We all remember where we were when the 2016 presidential race was called for Donald J. Trump. And we all know how we felt: rage, sadness, fear. Fear for what was to come, to be unleashed on this nation, and it seemed like we were bottoming out. Things were bleak. Since taking office in January, the administration and policy have unraveled like you might expect, and fear has continued to be the tie to bind us all. From the streets of Charlottesville to the cataclysmic floods currently swallowing Texas, 45 has broadly lived up to expectations, delivering hack-job rallying speeches and tweeting book recommendations in the wake of devastation. “Just another tale from a gun / And a mind sick with madness / Did it not anger your heart? / Fill you up with sadness?” singer-songwriter Dan Miraldi dispatches the darkest corners of his heart on a song called “No Words,” a chilling recount of the trouble squelching him.
Miraldi was finishing up his long-awaited fourth studio album last fall ⎯⎯ but Nov. 9 hit and the world was hauled kicking and screaming into the Upside Down. “It was not the time for that set of songs,” Miraldi reflects over email to B-Sides & Badlands. That is when he realized he could not simply turn his back or sweep what was happening under the rug. “Fear is a powerful drug but it’s got nothing on love / We shall overcome,” he avows. That elementary notion is only one of many threads woven on his forthcoming new EP, appropriately called Love Under Fire, which witness the singer get pretty aggressive. “I see so much hate in the name of love,” he chants vehemently on another deep cut, breaking the nobs off his bass-heavy, biting and seemingly-threatening approach. “This ain’t the summer of love,” he powers even harder elsewhere. He speaks on advocating love, but the blustering storm of electric guitar and Led Zeppelin-hitting drums deceive him. He’s angry, and he’s not afraid to wear it on his sleeve. “After the election, I saw a lot of fear. I have a lot of friends of different religions, nationalities, races and sexual orientations who saw the election results and wondered what their futures would be like for the next four years,” he explains, detailing why he needed to make this six-track EP (out Sept. 22).
He continues, “They wondered if they would be kicked out of the country or whether they would be targets of violence. Music can be very empowering. I wrote this music to comfort and inspire people to act and protect the civil rights and liberties of others.”
“Speak loud and know your rights,” he orates on the fiery war cry “The Sweet Sound of Protest,” which seems to mimic the rebellion sweeping the belly of the beast. By opening the project with such an audacious and fearsome composition, Miraldi thwarts all disillusionments, empowering marginalized individuals of every creed, sexuality, gender identity and skin color to join hands in the fight. “One day, they might come after you / Stand up together and march on,” he later screams into the funnel cloud. “The project began with [this song]. I’m originally from Ohio, and I read an article about how the Klan was looking to do further recruitment in Ohio and I was like – ‘hell no.’ It made me at least want to release a charity single,” he says. “That is why the money for the next year from the single’s sales and streams are going to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I chose that organization because of their success in prosecuting hate crimes and also by sponsoring tolerance educational programs.”
The next song which sprung from his fingertips was the titular track. “My gay friends were concerned about their rights. In 2015, we saw the Supreme Court vote that same-sex marriage was legal throughout the country. There was the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ during the previous administration. My friends worried about the repealing of these finally-protected rights,” he remembers. “I needed to focus on protest songs, because I knew how to write them.”
Also, being a straight, blue-eyed, white male, Miraldi knew it was his duty to use his whiteness for the right things. “I have lived a great life with many great opportunities and privileges. I definitely feel a responsibility to look after the rights of others,” he points out.
Love Under Fire follows his last full-length record, 2015’s Chaos, Destruction & Dancing.
Below, the singer-songwriter discusses each thunderous song’s intent, post-election America, complicity and his unreleased album. Dig into our exclusive Q&A session.
How have you seen music be a driving force for change?
In grad school, I had a professor who continually said, “Every movement needs a theme song.” A song can capture the consciousness of the times in which it was created. Music can make people think and it can inspire. Music can be an instigator.
What are your intentions and focus of each song?
“The Sweet Sound of Protest” is about civil rights and protecting the rights of others. It’s about the individual acting, even if discrimination does not directly affect you. It’s seeing a group of people facing discrimination and speaking out. It’s about empowering people to march and provide support to those in need. The most dangerous force that can happen these next four years is for people to get burned out of fighting the good fight. Complacency is the enemy.
“Love Under Fire” is about LGBTQ rights.
“No Words” is about gun reform.
“Fear is a Powerful Drug” goes on a journey. There’s a lot of symbolism, but it directly discusses where I was the day after the election, the rise of “alternative facts,” and the sense of hope I felt with the women’s march and how it united people around the world. But at the song’s center is the recognition that Trump’s primary message often centers on fear and making people afraid.
“Name of Love” is me revisiting the first protest song I ever wrote. I wrote it when I was 19. It’s included because many of the things that concerned me as a teenager are still problems today. I made very minor lyrical edits to the first verse, but it was essentially ready to go. The song references 9/11, paranoia, guns, climate change, religious and political extremism. Again, I was 19 and in my second year of college when I wrote this song. The bridge is about the son of a friend of my dad, whose son was 18 and had just died in the army. It was, and is still, a sobering thought to me to be 19 and recognizing that someone younger had gone to war and was dead.
“Kids Are in the Street” is included because millennials now outnumber the baby boomers. Young people do not have a great history of showing up at the polls, but if they do, they have the power to shape the government. It just requires them to show up.
Are there specific events from which you drew for these songs?
