Jay Daniel doesn’t take creativity for granted.
His grandfather sculpted, aunt danced, mother wrote and sang, and his grandmother cultivated his artistic interests. His childhood illustrations still hang throughout her home. At 9, Jay started playing the drums; by the time he was 11, his interest in DJ’ing was blossoming.
“I used to listen to radio DJs,” he says over pizza at Detroit’s Motor City Brewing Works. “I bought my first record when I was 11.”
That was “Midwest Swing” by Nelly’s St. Lunatics. He still gets that “cool” feeling now that he got while digging through record store stacks back then. While he hasn’t been on the electronic music scene for long—just five years—the media already is calling him a DJ on the rise.
Says SFWeekly.com: “Daniel’s productions stand out for their simple elegance — they’re no-nonsense, no-frills hardware jams that pair hard-hitting bass drums with enchanting, haunting melodies, possessing a rawness and immediacy that makes his tracks feel human and relatable. He’s also an excellent DJ.”
For the first couple of years on the scene, Jay played other artists’ work—actually not an easy feat.
“You have to mix different elements of the song that relate,” he says. “Subconsciously, you pick up on it and then you know what you want to play next. You have to be attuned to it. You have to listen to the record. You have to study the record, pretty much. You have to be sensible rhythm-wise to understand what music plays well.” Of course, being a musician helps.
A couple of years ago, Jay started crafting his own mixes. “The second mix I made was called the ‘3750 Mix.’ I was just vibing—going off the feeling of the record rather than the BPM, you know.” Listening to it later “felt surreal,” he says. “I remember thinking ‘How am I gonna top this!’” He laughs. “But I knew it was a good start for me and I got a good response from it.”
Creativity has its limits
As Jay’s popularity grew so did his travel demands. In 2014, the 24-year-old traveled internationally every two weeks or so. He’d play in Paris for one show, return to Detroit for a few days, head to Japan, back to Europe, Detroit, Australia, and so on.
“I was in front of a lot more people and I didn’t realize it was making me anxious,” Jay says. Being exposed also opened him up to more criticism—his own and others.
“People are judgmental and have certain notions of you. And that’s in the back of your mind before you even meet them, so you end up being more critical too. I’m not a distrustful person typically; but you end up around all these people and you feel like your energy is getting used. It can be exhausting.”
“…Embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out.”
Ray Bradbury, “Zen in the Art of Writing”
It wasn’t just the negativity that started bringing Jay down; he found himself solely performing for other people rather than for himself and his love of music.
“I always knew (performing) was for other people because, you know, I’m a fan first. I like music. I never felt like anything anyone else made was just for them or that anything I made was just mine. Other people can hear what you make and enjoy it.”
On top of that, the excessive travel was eating into Jay’s production time, jet lag was taking its toll, and he was having difficulty winding down.
“The party never ended. Even when I was home, I was looking for something to do,” he explains. “But that’s when I should have just sat down and created something. It could have been anything. It could have been drawing, writing, or anything. Just to use that creative energy so you don’t get all frustrated.”
Pruning and bearing fruit
“That helps a lot,” he says, being around people with the same energy as you. “They know how you think to a certain degree. They support you.”
Jay also didn’t sit around the house doing nothing; neither did he look for the next party. Instead, he began working on his own record label Watusi High, which just released the two-track EP “School Dance.” Though touring periodically — he was recently in Australia — he’s now working on an album. The record label, Jay says, gives him something else to feel positive about.
“Now I can build a catalog and have an umbrella for my artistic creations and expressions.”
Jay’s advice to other artists?
“Stay focused. That’s the most important thing,” he says. “Stuff happens in waves and if you’re not focused then you might fall off that wave.”
Having too much time on your hands, Jay says, is dangerous. “You start thinking about the wrong stuff and end up downing yourself. It’s important to keep that creative energy going. There’s so much other stuff that can dampen and hamper your creativity, if you let it.”
When asked if other people can kill an artist’s creativity, Jay says: “Only if you let them. Just keep creating. Be positive and know your history. Everything is created. Don’t forget where your craft came from. It’s sacred and has longevity. It helps you express yourself.”
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