When a teenage boy gets an on-stage shout-out from one of his musical mentors, the path forward seems like it’s got to be destiny.
Such was the case for singer-songwriter Dane Ferguson, the Los Angeles-based artist who’s juggling a solo career and a gig with the band Built to Fade. His musical path might have taken him to similar heights, but Ferguson has no doubt that the words of Edwin McCain helped prime his creative pump, he told The Ties That Bind Us recently.
“He was a major impact on me, because he was kind of the first guy I saw who was just a dude with a guitar, telling stories,” Ferguson said. “I remember seeing that at 11 or 12 and thinking, ‘Wow; I can do this.’ And then when I was 13 or 14, my parents took me to this festival, and I got to meet him and talk to him briefly backstage. But when he got on stage, he asked where I was in the crowd by name!
“He gave this speech of sorts on stage, telling me to keep going, and that was probably one of the biggest moments for me. My mind was blown, and I couldn’t wait to get to school and tell everybody about that. And he was just so humble about everything. I remember thinking, ‘He’s just a normal guy like me. I could totally do this.’”
Like McCain, however, it took getting sober for Ferguson to realize his full potential. Alcohol didn’t destroy his life in ways it has other artists, but it was enough of a problem for Ferguson that he realized he could quickly join those ranks if he didn’t do something different. Once he got sober, things began to change for him physically, emotionally and mentally, he said.
“It was just about continuing to push,” he said. “I think in terms of writing, I was writing and creating the whole time, so there wasn’t a finite moment where I noticed a change, but overall, I just felt like a new human. That’s one of the reasons why I called my EP ‘Cicada’ (released last year), because it felt like I was shedding an exoskeleton, and a lot of the songs I was writing in that period ended up on there.”
Roots in the Shenandoah
Growing up in a small town in rural Virginia, Ferguson was a product of his environment. The rich, earthy tones on “Cicada” are born of those roots as much as they are the life he’s made for himself in Southern California, and the music that surrounded him as a child is interwoven throughout all of the seven tracks on the record.
“There was always music in the house,” he said. “My dad played drums, my mom played some piano, and when I started learning music, I had an innate ability to play by ear. That stuck, and I was doing piano recitals and talent shows by about 5 or 6. And when I saw the impact it made and the reaction I got as a little kid, it was like, ‘Ooh, I like this!’”
By high school, he’s learned to play guitar, drums and bass, and he started out recording himself in his bedroom, lining the walls with baffling made of egg crates and blankets. After high school, he gave college a try but decided it wasn’t for him, and so he returned to Virginia, moving back in with his mom, making music and working at area restaurants. He spent seven years in Richmond, leaving briefly for New York, and while there, he started work on his debut EP, “Where We Were,” released in 2012. He also reached out to Ryan “Kno” Wisler, a friendship that became the first step toward an eventual relocation to the West Coast.
“He’s a hip-hop producer predominantly, and as a fan of his, I reached out via Myspace, and we connected that way,” said, who’s produced and engineered all of his own material. “He wanted to combine some hip-hop production with my style of singing and my songwriting stuff, and so that became Built to Fade, the record we did in 2013. Then a couple of years ago, he called and said, ‘We’re ready to make the second record,’ and that’s when I moved to L.A. We’re in the final processes of putting that together.”
By that point, he had sobered up. He was 26 years old when he surrendered back in 2014, and looking back, it was a habit that showed up at first on the periphery, innocuous and seemingly innocent … until it wasn’t any longer.
Down the rabbit hole
“It was fun at first, and I never leaned on it as a crutch — or so I thought,” Ferguson said. “We would drink to get drunk, because that was just always part of the thing. I never thought I was leaning on it, and it just progressed for years. I was playing a lot of bar gigs, and I would drink a little bit before the shows, then go play, and everyone and their mom would want to buy you a shot.
“I have anxiety issues anyway, so I didn’t want to say no, and I would just drink them all. There were several moments when, as an introspective guy, I thought, ‘This isn’t who you want to be,’ but I could never get a grip on it. It was always there.”
And it was exacerbated by a couple of devastating injuries. An accident severed the tip of the middle finger on his left hand, and the physical trauma wasn’t as bad as the emotional toll the injury took.
“I couldn’t play guitar, so I had to re-teach myself how,” he said. “That played a major role in me medicating with alcohol.”
Then, 10 months later, he got his hand caught in a bicycle chain and lost the tips of his pinky and ring fingers. Fortunately, surgeons were able to reattach those, but he once again had to put music on hold and relearn how to play the instrument that was an expression of his poetic soul.
“My left hand is a mangled mess,” he said. “It was just the perfect storm of a bunch of stuff together.”
When he did get back to music, his found himself stuck playing cover songs at bar gigs. The muse had gone quiet, the determination to do something with his gift had given way to lethargy, and the bottle became a source of constant comfort, he added.
