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Noted Indie Rock Musician Daniel Hart Found His Voice at Meadows

Unexpected explorations in music and theatre defined Hart’s SMU experience

By Katrina Leshan (B.M. Classical Guitar Performance, '13)
Daniel Hart

Meadows alumnus Daniel Hart. His most recent solo record,The Orientalist (released October 2012), gleaned quite a bit of local attention and received the Dallas Observer’s Best Male Vocalist Award (2012).  

When Daniel Hart entered Meadows School of the Arts in 1994, he dreamed of writing and acting in plays.  He never expected that experiences in the Meadows community would dramatically change the path of his life and propel him into a creative, worldly musical career.

As a theatre student, Hart enjoyed acting in various plays such as Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, in which he played a male prostitute, and experiencing his undergraduate career through the bright-eyed glare of stage lights and the words of artists who came before him.  His senior year, Hart wrote a play for six of his friends based on characters his friends invented, titled Live at Riverstrip Tonight!  “It was about an Irish-themed strip club,” Hart recalls, “where the bartender’s son is a vampire, and the bartender falls in love with a vampire hunter. Drama ensues.”

Even in the midst of his theatrical adventures, Hart felt he could express himself best through a musical group called The Doubting Scholars.  The “band” was made up of anyone and everyone who wanted to communicate through music and have a good time.  Meadows composition professor Kevin Hanlon headed the group, and regulars included Hart, a percussionist or two, some of Dr. Hanlon’s composition students, and occasionally a horn section. 

The group played across the street from SMU at the CoffeeHaus - which has since been turned into a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop- and it was here that Hart found his home in music. “Performing at the CoffeeHaus was like having the space and time to stretch out and create anything we wanted to create,” says Hart.  “It was nothing short of magical for me.”

One such magical experience occurred in 1997 when jazz legend Wynton Marsalis won the Algur H. Meadows Award and spent a weeklong residency working with students at Meadows.  Dr. Hanlon tasked The Doubting Scholars with listening to and memorizing Marsalis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz composition Blood on the Fields, which was performed that Friday night at the CoffeeHaus.  Marsalis and his septet showed up unannounced during the performance, and the story goes that Marsalis was moved to tears.  Says Hart, “Wynton’s photographer, who had been at a workshop earlier in the week, encouraged me to pick up my violin and take a solo, which I had never really done before. I wasn’t very good, but that night was the beginning of a lifelong passion for jazz and a desire to study the possibilities of jazz through violin.” 

Dr. Hanlon treasures memories from the CoffeeHaus.  “We’d play on holidays – Halloween was a favorite - and we’d prepare extra-special material for that night each year.  Everybody was invited to bring their talents, and to respect their talents.  One of my favorite performances was when Dan Hart and I improvised a song called The Relentless Search for Nazis; I played some turbulent music and he just kind of went off on a rant about the topic.  It was wonderful.  He was logically crazy – he was connected to the music in a very special way.”

The Doubting Scholars lived on for a few years after Hart left SMU, but the music-making magic of the CoffeeHaus never left his spirit.  After graduation, Hart joined AmeriCorps and taught at a nonprofit in New York City’s East Village called YSOP: Youth Service Opportunities Project. After one year of service, he started a record label with two of Dr. Hanlon’s previous composition students - former members of The Doubting Scholars - and recorded music there for about six years. 

Hart’s musical career was thrust into the mainstream indie scene in 2007 when Annie Clark asked him to start playing in St. Vincent and John Vanderslice asked him to start playing in his touring band.  “A few short-term day jobs excepted, I’ve been a professional musician since then,” says Hart. Hart is currently working on a film score, touring and recording an album with his new band Dark Rooms, and performing quite frequently in Dallas.  His most recent solo record, The Orientalist (released October 2012), gleaned quite a bit of local attention and received the Dallas Observer’s Best Male Vocalist Award (2012). 

So what of his time at Meadows? Hart recalls, “At that time in my life - and perhaps this is true for other young folks in or out of college as well - I was really trying to stretch out and discover new territory as a person and as an artist. I was trying to find my voice, and I was learning a lot about myself at an incredibly fast rate. I think finding that voice takes the perfect balance of freedom to explore and structure to guide those explorations. For me, the theatre program at Meadows was, for the most part, that perfect balance. Some of the greatest teachers and mentors I've ever had in my life were on the Meadows faculty, both in theatre and music: Dale Moffitt, Charley Helfert, Paul Walsh, Gretchen Smith, Kevin Hanlon, Kim Corbet...I think those teachers - along with many others who taught me during my time at SMU - struck that balance in a way that gave me exactly what I needed to look for whatever it was I wanted to find at the time.

“I remember Dale Moffitt once saying that acting is ‘figuring out what you want and then going after it.’ And that is the best advice I've ever received about acting, and, beyond that, it is some of the most applicable advice I've ever received about living.”

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