The Self-Made Man

With the release of his latest CD, Daniel Ho proves he can be quite super while performing the music he was born to record

Midway through my conversation with musician Daniel Ho, the thought hits me like a boomerang hurled from a cave: If this local-boy-who-made-it-big were a superhero, he’d be The Dark Knight. So I blurt out what I’m thinking and – holy stretch of the imagination, Batman! – he laughs off the comparison in Joker-like fashion.

“I’m not particularly good-looking,” Ho says in obvious reference to Batman’s hunky alter ego, but also to the importance of physical beauty in his own line of work. “And didn’t Bruce Wayne have a lot of money? I don’t really have a lot of money. In fact, I have just enough to get by and do my art.”

Daniel Ho

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Daniel Ho

Maybe so, I admit. Then again, it isn’t so much the outsides of Ho and the comic book icon that demand the comparison, but the common traits housed within them – their determination, perseverance, laser-like focus and willingness to do whatever is necessary in the pursuit of perfection. I remind Ho that like The Caped Crusader, he too has no real superpower to fall back on; in Ho’s case and by his own admission, there’s no real inherent gift for music. Everything he’s become – an award-winning singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, sound engineer, producer of some 80 records and successful record label owner – is the result of him taking “a leap of faith” straight out of high school, moving to California and struggling for years to make ends meet, followed by more years of locking himself in his L.A.-based “bat cave” of a recording studio with his instruments and gadgets, having faith to follow the advice of his Alfred-like music mentors Ray Wessinger and Dick Grove, and patiently and painstakingly learning every aspect of the recording business just so that, as he says, he could be “in control of my art and see every note through in the process.”

Yes, you’re so much like the Bat, I tell him. You’re a self-made man – a master of your craft.

He laughs again.

“Well, I think I’m more like a one-trick pony,” Ho confesses. “All I know is music.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Now well into his 40s, there are many reasons why Ho could be resting on his laurels these days – maybe even putting his pony out to pasture. With six consecutive Grammy Awards under his belt, including collaborative efforts with friend and actress Tia Carrere that resulted in albums ‘ikena and Huana Ke Aloha, not to mention other career highlights such as solo performances around the globe, touring as a guitarist and keyboardist with Peabo Bryson, and his Hawaiian version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U, which can be heard during the end credits of the 2008 film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Ho’s accomplishments are the envy of just about any aspiring professional musician.

But the homegrown product from Kaimuki, who’s called California home for the past two decades, refuses to kick back and relax, local style. The music business, which can often be filled with Gotham-like despair and drudgery, still welcomes his refreshing aura of positivity. And like a beacon in the night, the do-everything Ho still feels it’s his obligation to inspire countless up-and-coming musicians – through lectures and workshops at such notable places as Stanford University – on the importance of “being versatile,” “never giving up” and “learning as much as you can about the business.”

Most importantly, Ho refuses to rest because in his mind, he’s yet to peak as a musician. His latest CD, This Dream Begins, is a testament to his continuing ascension as an artist, and features a collection of previously released material as well as new compositions.

“I’m finally doing my own music. By that, I mean not music that a record company is telling me to write because it’s a style that’s popular,” he tells me. “I’m actually doing the things I believe in and staying true to myself – and it took some 15 years in the business to get to this point.”

Musical Notes caught up with the ever-hustling Ho and got him to sit still long enough to answer the following questions:

MN: Your new album features many previously released songs such as Coolest Drop of Rain. Why reissue music that your fans already have?

DH: My album, Coolest Drop of Rain, was released a decade ago but discontinued because I felt I could do better. Back then, my production skills were lacking, and I wasn’t really able to mix and master that album real well. So with this album, I wanted it to be a representation of where I am as an artist, producer, etc.

MN: You’ve learned to do so many different parts of the business- from writing and arranging music, and playing and singing many parts of the songs to sound engineering, producing and designing your numerous album covers through your company, Daniel Ho Creations. Was this done out of necessity or the sheer joy of learning?

DH: Both. When I started in the mid ’90s, for example, I needed to know how to produce graphics. So I got a Photoshop book and a CD-ROM, and then spent the next two weeks of my life learning as much as I could about design. At the time, I couldn’t afford to spend a thousand dollars on graphics for my albums, so it was on me to do it myself. Still, my designs were horrible and ugly back then. But now, some 80 albums later, I can do my own graphic work in two days’ time.

But I also learned early on that I needed to be versatile in this business, or I wouldn’t survive. I had a wonderful music teacher at Saint Louis School named Ray Wessinger, who took me under his wings and taught me to be versatile and work hard. And when I got into the business, it was exactly what he said it would be.

Later on, after graduating from Saint Louis, I got into Grove School of Music in Los Angeles. I wanted to be a studio keyboard player. What (school founder) Dick Grove did was allow me to get into composing, arranging and film scoring, the school’s flagship program. It was actually the best thing that ever happened to me. Ray had already asked me to be versatile, and now Mr. Grove was allowing me to learn how to compose and put all the pieces (of a composition) together.

MN: Aren’t you being overly modest when you say music did not come naturally to you?

DH: I’m a realist, and I try to look at myself and career as objectively as possible. Yes, I knew from an early age that I wasn’t really gifted in music. I didn’t have the advantages or the kinds of natural talent some people have. I don’t have perfect pitch; in fact, I don’t even have good relative pitch. But I learned how to persevere, to not give up, and to keep growing and learning and developing the skills I did have. I believe they’re reasons why doors eventually opened up for me.