Danny Brunjes' forthcoming attitude about his relationship with God sets him worlds apart from many of his indie musician brethren. But the 24-year-old Under Every Green Tree frontman from West Palm Beach doesn't come off as a Bible-thumping born-again, not in the least. His relationship with God, as he explains it, sounds like a bumpy roller-coaster-type of relationship with a lover. These ups and downs with faith give his introspective, soul-searching folk-rock tunes a nondenominational appeal.
With his tousled hair, plaid button-up shirt, and cuffed, snug jeans, Brunjes looks every bit the part of an emotive musician as he sits outside Delray Beach java and craft-beer hot spot Coffee District. Between swigs of Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPAs and drags from American Spirit Blacks, he certainly acts the part too.
During a tepid South Florida November night, the talented songwriter sits with New Times for a couple of hours. Topics of conversation drift from girlfriends to his setbacks in releasing the debut album, Everybody Tells a Story — but much circled back to his devotion to the man upstairs.
"[My faith] has been a swerving line with a straight line down the middle," he explains. "Most of the album deals with my experience with God and walking through the journey of getting to know who He is." The journey has not always been a simple one for him. "I've definitely had struggles with my faith; I find it a challenge to really connect the dots sometimes." This wholehearted, reflective turmoil is at the crux of nearly every verse heard in Everybody Tells a Story.
Raised in a Christian home and brought up in evangelical churches in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Brunjes has certainly grown up to be a young man of deeply rooted faith but not one with all the answers. No song deals more bluntly with Brunjes' convictions than the quivering, Ryan Adams-inflected track "Doubt, the Monster."
"Everyone naturally comes to a point where they question their faith, asking themselves 'Why do I believe all this stuff, why am I giving my life to this being?' " he says. "I think exploring [doubt] is inevitable, and you will go through hard times, but if you seek, you will find."
After providing this insight, the contemplative musician takes a deep drag of his cigarette, which leads us to ask him how drinking and smoking factor into his belief system.
"I get a lot of freedom from knowing that God is not interested in my performance," he says, citing a song from his record called "Ode to Self." "The idea there is that when you have a relationship with God, you can come exactly the way you are." Brunjes believes most people have an image of God sitting in heaven with a "holy billy club," waiting to beat down those who come to him who are not perfect. "In reality, it's the opposite," points out Brunjes. "We are supposed to come to him when we are at our bloodiest and dirtiest." Also, Brunjes says the Bible never really mentions anything about smoking.
In regard to imbibing, he feels the Bible mostly positions it in a positive light. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I think being controlled by a substance is not a good thing; however, if you drink and do it to the glory of God, that is something that can be enjoyed thoroughly."
Funnily enough, it was through thorough enjoyment of malted hops and barley beverages that Brunjes befriended current Under Every Green Tree lead guitarist Matt Salcito. "It's kind of dorky — we have a beer club that meets once a month at [Under Every Green Tree's keyboardist and backup vocalist Kelly Stapleton's] place," he says. While sampling the latest porters, Brunjes found in Salcito an able replacement for former guitarist Ryan Alexander.
Salcito, in only his early 20s, has constructed a nifty résumé for himself in South Florida's music scene, having played in buoyantly amiable pop group Goolsby and the more folk-leaning Quiet River beforehand. When Brunjes had a show coming up and Alexander couldn't make it, he invited Salcito to play, and he picked up the material incredibly quickly.
Filling Alexander's shoes was no easy feat; Alexander is not only a brilliant singer/songwriter and guitar player in his own right — now fronting his own band, Civilian — but it was Alexander who initially collaborated with Brunjes to make Everybody Tells a Story a reality.
"I was always playing in other bands and writing my own material on the side," says Brunjes. He was a year behind Alexander while attending Hollywood Christian Academy but never struck up a bond with the good-natured musician until the two toured together years later — Alexander in one band, Brunjes in Brunjes' former band, Caillou. Alexander became so impressed with Brunjes' solo work that he extended an offer to record in his Fort Lauderdale home studio. "The more we worked on [the record], the more it became a beast of its own," says Brunjes about the batch of songs that ultimately became Everybody Tells a Story.
Alexander, however, became so involved with his main project that he had to step down as Brunjes' principal guitarist. His departure and original Under Every Green Tree drummer Ian Jones' (since replaced by Jon Wagner) move to Orlando, as well as a few money issues, caused the delay of the record by nearly a year. Brunjes is optimistic about the outcome, though: "Although I ran across a few bumps in the road to get this record out, sonically, it is something I'm very proud of."
He rightfully should be. For a debut record, the songs contained on Everybody Tells a Story display a deftness and maturity in songwriting way beyond Brunjes' years. His delicate, earnest, and at times melancholic voice will have many recalling the best moments off Bright Eyes records.
About the Conor Oberst comparison, Brunjes tells us he has heard that one before but does not consider himself directly influenced by the Nebraska indie folk ace. He cites, rather, such disparate sources as the Beatles, Kanye West, Dr. Dog, Muddy Waters, and the Avett Brothers as influences.
The furthest style from Brunjes' playlist? Christian rock. "Not to knock bands that feel that they have to blatantly preach to people from the stage, but that's just not where I have landed as a musician."
At the end of the day, Brunjes is not concerned about being labeled a Christian artist. "I believe if people sense that you are telling a compelling story about who you really are and about something you really believe to be true, that will be welcomed whether or not they agree with your specific views."
Brunjes does not feel his purpose is to give 20-minute speeches about his faith but rather to "play good music."
"The Beatles wrote love songs when they were in love; the best songs come from writing from your own personal experience, where you are at as an individual. For me, my experience with God, what he has done in my life, is that."