There’s no good way to talk about normal. We’re all the same monkeys walking around in the same suits. Almost.”
This comment arrived offhand from songwriter and performer Dane Terry, delivered in his singular Midwestern drawl, which manages to be both louche and wide-eyed at the same time. It could also serve quite well as a distillation of the thematic preoccupations of Terry, whom John Cameron Mitchell recently called “the millennial Cole Porter.” In fact, one of the songs from his quirky, kaleidoscopic, and moving new album “Color Movies” is titled “Normal At Last”:
hey all of you freaks out there
come out come out/
it’s a bright new world
and haven’t you heard
everybody loves you now
you don’t need no costume
makeup or wig
just put on something
I mean think of the kids
The new album is downloadable from his site on Bandcamp (daneterry.
Most of Terry’s songs, often nestled in familiar musical styles like 70s AM pop crossed with a bluesy country vibe, mine the dark and rich veins that run between normal as dirt and freaky as fool’s gold. He likes to call it Appalachian Fatalist or, in his newly-minted term, Frillbilly. With his shoulder-length dirty blond hair, tattoos –– he has “Scaredy Cat” inked on his stomach –– and goofy grin, Terry, 32, might be mistaken for just another Brooklyn-based sexy, geeky homohipster. But with the new album and his recent run of performances and accolades, Terry has come very near to being the musical darling of the Downtown performance scene.
And now it’s official. Terry has just been announced as this year’s recipient of Performance Space 122’s coveted Ethyl Eichelberger Award, which has formerly gone to such queer downtown heroes as Taylor Mac, Peggy Shaw, and Justin Vivian Bond. Named for the virtuosic performance artist who was a lead actor in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, the Eichelberger commissions a new work and is bundled with the PS122’s RAMP Residency. It is awarded “to an artist or group that exemplifies Ethyl's larger-than-life style and generosity of spirit; who embodies Ethyl's multi-talented artistic virtuosity, bridging worlds and inspiring those around them.”
Tall high heels to fill perhaps, but Terry has won the confidence of his peers. Obie and Bessie Award-winning performance artist David Cale, a friend and collaborator, describes him as “immediately spellbinding on stage. The song writing is at such high level, and his musicianship is a pretty wildflower.”
Terry, who came to New York five years ago from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, taught himself to play piano before studying composition for a few years at the Ohio State University.
“I literally got in by banging on a Steinway and crying and being like, ‘Let me in!,’” he recalled.
Terry paid his dues for a decade playing cocktail piano –– “the most wallpaper Liberace jazz,” he said –– first at art gallery openings (his father is an artist and “one of the best art restorers this side of the Mississippi”), and then at innumerable weddings and events like Ohio’s annual Human Rights Campaign gala.
Hence, his style is a strange and pleasing olio of one part Liberace-style syrup, another part formal training and his penchant for 20th century classical composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg –– “Before it got too surrealistic. It got weird quick.” –– and then laced with a hefty dose of jukebox pop, with a nod to his heroes like Elton John, Leon Russell, and legendary studio bassist Carol Kaye (“La Bamba”). He even went through a novelty song phase and makes particular mention of Ray Stevens’ “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival”.
At a recent performance, Terry did a fantastic cover of the hypnotic Laurie Anderson classic “O Superman.”
“That song changed my life,” he said. “I was driving to work and was already running late, and I had my radio tuned to NPR.” He sat there in the parking lot for all eight minutes and 30 seconds. “I was 17 years old, I didn’t even know I wanted to be a musician. That was the first time that I was like ‘Oh. My. God.’”
His adolescent Laurie Anderson epiphany aside, Terry never imagined becoming a performance artist in the theatrical world.
“I was a music geek,” he said. “I wanted to be a rock star! I plinkoed into this.” (I had to look up “plinko.” It’s one of the contestant games on TV’s “The Price Is Right” and is yet another example of the fondly teasing Heartland sensibility that gives such crunchy color to his song lyrics.) Following the success of his show “Bird in the House” done with a band at La MaMa in May, he’s bringing it back as a solo piece, first cabaret-style at Pangea in the East Village on November 23 (178 Second Ave. at 11th St.; pangeanyc.com), and then as part of the Public Theater’s “Under the Radar: Incoming” series January 15 and 16 (425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl.; publictheater.org).
With the new album, the Eichelberger commission –– “It’s prestigious and it’s backed up with some moolah” –– and another new theater piece for synthesizer slated for La MaMa next summer, Terry is excited about the full-throttle momentum he has going, and also a little anxious.
“I can’t have end things in mind when I work. I can’t have final projects to write for. It cages me in. I have to write. I have to sit down and puke it out and then say, ‘That’s what I want.’ Each thing I puke up gets stacked up onto the whole and if it sticks to that one, awesome. If not, I’ll put it on another stack somewhere, and then eventually there are these sculptures.”
His describing the intensity of his artistic trajectory for the coming year brought us back to the “Scaredy Cat” tattoo on his belly.
“I’d never gotten a stick and poke tattoo before. This was in a punk house in Oakland and payment was a bottle of whisky. It gives me a lot of confidence. I’m an anxious guy and that’s fine, but I’m still going to do things I’m afraid of, and consistently my body calls me Scaredy Cat. I have a lot of things I want to do. There is more pressure now that people have expectations. I feel terrified. There’s a lot to do. But I just heard that someone has made a wooden hand-printed sign with my lyrics on it to hang on their back porch in Alabama. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve made it.”