Roughly one year ago, Dan Craig started working on his fourth full-length, Alchemy. He had just married fellow songwriter Jessica Sonner and was a year and a half into a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from medical school. "I kept pushing myself to these big crossroads," he says, "these sort of shaping moments."
As a musician, Craig's first shaping moment came during his childhood at Fourth and Monaco, watching his father come home from work and play guitar. "I always wanted to play guitar," he says, "because it was the only instrument I'd ever seen anyone play for fun."
He took a month of lessons from a teacher he describes as a "tool," but there was no turning back. "I would sit there for hours," he recalls, "and painstakingly go through tabs from some Kansas or Eric Clapton song from the back of Guitar magazine. It took me forever."
Dan Craig CD-release party, with Churchill and A Mouthful of Thunder, 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 20, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $10-$15, 303-830-8497.
Craig started his first band at George Washington High School. He played at the Ivy League's University of Pennsylvania during his years as an undergrad. He came back to Colorado, where he formed the Dan Craig Band, joined Nathan & Stephen as a guitarist and was accepted to med school at the University of Colorado.
For a year, he balanced school and music, but in 2007, it just got to be too much. Nathan & Stephen (later called Hearts of Palm) was rapidly climbing to what Craig describes as "the middle of the Denver scene," by which he means smaller than the Fray and Flobots, but bigger than almost everything else. So he took a break from school to focus on his work with that band and his solo project. In 2008, the Dan Craig Band started to "finally get some traction" when his song "Further to Fall" was featured on One Tree Hill.
Craig went back to school last January, but he's glad he took the time off. "I would have missed out on a lot of really amazing experiences," he says, before pointing out, "I wouldn't have met my wife."
His wife: A beautiful redhead fellow singer-songwriter named Jessica Sonner when Craig met her at the Meadowlark on December 21, 2006. Sonner, who was living in Chicago at the time, was opening for him, and he was attracted to her immediately. "You know how you just look at someone and you're like, 'I'll bet everyone you meet just falls all over you. I'm not going to be that guy,'" Craig remembers thinking. "So I tried very hard to play it cool for at least a couple hours."
It must have worked, because they started dating shortly afterward. But, at least initially, their music had nothing to do with their love. "Right off the bat, we didn't really get each other's music," he notes. "That took a long time."
But even if they weren't an instant musical match, their relationship inevitably provided material for both musicians' projects. "We both wrote full-length albums during the period where we were falling in love with each other, and we broke up twice," Craig reveals. "You can get a relatively good history of a lot of the stuff we've been through just by listening to one of her records that came out and one of mine."
Her record would be All We Need; his is Skin Grows Thin. Of her songs, "Let Me Go" is the most ironic today. Sample lyric: "How you gonna love me/If I'm moving on?"
Craig was undeterred, and Jessica Sonner became Jessica Craig in the summer of 2009 — though it's worth noting that she still performs under her maiden name. "Getting married changed way more things than I realized it would," says Dan. "It changed my whole foundation." As a result, the experience of writing songs for Alchemy was unlike that of any of his previous albums. "It's different to walk into a big project and have somebody you have that kind of trust with," he says. "You don't feel alone anymore."
There is only one song on Alchemy directly about their marriage. It's called "Home Forever." It contains the most beautiful verse on the album: "I've been blown across the waters of death and demand/Left the arms of Jacob's daughters empty again/Weak with desire and spare time and skin/I find strength in her fire that burns from within/I say, 'Tattoo your father's name onto my arms/And tell me I'm home forever.'"
This is not to say that Dan Craig cannot write good songs about things other than Jessica. Inspiration for Alchemy comes not only from his stories, but from fictional and historical stories, as well. "Holy Moses" is about the Exodus, and the chorus contains an excellent play on the words "Pharaoh" and "fair, oh."
According to Craig, Alchemy is the best album he's ever made. He's quick to admit that an artist should always feel like that when he's just created something, but there are more specific reasons for optimism this time around. "I think," he offers, "with this record, it really felt like the right group at the right time."
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That group is Sonner on piano and backup vocals, Seth Donovan on cello, Geoff Burghardt on mandolin and lap slide, Mike Hall on drums, and Craig himself on lead vocals, guitar and synthesizer. And while Craig still did the songwriting, the arranging was a collaborative process this time. The outfit tracked the whole ten-track album live at Macy Studio over three and a half days. They left little pieces of studio banter on the final version of the album — Jessica saying something (apologizing, maybe?) at the end of the lead track, "Sunday Morning," Craig counting off "Holy Moses" by saying what sounds like "One, twos, onze, douze, Space Ghost."
What happens next for Craig is unclear, and he's perfectly fine with that. He's back in school now, spending eighty to one hundred hours a week in a hospital, facing a month of outpatient-clinic days in addition to his music. "I can't really explain how it fits together," he admits. "Most weeks I don't really know how there are enough hours. It doesn't seem possible."
It's hard to say where he'll be a few years down the road. Maybe he'll be a full-time doctor. Maybe he'll be a full-time musician. Or maybe he'll be a little of both.
"I'm trying very hard to be over with the hypotheticals," he says, "because they really just worry the crap out of me."