Acclaimed actor Jeff Daniels has been writing folk tunes for years. (Courtesy Luke Pline)

Jeff Daniels sings self-penned folk tunes

Actor Jeff Daniels has won an Emmy for his shrewd performance as news anchor Will McAvoy in HBO’s Aaron-Sorkin-scripted “The Newsroom,” and throughout his four-decade-long film and Broadway career, he’s been nominated for Tony, Golden Globe, Independent Spirit and the Screen Actors Guild awards. But there’s something that even means more to him: He has his own signature model Martin guitar.

“So I can die now,” he says, chuckling. “It’s official – my life is over.”

Because, unbeknownst for years to even his own Purple Rose Theatre Company in his native Chelsea, Mich., Daniels had been secretly moonlighting as a singer-songwriter. He plays San Francisco this weekend, backing his latest album of whimsical folk-rock originals, “Days Like These.”

“It wasn’t until 2001 that my company found out that I played, and they pushed me onstage and sold tickets,” he says. “That’s when I started to learn how to play out and turn whatever it was I was doing in my notebook into a show that people would be interested in.”

Daniels, 60, already knows what you’re thinking. “When an actor does pick up a guitar, it’s usually a train wreck, right?” he asks, rhetorically. “But this was never like, ‘Oh, and by the way, I also want to be a rock star.’ That was never in the cards.”

It all started in 1976 when he moved from Michigan to New York City to pursue a living on stage and screen. He brought along an old Guild six-string, knowing he would be alone in single-room apartment between sporadic auditions. “I was 21, and that guitar became my best friend,” he says.

After being befriended by renowned playwright Lanford Wilson – whom he watched struggling to streamline scripts – Daniels understood the writing process, and that it often takes several drafts to achieve polished perfection. “So I went back to my apartment, got past the initial three guitar chords, and started writing songs. Bad, bad, bad songs that went into my notebook. But I was writing. And I just kept at it.”

Today, the singer has a rich, sonorous voice that is remarkably affecting, as is his John Prine-keen way with lyrical detail. (He certainly caught the attention of the Martin company.) Some songs are deeply personal, like “Michigan, My Michigan.” But he enjoys leavening concerts with humor, a la his self-deprecating “If William Shatner Can, I Can Too.”

“You’re putting a set together for people, most of whom are there because of your movies,” the artist says. “Some of them just love ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ and they’ve already got a smile on their face. So you’ve got to entertain them, and there’s an art to that.”


IF YOU GO

Jeff Daniels
Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 6
Tickets: $43 to $57
Contact: (415) 202-1200, www.jccsf.org

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