On the face of it, Dan Layus has little to fear. He is a straight, white man living in Nashville, Tennessee. But, when we spoke two weeks before the US presidential election, he told me of a culture of fear in the artistic community and beyond, in a state that has now voted Republican in every election since 1996. To listen back to our conversation a month later, his words seem as striking now as they did then and, indeed, prescient.
'It's an interesting time to be here,' says Layus. 'It's contentious. Your friends and neighbours, people are defining themselves right now. I've been a little surprised by what's around me at this point. Pretty shocked and pretty saddened as most people are.'
In November, not long before Donald Trump’s election win, Layus released Dangerous Things, his first solo album. Lyrically the album is, Layus says, 'completely selfish.' It is 'just mainly about me, people I know, fictional characters and the general human condition.” Surely though it went against the grain not to write something politically-minded at a time when Trump was causing deep division among Republican supporters alone?
'Some people would probably be a little scared to do that,' he reveals. 'There's a factor of fear in this very heightened state of political emotion and rhetoric. A lot of people don't agree with what's happening on one side and are a little bit in fear of what would happen should they stand up and write something or put something out that goes against what the common thread is here, particularly in Tennessee.'
It is interesting to me that Layus mentions neither Trump nor Hilary Clinton by name. Though I have my suspicions as to his political leaning, he seems guarded – keen to keep his own political views away from these pages. He says: 'Unfortunately I seem to be writing songs right now that feel far more socially conscious and socioeconomic-related and politically-related than I'd like to for the benefit of my own family and children, given that we live in the southern United States at this point.
'Is this right for my family? Is this right for my career? Am I willing to put my neck on the line? I have kids to think about; I've got to send them off to middle school and if their old man is out there ripping apart an entire political party that might be...' he pauses for a long time. 'Not beneficial to my existence or theirs.'
It says a lot for the political climate in America that even artists we would consider 'safe' such as Layus are afraid to speak their minds. Dangerous Things is anything but, given its personal subject matter. And Layus is far from some panicking nobody: from the mid-2000s he found success as the frontman of the roots rock band Augustana. By the time of 2014’s Life Imitating Life Augustana was essentially a solo concern. Only now though does their singer feel he is ready to bear the full brunt, as it were, of his music on his own name.
'I was ready to take on little bit more of my own identity. To be comfortable being myself and not rest on my laurels. It’s about evolution. Certainly the greatest bands in the world have evolved over 20 or 30 years and their early stuff doesn’t sound anything like their more current material. But for me, having the original band disband five and a half years ago, I had already come to feel like I was essentially a solo artist.'
It feels as though it has taken Layus a while to get to the point where he is confident to take risks and, with that in mind, it is almost surprising at how much Dangerous Things echoes classic country records. The guitars and pianos are soft, his voice is warm and, for what is to all intents and purposes a country record, the music is sparse. Doug Moore, who plays the lap steel guitar, has worked with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor and indeed the backing vocal harmonies from the Steel Sisters are very reminiscent of Ronstadt and that West Coast sound.
This is a good time to be releasing an Americana record. 'It’s certainly a really good time for Nashville,' Layus reckons. 'I think I just saw that Americana records outsold pop-country records for the first time last week. There’s something going on.
'Jason Isbell blew the doors open recently to elevate it to sort of high-minded country music. Very intelligent, well thought out, well written, well performed country music and I think that guy kinda kicked everybody in the head. We went: "Wow, this is still around, this is still here." This guy’s writing songs that sound like Ray Price. People desire, I think, another Ray Charles country record.
'Sturgill [Simpson], and Wilco obviously, they’ve been doing that for 25, 30 years or whatever it’s been since Uncle Tupelo. Those guys, Jeff Tweedy, Jay Farrar, they’ve been pushing that ball down the field forever. You can see the longevity that they have because of the quality and commitment'
It might be that this has forced Layus to up his game. It might be that he has seen an exciting scene and wants in. Either way, there is no doubt that he is finding ways to push himself as a crafter of songs. “There’s not one bass or percussive element, you’re right,” he says. “It was to make myself uncomfortable. Like, ‘these songs better be good. I am not going to rely on anything other than these songs.’ For better or worse.
'I’m the first guy to want to put a tambourine or shaker or kick drum or anything extra. Sort of, ‘nothing happening here! Look over there...’” He forces himself to find something inside himself, or in the songwriting to make up for that? “Exactly. That vocal performance or that character that is singing right now better grab you by the throat and make you feel something. Because the drums ain’t gonna help. There’s not any drums. There’s nothing there to save you if it’s a little lacklustre. That was a challenge to myself.'
Perhaps this desire to broaden his musical horizons is linked to why Layus seems to feel more comfortable away from home. He toured the UK and Europe earlier this year in support of the album and, despite how rooted in his home Dangerous Things is, it is the north of England he connected with the best. '[Manchester’s] Deaf Institute is probably my favourite venue that I’ve ever played now,' he tells me.
'Manchester reminds me a lot of Chicago, there’s a similar sort of :we’re not London, we’re not New York; we’re cooler!" We love music more than they do. There’s an edge with a simultaneous warmth that is very unique to Manchester or Chicago or Philly or whatever: those industrial towns that are sort of superpowers in their own way. I’m very drawn to those types of cities and those types of fans. They’re very special.” He even took to the city’s football team, something which might not endear him to a lot of UK readers but certainly did to me: 'You talk about football, I mean football football, English football? I want to go see a City game really bad. I really want to take my son to a City game.'
Manchester City? 'Yeah. I fell in love with that team...' I excitedly grab my 1994-95 home shirt to show him over Skype. 'There you go! A few years ago it was David Silva and Kun Agüero. Watching those guys play is unbelievable! They move around the field like nobody. It’s a good groove and they’re fun to watch.' I try to draw him into a prediction for that evening’s Champions League match against Barcelona (let’s not try and remember how that ended up) but he won’t commit beyond a hopeful 'you never know'.
It’s clear that Britain fascinates Layus, despite ostensibly having little to do with his music; funnily enough, there has never been a huge Americana scene growing out of England, although I suppose with its folk heritage there are at least roots here. He talks about wanting to visit Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds, and that he loves the “artistic vibe” of Bristol.
'I’ve been [to Britain] four times in the last 12 months, I feel like I’m living there,' he says. 'It’s incredible, absolutely love it. I’ve fallen in love with so many cultural aspects of that island. It feels like home, it’s strange. I think at some point I’m going to figure out how we can move our family there and try something else new. Always move forward, try new experiences. Never get too locked down in a particular place and time.'
Is this an allusion to the prospect – now the reality – of being an artist in Trump’s America? He’s clearly interested in global politics but still cautious, so I don’t ask. But the thought lingers. “[I’m] a bit more of an observer at this point, trying to do what I do as well as I can do it. But I’m certainly conscious of what’s happening around me.
'It’s good to be foreign in another place and see that perspective. A lot of people take for granted that maybe the whole world doesn’t revolve around us! It’s a little bit interesting to get outside of it and see what the rest of the world is saying.'