The steady ascent of Daniel Donato’s success might be likened to his solo skills: Ripping guitar solos, superior musical knowledge, and a roster of celebrity sit-ins that most recently included Grateful Dead founding member Phil Lesh. These are all features of the artist’s career that allude to his particular knack for knowing when and where to be at the right time–physically, sonically and spiritually.

While some of the aforementioned moments did not include Donato’s band, those very players, Will “Mustang” McGee (bass, vocals), Nathan “Sugar Legg” Aronowitz (keyboards, vocals), and Will “Bronco” Clark (drums), are necessary factors in the Cosmic Country equation. In the following interview, the whole band joins in on the conversation, constructing a timeline that reflects joint and independent experiences, arriving at the totality that makes for their stand-out live shows and studio work.

At the core of the interview is a message of mutual respect that implies on- and off-stage consideration, allowing for the longevity of Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country and their collective creative output. To quote the author’s favorite line on connectivity, a la Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Enter: Brothers in Frequency.

Donato, the last time I spoke with you, we discussed your intentions to go on a writing retreat following Jam Cruise 19. What was the result of that trip?

Daniel Donato: We went to Costa Rica. Songs that will probably be on this next record. Like “Broadside Ballad” or “Down Bedford.” The songs I brought to the band were more or less lyrically done, but they needed to come alive musically. It’s like socks: one side is the lyrics, and the other side is the music.

Is that the typical approach you take as a group? Does Daniel write the lyrics, and the band adds the music?

DD: Some songs. Others we write all together.

Will “Mustang” McGee: It’s case by case.

Do you have a preferred method?

DD: I have a favorite end result. I don’t have a favorite approach.

Since you mentioned it, what’s your favorite end result?

DD: When we all finish playing, we can already envision how it will feel on stage, and it’s already coming alive. It’s a very intangible, slippery communication of a feeling. It’s intuitive. What do you guys think?

WM: Over the last couple of years, we’ve been playing, integrating writing together more and more as we go, and it’s always a fun process to have that collaborative writing situation where everyone’s putting ideas in. That always yields a melded result, whereas if it’s something else, where maybe just one of us is bringing it forward and taking the reins, everyone is supporting or challenging what’s being made there, and it’s a different trip.

Turning to your live show, when I last saw you in Portland, I was mesmerized by your take on “Big Iron.” Can you all talk to me about extended jams or riffs on covers and how they play into your live shows?

DD: We all came to Cosmic Country having different covers, Nathan has a bunch of gospel songs and old-timey piano tunes, Ray Charles stuff. Will [McGee] has a bunch of soul songs and funky stuff and I had all this music I discovered at Robert’s [Western World in Nashville] when I was 14. I was going down there two or three times a week and just hearing these bands play songs from the ‘40s through the ‘70s, and I just got obsessed with the spirit of that music. It was all I listened to, and it still kind of is. I learned all those songs through years of playing them and bringing them to this band.

I’ve thought about this when I’ve seen you all play live: the flair of familiarity with cover selections and how they might assist with your concerts’ multi-generational magnetism.

DD: That’s what we try to do. The thing is, when you play honky-tonk music or cowboy songs, a lot of the time, people think that country is very reserved—kind of buttoned-up and tight. But it’s really not. It was poor, blue-collar, miserable music, just like bluegrass. When I was playing those songs, I was playing with guys that were anywhere between their mid-40s to their late 70s, so I knew how to do it in a traditional sense and how to get the form right, how to get the pocket right and get the feel right. And everyone in Cosmic Country was down to play songs that were from this different time in America. We can bring a youthful spin to it with an energy where you can still be played traditionally but with this whole Cosmic Country feel.

WM: I think a big part is that we’re in touch with the tradition and responsible for that element.

Nathan “Sugar Legg” Aronowitz: It’s a cool melting pot of influences. At the core, my philosophy of music is centered around improvisation and tuning into the flow, and we all have that similar thing. And when you do that and know how to be at your essence, it just kind of comes out. I come out, and gospel-Daniel comes out with his country roots unashamedly, which is a beautiful thing. Everyone has their roots.

