Record of the Week: Real Estate’s ‘Daniel’

If your name’s not Daniel, you were unfortunately (yet hysterically) refused admission to Real Estate’s free record release show in Brooklyn the night last week before the band’s new 11-track LP, Daniel, was shared with the world. A show they both opened and closed with a cover of Elton John’s “Daniel.” It’s a schtick and they’re schticking to it!

But if your name is Daniel Tashian, you did successfully recruit this seasoned group of players to Music City, U.S.A. to record their sixth full-length album. And then they maybe, possibly had such a great experience laying it down at RCA Studio A with you as co-producer, they named the record after you.

Real Estate’s Daniel is a return to form, somewhat, boasting straightforward, melody-forward pop rock tunes akin to the New Jersey natives’ debut self-titled album released in 2009. Bandleader and primary songwriter Martin Courtney said the aim was simplicity: “I just wanted to make a good record. It doesn’t need to be, like, a crazy stand-out. It just needs to be a really solid pop album and maybe, sneakily, it’ll end up being the best album we’ve ever made because we’re not going to think too hard about it.”

To learn more about the writing, recording and collaboration that gave us Daniel, I spoke with both Courtney and producer Daniel Tashian. Find highlights here and both conversations in full at WNXP’s podcast channel.

Why Nashville?

Celia Gregory: Why did you decide to make this record — your sixth — here in Nashville on Music Row?

Martin Courtney: There’s kind of the boring answer, which is that the producer Daniel Tashian that we worked with lives in Nashville. He was like, “Why don’t you guys come down here?” And we thought that sounded really fun, because, I mean, the other answer is just like, we’ve made records in New York and Chicago and L.A., and it just seemed like this was kind of — not the last big musical city in the U.S. to check off the list, but definitely one that we were interested in spending some time in. Obviously we’ve played shows in Nashville a bunch of times, but we’ve never actually spent an extended amount of time there. So it just seemed like a nice opportunity to get to do that.

CG: You said spent time, but I guess the total recording time was was pretty brief, right? You guys had a bit of a blitz here at RCA Studio A. Can you talk about that timeline?

MC: Yeah. I mean, that was kind of the goal for me with this record. Even before I finished writing it, I had kind of an idea of how I wanted to go and how I wanted it to sound. The last record we made before this one with Real Estate [2020’s The Main Thing], we really took our time and spent like a year in and out of the studio…kind of agonizing over it. Other times in the past that we’ve made records, it was more of like you take all that time on the front end, spend a few months or a year writing and rehearsing and getting the songs in good shape, and then and then just record it really quick. And that sounded like what I wanted to do this time. It seemed more fun that way.

We gave ourselves two weeks and I think we were done in nine or 10 days. It was a mixture of our desire to move quickly. And then also once we got to Nashville and were recording in RCA Studio A on Music Row — like in real like country music Nashville, making an indie rock record. Most of the bands that come through that studio are real country music, like Chris Stapleton. Especially the engineers that we were working with, you know, they’re used to cutting like three or four songs in a day. So for us to do two in a day, which is what we were doing, it felt crazy to us. But to them, that was almost slow! It was nice. It was kind of like we got swept up in this different way of working again. I wanted to not think too hard about anything. And luckily, we were rehearsed enough that we could do it that way. It forced us to not over-embellish anything.

On Songwriting

MC: It’s funny, I’ve had other people say that this record reminds them of our early stuff. We didn’t go out to do that, like, go back to basics or whatever. But I think it’s more of like a spiritual thing. When we first started making records, I didn’t really know how to write songs that well, those [on debut Real Estate] were some of the first songs I had written. As we progressed as a band, it became my goal to try and one-up myself and become a better songwriter. And on each record, I think the songs became progressively, like, I learned what a bridge was. I started adding more parts and trying to be more inventive with the melodies and the chord progressions and to try not repeat anything that we had done before. I feel like the records became kind of increasingly complex. This record was us being like, “Let’s try and make something simple.” For me as a songwriter, having spent all these years learning or at least trying to get better at writing songs and then going back to trying to write in a simple way felt like that was the right step forward rather than trying to go more complex.

True to the Demos vs. Studio Improvisations

CG: Can you think of an example of a track on this record that it sounds almost identical to the demo or what you envisioned even once fleshed out full-band?

MC: The first single, “Water Underground” is very, very close to the demo. There were a few things like back-up vocals that we added. That was Daniel’s idea, actually. A couple little keyboard embellishments. But really the lead guitar, the bass, even the drum pattern, that’s all there in the demo.

Then, there’s a song called “Freeze Brain,” for example, where I recorded it as like a super fast, almost like My Bloody Valentine style rock song, shoegaze, kind of fast My Bloody Valentine… As a band, we learned it that way, and we were about to record it that way in the studio. And then Sammy, our drummer, was just getting sounds on her kit and started playing this more groovy drum part. And we started playing the song along to it, messing around before we ostensibly recorded it the way we went in to record it. Slowly we were like, “This sounds awesome, we should record it this way. And then we’ll record it the other way. But let’s get it this way too.” And then we just did it that way [but] because we were moving so fast, we kind of forgot to do it the original way, which I’m glad for because, yeah, the version that ended up on the record is super cool and weird and surprising. It’s a stand-out to me, in a way.

