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Daniel Knox gives our derelicts the beautiful music they deserve

He learned to play piano in hotel lobbies and likes to wander the city alone at night. Now he's made one of the best singer-songwriter albums of the year.



If a downtown building has a piano open to the public, Daniel Knox has probably played it. The Chicago singer-songwriter is a night owl, drawn to in-between places and in-­between times. When he's not at work, asleep, or in the office where he has his recording studio, he's wandering around the city, often in the wee hours. It was in downtown hotels in the late 90s, when he was about to drop out of the film program at Columbia, that he taught himself how to play music. "The Drake, the Westin," he says. "The Art Institute has a piano. And in the back Board of Trade room."

Sometimes hotel staff would roust him, but mostly no one intervened. "I got kicked out of a lot of places. But the thing is, the turnaround in a hotel is so huge, the staff is so big—it's never going to be the same guy kicking you out. You just leave graciously and come right back in the back door."

Today Knox is literally in an in-­between place. He works as a projectionist at the Music Box three days a week and lives in what he describes as a "closet" at a friend's place; he keeps most of his stuff in an office on the top floor of a dilapidated, mostly empty two-story building in Portage Park. The office door has a pane of frosted glass. "Like in a detective movie," he says. Inside is a small, makeshift studio and bins and shelves loaded with DVDs, CDs, David Lynch memorabilia, toy pianos, and cameras.

Knox also documents his nocturnal roamings on Instagram. In his feed you'll find pictures of an empty, barely lit conference room (caption: "I think we died"), a mannequin in a darkened storefront window dressed in Catholic priest's vestments, or a man sitting alone at a diner. His shots are often eerie, or presented with deadpan black humor. Sometimes he takes pictures of trash or Jewel-Osco signs. He takes lots of himself.

Knox's face is on the cover of his self-titled third album, in fact, but rather than a photo he used a painting by Chicago artist Gregory Jacobsen. Daniel Knox, which comes out Tuesday on Carrot Top, seems poised to be his breakout record. It's the first to capture what makes his performances so arresting: his powerful presence, the oaken grain of his voice, the poignance and nuance in his music.

"I've been obsessed with Daniel Knox and his music since the first time I heard him," says Carrot Top owner Patrick Monaghan. "I've seen him command a small room or quiet a large auditorium with voice and piano alone. He has resisted my every attempt at pigeonholing him, so we're just trying our best to let people know about this unique talent that Chicago has."

The first time I saw Knox play was at Saki, the Logan Square record store that doubles as Carrot Top's headquarters; the second was at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport for an event called "Interzone: A Burroughs Birthday Bash," where he joined the likes of Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Eileen Myles, and Sasha Frere-Jones in paying homage to William S. Burroughs. The evening's performances usually appropriated the author's "cut-up" technique, and Knox's was no exception—he repurposed Burroughs's words as lyrics for a brief song, accompanying himself on piano as he sang in his great, resounding baritone. It boomed and billowed in pole vaults, glides, and pratfalls.

"I actually never sang at all until I was 21 or 22. I was the kind of guy who would lip-sync to 'Happy Birthday,'" says Knox, who's now 34. "My favorite singers were Al Jolson and Judy Garland and, to some extent, Maurice Chevalier. So my voice was way over-the-top, with heavy vibrato. But to me, it sounded very natural."

The cover of Daniel Knox is a portrait painting by Gregory Jacobsen.
  • The cover of Daniel Knox is a portrait painting by Gregory Jacobsen.

Knox recorded his prior two albums, Disaster (2007) and Evryman for Himself (2011), without resorting to a studio, and he was learning as he went. The new record, by contrast, was produced at Electrical Audio by Greg Norman, the right-hand man of owner Steve Albini, and it shows. If you listen to "Ghostsong," the first song on Evryman, and then to "Blue Car," the lead track on Daniel Knox, you'll notice that the latter sounds far more spacious, lush, and professional.