WM: Everyone’s so in tune, right on the edge of listening when we’re in those improv zones. A musical idea will pop up over here, and it’ll run through the whole band. Everyone is on it immediately.

DD: It seems like there was probably a connection that was already there unconsciously, and then when you’re consciously in the room showing up, it emerges. And it was there from the first time we played together.

When did you guys first play together, and how did you meet?

DD: The three of us played together with our first drummer, Noah, in August 2021. Will and I have been playing together since April 2021, I think. Right after that, we were on the road pretty much nonstop.

Hundreds of concerts later…

WM: I feel like he could just live on the bus.

Donato, are you ready for bus life?

DD: Nathan’s on board with me on this; I can’t wait till we get a bus, and we can sign posters and then go to the bunk and go to sleep. Be almost like athletes about it, be very disciplined and get off the stage and go to sleep and get ready for the show the next day, and there’s very little fuckery.

WM: In our early days, we definitely had a lot of adventure built in, but after a while, the excitement is the trade-off for late-night adventures. It is not as good as being rested, feeling like your brain is fully functioning, so you can do this thing again tomorrow night somewhere else.

AN: How do I deal with it? Well, I’m currently in search of a therapist.

It’s nice to have an outlet. I’m a proponent of therapy. We’ve all got things to get off our chests.

DD: I have an analyst I’ve started speaking to. It’s basically therapy but just kind of a different approach, like an analyst that is from the school of Carl Jung.

WM: Do they make you answer a ton of questions to kind of crack the nut?

DD: All the time. It’s something that, if you don’t have a lot of time for, it’s not really worth investing in. To me, it feels like this is kind of God’s Will for us to be on the road right now and continue to play as much as we can because I think it’s really obvious that we’ll find ourselves in an environment before long, where it will be a lot easier on us in terms of work, and what we have to invest that’s not on the stage, so we can just leave it all on the field and focus on what’s going on the stage. It’s really hard.

[Asking bandmates:] Do you ever get that feeling when you’re on tour, like you’re a complete outsider to everybody else’s normal? Our Mondays are everyone else’s Saturdays.

WM: Yeah, everything is turned inside out. It’s a blurry experience because there’s enough familiarity when we all gel together and feel like we’re in the same place for that whole period, even though there’s so much changeover. It is wild to go from a completely packed room of people facing you and then stepping just a few steps away, and you’re back by yourself again. We’re not even like, “That was it! Oh yeah!” Some nights, it feels like that. There’s a lot of fun and energy. But other nights, we are just professional pirates or something, we just got to get back on the ship and keep going.

DD: It’s like that hedonic adaptation thing. If everything stayed new to you, you would be in this constant state of awe, and that’s kind of like the parable of entering the Kingdom as the child when you get on the stage. This is something Nathan and I will mention if we’re jamming at soundcheck or we’re talking about something before a show where it’s an approach to an improvisational section or just a feel to a song where we let it happen and witness it almost try to have that element of surprise, to have a provision for it. There’s nothing more predictable than touring a lot and then becoming sour because you “Know what’s going to happen.” To most people on the scene, that’s miserable. You gotta have fun with it all the time.

And avoid the repetition.

DD: I never feel like I’m on autopilot. Sometimes I get way too serious, and Nathan, Will, and Bronco have to calm me down. I can get really analytical and–neurotic is a good word–about it. And that’s not really what’s called for all the time. Another great thing about a band is when you’re in a band, and it’s a four-piece, no matter how much work you do off the stage, you’re bringing 25%. Or how much work you don’t do—both are valuable. I try to get all my nerves in my neurotic rituals, I try to expose myself to those, and then when I get on the stage, I’m just 25%. I don’t need to think about anyone else, like our managerial and stuff. Nathan is good at reminding me of that.

WM: It is funny, the tiny details that make such a difference in the experience of traveling. I understand the stereotypes of some things where people freak out because they have green napkins instead of red napkins. Some element of that is tied to how sensitive their temperament is for what they need to be able to get into.

