On a gray Friday afternoon, singer Daniel Merriweather finds himself in a booth in the back of a Brooklyn bar. The 27-year-old Australian — whose strong jaw and sleepy eyes make him look a bit like a boxer who hasn’t had his nose broken yet — is wearing an extra slim pair of black COS trousers, Rachel Comey boots from Opening Ceremony and a vintage double-breasted suit jacket. In the middle of the room, there’s a piano with a loose-leaf sign perched on it, asking patrons to keep their drinks away. In Merriweather’s world, that edict wouldn’t exactly fly.
“Making this album, there would always be a bottle of whiskey within arm’s reach,” says the crooner, referring to his debut record, “Love & War,” scheduled for a U.S. release later this month on J Records through Mark Ronson’s Allido imprint.
Until recently, Merriweather has been best known for working and performing with Ronson, the producer responsible for the recent crop of retro-soul-pop acts like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. And on “Love & War,” Merriweather recorded with the Bushwick-based band and frequent Ronson collaborators the Dap Kings. But the songs on his new record are all Merriweather. “Cigarettes” and “Chainsaw,” for example, recall with an earned authority bar nights gone awry and romantic peril. “A lot of the songs are very autobiographical,” Merriweather says, “but as Chopper Read [an Australian ex-con-turned-celebrity] once said, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.’”
The musician also drew inspiration from some unlikely sources. “I would never describe myself as a soul singer. I’m influenced by so much different stuff,” he says, “from Jeff Buckley to [Faith No More vocalist] Mike Patton to D’Angelo. They’re some of my favorite singers of the Nineties.”
Merriweather grew up in Melbourne, where his first memories of music centered around his grandfather, an Aussie Rules football player who, Merriweather recalls, “fancied himself to be quite a good singer as well.” At age four, he picked up the violin and, by 13, he was playing compositions by ear (he was trained according to the Suzuki method, which follows that all children can become virtuosos if immersed in a nurturing musical environment). “I didn’t know my times tables but I can still to this day whistle ‘Concierto in A Minor’ by Vivaldi or Bach or whoever it’s by,” he laughs.
Though surrounded by classical music, Merriweather was soon performing his own takes on Elvis and Boyz II Men. (Boyz II Men’s 1991 album, “Cooleyhighharmony” is the first record Merriweather ever bought and, he says, “is still to this day a really guilty pleasure of mine.”) Eventually he abandoned the string section and focused solely on his voice. “I think it was when I realized that the violin wasn’t really helping me pick up chicks that I gave that up,” Merriweather says. “Right now, if I was really good at the violin, it would help me immensely, but, as a 13-year-old, it’s the worst thing on earth.”
By the time he was a teenager, Merriweather had landed a deal on an indie label in Melbourne and was booking regular gigs around town. Things changed dramatically when his demo made its way into Ronson’s hands. “He called me up out of the blue and just literally invited me to come to New York, like it was as simple as that, like, ‘I love what you’re doing — come over here and get in the studio with me,’” Merriweather says smiling.
Before long, the singer was making the trek between Melbourne and New York every few months to lay down vocals on Ronson’s productions and lend his songwriting talent to others. He left Australia permanently after getting his own record deal and now splits his time between London and East Harlem.
On Feb. 10, he’ll perform at Good Units at the Hudson Hotel, and it seems Merriweather’s anxious to acquaint himself with his Stateside fan base.
“After selling a bunch of records you’re sort of like, ‘Well, who are these people that bought them? I know there’s 250,000 of you out there, but I’ve never met any of you,’” he says.
And though whiskey may have fueled the recording, his touring routine is a bit drier. “When I went on the road, I was really well behaved. I was going to bed after the shows and waking up early and doing exercise,” he says. “I felt like I was betraying some sort of rock ’n’ roll code.”