Dane Terry combines piano tunes with surreal stories of an Ohio childhood

The New York-based pianist describes his coming-of-age piece 'Bird in the House' as 'a movie for the stage.'

Dec 7, 2016 at 1:21 pm

click to enlarge Terry confesses to being terrified the first night he ever performed "Bird in the House." - Photo: Ben Alfonso
Photo: Ben Alfonso
Terry confesses to being terrified the first night he ever performed "Bird in the House."
Neither Dane Terry nor Bird in the House, the coming-of-age piece he’s performing solo Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center, can be pigeonholed. 

Terry is a New York-based pianist who sings and writes songs, but he recoils from the singer-songwriter tag. The Ohio native has been compared to musicians from a range of genres — including Elton John, Randy Newman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Waits, Cole Porter, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson and Igor Stravinsky. 

Yet the onetime ventriloquist and magician also draws inspiration from screen masters Jim Henson and Steven Spielberg. While Bird is a story wrapped around music, Terry hasn’t written a musical, but rather what he calls a movie for the stage. 

The show, which was commissioned by New York’s La MaMa theater and debuted there in April 2015, grew out of Terry’s album Color Movies, a song cycle about his childhood in Columbus’ Hilltop neighborhood of Appalachian and working-class families.

 The title Bird in the House references the anxiety felt when the familiar seems foreign. But the events that Terry describes are more surreal than dealing with a sparrow circling the parlor.

“It’s basically a week in my life as a 12-year-old,” Terry says by phone, struggling to neither reveal too much nor oversimplify. “It’s a show about the way childhood feels when you think about it — meaning, it’s presented out of order. It’s very foggy. It’s very colorful and impressionistic. It’s just like memory.” 

Over three days, Terry experiences his first sexual encounter, meets a shadowy authoritarian figure, is accused of arson and spends time in a hospital. He conjures a spell from his piano bench as he introduces one twangy character after another.

Behind every fantastic twist, there’s an emotion that runs deep. It can be cathartic to watch and listen as Terry rests his head against his hand for a moment, casts his eyes downward and punctuates each beautiful or painful memory with a plink of keys before breaking into a ballad about lost innocence. 

Terry, who is 33, found himself reflecting on childhood when he turned 30. Along with friends, he realized, “Oh, all this weird stuff I went through as a kid really is going to stick with me forever, and it really is informing my adulthood.”

Promotional materials for Bird refer to “a coming out in Middle America.” 

“I am queer. That’s not something I hide from anybody,” Terry says. “It is an important part of my childhood, and yet in some ways it’s incidental in the story.” 

He is more focused on universal experiences, such as how sex seems shameful, even alien, to a virgin. Terry’s lyrics about his first time delve into sci-fi: “You come from the emptiness of space…/But one frozen moment are we/Volton Destroyer of Stars and me.”

“I have a hunch that everybody — straight or gay or whatever — has felt that dark about their first sexual encounter. I don’t think anybody walks away going, ‘Well, that was fuuunn!’ ” he says. 

Terry debuted Bird with two female singers, a bassist and a drummer. He then performed it solo during the Under the Radar Festival at New York’s Public Theater and enjoyed that intimacy. Terry adds more humor, tenderness or creepiness as he reads each audience. 

“Whenever I can make people feel like I know them in a way that they didn’t think people could know them — that kind of connection is what it’s all about,” he says. 

Terry, who moved to New York in 2011, has found that Bird especially resonates with other “frillbillies” — his term for transplants who grew up gay in the heartland. East Coast natives tell him the show is beautiful. But fellow Midwesterners get a deeper look in their eyes and say, “Man, me too.”

“I like it when people can be suspended for 90 minutes and forget that they’re just watching a dude with a piano. When people say, ‘I feel like I just watched a movie,’ that’s my highest compliment,” Terry says. 

Terry became a self-taught dude with a piano at age 12, after watching someone play Pachelbel’s Canon. He requested a quick tutorial, then went home and performed it and other compositions by ear nonstop. 

At 17, he started playing at gallery openings at the suggestion of his father, a painter and art restorer. After a decade of touring nationally with a band and playing Columbus bars, friends told Terry that his fondness for banter between songs was theater and he needed to get immersed in New York’s rich scene.  

But on Bird’s opening night, he was terrified. “The things people in Cincinnati will hear, I’d never said out loud before,” Terry explains.  Despite a standing ovation, he was convinced he’d ruined his career. Reading reactions the next day swayed him otherwise. 

Last fall he received the Ethyl Eichelberger Award (named for a late drag performer) from New York’s Performance Space 122. The honor includes a commission for a play. 

Since August, Terry has been living off and on in Cleveland so he can concentrate on writing that show. 

He describes it as “a science-fiction opera — like Laurie Anderson telling a Steven Spielberg movie with a Danny Elfman score.”  

He’s also working on his next album, Golden Slogans of the West. The title sounds “completely untrustworthy, but also kind of beautiful,” Terry acknowledges with a laugh. “That’s my jam!”

Dane Terry performs BIRD IN THE HOUSE 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Contemporary Arts Center. Tickets $15; $10 members. More info: contemporaryartscenter.org