Sometimes, things are just bad enough in a green room to make you miserable. But sometimes, they’re so bad that everyone has to just laugh about it.

DD: Let’s talk about that theater in Michigan. Remember that one?

WM: With the concrete box in the back.

DD: Basically, just storage.

WM: I feel like we have the Lennon and McCartney-type spats about some tiny detail, and everyone is just praying we’ll move on soon so we can keep it rolling. We both will get all the way into something.

DD:  We get into something. Sometimes to the point of arguing with each other.

WM: Yeah, over a musical bar.

DD: And Nathan’s just laughing. I’m glad you compared us to Lennon and McCartney. That’s nice of you.

WM: I said type spats, not musical pairs.

[Laughs.] OK, just because… Which Beatle would you each be?

WM: I’m definitely Lennon.

DD: In terms of natural talent and expansion, Nathan is probably Paul because Paul can produce records. [Speaking to Will “Bronco” Clark] I mean, dude, you gotta be Ringo.

Will “Branco” Clark: I don’t think there’s any question.

DD: I honestly feel more like George, to be honest.

WM: I feel you’d be Harrison.

I want to turn to how your geographic backgrounds emerge in your music. Donato, I know you grew up outside of Nashville. What about the other guys?

WC: Georgia.

WM: Memphis.

NA: Arkansas.

So it makes sense you all would reverberate a certain Southern twang.

DD: Yeah, the scenes that they were exposed to and helped provide music for was a totally different side of Nashville.

Which is to say, Daniel concentrated on country or the traditional side of things while you all exposed other facets of the music scene in Nashville.

WM: Yeah, very little country, at least at that time.

DD: Like rock?

NA: There’s underground rock. I served as gospel music minister for four years while also participating in the scene. 

WM: There is just tons of original music. There are lots of modern rock bands. There are people trying to do a classic kind of thing and be a classic rock band. There’s a lane for that. There are people who are way more experimental and modern with it and do different production stuff than just a straight-up four- or five-piece band. There really is this whole gamut.

These days it’s like a very alternative cowboy scene. I swear I didn’t notice it for the first 10 years I was in Nashville. This sort of wave of Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell, Sturgill. I think Sturgill took a bunch of rock guys and made them go, “Ohh, you can like rock and be weird.”

DD: Sturgill used to be a cashier at The Turnip Truck where I would go to dinner before runs sometimes. I’ve seen Chris Stapleton, Billy Strings, and Sturgill play for free, sometimes $2. All that was in 2014 when it really started happening.

That’s what is so interesting. The potential with Cosmic Country is because Nathan had his gospel service, and then, like the rock scene Will was playing in–I guess you’d call it rock, but not–whatever that term is. Then I come from this: overalls with a can of Copenhagen, just plug a Telecaster straight into the amp on a Saturday afternoon, traditional country. And then Will [Clark] with what he does in his approach. There are so many elements in how to go about doing music, but specifically for the three of us that are from Nashville, it encompasses what Nashville is.

Aside from the popular country thing, you have the ultra-traditional honky-tonk three chords and the truth thing. Then you have the psychedelic rock explosive independent sound. All that’s Nashville. And it’s all in Cosmic Country.

I just feel so lucky to have all these guys in the band with me, because everything’s 25% across the board. When I was a young kid, I would go to many sessions, I would go to three, sometimes five a week and just go and get lunch with all the session cats. And I always remember knowing that when I wanted to make records, I wanted to have a band. I feel like Reflector is the first of that. That feeling and that personality are there. I’m just so grateful for these guys. My brothers in frequency.

Brothers in frequency. I love that.

DD: It’s a crazy thing we’re doing, and they’re always down for whatever idea I have, and if anyone else has an idea, we all listen to each other, and we negotiate with each other, and respect each other, love each other. Spiritual alignment is a growing thing. It’s not a thing you lock into 100% one day. It’s living, and we have it.