With his second release Reflector, Daniel Donato drives his Cosmic Country locomotive deeper into his shifting musical universe. His direction is clear, he’s headed towards the truth. This voyage will never reach a destination because there is no end point. And Donato wouldn’t have it any other way.
Donato’s passion to explore what lies ahead is palpable and refreshing. Charging full steam into the unknown is exactly what you’d expect from a musician who has literally done the same thing on stage for half his life. At 28, Donato has plenty of fuel and experience to reach the furthest depths of his unique cosmic universe.
Age is one of numerous things in the Cosmic Country cosmos Donato finds irrelevant. “You’re new but you’re old. I feel that. After playing all the festivals we have, with a lot of bands the same age, I noticed the human measurement of age has nothing to do with the universal concept of experiential information. A musician can be thirty years old and have fifteen years under their belt. Another could be thirty and just started touring a few years ago. A lot can be noticed within that contrast. With that there is no hierarchy I operate off. For some reason, I got kicked out of the gate at an early age. I notice a startling difference at times.”
Donato’s years playing on the streets of Nashville and as part of Don Kelley’s band have solidified the country end of his musical spectrum. It also provides even more fuel to sustain his journey through the never ending world of psychedelia. “The idea of Cosmic Country is you have this duality.” Donato explains. “Country is three chords and the truth. That side of the spectrum is very simple. With something Cosmic, the definition of what is ‘infinite’ and most unknown is the cosmos. You have this contrast and a responsibility to cover everything from the ground to the sky. That’s what I wanted to cover on Reflector. In no small feat. Rose in the Garden, Till the Daylight, Half Moon Night those are simple country songs. Then there are more complex songs that are more cosmic. Cosmic country is the duality of simple but complex, but truthful all the while.”
Donato knows his role as conductor of the Cosmic Country express comes with significant responsibility. He’s got a century of country music at his disposal to make current and bring to an audience thirsty to be hip to the classics. “I feel like I’m getting to turn my fans on to a whole part of the American songbook. I mean what kid is listening to Marty Robbins when he’s 14?” Donato muses. “When I started listening to the Dead, I knew all the country songs they were covering. I had been to RCA Studio A where Marty Robbins recorded Big Iron and El Paso. Or Sun records where Johnny Cash recorded Big River. You can take old time material and bring it to life if the audience is willing to go there with you.”
Donato adds, “We will break out a lot of songs that people have never heard before. I feel our fans are really into that. My perspective may be slanted because I’m so in it I can’t see it objectively. Whenever we break out a song from Bob Wills that was recorded in 1957, people don’t bat an eye. They just dance to it. I think we’re at a place where there’s a real need to return to a nostalgic time that was more orderly and loving. Art is a great vehicle for nostalgia.”
Another critical part of the Cosmic Country experience is the crew Donato uses to bring his music to the masses. His band featuring Nathan “Sugar Legg” Aronowitz on keys, Will McGee bass, and Noah Winner drums provide immeasurable support and energy keeping Donato on course in the CC cosmos. Finding the right combination of personality and ability is something Donato says he learned by the side of Don Kelley for almost five hundred shows. “I said from the get-go this isn’t a sophomore album. When I played with Don, he was a great bandleader. He wasn’t the best musician, but a great bandleader. He knew how to find the right personalities that did inspiring things on their instruments. He organized people like a harmonious cosmic puzzle of personalities playing music. I picked up early on how he was able to assess players and pick the right guys to play on stage. You must have the best band possible with this type of music. It’s not like you can learn how to do it from a Dropbox of music files.”
Another facet of Reflector’s beauty is Donato’s ability to seamlessly space out songs along the wide range of genres that is Cosmic Country. From Honkytonk slammers Sugarleg and Loco #9 through the wide open Psychedelic Dance in the Desert, the album has a free flowing pace and ease. Donato says the songs quickly showed which direction they needed to go. “It’s right off the bat. Almost instantaneous. Weathervane, Double Exposure, Dance in the Desert, Gotta Get Southbound. When I’m writing those, I’m listening to what the song is trying to say. These songs seem to let me know where they can go live. Probably because I’ve played so many days live over the last fourteen years. When I’m picking on something new, using my imagination, I can see and feel where it will go on stage. With Cosmic Country, I have two buckets to put things in. Psychoactive music and then stories. People need both. You need songs that take place in the garden and others in the forest where you slay the dragon, rescue the damsel and find the gold. That’s where the trip happens. The music will always tell me where it wants to go.”
