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

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

Days Like TheseJeff DanielsJewish Community CenterMartin Guitarmusic

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