Disaster and Evryman form the first two parts of a trilogy (the third, also recorded at Electrical, may see release late this year), but Daniel Knox feels more unified by story. The songs progress into each other naturally, and the album is tied together by thematic threads. Knox frequently mentions once-­thriving local businesses (Venture, White Hen) and specific locations ("Lawrence & MacArthur," "High Pointe Drive"). His narrators and characters also display a self-aware strain of cruelty: in "By the Venture" someone's house "looks like garbage," and the speaker in "Don't Touch Me" tells an anonymous person not to touch him "with dirty hands." (Knox's attitude on the subject is pragmatic: "Sometimes you just have to let yourself have those little moments of cruelty and go ahead and feel good about it, 'cause there's not a whole lot of things where you're allowed to.")

At first, because of its references to Venture and White Hen and Lawrence Avenue, I thought Daniel Knox was set in Chicago—even the video for "Blue Car" features kaleidoscopic, out-of-focus shots of Lake Shore Drive at night. But the intersection of Lawrence and MacArthur is in Springfield, Illinois—as is the subject of "White Oaks Mall."

Knox was born in Springfield and lived there till he came to Chicago for college. He describes "a culture of violence" at Grant Middle School, where he was expelled for fighting—after a bigger kid hassled him, punched him, and took a dollar from him, Knox escalated. "I broke all of his teeth out. It was the last week, so it didn't matter," he says. "I saw a kid get the top of his head smashed in seventh grade. This kid was butting people in line, and I felt perversely good about it. Like, 'Yeah! Fuck him!' Which, looking back, is like, 'Oh my God!' That's what I was made to feel about that."

At Springfield High, Knox punched a guy who "put his hands all over" Knox's girlfriend and got expelled again. He earned his diploma at a night school he calls "Pregnant Girl, Illiterate Adult," aka Lawrence Adult Center. He also worked a paper route, pushing a shopping cart full of copies of the State Journal-­Register around town.

"I adore Springfield as much as I am baffled and confused by it," Knox says. "I had a pretty good childhood." The songs on Daniel Knox are informed by more than old memories, though. "I go back to Springfield probably three or four times a year," he says. "I try to mentally map everything in the town. It's all changed. One of the things that makes me sad and maybe compelled me to start writing about it more is—and this isn't unique to Springfield, this is all over the country—this kind of cannibalizing of the architecture and these sort of built-in-a-day structures. Like Walgreens and Chipotle or whatever.

"I went down there, and I was in a parking lot at the AMC movie theater, and it was beautiful. It was the place where I lost my virginity—there used to be an old drive-in movie screen. And I thought, 'Oh, how sad! It's gone.' Now it's just this big, beautiful open space with all those creepy little islands that exist for no reason with a patch of grass, light poles sticking out of it. It's just as beautiful as it was then, just in a different kind of way."

Daniel Knox in the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan, where he used to take historical tours with his stepfather as a kid - PARKER BRIGHT
  • Parker Bright
  • Daniel Knox in the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan, where he used to take historical tours with his stepfather as a kid

When Knox was 13, a friend gave him the soundtrack to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. He listened to it in a van on the way to Wisconsin with his parents and soon became obsessed with the movie. He tracked down and watched all of David Lynch's films, and when he was 15 he made an hour-long black-and-white movie called The Misfit. He didn't edit it so much as plot it out beforehand, so he could shoot each scene in the order it would appear.

Knox left Springfield for Columbia College in summer 1998. He wanted to study filmmaking, but as he says, "They talked me right out of it." A class called "Idea Development" encapsulated everything he disliked about the department. "It basically existed specifically for the bunch of rich kids who would take screenwriting classes and say, 'I don't have any ideas.' What it boiled down to was a support group. And we'd all sit in a round table, and everybody would bring their shitty ideas in. And then we'd have to say something good and say something bad. I'd be the only guy that would ever say something bad."