Clocking in at just over an hour, Reflector is about the length of a Donato live set. Donato doesn’t waste a second of that precious time. The album flows smoothly as he conducts his cosmic train on short journeys like Lose Your Mind and Rose in a Garden. Songs like Gotta Get Southbound and Dance in the Desert offer a longer more scenic ride. Finding the right avenues to shine the brightest light on his current and future travelers is another area Donato says he places great focus on.
“I think you need to give people a lot now. With streaming, the vehicle of consumption has changed and altered the attention span of music. People don’t have a lot of time to dig into what you’re doing. They say the attention span is shorter. I disagree. I think the consideration span is different. People will listen to a podcast for three hours. But they consider things worthy of their attention for three seconds. So, if we pass the green light for someone considering us worthy of listening to, I wanted to give them a lot to dig into. There’s a massive opportunity to try to hit people in whatever psychological state they’re in. If you’re watching something on You Tube, you’re in a different state than if you’re listening on Spotify. That’s something we considered.”
As mentioned in part one, Dance in the Desert is one of the best songs released in 2023 by anyone. It’s so open and flowing it’s easy to see how Donato and crew have been taking it on a twenty minute excursion nightly. Reaching for the deepest chasms on stage is another perfect example of the duality Donato strives for. “Dance in the Desert feels very cosmic country in terms of what it can be. It’s technically not a country song, but it’s not safe in any way. I think artists need to go to the edge and see what you can find out there. That’s literally what the gold miners did. They went to the very edge of the land until they found it in the ocean and started digging for gold. That hero’s journey is analogous in the musical sense. You have to go to the edge with your musical tools and start digging.”
Constantly touring, Donato gets to drive the CC Express to that edge nightly. Keeping everyone safe on the tracks is another responsibility Donato cherishes. “The whole experience of a live show is to collectively direct the crowd’s energy to the music. We’re all hoping something good happens. Everyone is aligned and in agreement on some level. That’s a high ideal. You’re not going into a room other than a concert where everyone wants the same good thing to happen. At a sporting event, there’s half that want one outcome and half that want another.”
“If there’s 100 people in a room and four of us on stage, there are 104 shows happening.” Donato muses. “Even on a physics level, people are hearing things differently. The ‘G’ note coming out of my amp sounds completely different than the ‘G’ note someone in the back of the room with earplugs hears. There’s literally that many shows, realities, and lives happening. When I go on stage, I try to do the will of what is most eternally true to me. I fully surrender my life and the outcomes to that organizing force. Whatever happens is totally fine by me.”
Donato’s time on the road and stage have given him wisdom well beyond his 28 years. His focus is forward, but he’s always on the lookout for pitfalls that can derail his journey. “On the road there are many snakes in the garden and apples to be bitten. Metaphorically speaking. I want to do this for the rest of my life. I want everyone to know when I’m on stage, I’m trying my best. I notice the times I lose spiritual force, or the times I’m not giving it my all on stage. If I’m drinking too much or taking too many substances. That’s the classic downfall of anyone. Trey and Jerry got distracted on that level. I’m diligent these days about the road. I quit smoking cigarettes, drinking a bunch. My daily ethos is when I’m not playing with the truth onstage, I’m trying to seek the truth off stage. Anything that doesn’t hit in the center of that, I turn away from so I can keep my eye on the prize.”
As the Cosmic express rolls down the tracks, another of life’s dualities is staring Donato directly in the face. The only certainty his future holds is that it will be uncertain. He concludes, “I like where we are now. I’ve been doing this long enough to know I don’t know where I’ll end up. I realize people who can create something that stands the test of time don’t know where they’ll end up either. How did Andy Warhol go from silk screen printings to mylar floating balloons? How does Garcia go from acoustic guitar in Palo Alto to using a rolling synth on Shakedown St. thirty years later? You don’t know where you’ll end up. That’s part of the faith required. I believe the actions our ours and the consequences are god’s. It’s taking what the world is telling you to do and seeing where it goes.”
“There are things I want to happen for our team and things to happen for our community. For the community, I want more people to get turned on to this music. I want them to find that ‘something’ in their life. Something that brings more life and truth from our music. For the team, we need more zeroes. Everyone on the road is working hard. Basically, doing three jobs. If we can continue to grow the scale of what we do. Get to better venues with better sound, lighting, staffing and ticketing processes, the community and team would be happy. It’s a temporal desire mixed with an eternal desire. Bringing value to people’s lives.”
Daniel Donato Reflector 2023 Retrace Music
Photos – Jason Stoltzfus