But his fundamental musical transformation came with his discovery of the world of improvisational music, and his affiliation with free-form players centered around Café OTO, a hub of art and experimental music in London's Dalston neighborhood. It's been a nearly five-year period of discovery for Blumberg, during which -- well off the radar of pop music circles and journalists -- he blew up his old way of approaching music to explore a more radical and rewarding path. This week, he's "coming back to songs" with Minus, one of the more unique and exquisite records you're likely to hear this year.
"It feels like a reboot, in a way," Blumberg says. Minus merges stark and affecting songs of heartbreak with improvised, free-music playing from two OTO regulars who have become essential partners of Blumberg's—violinist Billy Steiger and double bassist Tom Wheatley—as well as veteran drummer Jim White (Dirty Three, Cat Power, Xylouris White). All three musicians are, Blumberg contends, as key to the record as he is—so much so that he asked his label, Mute, to include their initials on the album cover along with his name. And although this is the first release of his career under his own moniker rather than an alias, "In a way, it's the most collaborative record I've ever made," he explains. "Jim is the best song drummer, but he's also got that more free, unique voice—similar to Tom and Billy. You can hear, they're all playing like lead instruments, really—or each singing, in my opinion."
Nowhere is that choir singing more radically apparent (along with string contributions from cellist Ute Kanngiesser, who Blumberg calls "one of my favorite musicians ever") than on "Madder." The longest track on Minus, it's also in Blumberg's words, its "most extreme." A two-minute ambient opening of rattles and rolls and a two-minute closing squall of drum and noisy guitar sandwich a delicate piano ballad peppered with free form squeals. "I went to go up to work with a painter in the Orkney Islands every summer," he says of creating the song. "There was a painter that I met and I was really blown away by called Brendan Colvert, and I just really felt an affiliation with him and wanted to learn from him. And so every summer I would go up for a month to work, more on visual stuff, but the last time when I went up there with a broken heart. And I wrote 'Madder' there, in his bungalow. And when I finished writing that song was when I thought, 'Okay we've got a record. We need to make a record, we've got enough.' It felt like the moment that the record came into being."
That "broken heart" Daniel refers to was, in a way, the impetus to return to songwriting after years of immersing himself in more atonal, free music. He and his girlfriend of seven years—actress Stacy Martin—had split, to devastating effect. "It was a bad breakup, and someone sent me a song record," he recalls. "And it was like a switch clicking. And I was suddenly connected to songs again, and I appreciated the love song." While he and Martin have since reunited, the scars of their time apart are all over Minus, which wears its source material explicitly. The title track, and its mantra-like line "Minus the intent to feel" over piano, snare and mournful strings, is beautiful and wrenching; in plucked waltz time, "Permanent" declares "My eyes are a permanent red"; and in "The Fuse": "Be there in the nude/ I tore into your sweater/ I could not forget her." And special mention must be given to "Stacked," as there is nothing prettier on the record—"All of my records are stacked/ And I can't stop looking back" he sings over tinkling piano. It's stunning, and evokes the heart-rending quality of some of history's great songs of longing and heartache: "Nothing Compares 2 U," "The Blower's Daughter," Beck's Sea Change.
"People say, 'Was it a cathartic record to make?'" Blumberg offers. "And I think it could actually kind of be the opposite, because you're just sort of dwelling on horrible things." But he adds that at least with a breakup, you can identify what it is that's got you down. "The problems in my life are when I don't know the why—when there is seemingly nothing wrong, and you still can't—you start to not be able to function. I haven't been the most stable, mentally." Blumberg has struggled with depression over the years, and Mute's press release for Minus reveals that he was hospitalized only a week before recording the album. It's not a topic he wants to elaborate on, but adds that he's much better at the moment. "The day after the record got mastered I went back on this medication which helps me a lot, really. And since then I've thought, 'Oh, I was a bit of a mess!'"
Daniel hardly seems like a mess today, only five days before Minus' release. In fact, he seems to be in great spirits, via Skype from Mute's London offices, especially when talking about the album and his collaborators. "I've never been so excited for a release before," he declares. He's shaved off his signature mop top of curls, but he still smokes the hand-rolleds, just as he did when I first met him in 2011. He's also still a constant, compulsive drawer. Even before music, he is first and foremost an arresting visual artist, who treats drawing as only slightly less crucial than breathing—it helps with his mental stability as well, he says. I point out, hanging on the wall over my shoulder, one of his drawings, framed, that he sent me seven years ago. Even during the course of our interview, he creates two drawings. "I speak better when I draw!" he says.