During his time at Columbia, Knox began his nighttime roamings around downtown Chicago. He started trying to see what he could get away with when the city was mostly shut down—and he discovered that many hotels have untended pianos in them. "I'd go downtown and check doors, see what's open. I would go under Lower Wacker. Anything that was open, I would just try to get into."

While working on a student film project, Knox bought a synthesizer for a colleague, hoping to enlist him to write a score. The man eventually backed out, and Knox started playing around with the synth (which he still has today), supplementing his guerrilla piano practice.

Knox dropped out in 1999 and found work at Ross Wetzel Framing Company, which he quit after being denied workers' comp for an accident on the job. "I cut a piece of my finger mostly off," he says. "And they were like, 'You don't need that little piece.'" He did temp work and briefly waited tables at a restaurant down the street from the Music Box called Mamacita's.

Hoping for a more secure paycheck, he applied for two jobs he thought he could do: one at the Music Box making popcorn and one at the Admiral Theatre as a video clerk. He got both, and in May 2002 he chose the Music Box because he loved the place. Though he got tired of the concession stand quickly, after a year and a half—just as he was about to quit—a departing employee offered to train him on the projectors.

In December I visited Knox at the Music Box during a Stanley Kubrick retrospective, while Knox was screening Killer's Kiss. The projectors sounded like a room full of vacuums and model trains all running at once (and they get louder when they run 70-­millimeter film). Knox typically operates both of the Music Box's screens, so he often has to run up and down stairs to keep up with reel changes.

In some ways Knox's position at the Music Box is just a job like any other, but it's also had its perks. In 2007, when David Lynch was touring the country with his film Inland Empire, he made a stop at the theater. Lynch's reps asked that a musician play a piece for the film, and Knox got the spot. Though he was already writing and singing the songs that would appear on his first album, for the event he composed a brief, droning instrumental overture and played it on the theater's organ. Afterward he joined Lynch and several fellow Music Box staffers for dinner.

Lynch ate ravioli and spoke with Knox about Inland Empire. As Knox remembers it, "He said, 'I made it with people I know, in my neighborhood, with a consumer-grade video camera.' And it was just like all the things that I had done."

At around that time, Knox's musical career was starting to get off the ground. His coworker Brandon Wetherbee was putting on shows around town and started booking Knox: "Beat Kitchen. Ronny's. Reggie's. Little house shows. Big shows at the Empty Bottle. He put me anywhere there was a spot."

Knox's David Lynch moment also gave him an unexpected boost: because someone had uploaded a video of his Inland Empire performance to YouTube, London-based musician and art director David Coulter contacted Knox about playing at an October 2007 event called "Plague Songs" at the Barbican Centre in London. Musicians were invited to perform songs inspired by the biblical plagues, and Knox covered the Tiger Lillies' "Hailstones" and sang an original song about boils. He also met Rufus Wainwright and the Handsome Family, and the latter would subsequently bring him along as an opening act on a UK tour. Knox is still friends with the Handsome Family today—front man Brett Sparks sings backup vocals on Daniel Knox.

"I've known Daniel for a long time," says Sparks, "and obviously I really like his music and am a big supporter. When I was listening to the rough mix of his [new] stuff, I was just flabbergasted. It was the best thing I'd heard in months. It was so good that I was angry. I think Dan has a natural talent—he's almost completely self-taught. He approaches the piano in an intuitive way. I think it's brilliant."

A year later, Coulter invited Knox back to the Barbican for "Twisted Christmas," where he met Jarvis Cocker backstage. "Him and I were the only two guys with beards, and we hit it off," Knox says. Cocker said that he'd be recording in Chicago, and when the time came, Knox got the call. "He said, 'Hey, can you come into the studio next week and sing on these songs?'" Knox added backup vocals to Cocker's second solo album, 2009's Further Complications. "He had heard 'Ghostsong' and the part where I sing falsetto, and he wanted me to do these really high voices. So I did—I'm singing way out of my range, but it was so much fun."

