+ By Desiree Smith-Daughety + Photos by Nicole Caracia
Musician, songwriter, and artist Danah Koch is preparing for a creative week away, leaving behind a pandemic-induced cocoon. She’s following advice given by creatives she admires who recommend shutting oneself in a cabin to write without distraction. That’s in the best of times.
Koch confesses to relying on short bursts of inspiration lately, not having written anything in a while that she feels is complete. “I think the pandemic has put a hard stop on that creative mojo at times, so I have to just act immediately when it comes,” she says. “I’ve gotten in the habit of writing down on my phone what’s coming across in my mind without judgment . . . Let[ting] whatever comes through do so.” Taming the desire for “everything to be a masterpiece immediately,” she acknowledges that she’s not the only singer and songwriter that feels this way right now.
After a period of taking any gig offered to establish herself, Koch already felt that she was burnt out and straying from why she started performing—to connect with people. “I welcomed the reevaluation and stillness and not doing anything at all,” she says. “Now, damn, two years in, and I’m not doing anything! It has not been an easy forced time off.”
Hence the cabin retreat. Being open to taking advice has led to opportunities. Koch, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, currently lives on Kent Island. She met various local artists in Annapolis, including Up.St.ART Annapolis publisher and musician Jimi Davies and Ruben Dobbs of Swampcandy. She recalls talking with Dobbs about songwriting and the struggles of letting it flow. He likened it to turning on the faucet and leaving it on. The water runs brown but will eventually run clear. “That has stuck in my mind, and instead of romanticizing the process of having to be organic, there’s a discipline. Take action, get the habit formed, because inspiration comes. It seems counterintuitive,” she says.
Just as oxygen feeds a fire, experiencing live music inspires Koch as a performer. But because live music hasn’t been abundant, recently, she tunes in to her favorite albums to get herself in the headspace necessary to feed her current project, her first solo recording, titled Light from a Dark Room. Previously, she released a six-song EP, Unaddressed with her on-hiatus trio, The Dead Pens. “It was acoustic alternative/edgy coffeehouse,” she says. “I would describe us as unabashedly dark and unapologetically bitter.”
In late 2021, Koch caught indie singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen’s show in New York City. He recognized her because she has followed his music releases over the past decade and been in the front row over the last five years at performances. They had a long talk about the creative process and her solo album project. Hearing someone’s art that she admires and then talking to the person behind it is inspiring to her. “What was really cool is that he’s been one of my biggest songwriting influences,” she says. “He asked if I’d send him my album when it’s done, which was like, whoa! That’s really big.”
Koch writes and covers a range of musical genres, including American Standards in jazz and classic rock, a lot of ’90s and alternative music, and sometimes classic country. Generally whatever people want, she’s willing to play, but she draws the line at “Sweet Caroline” and “Wagon Wheel.” “They’re on the no-play list,” she says. “It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, playing bars consistently.”
The artists and musical genres she most relates to are broad in scope. “Julie London is a big influence of mine, despite the edgy stuff I bring to the table as an original music artist,” says Koch. Motown is also an influence. “The ways I riff, I definitely borrow from a lot of soul singers. Etta James, Aretha Franklin. Some blues. And ’90s grunge music has my heart.” Koch counts Jeff Buckley as her favorite singer-songwriter. “He’s very versatile, a big influence on my vocal style, because he has a lot of the same influences as I’ve had.”
Her musical trajectory began with what she describes as “a dinky keyboard with all the fun sounds on it” that her sister got for Christmas and Koch quickly commandeered. She recalls listening repeatedly to Evanescence’s first album, Fallen, when she was five years old and trying to model vocalist Amy Lee. Lee’s song “My Immortal” was the first Koch ever sang in public, at a sixth-grade talent show. She received so much positive feedback that she was encouraged to sing at the annual talent show and keep pursuing voice.
At age seven, Koch began classical piano lessons and continued until she graduated from high school. She taught herself how to sing by emulating her favorite vocalists, such as Joan Baez, then adding fingerstyle-picking on guitar and learning Baez’s songs. She joined the high school marching band and played vibraphone and marimba (remaining in the pit or front ensemble because of the instruments’ size), and cymbals during parades. She credits Sam Pugh, a musician from Easton with whom she has played music for ten years, for being the first person to inspire her to write an original song. Their most recent collaboration was performing as a duo on Fridays for a yearlong residency at Ram’s Head Tavern.
She hopes to complete her solo record by spring 2022. “The plan is to tour that album and promote the hell out of it,” she says. Annapolis musician Kit Whitacre and Baltimore multi-instrumentalist Elias Schutzman are helping with recording.
Koch, who now performs as Danah Denice, describes her musical style as acoustic alternative but is exploring heavier genres with the recording and in live performances going forward. “After two years of being a shut-in, there’s a lot of rage inside,” she says. “I might go scream my head off for a few months and then go back to acoustic alternative. Or maybe I can keep doing both—balance!”
Koch also finds balance through her visual art—often commissions for others or pieces inspired by something she has read. Her preferred mediums are graphite drawings or acrylic paint, both detailed with pen and ink. For her, drawing and painting are more for personal enjoyment, providing the opportunity to be playful. “Something that I get from visual art that I don’t always get from music is that visual art is incredibly meditative. Making music requires a different sort of brain power.” █
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