Reflecting On ‘Reflector’: Daniel Donato’s New Album & The Cosmic Embrace Of Dualities

The guitarist’s new album, Reflector, was released today.

By Andy Kahn Nov 10, 2023 11:13 am PST

Guitarist Daniel Donato embodies a certain duality that courses through various aspects of his “Cosmic Country” approach to making music and living life as a professional musician. In describing his expansive new album, Reflector, which was released today on Retrace Music, Donato touched on that balancing act.

“The whole concept of Reflector is of a duality,” Donato said in a press release heralding the album. “The entire world that you see externally is a reflection of your internal world, so you have this internal world you exist in and this external world you exist in, and that’s what this work is about. I like dualities; it allows me to see where each side of the fence post is, and I can paint in the middle.”


Dualities like an apparent meteoric rise that’s seen the sub-30-year-old sit-in with Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, Billy Strings, Widespread Panic, Umphrey's McGee and Greensky Bluegrass just in 2023 alone, that comes years after starting out busking the streets of Nashville as a teen. Dualities like cutting his chops both in Nashville studios and in honky tonks lining Broadway.

Dualities like “Cosmic Country” itself: Cosmic – otherworldly, the vast beyond; Country – grounded, the terra firma. The duality of two seemingly opposing forces slamming into each other.

The 15-track, 66-minute new album, whose cover artwork credits “Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country,” is the proper follow-up to Donato’s 2020 debut album, A Young Man’s Country. “Cosmic Country” is the term Donato uses to describe the music he makes and the community he fosters around it.

My first experiences seeing Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country – his hard-touring band currently consisting of Nathan “Sugarleg” Aronowitz (keyboards/guitar), Will “Mustang” McGee (bass), Noah Miller (drums) – were at this year’s Blue Ox Music Festival and High Sierra Music Festival, where they drew impressively sized crowds. Fulfilling a promise for an interview made at those fests, I caught up with Donato before his recent concert at the Amsterdam in St. Paul, Minnesota.

After watching Donato command a focused but fun soundcheck, we sat in the soon to be sold-out venue, he wearing his guitar for the duration of the rest of the time I saw him that evening. With the concept of two sides in mind, I asked Donato about titling the new album Reflector, which he settled on after sitting-in with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir.

“Me playing with [Weir] didn’t inspire the name,” Donato said, “But it solidified the name.”

So what might have the album been called and how did playing in the band with Bobby influence the name that was ultimately chosen?

“The album went through like six different titles,” Donato revealed. “It got solidified for me the night I sat in with Bobby [Weir] at the Orpheum in Memphis. That to me was like the night, I was like this album has to be called Reflector.

“I had a faith connection, internal world reassurance that that is what it has to be called. And it went through a lot of different names. We were gonna call it Lose Your Mind. We were gonna call it Dance in the Desert. We were gonna call it Hard to Tell. [Then I] came on to this word “reflectivity,” which essentially means that when you hear something truthful, you can tell and when you hear something untruthful, you can tell. So it’s kind of a barometer, that’s what ‘reflectivity’ would be.

“That word, ‘reflectivity,’ sounded a little expensive. It just sounded like I was trying too hard. Then ‘reflector came,’ about a week before I sat in with Bob. I can tell when I have an idea –it kind of tingles, and it feels alive to me.

“So I sat on it, and then after I sat in with Bob that night – he is just a master. He was reflecting back at me my emotional intention. In real time. It was like playing chess with Bobby Fischer. He was like a reflector.”

Daniel Donato (See 9 videos)
Bobby Weir & Wolf Bros (See 154 videos) and Daniel Donato (See 49 videos)

Another person with an impressive musical pedigree played a significant role in making Reflector, veteran producer Vance Powell, whose resume includes Chris Stapleton (whose album that also came out today was engineered and mixed by Powell), The White Stripes and Phish, among many others. An early champion and mentor of sorts whose known Donato for a decade, Powell had never worked with the young musician in this deep of a capacity before the sessions for Reflector.

“[Powell] doesn’t like jam improvisational long songs necessarily,” Donato explained. “Which is actually good because the thing that happens with a lot of bands that produce frequencies for this scene, in this demographic of this beautiful community of people, is a lot of the time their records seem to not have – there’s not as much chiseling that goes into the records as they do for their live show. It’s probably because they’re touring so much all the time.

Gotta Get Southbound

Powell gave Donato homework, like assembling the band to chisel down the 13-minute demos the guitarist sent the producer, with the hopes of making them more digestible in length. Perhaps the most important role the producer played was setting the right mood to allow for creativity and creation, including pouring Donato some bourbon to help loosen him while tracking vocals.

“I can get very wound up,” said Donato. “I can get very intense. I can get very microscopically analytical and I never lose faith. But I can get very analytical in things that 99% of people won’t notice. Vance – he’s so good at making records and he’s just poor enough of a musician to be the perfect guy for it. You know, you get a bunch of nerds like us in the room, it’s perfect. Because it would be terrible if we had a [more skilled] musician in the room producing our record for us. It wouldn’t work.”

Given his years of session work in Nashville, Donato also brought the lessons he learned to the studio with Powell and his bandmates. That means playing with a sense of urgency.

“We try to get it done in the first three takes,” Donato states. “We try not to make it a laborious Brian Wilson process. Vance really helped, because we’re young, and we have this young man’s disease of thinking that if you do five more takes it’ll be better. Or if you move up the delay one more decibel, that’s gonna change the entire song. Vance just shut that shit down. He just was so good at that.”

The songs on Reflector evoke the duality of the old and new. Straddling the two are songs like the spirited instrumental “Sugar Leg Rag” and the Paul Franklin embellished “Halfway (In Between),” which polish a classic format while showcasing the band’s talented musicianship.

The twangy, propulsive “Gotta Get Southbound” – another Franklin-aided track – exemplifies the spirit of the band’s live show, while the expansive “Dance In The Desert” leans into the “cosmic,” forming a two-part centerpiece of the record.

Dance In The Desert

Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country road tested all of the songs on the album prior to going into the recording studio. The songs truly come alive, Donato tells me, when they are played for other people.

“Cosmic Country just kind of by coincidence turns this scene on,” Donato explained. “That was never the intention. It was just kind of by accident. I really wanted there to be a record that could be accessible to people that might not necessarily love a three-hour show. You know, full of a whole hero’s journey of darkness and light through improvisation and all that. And Vance really knows how to set that up to be a possibility.”

Putting out two studio albums in three years – or three in three years if you count last year’s album of covers he played during his stint playing in Don Kelly Band at Nashville honky-tonk Robert’s Western World – coupled with his time spent in Music City recording studios presents the duality of cutting tight studio albums alongside playing those jammed out three-hour shows. According to Donato, the two sides have importance, but one substantially outweighs the other.


“Our aim is not to sell a million albums,” Donato says matter-of-factly. “Our aim is to sell a million tickets. Nothing will do it like the live show, because that’s when it’s living. The album is a crystallized presentation of what is the living truth in a breathing entity of the live musical experience.

“The great thing is that everyone in Cosmic Country has made records in different capacities. Before I started touring, I played on a bunch of country artist records as a session guitar player. Nate Sugarleg and Mustang made their own records as artists. That’s a real thing. We all naturally understood how to compress and crystallize this into a presentation of what we bring to life each night on the road, the best we could.”

Catch Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country on tour in support of Reflector, which is available to stream, download and purchase in physical formats. Scroll on to view Donato’s extensive tour dates with links to get tickets to an upcoming show.

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