Sitting at Firefly Coffee House on a cold March morning, Jesse Daniel looks deep in thought as he stares at his tattooed hands, trying to figure out how to describe his life.
“One phrase I use a lot is ‘hell and back,’” he says finally.
On the surface, it might seem dramatic coming from someone who is only 25 years old, but Daniel’s tale is one of youthful excess, years of struggle with drugs and alcohol, and—finally—redemption through his music. The local country artist has always been reluctant to tell his story; music, after all, is an image-conscious industry. But with the upcoming release of his debut album and his NEXTie win for Musician of the Year, Daniel is ready to open up about his past, in the hope that his story might inspire those struggling to change their ways.
“I’ve always had an overflow of creative, nervous energy,” he says. “But I’ve always focused it in the wrong direction. Now I have it focused in a positive place.”
Daniel and his brother, Sage Wilkinson, were born and raised in the mountains of Ben Lomond. The son of a musician father and artist mother, they grew up in a home filled with songs and culture.
“The radio was always on, playing classic rock like Creedence Clearwater Revival” Daniel remembers. “And my dad was always playing guitar.”
Even from an early age, it seemed he was meant for country life. When he was five, his parents bought a barn and converted it to a home, complete with concrete floors.
“Whenever someone uses the phrase, ‘Where did you grow up? In a barn?’ I tell them I did!” Daniel says with a laugh.
But things changed at age nine, when his parents divorced. His father moved to Santa Cruz, giving Daniel access to downtown while he lived in Ben Lomond with his mother, a welder. To make ends meet, he and his brother would help her dig through scrap yards and landfill to find pieces she could make into art they sold at weekend flea markets from Santa Cruz to Oakland. He learned the meaning of hard work and sacrifice, he says, knowing his mother was trying her best to provide for them, but unsettled by the knowledge that “there was an underlying desperation out of necessity.”
It was also around this time that his mother enrolled Daniel in children’s summer theater at Ben Lomond’s Little People’s Repertory Theatre. As an artist, she always wanted to make sure her children had some form of creative outlet to express themselves. A shy child, Daniel says many of his roles were of a tree or car, but he still credits this time on the stage as a turning point where he’d learn performance lessons for his later career as a musician. It was also where he would meet his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Henry Chadwick.
“I’ve known Jesse basically my whole life,” says Chadwick, in between sips of coffee. Another Santa Cruz County native, Chadwick is perhaps best known as one-third of local punk trio My Stupid Brother. After meeting, Daniel and Chadwick quickly became best friends and would often fool around with making music—but never very seriously.
“He’s always been a super-talented dude,” remembers Chadwick. “It’s funny, because I always knew him as a drummer, but looking back, he would pick up a guitar and make country songs as a joke. But they were good.”
“It’s cool to see Jesse come back to his musical roots with the country-western genre,” says Sage Wilkinson. “Growing up, our dad would play a lot of country along with the classic rock.”
As a young teen, Daniel played in several bands, but lasted for only a few shows—sometimes only a few practices. However, in 2006, he was asked to drum for My Stupid Brother, and he jumped at the opportunity.
Still dealing with anger over his parents’ divorce, and well into the throes of teen angst, Daniel dove into the fast and furious sounds of punk rock, fueled by drugs and alcohol. However, what began as simple youthful indiscretion slowly evolved into something darker, even if nobody really noticed at first.
“When you’re young, it’s hard to tell the difference between partying or having fun and something being a problem,” says Chadwick. “Looking back, there were definitely signs he didn’t have the ‘off’ button we did. But it never seemed to affect his routine or life.”
“It started just as drinking, smoking weed and taking pills,” Daniel remembers. “I’m from the generation that got into pharmaceuticals because they were prescribed to us.”
Even though he had taken pills to party before, Daniel realized a “switch flipped” in his head, and opioids became his drug of choice after he was prescribed painkillers following wisdom teeth surgery.
By the time he was 16, in 2010, he had quit My Stupid Brother and was drumming in another prominent Santa Cruz punk band, 3UpFront.
“Jesse was the most talented drummer I’ve ever played with,” says 3UpFront singer Adam Pierce. “He’s just a phenomenal musician.”
However, Daniel was heavy into his addiction by this point, he now admits. Still, no one saw the warning signs, least of all Daniel himself.
“Once I got introduced to the punk scene at 14, I really started using a lot more regularly,” he says. “It wasn’t abnormal in the scene to do it heavily.”
“For a while there, Jesse was sort of a functioning addict,” states Wilkinson. “He had a job, was still able to play music, and had a normal life.”
But Daniel soon spiraled into depression and self-loathing. Supplied by friends and dealers, pills were the “most effective way not to feel.” As his tolerance grew and buying became more expensive, Daniel turned to the most potent fix available: heroin. His first time using was at a friend’s house, and he never looked back.
“It was cheaper, and in a lot of ways, more accessible,” he explains. “After the first time I did that, it was a wrap. It was all I wanted, and all I wanted to do.”
Little did he know that first taste would take him down a road that would guide almost the next decade of his life. As the addiction grew, Daniel continued to maintain the life of a “normal” person, working and writing music with his friends. However, the symptoms of abuse began to surface.
“Henry’s parents have always been like a second family to me,” he says. “And his dad would check in on me saying, ‘Hey, I see what you’re doing,’ and give me those talks.”
Pierce remembers when he started noticing a change as well.
“A lot of time he wouldn’t show up for practice,” he says. “Unfortunately, the struggle was winning over life.”
