"The whole thing was done in 24 hours," said Dan Costello, pausing long enough to dunk a yam fry in jalapeno barbecue sauce and pop it in his mouth. "Not in 24 hours consecutively, but the total studio time, which is just ridiculous for a full-length album." Over lunch at Red Room Tavern, Costello spoke animatedly of his new solo release, Strangest Places. Pecking at the plate in front of him, he drifted into stories about his previous band Stella and the time his favorite guitar got stolen in Sacramento while on tour.
You've likely seen Costello around town--with his closely trimmed beard and a signature newsboy cap--strumming solo songs at Lock Stock and Barrel, sharing the stage with Spindlebomb or at any of the 250 other local gigs he plays each year. If you're into guitar, you might've even taken lessons from him at Boise State or Old Boise Guitar. A quick scan of the "giggage" calendar on his Web site reveals back-to-back shows: Thursday, Feb. 11, "Dan @ LSB"; Friday, Feb. 12, "Dan & Leta @ WRC"; and Saturday, Feb. 13, "SB @ GB." The calendar seems to function as much a reminder for Costello as a tool for his fans.
"I play all the time, and it's really difficult for me to get a regular crowd for the solo shows just because it's not that big of a thing. Like, 'We don't have to go tonight because he'll be playing tomorrow and the next night and the next week,'" joked Costello.
But whether he's plucking out original tunes for a boisterous bar crowd or taking cover requests at a quiet restaurant, Costello is content. Just give the guy a chair, a beer and a stage, and he feels right at home.
"I just decided, years ago now, that I'm going to have to sacrifice the fan base of wanting and waiting to see me once or twice a month ... I'm going to have to give that up because I have to play more often than that," explained Costello. "I cannot go more than about 24 hours without just starting to feel weird if I haven't been on stage."
Costello approached recording Strangest Places with the same fervor he has for performing live. In 24 hours of cumulative studio time, Costello and musician/audio engineer Steve Fulton turned out a delicate 11-song album that layers Costello's soothing croon over a renovated 1939 Regal No. 27 model guitar.
"It's one of the most naked studio albums that I could possibly imagine doing," said Costello. "Over half of the tracks have one guitar and one voice and that's it."
Though Costello--who classifies his guitar style as a "schizo-sonic mix of classical, bluegrass banjo, funk, grunge and jazz"--could've easily accessorized the songs with a string section here or a horn solo there, he resisted the temptation. His intricate, but not overly showy guitar work and story-driven lyrics "didn't really allow for a band to be stomping all over it," he explained.
"He was really proficient and really knew what he wanted and took a pretty minimalistic approach, which, I think, is what makes it sound so great, because it's just him and a guitar," said Fulton.
The album's title track, a love song Costello describes in the liner notes as being inspired by the movie The Fountain, hurricane Katrina and falling in love, sets the tone for the album. At times intimate and at others filled with big major chord wails, Strangest Places is a musical diary that documents Costello's various journeys over the last few years.
"The album is very strongly connected to places that I've traveled to over just these last three to four years," said Costello. "Even though the places might not have been strange, the circumstances were certainly bizarre and just really impactful on every aspect of my life."
Oddly, the album's standout traveling track, "Walking in Memphis," wasn't actually penned by Costello. The soulful tune was originally recorded by 1991 Best New Artist Grammy winner Marc Cohn--and subsequently covered by Cher--though it could be argued Costello gives the track the guitar-slung-over-your-shoulder grit that it deserves. When he sings "I put on my blue suede shoes / and I boarded a plane / touched down in the land of the Delta blues / in the middle of the pouring rain," you'd never believe Costello hasn't actually set foot in Memphis.
Costello credits much of the album's bare-bones soul to his new friend--a 1939 Regal guitar that he fixed up to replace his stolen signature Taylor. Though he gets a bit misty remembering his Taylor--a brand of acoustic guitar played by Dave Matthews and Jason Mraz, among others--Costello wanted this album to showcase his vintage Regal.
"Really, I think the guitar is as much a part of my decision to do the album the way that I did it as anything else because it wants to be played that way--it wants to be on a stage played very thoughtfully and soulfully and not get lost in the mix," said Costello.
Though he's eager to introduce local fans to Strangest Places at his upcoming CD release party at the Linen Building, Costello is realistic about his reach outside of Boise.
"I've got regular gigs here, and I teach lessons every day, and I've got a mortgage," said Costello. "I love living in Boise; I'm not about to throw all that away and climb into the Honda and just start being a road warrior at this point."
And while Costello is comfortable with his niche in town, like most local musicians he still maintains a glimmer of hope that his big break might be just around the corner.
"There's still that part of me that if somebody came along and said, 'Hey you're our horse. Here's your van; here's your show dates; here's whatever you need,' then yeah I would do it."
Contemplating that scenario, Costello smiles, takes a sip off his beer and dives back into his basket of yam fries.