Life in the elephant cage

Danny Shafer finds light in the darkness on his new record

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Danny Shafer
Photo by Dancer Productions

As Danny Shafer’s marriage came to an end a couple of years ago, songs began to flow out of him. 

“I knew I had to write it out,” Shafer says over a cup of coffee recently. “So I grabbed a guitar and went into a room with one light bulb and I started writing and writing and writing and writing. I wrote 150 songs. I was writing so manically it was starting to scare me.”

In spite of the fear and sadness it was “an opportunity,” Shafer says, “to look in the mirror, to check in on who I was, to break my own heart and start putting it back together again.” From this outpouring, Shafer culled 10 tracks that became his new solo album, Living In The Elephant Cage. Driven by Shafer’s warm acoustic guitar and gentle tenor—part David Crosby, part Tom Petty―Living In The Elephant Cage finds Shafer unpacking the anxiety that has both driven and crippled him throughout his life. 

“One step forward, two steps back / Waiting for the next attack,” Shafer sings on the title track. “Watching for water, hiding my rage / Living in the elephant cage.”

“What the song doesn’t say is whether you’re the elephant or you’re someone standing in the elephant’s cage waiting to get trampled,” he says with a laugh. “And that’s that is the point of the song: You don’t know whether you’re a large, beautiful animal trapped in a small place, or a person that’s trapped with a scared, large animal.”

Shafer knows the album could come across as woeful, with titles like “Going To Heaven Alone,” “Here Comes The Night,” and “What Would Finally Kill Me.” And there was plenty of pain for Shafer to process: Shafer and his ex-wife lost their home in the Lyons in the flood of 2013, still newlyweds, with two young children to care for. With help from the community they rebuilt their home, but the damage to the marriage was done.

“I don’t know if our relationship would have lasted regardless of the flood, but it was too much for us to handle and with kids and everything else,” Shafer says.

“Everything else” included Shafer’s nonstop live performances, which were his bread and butter before the flood. He estimates he was playing more than 200 shows a year. 

“If you knew me then you wouldn’t know me now,” he says. “I was completely gone.” He waves an open hand in front of his face. “Just . . . nothing.”

He took on more work doing music bookings for local venues, like the now-closed Conor O’Neills and Oskar Blues, and packed up and moved to Longmont, where he lives today in a cottage with his dog Zevon (named after the late, sardonic singer/songwriter Warren Zevon).

From here, with space and a quiet companion to provide a bit of structure in his life, Shafer was able to build Living In The Elephant Cage from a foundation of hope rather than sadness. 

“What would finally kill me after all that I’ve been through?” Shafer wonders as he picks over bright chords in the album’s seventh track. “I know that I’ll still live after all this leaving you.”

“The songs aren’t really about the pain,” he says, “they’re about getting better. They’re about healing.” 

Lyricism has driven Shafer since he picked up a guitar for the first time at around 13. Whether it was Freddie Mercury’s imagistic narration, Deborah Harry’s slinky yarns, or even Willie Nelson’s straightforward storytelling, Shafer was drawn to the power of lyrics. 

“To this day I can say that I’m not a great guitar player,” Shafer demures. “But music has always been such a strong vehicle for me to express something, to communicate. So that’s been the challenge of my life: how to do it simply, better, without fluff.”

Clocking in at just over 26 minutes, Living In The Elephant Cage is fluff-free. He’s had the time to process the feelings, to whittle down the songs. COVID slowed things down, of course, but there were also complications with the record label Shafer was working with that led him to eventually break away and release the album independently—his first independent solo release in a decade. 

And he’s basically giving it away.

“This is the right time to do a pay-what-you-want record,” he explains. “I want people to hear it. The technology is finally catching up to the point where independent artists can gain a lot from just making it available, and it’s a great experiment for me to open up the gates and just put it out there and see what people think, put it in their hands and let them say what it’s worth to them.”

Keeping with that theme, the album release party at The Wheelhouse in Niwot on November 15 will be free as well. 

“I’ve done releases at eTown Hall and the Wildflower Pavilion and this time it’s just like, no, I’m just doing a free show in Niwot—come and see,” he says. “Same with the album release: I woke up on a Monday morning, I pressed three buttons, it’s released to the world, and I’m gonna go to the dog park.”

On the bill: Danny Shafer album release party. 5-7 p.m. The Wheelhouse, 101 Second Avenue, Niwot. No cover. Download the new album, Living In The Elephant Cage, at dannyshafer.bandzoogle.com