The fissures split into cracks as Daniel continued to use as often as he could. While some claim to have a singular moment that defined their addiction, he recognizes multiple points in his life that serve as significant. For instance, there’s the first time his family urged him to go to rehab—shortly after turning 18—and the optimism he felt when he left the facility.
“However, I was really young,” he says. “I really didn’t have a fighting chance at being sober. I didn’t know enough about life to want sobriety for myself. [Drugs] still had an allure to me.”
This became apparent when he started getting high again shortly after, and landed his first arrest for possession.
“We were at a gig, waiting for him to show up so we could play,” Pierce remembers. “And then he called from jail, saying he wouldn’t make it. Unfortunately, that was the end of him playing with us.”
The next several years remain a hazy blur for Daniel. As he sunk deeper into the black tar, he bounced in and out of rehab, ultimately selling his drums for a quick fix. Like many addicts, he committed petty crimes for money to get his stash.
In total, he would be arrested four times, with six separate stints in rehab. Still, there were moments of clarity along the way reminding him of his true calling, sometimes in the most unlikely of places. Like the time he was standing outside the old Community Television building on Pacific Avenue, waiting to meet up for a fix. A group of older homeless individuals were standing around the window, watching the television, and commenting on how much they enjoyed the band that was broadcasted.
“I was out of it. When I looked, I realized I knew each person the camera was doing a close-up on,” he says taking a long, drawn-out pause. “And then they showed my dad. At first I was happy and proud to see him. But then it became soul crushing, because that was my dream from day one—to write and play songs. It was a moment of clarity because I realized I could be having a good life playing songs, or going back to a shitty dope motel.”
That night he chose the dope motel, returning for another score. But another major moment of clarity came in 2013 when he checked into MPI Treatment Services in Oakland. Strung out and in physical pain from the dope-sickness, Daniel knew he was coming to a fork in the road: either get clean, or die.
“[Being dope-sick] feels like in your core there’s a burning sun of anxiety and discomfort,” explains Daniel. “It’s compelling, because when you feel like that, the solution is more drugs, which is clearly counterintuitive. But when you’re in it, it really does seem like that’s the only way to feel better.”
After several days of withdrawals, sleepless nights, horrific sweating and night terrors, he noticed someone had been playing old-fashioned country guitar throughout his stay. Broken and tired, he mustered up enough energy to approach the guitarist, who was covering the likes of Billie Joe Shavers, Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris and others Daniel grew up listening to.
“He was a volunteer who just came in to play country songs,” he says. “I told him I wanted to play like him, and his response was, ‘Why don’t you?’”
The simple but poignant question was the catalyst for Daniel’s recovery. Sober and armed with a guitar, he began writing country tunes with his first band, The Slow Learners—originally with a punk rock twist similar to the music he grew up with as a teen. But after his first EP dropped in 2015, he decided to stick with the straight slide-guitar-driven and honky-tonk-fried country he remembered from childhood.
RAINBOW AT MIDNIGHT
In 2016, Daniel started dating local tattoo artist Jodi Lyford, and the two opened up True North Tattoo—where she tattoos and he manages—a year later. They also moved back into the converted barn house that Daniel had grown up in. Daniel started a new band with Lane Cunningham, Sean Mohoot and Connor Kelly, this time going by just his name. His self-titled debut full-length was recorded by Chadwick at Compound Studios and mixed at Chadwick’s father’s studio, Hale Kula. It comes out May 26, with a CD release party at Moe’s Alley.
Famed country musician Conway Twitty once said, “A good country song takes a page out of someone’s life, and puts it into music,” and Daniel’s songs are filled with chapters from his past. “SR22 Blues,” for instance, warns about the dangers of liquor through his experiences “being on Mugshot Santa Cruz,” and getting a DUI. And what country album would be complete without a song like “California Highway,” where he croons about hitting the open road after a break-up?
Not every song on the album is about bad times and heartache, but, after all, it is a country record.
And in a remarkable twist of fate, it features a special performance by Daniel’s father on one of the tracks.
“It was one of the most rewarding parts about where I’m at in life,” says Daniel with smile.
The rewards continued when Daniel was shocked to hear he won a NEXTie for Musician of the Year. For the past nine years, the NEXTies—presented by Event Santa Cruz—have been Santa Cruz County’s premiere award ceremony for up-and-comers in the community who are not only making a name for themselves, but exemplify the values of Santa Cruz.
“When choosing winners we ask, ‘Are you really involved in the community?’” says Event Santa Cruz founder Matthew Swinnerton.
Nominated by members of the community, Swinnerton tells GT that winners are chosen by a majority vote from a committee of Event Santa Cruz participants and previous NEXTies honorees. So even though he doesn’t specifically choose who is awarded, Swinnerton was rooting for Daniel.
“He was the one person I wanted from seven months ago,” Swinnerton says. “Everyone in town knows him, he’s constantly playing shows, and he collaborates with a lot of other prominent musicians in the area.”
On stage, Daniel will be joined by his band and Chadwick as they play songs throughout the 2018 NEXTies award ceremony at the Rio Theatre on March 23. The awards also honors other local individuals and organizations who are being proactive in areas such as entrepreneurship, food, green businesses and innovation.
“We’re really focus on diversity,” explains Swinnerton. “It’s a fun time with people accepting awards for doing awesome things in our community.”
Reflecting on his life and upcoming achievements, Daniel summarizes his struggle, with country wit and a positive twist.
“Whenever people ask why I work so hard, I always tell them I put the hustle I learned on the street into my music,” he says. “It’s a huge honor to be thought of for a NEXTie and I’m so grateful to be a positive influence in the community and to give back to Santa Cruz any way I can.”