+ By Brenda Wintrode
Dan Haas unpacks his scope from the trunk of his car at Sandy Point State Park, one of his favorite birding spots. “Listen, there’s a blue-headed vireo,” he says. The Annapolis-based musician, painter, and avid birder hears the birds long before he sees them. Having birded in Maryland for ten years, he has sighted 307 different species in Anne Arundel County alone.
With binoculars hanging around his neck, he walks toward the grassy field behind the beach. He turns his head quickly to the sight the source of chirping. A small brown bird zips overhead. Haas points out its path. “Northern rough-winged swallow,” he says.
Birding is one of Haas’ many passions that are woven into every aspect of his creative life. He recreates the birds he photographs in bright acrylic paintings on canvas. References to birds appear in the songs he writes, and birdsong accompanies the tracks of his new solo recording.
Haas describes his fourth and latest solo collection of seven original songs, Polishing Stones, as “a piece of time.” After he and his wife, Emery, had their first child, priorities changed. He focused time on family and his full-time sales job. The pace of his songwriting slowed greatly, from one song per week during his bachelor days to one song every two months. The inspiration for Polishing Stones came from watching his three children—Declan (8), Isla (6), and Holden (1)—develop, and change his life. The songs blossomed alongside them in spite of time demands.
Part memoir, part lyrical photo album, the words of Polishing Stones are as intimate as if Haas had left his diary on the kitchen table to be read. The songs capture complex inner conflicts, desires, self-doubt, and the tenderness of a childhood romance.
His melodies express relatable feelings. The aching guitar in the song “Kicking Up Storms” wallows in introspection as the artist weighs the daily responsibilities of family life against the irrepressible urge to pursue his passions. A lingering blues bass line hangs on every word as Haas’ lyrics interpret the notes:
I’m twisting up rainbows,
And I’m walking the line.
I’m waking up strangers.
I’m feeling just fine;
I’m losing my mind.
Sharply contrasting that somber tone is “Today,” a playful, future projection of Haas’ oldest son’s childhood crush. Happy chirps of a wood thrush introduce the song.
Birds out a window, they couldn’t give a damn about anything.
And sharks in the bathtub, she doesn’t know who she’s swimming with.
The chorus laments,
Bella, I know when he’s through with you.
Then you can call and tell me what to do.
And, Bella I’m sorry I ever let you go.
Haas wrote all the songs, and he co-produced the album with long-time friend and the recording’s bassist, Larry Melton. The two have collaborated since playing at Middleton Tavern ten years ago. Melton describes their working relationship: “We have a good contrast. I’m the quiet guy in the back supporting him. He’s the front man, more outgoing, a great spokesperson for the band.”
Haas started playing the Annapolis bar scene in 1994. In 2001, he recorded the first of four solo albums, followed by two CDs with Ben’s Bones, a high-energy, indie rock group that he fronts. He also has The Dan Haas Band, which plays restaurants, weddings, and corporate gigs.
Back at Sandy Point, Haas, now on the beach, aims his scope toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Seeing which birds are migrating through the area and maybe finding a bird that is far away from its typical route keep him coming back to the beach. “I try to find the rarest of the birds that are out here,” says Haas.
He also searches for a rare and beautiful song with enthusiasm. For his brainchild compilation CD from the Annapolis Songwriter’s Collective, he assembled a menagerie of local talent. This effort took root in 2014, when he invited 70 musician friends to form the collective through a private Facebook group. The initial motivation was helping the area’s songwriters support each other. “I wanted to light a fire under everybody to keep them creating,” said Haas.
Each month, he sent out a theme to the group and expected members to submit their prose. Response was flat. Still determined, Haas provided further inspiration by asking each artist to put forth a piece for a compilation CD. In response, a songwriting centrifuge formed, whereby the lyrically rich, sumptuous cream that emerged earned a place on the album.
Thirty-two local and regional artists are featured on the first volume. Black Rhinoceros, Mike Heuer, Starbelly, Jimi Haha, Pompeii Graffiti, and Meg Murray are just a handful of the talent. The CD must be purchased from an artist on the collection.
Also featured on the album is the single, “Coming Back Around” from Haas’ band, Flód, composed of Haas’ musical dream team: Larry Melton, Gingerwolf, Robin Eckman, Max Bent, and Evan Cooper. Flód records once a month, with the goal of recording a song in one day. The group arrives at the studio around 10 a.m. They jam, create riffs, harmonize, write, and wait for inspiration to perch on their shoulders and rest its wings long enough for them all to see it. By the time they leave, sometimes at midnight, they have a new creation.
Haas has a vision of Annapolis becoming a music mecca. “I want people to hear this album and think, ‘Wow, this was recorded in Annapolis? I should record in Annapolis!’” He wants this recording to promote not only local songwriters, but also the instrumentalists and the recording and production studios. If they all succeed, then so does he.
Haas props his scope over his shoulder to walk back to his car. Off the beach, just over the trees, he spots a group of purple martins, migrating birds that return to nest in Maryland. “If they’re back, that means it’s spring. That’s always a good sign.” █