Jonny Daly and ‘The Low Level Hum’
Surrounded by musical allies, prolific Atlanta guitarist launches his first solo project
Guitarist Jonny Daly used to be a full-on punk rocker. Living in New York in his late teens, he got to see the Ramones at a small club in Port Chester in 1978, which was a life-changing experience. But that wasn’t his first exposure to rock ’n’ roll.
Growing up in Miami, it was classic rock. Daly would steal his older sister’s records and play them incessantly: the first Hendrix album, the first couple of Doors albums, Steppenwolf, the first two Chicago records, Led Zeppelin, and other staples of the ’60s and early ’70s. “I was a beach rat and a jock until I picked up a guitar. (Then) I wanted to be Jimmy Page.”
But after seeing the Ramones, it was all over. Daly took a stab at writing songs, briefly adopted the moniker Jonny D, and formed his first punk band after moving to Dallas, Texas, in 1982. “It was me singing, and it was awful,” he recalls. “I think the writing left a lot to be desired as well. It flew because it was punk — so who cares?”
Much has changed since then. Daly, now 61, is well established as a session musician, arranger, composer, and producer in Atlanta who works in multiple styles of music with players of all kinds. In recent years he has worked with, among others, rootsy foursome Right as Rain, “online experiment” Beastie Y’all, indie folk-pop ensemble Kim Ware and the Good Graces, LA singer-songwriter Nancy Gardos, Paul Melancon & The New Insecurities, ambulette with Halley O'Malley and Matt Brown of Uncle Green, Rob Vincent & the Accents, and “rock chick” Sheila Green (formerly known as Lynsey Moon), whose album Anemoia he produced and on which he plays practically every instrument.
These days he plays onstage with Americana band Jackson County Line, featuring euphonic vocalist Kevin Jackson. “That’s my main gig, really,” Daly says, speaking on the phone from Freedom of Sound, his home studio in Marietta. “I like it because it’s grown-up music. I’m not trying to be a teenager or a 20-something guitar basher. It’s a little more cerebral to me. I can play the way I want to play and include effects and sounds as warranted by the song itself. There’s freedom in that, plus we have a cello player, and it’s pretty incredible to play along with the cello and back up a singer like Kevin.”
The Low Level Hum, Daly’s recently-released first solo album, is one which he produced, composing all of the music and writing most of the lyrics. For him it’s a deeply personal work. The songs reflect difficulties in his life and the losses he endured during the year of the pandemic. Daly addresses, among other upheavals, the sudden death of a young relative, his mother’s mental decline, and his own struggles with alcohol.
Why that title? “Each one of these songs represents a universal emotion as it relates to my experiences of the past year,” he says. “Those emotions also have a hum, so each one has a start point — which is the hum —- and you can hear it; it’s audible all through the song. Some of them have less of a hum, but they all have a sound that correlates with the theme of the album as a whole.”
He continues: “The Low Level Hum was a concept in my head a year ago. I thought, like we all do, about existential life and the crises that we face. I discovered the hum basically connects the brain and the heart and interacts with the emotions that we have. When we’re excited, the hum gets faster and louder in pitch. It’s like (German physicist Winfried) Schumann’s theory of an electromagnetic eon that develops a hum; the hum is persistent and lower in volume but deeper in its resonance, therefore it acknowledges that sadness that we feel.”
Daly no longer tries to sing. ”I’m just not a singer, but I’ve worked with great, great singers. I’ve been happy to take a backseat role,” he says. Kevin Jackson sings on the record, along with Stacey Cargal, Chandler McGee, Trappers Cabin, Miles Landrum, and Halley O’Malley. What does he look for in a singer? “A good tone and emotional quality; the ability to not be afraid in front of a mic; someone who can project what they’re singing about,” Daly offers. “As it pertains to this record, I picked singers who best suited the song, like the guy who sings ‘March Two Nine.’ That was Stacey Cargal; I thought he would be perfect for what I was trying to convey. That song is about the day I received news from home of my nephew’s suicide. It’s the shock, it’s the gut punch, the questioning of why. Every time something senseless occurs the question is ‘why?’”
Daly produced Cargal’s 2019 album $7 and Change, the title referencing the fatal mugging in 2003 of “lost friend” Christian Henderson for the meager sum of cash in his pocket. Cargal is the frontman for Blackfox, a band whose output is described as “golden country greats, played backwards for the devil” on its Facebook page. Daly plays guitar on the band’s well-received second album La Brea, and the two men are now collaborating on an electronic project that will also feature Blackfox’s Ryan Taylor.
Cargal and Taylor are both on a stark Hum track called “Requiem,” with the latter playing synths and piano. “It’s about my mom, who suffered from dementia, and it’s pretty evident through Stacey’s spoken word,” Daly acknowledges. “I had this concept of my mother being fully coherent inside her brain but not being able to express herself through the filter of her disease. She’s screaming on the inside, saying ‘can’t you hear me, can’t you hear me?’ She can’t express that; all she can say is ‘I don’t know you.’ It’s written from her standpoint.”
He adds, “That was a piece of music that I’ve had kicking around, and no one I presented it to knew what to do with it. They were baffled because they’re stuck in the whole Western formula of song composition. I completely am not.”
Chandler McGee, formerly of The Law Band, tackles the vocals on two of the album’s songs. Sung with vehement brutality, “Rage” is another “sonic personification of an emotion,” according to Daly. “When you feel rage, it’s just chaos. You can’t make heads or tails out of anything.” McGee was perfect for that, Daly says. “He is the essence of rage in that song,” adding, “Chandler is really intense, like a modern-day Jim Morrison by way of Rob Zombie.”
