by Kimberly Bellware
As much as it’s known for its food, its sports teams, its politics and its skyline, Chicago’s rich musical heritage should top any list of treasures that make the city great. As the birthplace of “Chicago-style” blues to a hotbed for the ‘90s alternative rock scene, the Windy City has been home to some of the most important and influential artists in modern music.
Daniel Knox never intended to be a musician. When the Springfield native originally moved to Chicago, the plan was to study film at Columbia College and make movies.
Now with two albums under his belt, collaborations with bold-face names like David Lynch and Jarvis Cocker and a residency at the Watermill Center, Knox considers ditching Columbia’s Film school one of the best choices he ever made. Disenchanted with the program after just a few semesters, Knox started channeling his focus to the piano – an instrument he didn’t know how to play.
“I taught myself to play the piano because I was failing at Columbia and the dorm I was in was a block away from the Hilton Towers,” says Knox. “I started with two fingers and worked up to four and kind of figured it out.”
Without a piano of his own–and still without a pointed desire to be a musician–Knox snuck into hotels around the Loop to practice on the grand pianos in some of Chicago’s swankest ballrooms.
“I kept stabbing away at music and started to throw in singing – without thinking about doing shows or anything like that.”
Knox points to his collaborator and friend, photographer John Atwood, as the reason he began performing. The two artists had actually grown up across the street downstate in Springfield, though didn’t know each other until they were adults.
“We were literally a few houses down from each other,” says Knox. “I think he heard me talking very loudly at my girlfriend at Denny’s one day and he decided I was someone he ought to get to know.”
“We had this tradition where each Saturday night we’d eat a can of peanuts, get a cheap bottle of wine and get a scratch-off lotto ticket and listen to one record all the way through,” says Knox. “On occasion I didn’t have a record to share, I’d play one of my songs for him. He told me [music] is what I should be doing. That kind of changed the course of my life,” Knox adds. “John was the person who told me I should be a songwriter. I was still trying to make films at that point.”
Originally Atwood thought Knox was only making compositions. One night, Knox says “I got drunk enough to sing him an actual song. I wish I remembered what I sang, but it was just the look on his face. It told me that I was good at something.”
Atwood continued to propel support for his friend by, according to Knox “stealing audiences”:
“In Springfield there are two bars: The Hilton and the Ramada,” says Knox. “John would drag all the people from the Hilton and get them to come to the Ramada. He’d have them cross the street with their drinks in hand; he marched them like ants across the road. He’d wheel out a piano and I’d put on a show.”
Having quit Columbia’s film program, Knox self-released music until “about 2005-2006.” A chance meeting with the director David Lynch marked another turning point for the musician.
“When I met David Lynch, it was one of the best moments of my life,” says Knox. For the 2007 premier of Inland Empire at Chicago’s Music Box Theater, Knox wrote a piece called the “Inland Empire Overture,” performing it while Lynch read a poem.
“I did the David Lynch thing and a guy named David Coulter found the video of it on Youtube,” says Knox. “[Coulter] asked me to come to London and do a show with Rufus Wainright and Damon Albarn. That’s when I realized, ‘I should have a record for this.’”
Knox’s first proper release, Disaster, in 2007 was a stunning debut of minimalist, piano-driven songs layered with Knox’s rich baritone. Despite the strength of the album, early shows were a challenge, and according to Knox, not all of them were well-received.
“I also wasn’t very good,” Knox adds. “When I started out, I didn’t understand how shows worked. I sang very loudly, I put posters up – but only the very same day thinking for whatever reason that people would still come.”
Knox soldiered on, soon picking up an opening slot on the European tour with formerly Chicago-based The Handsome Family. During one of what would be several trips to London, Knox met rocker Jarvis Cocker while performing a show together.
“I did a show with him in London and we hit it off,” said Knox. “He said he’d be in Chicago and that maybe he’d call me. Six months later he called when he was at [Steve] Albini’s recording Further Complications and asked me to sing backup on a few songs.”
Knox prepared music for his second release while continuing to tour in and outside of Chicago, handily winning over new fans – and occasionally a detractor.
“I heard back from people sometimes who think my songs were too mean or too violent,” says Knox. “Then, my songs were still mean spirited like they are today, but maybe overtly so.”
Knox recalls two girls dancing to his song “Chase Scene,” while performing for an event in support of his friend, Chicago filmmaker Chris Hefner’s, first movie.
“They were dancing, which I thought was odd, but I knew there was some line in the song about bringing a weapon out,” Knox recalls. “I was just waiting for it, and then when it came–something about ‘I love you with a knife’–they stopped dancing and walked out.”
Knox considers his most successful show to be the debut of his 2011 album Evryman for Himself at The Hideout in Chicago. Following the trend of random, happenstance and odd luck, the show garnered additional buzz when it was reported that Peter Moren of the Swedish band Peter Bjorn and John was performing a mini-set before Knox’s headlining spot.
The album received scores of positive reviews, many praising Knox’s originality and unique mix of darkness, playfulness, romance and menace all set to melodic piano compositions. And amid the more prevailing trends among young Chicago musicians–garage rock or pop-punk to name a few–Knox’s brand stood apart.
As recognition of Knox’s work grows, he still hopes people come across his work the old fashioned way – by making a personal connection.
“I like to think that someone else has heard my music and likes it because someone else has turned them on to it,” says Knox. “First encountering it in person or on record, and sharing it with someone else.”