Q&A: Daniel Ethridge On His Debut Album, Representation And His Friends In Low Places

To celebrate APAHM and the launch of our new name, Character Media, we’ll be sitting down with notable Asian American creatives working in entertainment for a series of Q&As during the month of May.

Charming and easygoing, Daniel Ethridge looks like the kind of guy you might see among the crowds of Coachella. But the Korean American country singer—yes, you read that right—would probably fit in better at country music fest Stagecoach.

Born in Los Angeles, Ethridge moved to Austin in his early childhood. In 2018 he impressed “American Idol” audiences with his powerful performance of  Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away.” A year later, he’s released a single called “End of Forever,” and he’s been on the road playing with a few different artists while working on getting his debut album ready for the public. He called from Nashville, where he was prepping for his first trip to the Key West Songwriters Festival.

Character: Is Nashville where you fell in love with country music?

I’ve been playing and listening to country music for a long time, especially coming from Texas, the town Willie Nelson is from, it’s hard to miss it. As far as what I do, I wouldn’t consider it country music. I think a lot of people that listen to it think, “Oh, that’s country,” but when you listen to the Billboard country chart, I don’t do any of that. But that vein, that genre, for sure.

That was one of my questions actually, your music does cover quite a few genres. How would you define the kind of music you make?

I hate to put it into a box. I think it’s super cheesy when artists are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t even put it in a genre”—that’s stupid. But if I’m being completely honest, I’d put it in that vein of the California country sound, that Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Eagles developed. Because that is really a lot of what I grew up listening to, a lot of The Eagles, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Stones, but those are my big influences and those are my heroes. For the songs that are unreleased so far, they’re all very much singer/songwriter, rock-and-roll.

Tell me a little about the Soundcloud songs that are up on your website.

I’ve been in Nashville almost six years now. And in Nashville, there’s a whole career and a whole world of just writing songs. For a long time, I convinced myself I wanted to be a staff writer full time, and a lot of that came from a place of fear. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with being a staff writer!

It’s more that I want to play my songs, I want to sing my songs, and for a long time I didn’t think I was good enough to be able to develop a catalogue of songs to sing. Also, I didn’t think that as an artist I was good enough to do it. I moved to Nashville when I was 17 for college, and the truth of the matter is that I was just a kid. I was f-cking terrified. When you move here, you’re competing, even if indirectly, with Keith Urban or Chris Stapleton. It’s kind of earth-shattering upon impact. The reason I say that is the Soundcloud stuff, a lot of that was when I was doing stuff to be a full-time staff writer. You don’t stay in one genre, you kind of sit wherever you need to be, so I was writing all over the place trying to exercise those muscles and see where I best fit.

I can see that. Those songs span a lot of different sounds. What about the process behind your latest single, “End of Forever?”

I don’t write a lot of love songs anymore—I think. From age 18 to 21 I wrote a lot of them, but I stopped after a while. I wrote this song with my friends Will Stone and Robyn Collins, who are two good friends of mine here, and I was in a relationship at that point. It was brand new and young, and exciting. I had this line that was actually “edge of forever,” because I could see myself on the edge of forever with this person, and that’s such a scary thought. What prompted most of the song is that we were sitting in Will’s apartment and I had the line, “You don’t have to change your name just yet, how about you get your mail sent here?” It was one of those things where I said it, and Robyn, she’s a mom, her oldest son is our age, she said, “That is so sweet. That is just so warm.” And I really wanted that to be this song, like yes, it’s a love song, but it feels loving and tender as opposed to, “The guy meets the girl and just steals her away.” This had to be a mutual thing.

So “End of Forever” is off your upcoming debut album, “Drunk, High and Happy.” Tell me a little about that, do you have a release date?

Not yet. I’m thinking the next single is going to come out within the next month, and for sure everything is going to be out over the next two and a half months.

Recording the record was all me and my buddy Will Stone who wrote “End of Forever” with me, and my friend Jess Grommet who winds up playing lead guitar for me a lot in my band. We produced the whole thing with no budget, no label, no nothing. We did everything at people’s houses, we did a lot of vocal production at the Spotify Secret Genius Studio they have here in Nashville, we worked remotely when we were all on tour with different artists, sending each other stems at 3 in the morning, it was insane. A lot of my friends in Nashville were like, “Dude, when’s this sh-t gonna be done?” Because I was working on this record for the better part of a year, and it’s only seven songs. I was like, “We can only do it as fast as we can, and I want the product to be good.”

Not to be cheesy, but it was really fun to be able to do a record and make art that I’m proud of with my best friends. That was so important to me. Because it’s one thing to be like, “Here’s 10 grand, I’m gonna go hire this producer that I don’t know, I’m gonna kind of tell him about my feelings and we’re gonna record 10 songs and say that it feels authentic.”