Last fall, for three-and-a-half months, I tour managed a band, Welshly Arms, when they opened for Needtobreathe and Mat Kearney on a national arena tour. The headliners had their buses and semis, but Welshly Arms and I drove in a van and trailer all through 44 states. Living in New York, those months out on the road really allowed me to see America. That journey was very much in my consciousness while making this EP.
A song I had written outside of the context of post-election America is “No Words.” I wrote it the day of the Roanoke shooting where the two journalists were murdered on air. Sadly, the song is reusable every so many weeks whenever there is another shooting. I kept the song short and to the point, because this cycle of violence continues and Congress does not act, because gun lobbyists keep their candidates on a short leash.
Overall, the problem with making protest music is that if you get too specific about events, then it is easy for the song to become dated. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and Edwin Starr’s “War” have their original historical contexts, but they are not so specific that you can’t take them and reapply them to current events. I wanted to write in a way that gave a voice to our modern problems, but also allow the songs to be relevant down the road.
“Fear is a Powerful Drug” feels so stylistically different than the rest of the EP. How did that one come together?
In the context of my other albums, it is not too unusual for me to switch from loud rock songs to a more stripped down acoustic sound. Also, a lot of my songs live two lives. There’s the full-band arrangement, and then there is the way I may reinterpret the song when it’s me playing solo acoustic. While I was tour managing last fall, we stopped at Sun Studios in Memphis, and it got me thinking about the concept of one microphone and one take. When you have guitar and vocals being recorded on the same microphone on the same track, you can’t auto-tune it. I didn’t play to a metronome so I can’t splice multiple takes together. You either captured the essence of what you wanted or you don’t.
In the context of this EP, stripping back to just one voice and one guitar gives some sonic variation before blasting into the last two songs. “Fear is a Powerful Drug” is probably the most hopeful song on the album before the EP gets back into “fight mode.” As to composing the song, I had the chord progression and a fragment of the first verse in my head for a while. Then I had the concept of “fear being used like a drug” to make people irrationally afraid. The second verse is my feeling of despair the day after the election. The tour had stopped in Lexington, KY. The skies were overcast, and everyone with us was walking around like someone had died. The bridge was written after Sean Spicer’s first post-inauguration press conference. The third verse is about the women’s march in January and the sense of unity and hope I felt. The song was completed at the end of January, and then I set up my microphone in my apartment, did a few takes and picked the one I liked the best.
In “The Sweet Sound of Protest,” one lyric reads “We must make a stand / It’s time to come together for the sake of our fellow man / No time for complacence.” So, does silence equal complicity?
Every time Trump talks about a Muslim ban or registry, I think of Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First They Came,” about the Nazis in World War II. That poem’s message weighs heavily on my mind. It was in my thoughts throughout the creation of this EP. If people in the 1930s had been able to know what was going to happen, they perhaps would have been more proactive about standing up to the Nazis. We do not get to see the future, but we do get to look at the past, see parallels and try to make the best decisions given our information. These are strange times, and it is dangerous to tune out. I feel morally obligated to not be silent.
So many people attest artists should keep “politics” and the music separate. Here, you make the bold move of making a collection of protest songs. Did you have any reservations about writing and recording this project?
No one wants to be unpopular. I want everyone to love me and my music. Before this, my songs usually were just about girls and my love of rock and roll. I don’t get to be that guy anymore. However, on a lighter note, regardless of your politics – I have Sam Getz of Welshly Arms and Jay Nemeyer of Color Palette ripping some killer guitar solos on these songs. So, haters can go ahead and hate me but hopefully, will still appreciate the riffs.
What was the musical journey through writing and recording this EP?
This EP began as a single and then became a single and a b-side. Once I went ahead and made it a full-blown EP, I realized I had a very thematically-cohesive work. It might be the most cohesive thing I have ever made. It was a satisfying record to make, because I got to work with a lot of my friends. I recorded in three different cities – Cleveland, New York and D.C. On “The Sweet Sound of Protest,” Jimmy, Sam, Mikey and Brett from Welshly Arms make cameos and let me record it at their studio. That meant a lot, because they are always extremely busy. They made time and gave it their all. With “Love Under Fire,” I got to work with my friend Steven Beller with whom I worked with on my last album. He’s an underratedly-talented guy. We listen to a lot of different music, so he’s good about bringing in new textures to the music.
I had not worked with Kyle Downes since I did the ‘Tease’ EP back in 2010, so it was really fun to go down to D.C. and finish the album with him. Since we’d last worked together, we both had learned some new tricks. He understands modern production and current pop, but he is one of those guys that I can reference some 1960s recording, and he’ll know exactly what I am talking about. He’s great.
Considering the heavy themes ripped from reality, how did refresh your mind and keep yourself from lingering in that dark headspace for too long?
SNL and satirical news shows are a source of relief for me. There is a shared sense of outrage and those programs make me feel less alone on this crazy train. Songwriting has always been a coping mechanism for me. It’s therapeutic. I take those dark feelings and get them out. I am lucky because I have an awesome girlfriend and wonderful parents and siblings who stand behind what I am doing.
Will your unreleased album come out at some point or will you start from scratch?
In some form, those finished tracks will come out. I won’t let Donald Trump deny me my NYC party record. The album may come out differently from how I first envisioned it. I have written new songs that I may add over other songs I originally thought would be on the album. I will note that I have been doing a lot of acoustic guitar and vocal recordings with one microphone, so maybe a collection of those between returning to the party album and the protest record? I also wrote two songs about Charlottesville last week, so we’ll see.
Photo credit: Jenna Fournier