Anxious Themes with Accessible Melodies

CG: I think that the Real Estate sound that can feel very consistent is overall positive feeling, like it feels airy and breezy. And yet, Martin, you got lyrics like “Things don’t seem right bathed in sunlight” [on “Market Street”]. You sing it so sweetly but then there’s some darkness here. And I wondered thematically, some of the inspirations of these songs, the place you were in writing these songs, even though you applied the Real Estate musical sound to it so it feels good to listen to straightforwardly.

[Interviewer note: After making the solo record Many Moons during COVID-19, an album released in 2022 that allowed Courtney to be “less precious” about songwriting and production, he got back to writing for Real Estate and that output includes the songs on Daniel.]

MC: I guess mentally I was still kind of dealing with — I still am, you know, dealing with just being confused. On personal level, feeling confused. And then also just this overarching feeling of things kind of look the same, but nothing feels the same. Things feel different and kind of weird and bad sometimes. So yeah, I guess just maybe not being in the best head space for writing pop songs. [Laughs] which I think is kind of cool, though, because then there’s this dichotomy between the music and the lyrics.

That song in particular, I think you were referencing “Market Street,” that’s very straightforwardly about those first few days going out in public when people weren’t really wearing masks anymore and things felt like they were opening up and being like, “This should feel good. But this feels bad. And I have a lot of anxiety right now about all of this.” That song is, in a way, trying to embrace positivity, trying to feel positive despite everything. There’s another line, “Let these people get the best of me,” which sounds negative, like, let someone get the best of you. But I kind of meant it more like, let them get the best of me. Like my best qualities. I want to be positive. That’s how I meant it.

I do like the idea that someone could listen to this record and hear just like a breezy, kind of welcoming pop record, but then there’s maybe a little more to it if you actually listen — which has always been the goal with this band, [to create] something that feels instantly accessible but hopefully can bear repeated listens and has some subtleties to it.

Daniel Tashian on Working with Real Estate

CG: Is this your record because it’s called Daniel? I mean, is that is it a nod to you?

Daniel Tashian: Your guess is as good as mine. Martin came and asked me, “Is it OK if I name the album Daniel?” And I was like, “That’s fine with me. I don’t know why you would you would want to do that, but you can do what you want.” I was like, “I have a couple names I might want to run by you, like, Real Estate: Selling Nashville.” I thought that would be kind of catchy. Or, like, Real Estate of Shock. That was another one of mine. But you want to name it Daniel? Go ahead. It’s kind of silly, but that’s what they wanted to do. I mean, it’s as good a name as anything else, I guess.

CG: You love all sorts of music. And I know that because you listen to this station, because you’re always putting out great, interesting music and also covering music that shows your diversity in taste. But primarily you’ve worked with a lot of folks here in the country music capital of the world that sound a little different than Real Estate [artists including Kacey Musgraves, Tenille Townes, The Jonas Brothers, Burt Bacharach and former Nashville Artists of the Month Briston Maroney and Stephen Sanchez]. So why were you drawn to this particular project?

DT: You know, just good songwriting. I try to look at everything like I’m a kid, you know, I try to think, like, “How do I feel about this if I’m a kid?” And I’m still very close to the 4- or 5-year-old that’s inside of me, I’m very immature. I have to apologize to people around me all the time.

No, but it’s just great songwriting. Martin and I spoke on the phone a couple times, and we had some nice chemistry. So I sensed in Martin a similar kind of methodology in terms of how you would go about putting a song together. In fact, in that song “Water Underground,” he kind of talks a little bit about accessing the subconscious and what a large role the subconscious plays in the process of songwriting. And that’s a way I feel like it should be done. I feel like if it’s done properly, the subconscious is a major player in the process, and I don’t know why that is. I think because it’s the part of the brain that works beyond language. It’s just a very primal part of the mind. And so, I could sense that he was not really sure about what these things were that he was making or writing. He would share me voice memos and little things and was like, “I don’t know what this is going to be yet, but this is what’s happening.” And I was like, “I like the way he is approaching this. It seems sort of like how I would do it.” [Laughs]

CG: Martin admitted to me he was sort of a control freak about not embellishing too much on [the songs he brought in]. What was your experience working with somebody that did have that vision that was pretty direct? Where could you push in, where could you not? Listening to this thing in full now, can you hear your fingerprints on it or do you feel like it’s what you inherited with the demos that he brought in?

DT: I think you have to take everything, every song, every piece on a case-by-case basis, and you have to look and think, “What is it asking for? What is it not asking for?” To be honest, I mean, the band, they’re such good players and they’re used to playing together and they’re so intuitive with each other in the way that they work together, that it’s not the hardest job in the world [to produce them]. It’s way harder to get three girls dressed and fed the different things they want to eat for breakfast, to get them out the door to school, than it is to, like, make a record with some people who really know what they’re doing.

I’m always trying to make things shorter. I don’t know, I just I really try to respect people’s time. I just assume that everybody’s got their hand poised over the radio and they’re just about to turn the station. So I’ve got to just kind of keep them from doing that. There might have been a couple places where I was like, “Let’s see if we can make it a little bit shorter.” And he was on board with that. He never fought me on anything like that. I mainly was just like, “Go team!” It was really fun to sit in there and listen to them play. I’m not trying to under-dramatize or make it seem like there wasn’t any friction. I just think that they all know what they’re doing. They know who they are, let’s put it that way. And it’s when you get with people who don’t really know who they are and there’s this, like, interior struggle going on within them — that’s when it’s really challenging.

Real Estate The Band · Daniel