It might sound clichéd that it was Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” that prompted Dane Terry, at a very young age, to pick the titular instrument as his muse, but when you hear the man belt out the first few bars and proclaim his wont to give that same anthemic feeling to an audience as Joel’s oft-requested staple does, it makes complete sense. Terry is a performer at his very core. Playing behind the keys of a piano provides the most grand outlet to put on a show, be it Rachmaninoff or Elton John, and Terry has always wanted to emulate that.
Aprimer on rising star shouldn’t be a secret in Columbus. Though he’s called New York City home since 2011, the quirky pop of the Midwest he immersed himself in when he was here, either as a one-man show or as collaborator in various indie bands, is front and center on his stunning 2015 album Color Movies. Another cliché to be said about Terry is that he doesn’t forget his roots, and to that end Color Movies is a record packed with songs, be it “The Working Class” and “Moonshiner’s Boy,” that look back on a childhood in the heartland with both a nostalgic ambiguity and an equally sardonic wit. Be that as it may, Terry was an anomaly in Columbus, and he found himself a songwriter penning songs that were destined to evolve far past the boundaries of a studio or a dive bar. The move to NYC was a move of necessity to facilitate every ambitious thing Terry wanted to do as an artist. But even there, finding a place for his art was a struggle.
“In New York, even if you’re making it, it is nearly impossible without a trust fund,” says Terry of the cutthroat environment he’s experienced so far. “People don’t realize that all of the stars on their favorite Netflix shows are probably living with roommates. It’s something I’m still kind of figuring out.”
Color Movies was the first step in figuring it out and it gained momentum with critical acclaim, but Terry bills himself as a “Appalachian fatalist songwriter” and a “frillbilly theater composer,” so a move towards something more dynamic was eminent. His inevitable transition into the New York theater scene came at the request of La MaMa Theatre in the East Village, who gave the Terry a two-week residency and free reign to do pretty much whatever he wanted. The result was Bird in the House, the stage show he’ll bring to the Wexner Center this month. The show expands the themes of Color Movies into a cinematic arc, with Terry interspersing anecdotes and dialogue that has been described as “eerie scenes of queer American boyhood and adolescence.” Bird in the House is a story both autobiographical and obtuse in the way a “Van Gogh is realistic.”
“It’s very impressionistic. The thesis of the show, and it sounds funny saying ‘thesis’, like the ‘thesis’ to the movie Jaws, comes from the realization that everyone’s childhood felt weird and alien,” Terry said. “Childhood is scary, it’s a dark, surreal time when nothing really makes sense. There were very specific things that I wanted to talk about from my own childhood, but in this foggy, emotional, memory I found a lot of the themes are universal.”
Terry credits Columbus—particularly his quirky one-man space odyssey Cockpit and numerous other shows at the Garden Theater—as the creative incubator, or boost of courage that afforded him the confidence to do something as consuming as Bird in the House on a New York City stage—where in the last year it’s played several times to packed houses. The success of Bird in the House though left Terry inspirationally drained, to the point that he admits to floundering on what to do next.
With Bowie and Prince passing in 2016, he found himself “comprehensively” studying their work for the first time, in the face of boredom. In fact, his just-released single, “One More Name in Nightlife,” which will appear on his next album, Golden Slogans From the West, has been compared to a twisted hybrid of Prince and the recently passed Leon Russell (one of Terry’s earliest sonic mentors)—indeed it’s a absurdist funk aria suited for chameleonic performances. As Terry’s identity crisis balloons though, so too has his work. Being recently awarded the Ethyl Eichelberger Award and a commission to write and direct a show for legendary NYC indie house Performance 122, Terry has temporarily moved his operations to Cleveland in order to craft his most involved show yet. Somewhere in our conversation he hints that it’s a “sci-fi pop-era,” but details were nil about the size and scope.
“I want to make bigger stories—to make these larger musical narrative fabrics. The best work that does that is opera, but I don’t like the connotation. I guess I want to make movies for the stage,” says Terry. “I really believe with the skillful use of music, spoken word, storytelling, orchestration, and life, that you can make an audience feel like their watching a movie. The less you show them, the more they have to imagine, which makes it way better.”
Though sleight of hand and the adopted stylistic shifts of his heroes—sometimes in the course of one song—are the hallmarks of Terry’s marquee, it’s the prospect of what comes next that holds the ultimate allure. Such is the way with any renaissance man.
Dane Terry will perform Bird in the House at the Wexner Center for the Arts on December 9 and 10. Visit wexarts.org for tickets and more information.