John Atwood, who directed the video for "Blue Car," grew up across the street from Knox in Springfield, but the two of them didn't know each other then. When Atwood moved to Chicago in the early 2000s, though, he ended up staying with Knox, and they became fast friends. Atwood would often bring people to hear Knox play at the Hilton (or wherever he was), and they've been collaborating artistically for years.

Atwood works in several media, but he favors Chicago street photography, gorgeous black-and-white shots of city life—pigeons, people sitting at counters drinking coffee, workers on break smoking cigarettes.

Wainwright invited Knox to perform with him in 2009 at the Watermill Center in Long Island, a self-described "laboratory for performance" that offers summer residencies. Three years later, Knox pitched Watermill an idea—he would provide a sort of long-form musical score to Atwood's imagery—and over several months their collaboration at the center evolved into a song cycle about the parallel experiences they'd had in Springfield.

Much of the music Knox wrote in Watermill ended up on Daniel Knox. "I love the album," Atwood says. "All those songs, I worked with them so intimately. A lot of those I heard when they didn't have lyrics, when he was at Watermill on the upright, just playing these melodies."

What Knox likes about Atwood's photos seems similar to what makes his own songs effective. "It's those little, weird in-­between moments," he says. "Sometimes it's not what's in the frame, but what you feel outside of the frame very strongly that you don't see, the part that he leaves to you as the viewer."

In Knox's work, listeners can bring in their own associations, which helps him stand out from other contemporary singer-­songwriters. Places as trivial as the Venture or the mall or the parking lot, seemingly incidental destinations in people's day-to-day lives, get their due—Knox's vision makes room for significance, and even a romantic kind of poetry, in the overlooked, mundane, abject, and discarded.

"You look at a place like the mall, right?" he says. "A place that I drove past a million times. 'White Oaks Mall' isn't even about being in the fucking mall; it's about driving past it. It's that moment. I remember I was driving past it with my daughter, and I thought, 'Shit, I've driven past here with my father. My father's driven past here with my sister.' And it's all about where you leave those spaces. I feel like some of those banal, in-between moments, like driving past the mall—you remember them the way people remember wars, or important moments in history.

"That's where those things get left for you. And then to think of it in a beautiful way, this banal thing—like, it deserves its tribute. I felt like, 'Wow, those words are so beautiful: "White Oaks Mall."' It sounds like it should be a beautiful poem. But it's a fucking mall full of kiosks and shuttered things that are no longer open or have been turned into a Dick's Sporting Goods."

Knox plays at Constellation on Saturday before heading out on another UK tour with the Handsome Family. He's still working at the Music Box and wandering around at night. He's also spending time with his 16-year-old daughter, Katrina. (He and Katrina's mother have split but remain on good terms.) Like Knox, she's interested in films, and he's encouraging her to study the art form. "I'm a guy who was kicked out of both of my schools," he says. "It's really hard for me to be like, 'Hey, you need to do this.' But I feel like she needs to do it because she's smarter than me."

He considers it relevant to his situation that David Lynch stayed true to his art while supporting his children. "The inspiring thing is that, through all that, he did what he wanted to do," he says. Knox's struggle to find his footing as a musician has tested his resolve. "My kid didn't always have all the shit that she wanted," he admits. "There would be no interest in what I was doing for long stretches, and it would seem really futile, and it would get tense. There were times where I could've made a whole lot more money. But I wanted to show her, 'This is what I'm doing. This is what I'm good at.'"

I ask him if he regrets that decision.

"I don't. Because right now I feel like I'm a success. Of course I wanna leave something for my kid and make money and live a little nicer. But the fact that I'm able to work a few days a week at a job that I don't hate and I'm able to make music and share it with people, and that doesn't take me under the way it does some people—that's to me a massive success. Maybe it's because it was so bad at certain points that I tell myself, 'I have to appreciate this.' Because if it stayed like this forever, I'd be fine."

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the correct release history of Daniel Knox's three albums.

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