Meet the gospel singing troubadour who is putting Ypsilanti on the map with his latest EP Sinner Of The Week
It’s a stormy afternoon in Ypsilanti, Michigan, when I get Daniel Wilson on the line. Just returned from grocery shopping, he’s enjoying some down time at home with his family after having jumped between New York and London for the last couple of months. According to the fountain of reliable knowledge that is Wikipedia, Ypsilanti (population 20,000), otherwise known as Ypsi or Y-Town, is home to the world’s first Dominos Pizza outlet. While this stunning fact was unknown to Wilson (“Ypsi is still a mystery to me and I’m still a mystery to Ypsi."), he may himself move on up to a Y-Town attraction in his own right.
In many ways the zigzag trajectory of Wilson’s story reflects the lateral nature of the wider music industry in 2016. An unassuming bedroom troubadour collaborating with some big time producers. An accomplished musician who has yet to perform live in his home town (or nearby Detroit for that matter). A producer who seems in line with the most in-step influences yet grew up largely as a musical outsider, vociferously soaking up movie scores, show tunes and gospel songs. And then there’s the songwriting: a glorious straddle between 2000s indie moments and the technicolour skills of 1970s balladeers. Lyrics that draw references from a religious background yet present them in an approachable and fresh light. A blissfully expressive, expansive voice that, much to his embarrassment, earned him the childhood moniker of Little Luther (Vandross).
"I’ve always loved the rawness behind
older gospel music. There’s something very edgy about it that doesn’t sound too prepared"
So where did it all begin? “I grew up in a very religious household listening to a lot of contemporary Christian music,” Wilson recalls. Attending church every Sunday with his family, he found himself enraptured by the sounds of the choir, and was soon singing along to gospel tapes his parents played in the car. A staple diet of MTV and VH1 gave him a taste of the flip side, your Mariahs and your Michaels. Meanwhile his sister was big on the likes of John Williams and Thomas Newman. “I think at that time my parents had no idea how much influence television had on us. Have you ever seen the movie Carrie?” he laughs, “They were never like Carrie. Even though they were religious, they still believed that as kids we weren’t to be locked up mentally, or spiritually for that matter. They encouraged us to explore the world and experience it ourselves.”
In his later teens he first ventured out of the country and toured with an international choir. And in true millennial style the influences continued to come from non-traditional sources. “I learned so much through playing [the video game] Rock Band. There was a month where I could not stop listening to Cool For Cats on repeat.” However gospel remained the bedrock for Wilson’s musical foundations. “I’ve always loved the rawness behind older gospel music. There’s something very edgy about it that doesn’t sound too prepared. It’s all about the swirl.”
The step from music fan to creator was entirely homespun. Borrowing his mother’s tape recorder, he starting dabbling with keyboards and a couple of rudimentary music programs on the family’s home computer. Demos on Soundcloud caught international attention, blogs and management. He launched his label Zap and released his first records Young Rubbish and Boy Who Cried Thunder in 2014. The last year has seen him shift from bedroom noodling to working with some heavy hitters including Matt Hales (Disclosure, Lianne La Havas), Jimmy Harry (Madonna, Weezer, Fischerspooner) and Jimmy Hogarth (James Bay, Sia). The first fruit of this labour is his new EP Sinner Of The Week - an impressive slice of soulful digital pop.
After many years of creative self-sufficiency, is a timed schedule of sessions with bigwigs difficult? “It’s very tight sometimes, a little bit creatively disturbing,” he chuckles. “I try not to view it as a process. I start with a pen, notebook and recorder and go from there. It’s easier to understand who I am working with if I try to see them first as a person. At least then if the music doesn’t go the way we need, we can take the bond we made outside and put it into the process. I want to give them the best of what I have, and I want to consume everything they can give me. My earlier EPs were a little less produced. I like what I have done now but I would love to have a combination of both, so it sounds well produced but with the energy that comes with letting things happen.”
Logically live shows are the next step, so he’s been meeting with musicians to put together a set up for future touring. For now though it’s the music largely doing the talking. The Guardian, Telegraph, Vice, Nylon and Time Magazine have all fallen for his charms, as well as radio doyens Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq. What ambitions is he harbouring next? “I’m really bad at getting attention drawn to myself. I wish I could just pull a Gallagher and hit a watermelon,” he deadpans. “I would like for as many people as possible to hear my music. I like the idea of being a household name but not in a pretentious way. If I could somehow be visible and invisible at the same time I would do it. I’ll probably find myself pulling a Bob Dylan and getting into a motorcycle accident and disappearing for a few years.”
Sinner Of The Week is out now on Zap Records
Visit Daniel Wilson