artists like Sharon Van Etten, Fleet Foxes, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Dawes, etc.  It seems like the kind of music I live for -- the folky-poppy-rootsy-singer-songwritery rock of the late '60s and early '70s -- is coming back.  I've been waiting for that to happen for a while.  

Side note: What do you think of the new Jayhawks songs?
What I've heard so far sounds great -- I don't think anything could ever top the perfection of Hollywood Town Hall or Tomorrow the Green Grass, but the stuff I've heard so far certainly sits proudly alongside that stuff in the Jayhawks canon.

Tell me about the cover art. That was quite the score getting to use a piece by Bruce McCall. How did that come about?
​Long story.  The bottom line is that Noiseland designer Dan Miggler and my friend Steve Cohen conspired to get me the best album cover I've ever had, and encouraged me to contact Bruce McCall about using this awesome image of flying cars (which was fantasy/wish fulfillment to solve my awful Crosstown Traveler commute every day -- the promise of a future with flying cars that never materialized, you know) and Bruce agreed to let us use it.  The weirdest part is that after everything was done (the image was from a fake ad by McCall in a 1973 issue of National Lampoon) we carefully read the text under the fake ad and it referred to traveling between "Minneapolis and St. Paul."  Seriously.  Crazy coincidence.  

How has life as a gigging musician changed since you had kids? How do you keep up your energy?
It's rough sometimes, I have to tell you.  I don't play as much.  I simply can't.  My wife lets me sleep in after gigs but it doesn't matter -- if I'm out until 2 a.m., I just don't recover fast enough to keep up with extremely active and demanding kids (they're 5 and 3).  I think some people are cut out to handle it better than me, or maybe they just have easier kids!  I mean, I love 'em like you wouldn't believe, but it's so exhausting sometimes!  So I've cut back my gigging quite a bit.  With a job across town too that is often very time-consuming and difficult, especially during the legislative session (January to May, usually) it's just too much sometimes.  But I keep writing and recording and playing out as much as I possibly can.

How do you feel like the new album fits in with your previous eight records? Do you view them all as one continuous timeline or does each album represent a different period of your life?
Is it album #9?  By some counts, it's #11, counting the "limited release/out of print" stuff -- but who's counting?  Me, apparently!   Anyway, yes, there's something continuous about them, because I always feel like part of me is still the same person, but I'm changing all the time through all these stages of my life (young single guy, married with no kids, married with kids, etc.) so I definitely look back on the older ones and go "oh, so THIS was what you were obsessed with then" -- and some of those things, I'm still obsessed with, while other concerns have shifted.  

I'm definitely a lot less focused on "making it" in music -- I mean, I'd love to have more success, I feel like I've talked about that over the years until I'm blue in the face, about how somebody who worked as hard as me and wrote as many songs that were pretty good (if I do say so myself) should have maybe gotten more recognition, but really, I'm tired of talking about that stuff (mostly! I guess I'm not totally tired of it, eh?) and also, I totally get that, to a lot of people, I DO get a lot of recognition.  I'm trying to stop looking at what I don't have and focus on what I do have.  You know, that old "count your blessings" bullshit.  It's not totally bullshit, it turns out, after all.

Do you feel like you've gotten more efficient with your songwriting and recording over the years?

Yeah, in some ways.  I don't try to say everything in every song.  I definitely use fewer words and my songs (and albums) are a little shorter.  More compact.  For the digital age, you know.  Or something like that.  I think I've gotten a little better at writing lyrics and say a little more with a little less, keeping it simpler.  Recording, I don't know....I think I go back and forth between bigger production albums and quieter acoustic albums, meaning I'm probably headed back in a more acoustic, scaled-back direction after this one, which was a bit of a production at times.

When you look back on the last decade or so of actively participating in the Twin Cities music community, what are some of the highlights that come to mind? Do you have a favorite gig that you've played?
I've played with so many great bands in town over the years, some still around, some long gone.  So many fun nights at the Turf Club and Lee's and the Entry and on and on.  This town is so overflowing with talent, it's sick.  But I have to say, nothing could really ever top when we opened for Morrissey in 2000.  It's the stuff of legend.  We got a last-minute call to open for him at the Quest (formerly Glam Slam) and it was the oddest damn thing in the world.  It wasn't my favorite gig, not by a long shot -- his fans totally ripped us on his fan Web forums for MONTHS afterward, but it's just so bizarre. I want it on my tombstone or in my obituary:  "He opened for Morrissey."

You've always managed to strike a balance between being persistent career-wise and being almost self-deprecatingly humble. How do you stay grounded?
I try to keep my sense of humor through it all.  It's definitely a little nuts to keep doing it without any real major success.  Some people would say I'm not that grounded, that I still have stars in my eyes.  Probably partially true....but all those rejections and disses over the years have probably forced me to be a little bit grounded.  There's so much that's out of your hands in this business.  You can't control it, it's all inherently unfair, so you really better learn to laugh, or you'll cry.  And I've done plenty of that too, believe me.

How did you choose the musicians that played on this new album? Will they also be a part of your live band?

Dave Russ and Kris Bowring are still, for lack of a better term, the Cultivators -- my usual live band.  But we brought in friends and "occasional Cultivators" like keyboardist Pete Sands (Honeydogs) and pedal steel player John Schjolberg and singer Jenny Russ and guitarist Randy Casey because it always works well to have them playing with us, and they add a ton to the songs.  This wasn't a "major special guest" album like 2007's Turning, where we brought in about 18 people from various bands (including members of the Jayhawks, Son Volt, Semisonic, Zuzu's Petals, etc.)...instead, we kept it to the inner circle this time, and I'm very happy with the results, but I always love how "Turning" with its "cast of many" sounds too.  Just different.
How did you settle on the Aster Cafe for your CD-release show?
Just wanted a nice intimate place where 100 of our biggest fans could really hear the music.  It's a great place, so musician-friendly, so it seemed like the right place to have it.  

DAN ISRAEL plays a CD-release show with Slim Dunlap and Terry Walsh on SATURDAY, JULY 2, at the ASTER CAFE. All ages. $8. 9 p.m.