Northern Kentucky native Daniel Martin Moore was up against a couple nearly insurmountable obstacles when he mailed out a few demos of his music in January 2007. First, no one at any of the labels or stations to which he sent his work had any idea who he was, and unsolicited demos generally land at the bottom of the pile. Second, his warm, unadorned folk music lacks any gimmicks that might set it apart from the pile. He distinguishes himself through talent and atmospherics, with a soft, gentle, slightly-swinging voice, direct and slightly poetic lyrics that chronicle love affairs that follow the rhythm of the natural world, and a simple, economical and uncluttered guitar style. In other words, no theremin, no fireworks.
But Moore didn’t have unrealistic expectations either. After returning early from a stint in the Peace Corps teaching high school in Cameroon, Moore had moved into his brother’s house in Minneapolis, where he seriously devoted himself to music for the first time. He hadn’t learned to play guitar until he was in college and didn’t think of music as a possible career path.
“I’m well aware that what I’m doing isn’t groundbreaking in any way, shape or form,” Moore said in a recent phone interview with NUVO. “I truly hadn’t thought about it that much. I was really just, ‘Why not do it?’ The worst thing that wouldn’t happen is that I’m out 74 cents: that was really the mindset behind it.”
But the Seattle-based label Sub Pop took a listen to his demo — and label execs actually took the time to let such a subtle and unprepossessing album grow on them — and gave Moore, a current resident of Cold Spring, Ky. (a town of nearly 4,000 about 14 miles southwest of Cincinnati), a call.
But he wasn’t living in Cold Spring at the time. Moore was staying at a friend’s bed and breakfast in Costa Rica, which made communication a little difficult. Moore told the blog You Ain’t No Picasso that it took him several days to get to the e-mail from Sub Pop, and several more to get in touch with the label via phone.
Of course, such label decisions don’t come completely out of left field. Sub Pop has been moving away from the grunge, low-fi end of the indie rock world, and embracing bands with pastoral folk sounds like Fleet Foxes.
“When I was actually in contact with [Sub Pop] a few months later, they e-mailed me that the timing was really good to hear what I was doing,” Moore explains. “They responded to it because it was pretty simple, pretty straight-forward, and that seems to be a direction that they’re moving, at least in some of their releases. I have a pretty skewed perception of that sort of thing because my favorite music is old-time folk music and old pop where you do just have a straight-forward presentation of a song.”
Moore didn’t know much about Sub Pop and the world of so-called independent music before he sent out his demos, and says that he doesn’t respond well to a lot of indie rock. More traditional music resonates with him, and Moore names off some musicians that made their name in the first half of the 20th century as influences: blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, Appalachian banjoist and folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford, populist Okie Woody Guthrie and the omnipresent Carter Family.
So Moore set about creating a record that matches that timeless sound he attributes to those folk music heroes with a producer, Joe Chiccarelli, associated with indie rock (The Shins, The White Stripes) but also familiar with the jazz and folk worlds. Moore and a few session musicians recorded his debut album Stray Age, released Oct. 7 on Sub Pop, at a studio in Los Angeles. Moore says that his first recording session went smoothly, and that his gentle, Midwestern approach wasn’t disturbed by any intrusive L.A.-related bustle.
“The studios were very comfortable,” he reports. “They were kind of removed — they were in the middle of L.A., but they were really good at creating their own little world. You close the door and you’re in this really comfortable, homey space. And Joe, knowing that this was the first time I’ve been in a studio, meeting some musicians that I’ve never met before who were going to play on my album — there were a lot of things that could have been very stressful — but he really made it go very smoothly.”
The album — 10 originals and an apropos and stately cover of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” — has a warm, closely-miced sound that seems perfect for either early-morning or late-night listening. Luna Music’s Todd Robinson, who is coupling Moore for the in-store with Chris Barth’s (Impossible Shapes) similarly minded folk project Normanoak, compares the album to Ron Sexsmith’s Bryter Layter, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmann, Jimmy Scott’s All the Way — unassuming, calming, organic and quietly hip records. One central theme to Moore’s originals is the return to safe harbor after adventures in the world: “Come be close, and be rested,” he tells his subject on the title track. And the record is a set of love songs without any overt romance, some inviting — as the opposite of the return to home — his subject to join him as he travels the world: “We’ll hold on as best we can, that’ll be the plan.”
Moore admits that he’s being represented as something of a rural creature, someone who may live close to a still even if he doesn’t operate one himself, despite how close he may live to Cincinnati and his time spent in Cameroon and Costa Rica.
“Well, I do like sitting on the back porch with sweet tea, I’m not gonna lie,” he says. “I think on Sub Pop’s behalf, that was very — dare I let this cat out of the bag — it was a very intentional way to represent me, because to a certain degree, it’s what people want to hear. I think to a certain degree, it’s probably also true. I didn’t know hardly anything about indie rock before this, before starting to work with Sub Pop; in a way, it is kind of out of left field. But nobody has said, ‘Well, I didn’t figure you’d be wearing shoes!’ It hasn’t been that bad.”
Regardless of how Appalachia and Kentucky may be represented in press about Moore and the album, Moore is engaged with his home state, and has become particularly involved in activism against mountaintop removal mining. He plans to enter the studio in upcoming weeks to record an EP of songs about strip mining with Louisville-based cellist and songwriter Ben Sollee (Sparrow Quartet), with Jim James from My Morning Jacket on production. (A demo of a song intended for the EP, “Flyrock Blues,” is available on his MySpace, myspace.com/danielmartinmoore.)
“It’s just something that I’d been reading about and hearing people talk about, and to actually see it: Seeing is believing,” Moore says. “It’s unreal how much of Appalachia has been literally blown up just to get to the coal. These mountains and this wilderness [are] just gone. The people who live around these sites are the ones that really pay the price. It’s one thing for wildlife habitat and headwaters of streams and rivers to be destroyed and poisoned. That’s terrible. But I think it’s unthinkable that there are people who are paying taxes, who own the land that they’re on, and they’re being tormented and abused to feed our addiction to coal.”