In the process of writing ‘Chasing Daylight,’ Magnolia frontman and songwriter Dan Kaplan divorced his wife, hid from terrorists for a night, moved halfway across the country, had a nervous breakdown, comforted a friend in her time of loss, fell in love, questioned his faith, and finally found a modicum of peace, an incredible arc which became the underpinnings of the album – and added to its intensity and urgency. Ultimately, ‘Chasing Daylight’ is a cathexis of the joy and fear of being alive. “I’m slow to process so it comes out through music,” he confesses. The sounds he generated – those of epic pop music – reflect those transitions. This is epic, proudly unapologetic pop music – not indie-pop, not folk-pop, no hyphen at all.
He continues, “I felt stuck most of my adult life. It came out of a period of figuring out how to make decisions for myself rather than getting pulled in one direction or another—figuring out who I am as a person, who I wanted to be. I felt trapped.” The very first lines of the album, Kaplan sings over the insistent drums of the song “Colorblind,” “I can’t run; I’m paralyzed… trapped inside…immobilized, caught in between.” “Sink or Swim” establishes the high stakes of an album until it builds to a peak of “woah oh oh”s. The rest of the album takes on that journey from panic and desolation to a sliver of hope and ultimately, rebirth.
Driven by plaintive piano chords, “It’s Been a Long Time” tackles his divorce, obliquely. Kaplan says, “My band member Eleanor Halgren was dating this guy for a long time. He was about to propose, but, instead of beginning their lives together, he was hit by a drunk driver and killed. He was the nicest person—smart, funny. I was writing this song through her eyes. I saw how she coped with it and how she stayed so strong was amazing to see.” The song was written as a pledge of support from a friend, but her courage helped him as well. He says, “Looking back I realize that it was also my own way of dealing with going through a divorce. I made it my own and it’s just as much about my ex-wife.” The strings hit a crescendo as the song builds power over its course.
He was living in Watertown, MA at the time. A couple of nights after the Boston Marathon bombing in April, 2013, the terrorists headed to his neighborhood. He reflects, “At 1am, I was shuttered into the house. There were tanks roaming the street. You could hear megaphones saying ‘stay calm.’ They came to the door and checked the house and the basement. It was terrifying. Finally, they found them and everybody came out of their houses. There was an impromptu parade down the main drag to the diner. Everybody was out and literally cheering. It was a surreal moment. I was thankful to be safe and to live in this country but realized that this is happening all over the world. People are dealing with this type of thing on a daily basis.”
“Heartbreak Hill” came out of that ordeal, named for the climb towards the end of the marathon, which is the biggest challenge of the race. Kaplan meditated on the strength of the survivors of the marathon attack and wrote a song in solidarity, which also ended up inspiring him in his own life. “It’s so amazing that people can keep running the marathon no matter what. It’s inspiring. If they could do it, I could still keep faith that I could get past these things.” Kaplan sings about the connection that hard times can provide for people bound together: “You know I would carry you; if you ever need me to, I always will.”
Kaplan struggled with insomnia and anxiety following his (amicable) divorce. He remembers, “Close to the divorce getting finalized, I saw her at a friend’s wedding. I remember not being able to sleep that night in the hotel. That started happening more and more.” During this time, guitarist Judson Abts moved to LA and the band’s future was in doubt. “I was asking myself, can I keep doing this? Can I keep going?” The doubts led to a breakdown that saw him isolated at home, unable to work five-day weeks, and do a lot of soul searching. Kicking off with a fingerpicked guitar, “Don’t You Remember” calls out for a guiding light in a time of darkness while its counterpart “Countin’ On You” doubts in a higher power, atop an MGMT-esque groove. It’s perhaps the angriest song on the album—and its most radio-friendly.
Partly recorded in Boston and Nashville, but mostly in his new home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, ‘Chasing Daylight’ marks the completion of a journey from blues and folk music through Americana and ultimately to pop music for Kaplan. He sees the commonalities among the genres, saying, “I always knew that I liked the biggest guitar sounds possible. Then college opened my eyes to new music like Wilco and Ryan Adams. I worked on mastering the craft of songwriting. Hearing [Adams’] ‘Love is Hell’ shifted everything. Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ taught me that I could use different tools to create more texture, more depth.” Kaplan has mimicked the approach of his heroes as a craftsman who has written over 300 songs. He continues, “In college, I played in a band that tended towards the unabashedly anthemic, which nudged me in that direction.”
Around the time of Kaplan’s solo album debut ‘Year of the Swallowtail’ in 2012,’ the Boston Globe has praised his “keen ear for pop hooks,” continuing, “[his] songs should make you nostalgic for something - or someone.” The Boston Phoenix singled out his “lightly honeyed voice.”
Meeting with future Magnolia guitar player Judson Abts helped shape the new sound. Kaplan says, “His influence allowed me to try out songs that I always wanted to write, songs I had been quietly writing for years—songs that were bigger, more anthemic. More pop than anything else. He was always refining his sound—a new custom amp from Canada, a custom delay pedal from Germany—he's a true artist with his guitar sound. And that really helped shape the sound of the record. He’s by far the most imaginative guitarist I’ve played with—wildly creative, but never in competition with the songs.
By the time Kaplan teamed up with Mike Collins on drums, the sound instantly became more fully formed. “Mike is the drummer I’ve always been searching for...His playing is just like he is—endlessly optimistic with a larger than life personality. He gave me the confidence I needed when I needed it the most.”
The process also led Kaplan to befriend and collaborate with Nashville producer Matthew Perryman Jones. Kaplan says, “His is a mentorship by example. He writes and records beautiful, incredibly crafted songs. He makes them as big as he wants. I realized that was something that I could do too.” Flying to Nashville, Kaplan finished the song ‘Sink or Swim’ on the plane. “It was fascinating seeing how he works. He knew exactly how to capture that sound and it informed the rest of ‘Chasing Daylight.’ He trusted in Jones’ arrangements and the session players Jones brought in. “I let them do what they thought was right. I finally let go, at least a little bit", Kaplan admits with a laugh. He goes on, "I suppose sometimes other people are going to have better ideas.” He let that approach color the rest of the sessions in Ann Arbor, trying out different ideas using vintage synthesizers and unconventional percussion. “The songs have to breathe. You have to experiment, play around, and let them transform into something unexpected,” he says.
Ultimately, the album tackles rebirth of a psychological nature, with a powerhouse closing trio of the title track, “Without a Sound,” and “You Can Try To Live Again.” “Chasing Daylight” reminds us that “there’s still time” in a rousing song that provides a crack of hope after the darkness and isolation of the earlier tracks. Kaplan wrote the song at his parents’ house, reminded of a childhood memory of playing outside in the summertime, clinging to the last ray of daylight before having to go inside. He uses it as a metaphor for not giving up when there’s only a little bit of light left. He also experimented with a new directness in his writing, saying, “I was interested in pulling out all the stops and learning how to say something as honestly as possible, looking beyond some more elusive metaphor. I’m hoping everyone can relate to it in some way, so why not say it like you mean it?”
“Without a Sound” feels like a new awakening and reminds one of FDR’s famous truism that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” with chiming electric guitar and open ringing piano chords. Finally, punctuating acoustic guitar chords kick off “You Can Try To Live Again,” with Kaplan singing of the redemption that comes only after a fall.
He now has fallen in love with a new partner and moved to Ann Arbor, MI, near his family. He says, “I eventually realized that it was time to start a new chapter and see what happens, to let the pull of something new take over.” Poignantly, Kaplan sings the final words of the album in harmony with himself and a few piano chords about unapologetically moving forward:
“We’ll return to light, return to light. Return to light, we turn to light.”