Island Musician: Dan Hansen

His voice is raspy, but not the thick, dark rasp that keeps you a couple bar stools away or comes from behind shadowed, untrusting eyes and a plume of cigarette smoke. It’s a light scratch which fails to intimidate, and it comes accompanied by the thinnest trace of a smile in conversation.

Like the voice, the man to whom it belongs is unexpected. Dan Hansen can be found most Thursday evenings playing piano in the small, gentle bar at T. Ashwell’s in Ellison Bay, home to some of Door County’s finest dining. Yet the Washington Islander is not a music or cultural elitist, nor a one-trick pony married to particular classical tastes.

When he’s not playing for the dinner and wine crowd, he’s running the Red Barn on Washington Island, bringing music of all genres to the folks “overseas.” Well, that’s when he’s not directing the Trinity Lutheran Church choir or teaching music at the Washington Island school to elementary students, or inviting students or visiting musicians to sit in on his gig at the restaurant, or working on a composition.

The 54 year-old Washington Island native grew up in a family of musicians. His mother is a singer and piano player, and his brothers and sister all play instruments or sing, but it was his late grandma Erma who was the strongest influence on him in his youth. “She played piano by ear,” he recalls. “And she always felt inferior because she couldn’t read music.” But her struggles would prove useful for Hansen as a young musician in the years to come.

He began his musical journey by picking up the bass guitar in eighth grade. His brother Jens was a drummer and guitar player in a band called the Rustic Hinges. Dan would join this band later when Chuck Johnson, their original bass player and one of Dan’s teachers, was sent to Vietnam.

They practiced in the barn’s drying room where the pelts from the mink the family raised were hung. Their earliest gigs were at Karly’s Bar, where Karly Jessen would let the boys play dances on summer Saturday nights for one dollar and keep the take, which they used to buy equipment.

As they’ve been for generations of musicians, the Beatles were a big influence on Dan. He watched their famous performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and was later mesmerized by “Hey Jude,” which sparked a new interest that would supplant the bass as his passion.

“After that I really wanted to learn to play piano,” he says. But like his grandmother, he struggled to read music and started playing by ear. “My grandmother taught me how to chord along to old music. I would ask her to tell me when the chord changes were, and I still remember her telling me in her raspy voice ‘No! You have to feel it!”

That would be a lasting lesson for the young pianist. “It taught me you’ve got to find your own style and make the music your own. That was very freeing.”

Around that time he began taking lessons with Rose Fosco, who he credits with taking him to another level. “I was used to chords from the guitar, and she kind of opened them up for me on the piano. She taught me fake music, the jazz improv method, which allows a lot of freedom and interpretation.”

After high school Dan desperately wanted to pursue a music degree at UW–Stevens Point (UWSP). But he was still largely unable to read music, a shortcoming that ruled him out of the program. Disappointed, he started with music as a minor, but with extra help from his professors and a lot of practice he made strides. After some diligent work they let him pursue the major, and he earned a degree in theory and composition.

Longtime friend and fellow musician Julian Hagen says the education didn’t come easy for Dan. “People forget how hard he’s had to work at his music,” he says. But the early struggles created a uniquely skilled artist. “He’s really well-rounded in what he can play. He has the academic background, but can play by ear as well.”

Though Dan, like his grandma Erma, seems a bit embarrassed at times by the one-time deficiency, he also feels it made him a better musician. “Music is a tactile, kinetic thing,” he says. “There are many who do it very well, but often those who play mostly by [reading] music can sound mechanical. They’re using their eyes but not their ears.”

Julian and Dan grew up on the island together in the 1960s, Julian looking up to and learning from Dan, three years his elder. Their families have long been intertwined in the island’s music scene, and they would find themselves a part of what each described as a special time for young artists on the island in the early 1980s. At the time, there were about a dozen young musicians writing and performing together. “It was kind of like a music camp up there for a few years,” Hagen recalls. “We had a running bet where the prize was a cheeseburger for who could write the best song of the week.”

The scene dissipated some as artists moved on to other pursuits, but Dan would continue working on his music for the next decade. But around 1991 he got tired of the work and organization required to stay involved in music. “I just didn’t care about it anymore. I was getting older and I guess I thought a little like music was for kids.”

But he couldn’t put it away for good. In the latter part of the decade he found himself praying about the next direction in his life, and it brought him back to music. He missed working with groups, choirs, and fellow musicians, and he took a job directing the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church. Later he began teaching music about 10 hours a week to kids in kindergarten through eighth grade at the Washington Island School.

Around the same time he started playing a couple evenings on the “mainland” at T. Ashwell’s, where Tom Ashwell Smith, the restaurant’s owner and chef, says Dan has become a fixture. “I love his style,” Smith says. “One of my favorite times of the night is to come out and have a glass of wine and catch him for a bit before he’s done.”

Making a career out of music is never easy, especially on the isolated peninsula of Door County, and even more-so on the isolated island a ferry ride away from that isolated peninsula. Yet Dan has cobbled together a living, and he doesn’t reserve any envy for nine-to-fivers. “Some people would call me A.D.D., but I like the freedom to organize my own day. I like to do something for one to two hours and move on to something else.”

He doesn’t describe himself as an entertainer, so maybe it’s not surprising that his greatest fulfillments in music don’t come from performing, but from providing the vehicles for others to do so. “Having something I’ve written performed and hearing it come to fruition is a special feeling,” he says.

Most artists live for those moments in the limelight, but it’s only fitting that the man whom Julian describes as “one of those rare people who would be well-served by a little more ego,” is happiest when he gives it up and backs into the shadows.