The Madison rapper and songwriter opens for Kate Tempest on June 15 at the High Noon.
Daniel Kaplan’s latest release under the name Lord Of The Fly, 2014’s Not Safe For Work, showcases a young MC who expresses vulnerability by going over the top, hurling himself into wildly splattered verses where the earnest and the sarcastic blur together. That persona began to take on a different shape this past March at a Line Breaks Festival show at the Overture Center, when Kaplan, a member of UW-Madison’s First Wave program, performed with a full band, focusing less on rapping and more on playing piano and singing. He’ll be expanding on that approach on an in-the-works album, and when he opens for UK rapper/poet Kate Tempest on June 15 at the High Noon Saloon. At that show, he’ll be performing with Madison collective Me eN You, in a set combining new Lord Of The Fly material and Me eN You’s more collaborative songs. (Me eN You's sprawling membership includes sax player Nate France, drummer Max Perkins, bassist Liz Clawson, guitarist Quinn Jacobson, producer Coby Ashpis, an organist named Morgan and vocalists Hiwot Adilow, Taylor Scott and Otis Franklin.) Coincidentally, Kaplan's mother recently gave him a copy of Tempest's epic poem Brand New Ancients, not realizing he'd been booked to open for her. Kaplan will also be playing July 4 at The Frequency.
Kaplan, 20, is a member of the Catch Wreck hip-hop/electronic collective and has collaborated extensively with fellow First Waver CRASHprez, most recently in a duo performance at this year’s Revelry festival. In addition to working on the new record, Kaplan is working on a number of projects with Me eN You, including an extended performance piece they hope to roll out at next year’s Line Breaks. He spoke with me recently about changing his approach to songwriting and trying to take a healthy approach to the creative process.
Tone Madison: When you played at the Line Breaks festival in March, you had a full band and you were playing piano and singing, really departing from the more rapping-oriented material you’ve put out so far. How did that set develop? Have you been writing more along those lines?
Daniel Kaplan: I’m really glad you saw me at that show, because that was pretty indicative of the direction I’m going with music. I decided I was going to do that, perform with a band and play keys and stuff versus just rap over an instrumental I think, like, five days before, so I kind of got everyone together, but it was still a pretty intentional set. I’ve played violin since I was little, so I had a musical background, but I dropped out of the orchestra in high school because I almost got into a car accident with my orchestra teacher, and she hated me and was giving me bad grades and stuff. In January, I kind of decided to pick up piano. I’ve been teaching myself since then, a little bit as a coping mechanism for anxiety and stuff. It’s really relaxing to play. But I’ve been using that to write songs for a band. I’m working on another album that’s going to come out towards the end of summer or the beginning of the school year.
Tone Madison: So are you mostly writing songs on the piano now?
Daniel Kaplan: Yeah. It’s kind of this process where before, I would work with a producer or just have a producer send me something and kind of curate different sounds based on the sound of the beat, whereas now I’ll write the song specifically how I want with the chords, and then play with the band. Part of it is just the therapeutic process of playing piano and the inspiration that’s brought me. I’m also part of another project called Me eN You. The idea behind that is that it’s, like, the band that everyone in the world is in, and it’s supposed to give people a platform to create artistically without having to necessarily sign to a record label or even commit to it full-time or be really talented. This summer especially, we want to do a lot of collaborations with Madison artists in general, recording different people playing different stuff, and putting it out under one collective name. For me, I think I have this fear that I’m going to die and no one’s going to remember my name or something like that, that I’ll be just not remember. I think I did that to confront that fear, give up my name in a sense and be free from it.
But as far as specifically with my next album, most of the songs I’ve written the chords for on piano. I’ve also started producing without a band, just in Ableton, and that’s been cool. I think it’s helpful because I can come with some ideas and work with *hitmayng or some other producers in Catch Wreck, and then they’ll take it to a polished level that I maybe wouldn’t be able to just with myself.
Tone Madison: And not that there isn’t an element of songwriting when you’re working with a beat from someone else, but what you’re describing now is a very different process.
Daniel Kaplan: And it’s just mine. I think maybe when I use other people’s beats, it’s hard for me to be proud of myself as much as I am when I make something that I know I did. I am really glad that you saw that set at the Overture, because some of those songs, different versions of them are going to be on the album along with some other stuff.
Tone Madison: Well, having mostly heard you as a rapper, I didn’t necessarily expect to come in and see you do a set where you were mostly singing.
Daniel Kaplan: How I said that making the music myself makes me happier, I think in that set, and in my art in general, that’s really been my focus—what’s going to make me happy? And then kind of working backwards from there, versus, what’s gonna make a crowd jump up and down a lot?, or what’s gonna make people feel like they can sing the chorus to this song? Sometimes it makes me happy to see people jump up and down, but it’s really just been all my decision. With that set, my whole idea was, I don’t want people to know any of these songs, and I want to just do it and have people be like, “Why did he do that?” I wanted to have people maybe leave with questions versus feeling like an answer, like, “Daniel’s the best rapper alive.” I don’t want anyone to leave saying that. [I’d rather they say,] “What just happened?” or something like that.
Even with the singing, for the longest time, I just told myself, I can’t sing. Because maybe I can’t sing like Usher or someone like that. But once I just really took it on, again, with the same mind-frame of, does this feel good to do, do I like how this makes me feel?—I think once I did that, I really let go of all fear of telling myself I couldn’t do any one thing. There was definitely a point earlier in this semester where I was having a lot of anxiety about making this transition—this is really my plan, teach myself piano at the age of 20? Especially in this day and age of art, generally, it’s not just about who’s the best at any one given thing, but who’s really staying true to themselves and really making themselves happy. One function of it is making myself happy, trying to understand myself as an individual, and through that understanding love myself. And then by publishing it and giving that to other people, I feel like I give them the ability to understand their own capacity to do that for themselves.
Tone Madison: It sounds kind of healthy to me.
Daniel Kaplan: It came from an unhealthy place. It was healthy out of necessity. I’m almost glad to have come from an unhealthy place, because now that healthy mindset is a necessity, and I’m not afraid to be healthy, because I know how important it is to be healthy and how important it is to be happy.
Tone Madison: What do you mean by coming from an unhealthy place?
Daniel Kaplan: I lost my father when I was 11, and I don’t know, just generally, I never really thought that I was good, or that I deserved to be happy, because other people really had control over my happiness, be that people who liked my music that I would want to please, or people in my life that are friends or acquaintances—being torn between what I think and caring about what they think. In this project specifically, there’s a big process of me letting go of a lot of other people’s control over me. No one could download it—I mean, it’s also not done—but I think no one could download it and I would be happy with it, but at the least, I can understand myself through it.
Tone Madison: One thing you have in common with CRASHprez is that sometimes it’s hard to get a clear sense of where you’re coming from, where the serious ends and the playful begins, and so forth.
Daniel Kaplan: I really think it comes from what I was speaking about earlier—sometimes, in my relationship with myself, I can’t really tell when I’m being serious and when I’m being sarcastic. It’s very stratified or polar in that way. Either I’m like, “Yeah, I really am great! I should believe in myself!” Or it’s like, sarcastically, “Yeah, I’m great. I should believe in myself. Just kidding.” In the music it manifests because it’s representing that internal dialogue, but I know that other people maybe aren’t sure. I don’t want other people to necessarily be sure. I want other people to try and understand me and themselves.