“Finishing the Album: A Music project in Dallas, TX by Daniel Hart.” That’s how Hart’s Kickstarter.com campaign began, as if he were just another musician and The Orientalist were just “a music project.”
Before I heard the record myself, those generic nouns may have suited Hart and his musical ambitions. But now I feel knocked back by the absurdity of a time when $3,000 stood between this album and the light of day.
I have good reason to be caught off-guard. For the past decade, Daniel Hart has been quietly going about his professional music business, buttressing the ambitions of others, like Broken Social Scene, St. Vincent, and The Polyphonic Spree. You might notice a progression there: The Polyphonic Spree begat St. Vincent begat Daniel Hart, an inspired and skilled violinist with some grandiose tunes of his own.
Hart’s music began at age 3, when his musician-parents handed him a violin. He claims not to have put it down since. While enrolled at Southern Methodist University, Hart blossomed under the tutelage of composition professor Kevin Hanlon, whom Hart credits as a major influence.
Even when he was playing a supporting role for the aforementioned acts, Hart had his own band, The Physics of Meaning, which toured the country and released two albums before disbanding. Hart’s first solo record is a continuation of those ideas, ushered in a more accessible direction. “What I’m doing now seems to be branching off into other, weirder, head-nodding directions,” Hart says.
His debut solo album, The Orientalist, is big. It’s bigger than a Kickstarter campaign and bigger than the Bandcamp site from which I downloaded it. It’s like finding a prized foreign vase in the back corner of a Goodwill store.
The album is tantalizing from the start, evoking hopeful travel, arcane history, alien places. “I went to India for the first time in 2006,” Hart says. “I studied Indian literature, Hindi, and the sarangi, which is like an Indian violin. I was obsessed with everything South Asian at the time. And the trips made the country seem magical to me.”
The Orientalist bleeds with Hart’s experiences. The album reveals him as a hopeless romantic, someone who likes to put his feet in the ocean and woo Indian women with self-deprecating charm. The album is a shameless extolment of love’s pursuit that, at times, dips into melodrama. But what else do you expect from an album that begins with a Cliffs Notes version of The Odyssey?
Hart backs the grandiosity of his romantic overtures with lush musicianship. The passion of his violin work can be heard throughout. It’s an album of compositions that are movingly ornate and sophisticated without feeling pretentious. The foreign landscape promised in the title is delivered, sometimes through an exotic instrument and sometimes through methods that are decidedly more nuanced. “I’m sure a lot of Indian scales and melodies were playing a big part in the way I was writing and phrasing my own violin playing,” Hart says about composing The Orientalist. It’s an effect that caters to wanderlusting dreamers; essentially those like Hart himself.
There’s tremendous range on The Orientalist. “Black Licorice” is hastened by its guitar riff while numbers like “God of Small Things” are patiently measured, rising and falling at a beach-break’s pace, but no less grand in their reach. “How Can Love Be Wrong?” is a born single, and its instrumental track could easily be the background score for all those tear-jerking Olympics montages. (It‘s a shame NBC doesn’t know this. They’ll probably use some awful Maroon 5 song.)
“Van Gogh Sher Gil” is the real gem on this album, with interlacing violins moving apace, an effect Hart achieved by layering multiple parts. He did a lot of the work on this album, but The Orientalist also benefited from contributions by musical personnel including Bon Iver, St. Vincent, and Andrew Bird, who plays violin on “Achilles Heart.”
The Orientalist is available for purchase on Bandcamp and hard copies will be sold at forthcoming performances. Daniel Hart is beginning a short U.S. tour that will culminate with a show at City Tavern on Aug. 18. Then he’ll head to China for a tour, his second in the country. No doubt, he will fall in love with new people and places in Asia and return with possibly enough inspiration and longing for another album. Hopeless romanticism is, after all, a chronic condition.