Dan Navarro is a musician’s musician—not only does he write some awfully tasty tunes, play guitar with the best of ‘em, but he’s an advocate for all his musical colleagues. He’s got their backs. Dan has served on the board of Folk Alliance International and is very active and outspoken about all things related to musicians’ rights pertaining to their ability to make a living wage.
Dan’s music is written with a lot of heart. It’s honest. It’s real. This interview below gives us just a glimpse into the world of Dan Navarro. All I can say is that this world is a better place with Dan in it. Somehow it’s comforting to know that Dan is carrying and continuing to share his own music as well as the music he wrote and performed with his partner, Eric Lowen. (As many of you may be aware, Eric lost his battle with ALS in 2012 after being diagnosed with the disease in 2004. The two stopped playing together in 2009.)
Take some time and learn more about Dan on his website.
Here’s a video of Dan singing “I Don’t Believe in Yesterday.”
Here’s a video from the Lowen and Navarro archives.
Your bio states that you started your career in the music industry as a songwriter. Does that mean that you were hired by a music or record label to write music specifically for various artists?
I started out with music publishers placing my songs with other artists. The earliest were 1976 and 1977, as a solo writer, then the breakthrough with Pat Benatar in 1984, written with Eric Lowen. By 1986, we were staff writers with a couple of publishers in succession. We wrote with our hearts, but would often aim for a particular artist. It was not very fruitful partly because the songs weren’t always that good. We fared better when we wrote WITH the artists, but the songs we wrote from the heart were the best, and fueled our first couple of albums.
Did you do any performing at this point? When you first started performing, were you appearing solo or were you part of a band? How would you describe your sound?
In 1981, Eric and I were in a band called Bon Mot, as sidemen. The lead singer stopped writing, so we filled that void. That’s how started writing together. After “We Belong” hit in 1984, another band, 20 Times, was formed, but with me as a behind-the-scenes collaborator. It was frustrating and led to Eric and me starting Lowen & Navarro as a side project. When 20 Times ran out of steam in 1987, the side project became the main focus.
Style-wise, I had been a solo singer-songwriter in the mid 70s, so the L&N sound — distinctly different from 20 Times’ sound — was simply a continuation of the 1970s singer-songwriter tradition, duo-style — acoustic guitars, classic chord structures, fluid melodies, two-part harmonies, and lyrics of true meaning to us. And that’s what I still do, only now I’m solo again after a 30 year gap.
When did you first meet Eric Lowen? Did you both figure out pretty quickly that you were an incredible pairing?
We were waiters at a restaurant in LA that featured singing staff. He had just ended a stint as a sideman to an artist on Capitol Records, and I was floundering after my pro songwriter gig went fallow. When he came on board, I did not like him much. He was cocky, good looking and very talented. Clearly competition, though he didn’t write back then. He didn’t like me much either, as I was equally cocky and a little jealous of his looks and talent, and I didn’t play as well as he.
One night, in an after-hours singalong, we discovered — instantly, in the space of a few seconds — an intuitive, instinctive knack for harmonizing and a compelling blend. We both have admitted to thinking, at that very moment, “Aw, crap…you?” It took some time, nearly a year, before we accepted that it was bigger than both of us, hammered out a respectful working relationship, and started singing together in earnest. It was a couple of years more before our musical relationship evolved into the deep friendship that characterized most of our 30 year partnership.
Would you say that your music sensibility was similar to Eric’s or did you offer each other different perspectives about various musical genres?
Both, really. We were from different backgrounds and parts of the country — his dad was a Baptist minister from upstate NY, my dad was a merchant and former boxing promoter from Southern California, I’m Latino, Eric had Swedish-English roots…but we grew up on the same music, American Top 40, with some side influences…church music in his case, Mexican music in mine. And I was classically trained as a French horn player and choral singer and conductor. We were also from the same graduating class, so we had a lot of music in common, some of it unlikely (like bubblegum pop, for instance) and there were areas we did not share — Sinatra and classical on my side, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett from his side. So we brought that all to the table when we partnered up.
We’ve heard rumors that there’s a new album coming out soon. Tell us about it!
It’s been long in coming, but it is moving right along. It’s called Shed My Skin, after the song of the same name, and the title is apt. I’m coming to a new place after a molting of sorts. I’m trying to explore new musical turf without making a hard left turn. The biggest change, of course, is Eric’s absence, and I am dealing with that deliberately — all the originals are by me alone, with no collaborators, and significantly less emphasis on harmony vocals. And though there is some exploration of new musical territory, both in the arrangements and the songs themselves. There are some fine players on it, including Steve Postell on guitars and producing, Tony Furtado on a couple of tracks, Bob Malone (John Fogerty) on one, Jon Ossman (Marc Cohn, Paula Cole) on upright bass (no electric!), David Glaser on mandolins, and more. It is truly the next step in what I would have done organically if Eric were alive. It’s just that the evolution is now mandatory, not optional.
If you had to name the Top Three highlights of your career, what would they be?
Wow, so many, thankfully. In no particular order…
December 10, 1990 — Constitution Hall in Washington DC, in the middle of a bill with John Hiatt and Shawn Colvin, before a sellout crowd of 3400 people. Shawn came onstage to sing a Christmas song with us, and we all went on to sing the encore with Hiatt. Thought I was gonna pass out.
