November 9-15, 2006

Photo by Chad Griffith

The Fall and Rise of Daniel Cartier
From next big thing to a nervous breakdown, the unrelenting songwriter has been up and down. Now it’s comeback time.

Last February at the tiny Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side, a long-lost troubadour played guitar and sang his songs for tips. In a lineup of earnest unknowns, Daniel Cartier—a high-strung, sexed-up guy in jeans and a T-shirt—seemed like a star. He looked much as he had in the late ’90s, when he’d been the ultimate East Village poster boy: pale, thin and alluring, with a tattoo-covered skull and demented eyes. In 1997 he’d gone from playing in the subway to releasing a much-heralded album on Elton John’s Rocket label. Avenue A revealed a young gay man with a lion roaring inside, scarred by the big city yet clinging to hope. Six months later, Rocket, along with Cartier’s deal, had crashed, and the unstable singer was off on a seven-year marathon of self-destruction.

In 2005 he resurfaced at Splash and the Cock as a dirty-dancing go-go stud; he’d also joined several escort services. In the interim he’d kept writing and recording other CDs that mostly went unnoticed. Now, with a new homegrown album,
You and Me Are We, two gigs at Joe’s Pub and a tour in the works, he’s back on track.

Today, Cartier’s music is a new-wave–inspired tapestry of samples, drum loops and electrified choral effects. His singing transcends all machinery: a quavering wail whose growls, moans and falsetto leaps, wrenched from a wounded place, set him on a par with Annie Lennox. When he’s not putting on a lascivious tough-guy swagger, he’s a broken bird, pleading for love in the “silent, cruel and cold” night. In one song he cries over and over, “It’s not too late!”

At a café near his Williamsburg apartment, Cartier, 37, is calm and self-effacing as he chuckles his way through a tumultuous life story. It starts in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he grew up in a family shaken by emotional disorders; his were depression and OCD. “I was this artsy, scrawny gay kid,” he explains. “I was in goth and punkabilly bands. I had pierced ears and eye makeup and a foot-and-a-half-tall double Mohawk.” Cartier was an out-of-control teen who partied nonstop, threatened suicide and overdosed. After a classmate pushed him down a staircase, he quit high school, then in 1991 headed for the East Village.

He lasted a week as a singing waiter, then went on public assistance. “I lived out of duffel bags for over two years. Crashing on friends’ couches, living in rental cars, having all my stuff stolen over and over again, having a billion different boyfriends.” He began playing in subway stations, and one night, a dreamlike stroke of luck occurred: Elton John’s A&R man approached him at an East Village restaurant and said, “Hey, aren’t you that singer?”

Avenue A was the result. It debuted to raves, and Cartier played to packed houses at Fez and on the road. The singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) knew him then. “Daniel was pushing a very sincere vibe, which was forward-thinking of him, as New York was very depressed, and people lived on a survivor’s diet of guilt, irony and cynicism,” Antony says. “Daniel was out on the front line, trying to make something happen in the East Village at a time when it was difficult to nurture a new spark of life.” But Rocket was floundering, and after Cartier was dropped in early 1998, no other label picked him up. He started drinking heavily, and it sank what was left of his career at the time. He wound up on Cape Cod, where he waited tables and launched a relationship with an entrepreneur who’d just left rehab and whose compulsive spending eventually killed his business.

Cartier poured the chaos into two emotional CDs that he distributed himself,
Wide Outside and Revival. While touring unprofitably in 2004 to promote the latter, he started cashing in on what he calls his “very big thing,” as an escort. “I guess it was a sad way for me to get validation for a life I thought was finished,” he says. In June last year he went into drug rehab, where he blacked out, wrote a long suicide note and was admitted to a psych ward. “I thought I’d never write again,” Cartier says. Instead he left the hospital with 14 songs, returned to rehab and ultimately came back to New York.

That was last November, and things have been looking up. Through escorting and go-go dancing, he provided seed money for a produce market his ex-boyfriend is running on the Cape. Cartier has even found a way to deal with his OCD: For up to 20 hours at a stretch, he cuts up and staples together the refuse of his life—Fleet Enema boxes, a former client’s socks, photographs, a go-go jockstrap—into giant wall hangings. Galleries have shown them, as has the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Like his songs, these creations help him make sense of a messy existence.

“Through it all, I’ve maintained a lot of hope,” he says, smiling. “You’ve just gotta keep plugging away and have faith that it might actually work—even if only to the point where I can make back the money I spend on music, and maybe a little extra so I can eat and keep my bank account. That would be fun.”

You and Me Are We is out this week on Cartier’s Endurance Music (danielcartier.com). He plays Joe’s Pub November 18 and 24.