The album title track “Drunk, High and Happy” obviously isn’t out in the world yet, but it’s about a conversation that I never got to have with my granddad, my Dad’s dad. He died before I was born, he was a WWII vet and he was a trucker, and honestly he was a drunk, and he was not perfect. But I’m the first person on my dad’s side of the family to go to college and to get a degree, and I had this idea for “Drunk, High and Happy,” and it was before I graduated from school. I was really stressed about everything in my life; trying to graduate, I was on the road almost full time, working a job and I was just drowning in papers and life. I was talking to my dad about his dad one night and how he’d be gone all the time, he was a trucker and he was gone and then he’d come home and he’d be coaching the Little League team just hammered. Keep in mind this was like, the ’60s. [laughs] But it was a different time, it was a different place, and he ended up dying of cancer pretty much all over his body. By the time the doctors found it, they told him that the radiation wasn’t going to help and he was at the end of the road. My granddad started drinking and smoking and doing what he wanted again. And my dad said, “I kind of like that.”

That’s as rock-and-roll as you’re going to get. The doctors say you’re going to die and you’re like, “Alright, cool, where are my cigarettes? Where’s the liquor, where’s the weed?” And the whole song is this idea that it’s going to be hard sometimes, and life is going to kick you in the mouth, and sometimes it’s okay to check out for a second and get a little stoned.

“I don’t write a lot of love songs anymore—I think.”

That’s a really interesting story. I was going to ask, where do you find the inspiration for some of your other songs?

A lot of it’s from people—actually, it’s always from people. My mom is a Korean Methodist preacher, and my dad was a sailor for 20 years, he was in the Navy. And more than anything, both my parents are really great storytellers, so that’s kind of rubbed off along the way. But everything I write, at least that I release as an artist, is pretty autobiographical. It’s my story, it’s things that have happened to me, it’s things that I need to talk about. My songs that I release as an artist are pretty much what I probably should be saying to a shrink. That’s what you’re getting, because that’s how I cope, and that’s how I deal with my life and my issues is I get to write songs. It’s all real. Some artists and writers are really great at the conceptual and hypothetical, but I try to write from the core because I know I’m capable of telling a better story if I know all the details.

So, who would you like to tour or play with in the future?

Damn, that’s kind of all over the place. The gunslinger guitar player in me would love to tour with Gary Clark Jr., John Mayer, Patrick Droney, he’s this kid from Nashville. Not kid, I think he’s actually like six years older than me. But those guys. If I was taking a full band and doing straight up rock-and-roll shows, that’s what I’d want.

If I was doing the songwriter thing, just me and an acoustic guitar in theaters, which I’d probably love more… maybe Joy Williams, John Paul White. Both those people are from The Civil Wars, they’re solo artists now. Jason Isbell. I would love to go on a string of shows and open for Lori McKenna or Jack Ingram, he’s a big Texas guy.

Did you always want to go into this kind of music or did you ever think of other genres?

For a long time, I loved L.A. pop music. People like Maroon 5, Boys Like Girls, all the Warped tour sh-t. But growing up, being half-Korean, I remember looking at Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, pop radio and thinking, “I don’t look like any of them, so maybe I can’t do that, maybe I shouldn’t do that.” So early in my life I wanted to do the pop thing, and half of it is that after a while I was like, “I just genuinely don’t want to do that,” but there was also part of my brain that was like, “I don’t think I can do that. I just wouldn’t fit in.”

I stumbled into this place because what I love to listen to is that songwriter, storyteller music. Those artists that can go onstage with just an acoustic guitar and make an entire arena shut up, I love that and I want to do that. I’ve never been the most talented singer, and I’ve never been the most prolific guitar player in my age group, but I’ve always felt comfortable with words and emotions. I felt very comfortable in them for a very long time, and when I realized that my natural tendencies really resonated with this style of music I was like, “Cool, this is it, this is my home. This is where I want to be.”

You briefly touched on the issues of representation, and not really seeing yourself in bands that were playing on stage. But as I’m sure you’re well-aware, country is typically dominated by white people, especially white men. Did that ever feel intimidating to you?

No. Because when it comes to art, if you’re good, you’re good. I’m sure that there will always be politics involved, but when it comes to creating things, whether it’s art, or cabinets or shooting a basketball, if you’re good, you’re good. A lot of people could definitely look at the situation and view it as intimidating and hard, and I would never dispute them for it, ever. But I decided early on, if it’s going to be intimidating, if it’s going to be hard, if sometimes maybe I don’t get the same chance, I have to work 10 times harder. If I can’t out-talent you, if I’m not going to be better-looking than you, I have to work 10 times harder than you. And that’s all it’s ever been, that’s all that will ever be for me. Whenever I have kids one day, that’s something that I would want to instill. Because you’ve just got to work through it and put yourself in a position so that when you do have a platform and you do say things, your voice matters. It’s like the National Football League, when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. When does it matter? When the white players stand up for him. Then you get that voice.

I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing. They have their platform, and when they realized their voices would actually help, there are players that did kneel with him. It’s working hard so you can get to a point where you can have a platform to make the difference.

I talk with my brother a lot about this, but when it comes to representation in anything, I shy away from it. Not as something I wouldn’t fight for, but for me, it comes down to the work aspect. Especially being in Nashville, L.A. or New York, times are changing, people are changing. There’s still prejudice and early expectations based on looks, sure. But I try not to dwell on that.