Janaury 28, 1994 – Park West, Chicago, as headliners, sold out crowd of maybe 800. Eric had flown home from Portland ME for the birth of his twins, we canceled Cleveland and he rejoined us in Chicago, for a show recorded for WXRT. Someone out front tried to scalp tickets to me for $50. First time I ever felt like a star.
January 31, 2009 – After the final L&N show in LA, at The Mint, I was given the final mastered version of Jackson Browne singing our song. “Weight of the World” for the L&N tribute / ALS benefit CD Keep The Light Alive. I had to pull the car over, I was so overwhelmed. I mean, Jackson Freaking Browne!
Honorable mention…In 2001 or so, at the end of an east coast run, I’m sitting up in bed in a Baltimore hotel room at 7am, watching The Morning Show on WJZ-TV Channel 13, the CBS affiliate, hosted by Don Scott and Marty Bass. We had often done that show, like a dozen times, but the routing didn’t allow it this time. We had arrived for our Baltimore show too late to do it, and were only back in Baltimore to fly home. Well, at one point, Don noted, “You know, Lowen & Navarro played here a few days ago.” Marty replied “And they didn’t come see us?” Don looked straight into camera and said, “Hey, what’s the matter, guys? Don’t you love us anymore?” He was talking to me on TV, as though he knew I was watching, and I was! Surreal!
After being a part of a dynamic duo for so long, has it been extremely trying to perform on your own?
Not anymore. It certainly was at first. Or maybe just weird after so long as part of a team, a team I loved. At first it was a predictable buffet of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness and apology, even guilt at surviving and choosing to carry on. Starting in 2006, before Eric retired in 2009, I went out solo for a few shows every few months, just to work that crap out of my system. It took a while. The first few shows were as awkward as a teenager on his first date.
Along the way, I had to learn how to replace our normal straight man / punch line stage energy and figure out how to do it alone. I’m a bigger goofball onstage than I used to be. And I had to decide to sing differently, leaving less space, and make less trackable moves with my voice, to fill what was once dominated by harmonies. It’s been liberating in a way. By 2009, when he finally retired, the show was my own. It got a little weird again after he died in 2012, and it’s a legacy I’ll never leave behind and never truly touch again. The good news is I’m enjoying the new era enormously.
In addition to writing and playing music, you have been a voice actor for some time. Is it difficult getting into being the voice for an animated character?
It all happened by chance, evolution, dumb luck. I sang on a homemade commercial for Ortho Mattresses in 1988, and it led almost instantly to being hired regularly as a singer on Spanish language jingles and record albums. For ten years, I was one of the top guys in town. By 1994, that morphed quite organically into voice-over work, still in Spanish. In the later 90’s, through my union activism, vocal contractors became exposed to me and took a chance on using me in English for feature films. And in 2000, an L&N fan who was a casting agent, and knew I did movies and commercials as a singer, asked if I wanted to do unidentifiable background voices, aka “walla”, on Family Guy, when it was brand new.
My voice agent caught wind of my versatility a little at a time and started sending me out on auditions that were broader and more varied. A combination of all those evolutionary steps led to a connect-the-dots resume of a couple dozen feature films, television shows and albums, and hundreds of commercials, as a singer, voice-over and voice actor. All because when they asked, “Can you? Would you?” I said “Sure.”
You’ve been an outspoken advocate for independent musicians — making sure that their intellectual property rights are acknowledged and that copyright is respected. This is a loaded question—but what’s your opinion about the future of music? New business models have been created and recreated and it sure looks like it’s become more difficult for independent musicians to make a living wage.
The model has changed, and is continuing to change. Illegal downloading is still a problem, but is less significant for lesser-known artists. The current issue is the evolution from CDs to downloads, and subsequently to streaming models that, while legal and royalty-producing, generate pennies on the dollar compared to sales and radio models. There’s not a lot we can do here, as opting out is foolish for our community.
The old models are not completely obsolete — CDs still sell at shows and internet coverage is still not pervasive enough that all music can be streamed at all times, but the trend is clearly shifting, and will continue to do so, until someday all media is delivered that way (only to be replaced by something else a decade down the road). So, while seeking legislative and judicial relief in the grossest of cases (Performance Right and Pandora come to mind), ultimately we as independent musicians need to shift with prevailing winds.
In some ways we’re well poised to survive the shift. Live performance is more meaningful than ever, though clearly difficult in terms of hours spent and miles traveled vis-a-vis dollars earned. Our grass roots principles — creating value and loyalty by serving an audience with fervor and consistency — are part and parcel of our world, long before it became hip (or crucial). We’ve been doing it, well below the radar, for decades. So while it is indeed harder, it’s a difficulty to which we are conditioned.
But we can’t stop the train when it’s rolling, and rolling it is. Recorded music may be losing its intrinsic value, aided and abetted by streaming models and pervasive YouTube exposure, so I am starting to get my head around deemphasizing the traditional album and its sales curve in proliferating my music, even as fans and radio presenters ask when my new CD is coming out.
I believe people who care what I have to say will consume what I produce, if it’s honest and if it’s good. Maybe it will be in smaller gross quantities, maybe in smaller individual morsels, maybe in unorthodox configurations, maybe along unpredictable pathways, and maybe to a greying audience. But if they love me, and I show them that I love them, and remain honest and true and connected — and good — they will most likely show up. From that point on, it’s up to me to figure out how to make it work. What more can I ask of this imperfect life?