The other song on which McGee is featured, “Heartless Place,” is about resentment. “As an alcoholic, resentment is very evil to us because it chips away at the foundation of our sobriety if we allow it. To have resentment towards a partner or a partnership ... it eats you up.” Daly says “Heartless Place” is the other side of “Rage.” The first line is from “Sympathy for the Devil” — ‘I’m a man of wealth and taste’ — which Daly explains is the emotion of evil speaking to the person that it inhabits. “The last line about the helter-skelter at your door is a (Charles) Manson reference. How much more evil can you get?” In the song, McGee quotes a line from a poem by D.H. Lawrence: “We are mostly unexplored hinterland, and our consciousness is a spot of light in a great but living darkness.”
The Low Level Hum features a further array of talented veterans from Atlanta’s music scene. Kenny Creswell (Brand New Immortals, Butch Walker) plays drums on two tracks, and Paul Barrie (Donkey, Cigar Store Indians) plays them on four; Phil Skipper (Gracie Moon, Tinsley Ellis, Chris Stalcup and the Grange) plays fretless bass, and James Hall (Mary My Hope, Pleasure Club The Ladies of …) does a fine, tender trumpet solo on “Peaceful Dream,” a song near the end of the record that Daly describes as “a brief respite and escape from reality” in his liner notes.
Guitarist Spencer Kirkpatrick plays on that song as well. Kirkpatrick first got noticed as a local musician decades ago. When The Beatles performed at the Atlanta Stadium on August 18, 1965, the winner of a local battle-of-the-bands contest won a spot to open the show. “It was Spencer’s band (The Atlanta Vibrations) that won that slot,” says Daly. Kirkpatrick, who many know from his blistering guitar work for the blues rock band Hydra in the ’70s, and now works at Atlanta Vintage Guitars, has been a frequent visitor to Daly’s studio for years, playing on numerous sessions. “He floors me; he’s so good and so humble,” says Daly. “He’d play a track that would leave my jaw on the ground, then he’d look up at me over his glasses and ask, ‘Was that okay?’”
The 2019 album Songs For Spencer Vol. 1 was created by Daly for Kirkpatrick without his direct knowledge. Daly explains: “I had no way of paying him back. His profile was low and he was always talking about needing work, so I got a bunch of writer friends of mine and they came over and recorded songs. Then I would have Spencer come over and play on top of them, not knowing it was for him, so it was a bit of a surprise when I sent him the whole album on SoundCloud. I said ‘Spencer, this is your record. Do with it what you will.’” The assembled songwriters who contributed to Songs For Spencer were Cargal, Jackson, Skipper, Chris Edmonds, Philip Buchanan, Zoenda McIntosh, and longtime Creative Loafing scribe James Kelly, frontman of Slim Chance & The Convicts.
Another album Daly made for a friend was Slow Peel by Chris Chandler & The Mercenaries, a 2020 remake of The Velvet Underground’s debut LP. “Chris helped me out with some government paperwork for the pandemic unemployment assistance,” Daly says, recalling how the two first met in the early days of COVID-19. “I noticed online he was playing guitar and singing, doing some Lou Reed thing. Since we were talking already he asked if I’d be willing to record a song by Reed. I said, ‘Why don’t we just do a whole record?’”
Slow Peel was recorded remotely, with all the musicians submitting their tracks through Dropbox. “I was in the studio doing my stuff and I said, ‘You get the cast of people, call whoever you want, and I’ll just put it together for you.’ It was pretty easy. Some of the stuff they sent over was absolutely amazing. It was a lot of fun and took no effort whatsoever.” Bassist Lee Kennedy and singer Halley O’Malley, two of Daly’s Hum cohorts, participated in the recording of Slow Peel.
So did ex-Uncle Green drummer Peter McDade, who plays in Beastie Y’all and in Melancon’s band The New Insecurities, and with whom Daly has just completed another venture. Now also a novelist, McDade wrote The Weight of Sound and will have a second book out next year. “He likes to do soundtracks for the songs that are involved with the fictional bands he’s writing about,” Daly says. “That was me and Pete and his former (Uncle Green) bandmate Jeff Jensen, so that’s done. I’m just waiting for Pete to get his book deal finished.”
Unsurprisingly, Daly is juggling a bunch of projects at the moment. Up-and-coming Americana band Boxcar Radio has an album in the works, as does Julie Gribble. “She’s a singer-songwriter I’ve known for a few years. She’s a cool writer with a great voice like Natalie Merchant — nice and husky,” he says. Playing bass and harmonica on Gribble’s record is Robin Vincent. “The talent that emanates from her is incredible,” says Daly. “We will work together again.” Another singer, Decatur-based Mike Killeen, is in the pipeline too. Charles Walston, formerly with The Vidalias, will have an album produced by Daly in the coming months. “He’s got a whole lot more life experience now, since The Vidalias. He sees the world differently and he writes a lot. He needs to be recorded and documented right now.”
Talking about himself and his vast output seems egocentric to him, Daly claims. “I’m not that way at all. I just keep busy because I love doing what I do. These are all friends of mine, and I have a studio in my house. I figured out a way to get people to come to me, outside the perimeter. At this age I’m afforded the time and perhaps the luxury of being able to do this for the years we have left on the planet. We still have something to offer.” —CL—