“I think I had just given up in a sense,” he said. “I reached a point of just being stagnant. That’s when my dad came to my aid. He had taken a video of me performing one night, and I was drunk and slurring, and it was utterly embarrassing. I had tried to quit for a couple of years, and I would stop and go back, stop and go back, but that was the moment. I thought of Edwin McCain, of all people, and realized, ‘I want to be an artist, and this is in the way.’ I decided that was it, and I never touched it after that.”
“I’m a cyclist, and so I really put everything into biking to and from work, doing pushups and exercises and trying to become as well-rounded as possible,” he said. “I changed the focus of how I approached life in general. Everything I try to do, I try to do with intent. Of course I’m a human, and I make mistakes often, but I’m trying to live as deliberately as possible, whereas before there was no rhyme or reason.
“And it’s great having people around me who were very supportive. In the end, it got to a point where I was drinking bottles of red wine alone in the house just to sleep. Those were the darkest times, those moments when you’re by yourself, but now I have a hell of a support system.”
Like most artists who don’t have the backing of a major label or a publicity machine that can keep his name in headlines, he had little choice but to get back to work — and for a musician, that meant playing gigs where alcohol is served. But part of his self-designed sobriety meant retooling how he approached those shows, he said.
“I approached it from the standpoint of, ‘This is business,’” he said. “I don’t go to bars to hang out at all, and because I was going to bars to play, I was able to separate the two. But more importantly, a switch was flipped, and alcohol wasn’t a part of it. I go in, knowing I’m going to try some new songs out, practice my stuff, make a little money and go home.”
And he began keeping track of his sobriety. One day became two, which became three, and so on. Ten days, 26 days … “every day was another step in the right direction,” he said.
“It was just about continuing to push and just seeing them add up,” he said. “That was the accomplishment.”
Being sober also opened him up to new adventures, so when Kno called a couple of years ago and announced it was time to make another Built to Fade record, Ferguson decided to move out of Virginia altogether. It was an adjustment, he said, especially having spent most of his life in the rural South.
“Being in a small town, there weren’t a lot of people doing what I was doing, so I always felt like I was doing something different,” he said. “But reality checked in after I moved to L.A., I’ll tell you that!”
The return of the muse
“Cicada” is evidence, however, that you can take the boy out of Virginia, but you can’t take Virginia out of the boy. Several of the songs on the EP were begun in Virginia during the early days of his sobriety, but they never seemed to fit anywhere, and the idea of making a “sobriety record” was a little daunting at first, he said.
“It’s tough releasing music about sobriety, because something you don’t hear often is that it sort of makes you feel square,” he said. “But when I moved into a little apartment outside of L.A., tucked away in the back of the complex, it gave me the feeling of seclusion I needed to get as personal as I needed to make the record. Once I got there and got settled, that’s when I realized: ‘It’s time to put this record together.’”
The album’s first song, “Aren’t We All,” kicks off with the sound of the titular insects before seguing into a contemplative guitar-piano composition that’s filled with the sweet ache of nostalgia and a restlessness of the spirit. Ferguson’s voice is unique enough that it’s difficult to pin down a point of reference, but “Carolina in My Mind”-era James Taylor is a good starting point. The album itself was christened after the fact, when Ferguson gave the complete work a listen and thought of that uniquely Southern insect and its symbolism to his own story, he said.
“To me, it symbolizes the coming of spring, of new things on the horizon, and that is this project,” he said. “This feels like that coming-out-of-your-shell thing.”
This year, he’s tapped into a different sound: The single “Braingame” started out almost as a hip-hop track, and while working on some different production sounds in the Santa Monica studio where Built to Fade records, he “decided to try those lyrics over a beat I had made,” he said.
“It’s very different, but I decided to put it out and see what people think,” he said. “It’s out of left field for me, because people don’t really hear dancey stuff from me. But the reaction has been pretty positive.”
Paying it forward
These days, Ferguson spends his days managing a breakfast restaurant in Venice Beach and building out his home studio. The new Built to Fade record is in the works, and he’s working on a new single and video for his solo material; the plan for now, he said, is to keep recording and writing. And being of service, when he can, to other artists who may find themselves in the same spot he once was. The support he’s received, as well as the inspiration he’s taken from other sober musicians, is one of the reasons he continues to stay on the straight and narrow.
“The first time I shared it was to help me, because when my friends would tell me, ‘Good job,’ that was good for me,” he said. “Now, I get more and more people contacting me and saying, ‘I enjoyed reading this about you; it makes me feel good,’ and I’ve realized it helps other people. And that’s humbling, because I never anticipated that would happen.
“And that pushes me to continue sharing. It makes me feel empowered to help someone else, because that’s the whole objective. I make music because 13-year-old me felt something he couldn’t describe, and I want to make other people feel those things and wonder if they can do all of this, too.”