‘Fiddling Through Life’: Local Musician’s Story Of Life, Love, & Rock ‘N’ Roll
For most, by the age of 4 years old, you’re a rambunctious child running through life so fast that it seems like it’s going by all too quickly. You’re preparing for kindergarten, learning your ABCs, shapes, and colors, and barely able to sit still. You’re full of life, energy, and passion.
For others at a young age, like State College musician Daniel Collins, you’re picking up a musical instrument for the first time and falling in love with it. You didn’t know it at the time, but you’re finding what would become almost thirty years later to be your biggest passion, your life’s work, and your greatest talent.
“I thought State College was just the greatest place to grow up in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of people coming through town, it’s really transient. It was fun growing up here in the Joe Paterno era where football was such a big thing,” Collins said. “There was such a connected energy in town back then that I think still transfers now to even places like the Phyrst. I loved it because it was safe, and it felt like just a safe place to explore and be a kid.”
He indeed picked up the violin for the first time at the age of 4 and hasn’t put it down ever since.
“I don’t even remember a time not having a violin in my hands, it’s a very comfortable thing for me to drop into. I definitely feel like I grew up a certain way because of it, and I do feel like I fiddle my way through life,” Collins said. “The way that instrument works, it dances higher up on the music. With the fiddle you can bend notes, you can dance, and that’s what I love about it.”
Growing up in a musical family influenced Collins to find the beauty of music at a young age. Coming from a family with deep Irish lineage allowed him to appreciate folk music and the energy that a live band performance can bring. Collins has traveled abroad to various countries, but he says his heart and his fiddle always considered Ireland their second home.
He has many musical idols but says performing alongside local Irish fiddle legend Martin Hayes when Collins was just 10 years old was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.
“When I was young I was over in Ireland and we went to this little pub called Peppers Bar, and Martin [Hayes] and his father were big figures in the Irish traditional music world,” Collins said. “And I was in this pub, and Martin’s dad came in and was somewhat of a legend. Martin came in, too, and that night, I got to play with the two of them. They sat on both sides of me, and that was the first time I felt really like I was out of my body, like I was flying. It felt like magic. I credit that evening as basically the evening I got super into music and how it makes me feel.”
Collins began competing musically throughout middle school and high school, traveling all over the country and even parts of the world to showcase his skills. However, he says he’s never considered music to be a competition or something through which people should be pitted and scored against each other. The freedom and expression of music are what keeps bringing Collins back day after day.
Collins is also probably the only former 10-year-old child to be allowed inside the Phyrst on Saint Patrick’s Day, but not without good reason, of course. He and his family band were regularly invited to perform at the local bar. Doing so would require Collins to sometimes leave school early to go to the bar. That’s an eye-opening experience for sure, but it’s also one he says he will never forget.
“It’s pretty wild that I’ve been playing down there for that long, but also beautiful in a way,” Collins said. “It probably goes back to that Irish pub culture that I love. I find it just a beautiful thing to be able to go five minutes down the road and go play a bunch of tunes and sing songs with everyone.”
A chance encounter at a nearby Blockbuster store in college led Collins to connect with Lowjack, the band he’s been with now for over 10 years. It’s from that moment on that Collins had the opportunity to make some of the best friends in his life, have great connections, and, most importantly, the most fun.
“Back in the Blockbuster days, I was checking out a video and the guy checking me out is Adam Carper. He was a member of Lowjack, and he had seen me play on Saint Patrick’s Day at the Phyrst,” Collins said. “He recognized me and said, ‘Man, you’re awesome with the fiddle. You should come down and jam with us.’ So, I went down to Bar Bleu, played Wagon Wheel on the fiddle, and everyone went nuts. And that was that.”
The rest, as Collins says, is history. These days, in addition to Collins, Lowjack is comprised of lead singer Jason Davoli, keyboardist Joseph Tombasco, and drummer Jake Shaffer. While over the years some band members have come and gone, graduated, and moved onto other things, the core of the group has always been built around loving music, performing, and genuinely just having a good time.
Davoli and Collins have a particularly strong relationship. They’ve been performing together for over a decade, and anyone in the crowd can notice how the bond between the two translates to an amazing performance. There’s frequently no setlist or plan, but rather a couple of friends just enjoying what they do most.
“We’ve had over a decade-long relationship, which, in life, is one of the most beautiful things. It definitely has its up and downs, as anything does,” Collins said. “It’s an honor to play music with one of your closest friends night after night for that amount of time and to grow together as time goes on.”
There’s also a particular atmosphere, Collins says, in State College dive bars and Irish pubs that continues to amaze him. Those hole-in-the-wall joints make State College bars feel like home whether you’re newly 21 or alumni visiting decades later. To Collins, getting to interact with these people, in his hometown, while doing what he loves most is an unmatchable experience.
“You know, we play theaters or we’re lucky enough to have played in the BJC during THON, and they’re amazing and so great in certain ways,” Collins said. “But in all honestly, the intimacy of the bar is so cool. I can see the people in the crowd. We can talk. There’s this cool space where you don’t feel all alone on stage, and we’re doing our best to just hold down the music for the night.”
Collins has recently gotten into teaching music, too, and emphasizes that being able to instruct others about something that he believes connects all people makes him feel incredibly blessed.
“Music really can be such a direct connection to your emotions in ways that words sometimes fall short or can be interpreted differently,” Collins said. “It feels like good music gives a feeling that’s easy for anyone to tap into, regardless of whether you speak the language or how old you are…things like that. Connection, I suppose, is what it’s all about. I live for that moment at the bars when everyone starts to sing together and the rhythm comes together. We’re all connected, and it feels great.”
Collins says he has no plans of slowing down. Between splitting his time with Lowjack and Caledonia, Collins is back performing almost consistently six days a week. Caledonia is working on recording new music and just finished up a February residency at Zeno’s, while Lowjack is continuing to call bars like the Brewery and the Phyrst home.
Collins is married to his wife, Emily. When he’s not playing music, he enjoys spending time with his dog, Dolly, planting and gardening, and, time permitting, getting back to concerts and being in the crowd for a change. Of course, he hopes to get back to Ireland one day, too.
But if there was one word Collins said he could use to describe the fact that he gets paid to do what he loves and share it with others — all these years later in his hometown?
“Grateful,” he said. “Earlier in my career, there definitely used to be a lot of anxiety surrounding, ‘What am I still doing here?’ and ‘I got to get out of town.’ But those feelings broke after a certain point. I realized I’m so lucky [that] I get to play music every night and that I love it. It’s such a gift. You can’t beat that.”
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