How JR JR’s Daniel Zott and his wife fostered love with hearts broken

JR JR, Daniel Zott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.

Nancy and Daniel Zott (of JR JR) with their three children, Johnny (5, top), Isaiah (3, bottom left) and Theodore (1). Photo courtesy of the Zott family.

More than four years had passed since Michigan indie rock band JR JR last released a record, but the absence of music from Josh Epstein and Daniel Zott had nothing to do with a lack of creativity. The duo, formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., had a record done in 2016 that its former label declined to release, despite its success with 2015’s record and single “Gone.”

It took time to get the band’s recordings back and decide what to do going forward—independently. But during that time, Zott’s life changed completely when he and his wife decided to foster children. The couple would go on to adopt two of the five children, and then had a third the traditional way—all in the span of 10 months.

Now the band is back in a big way with a double album, Invocations / Conversations, heavily influenced by JR JR’s life changes.

Zott, whose aunt fostered children when he was growing up, and who had friends who either fostered or adopted, always knew he would as well.

“I saw it growing up, and I just thought it was beautiful,” he said in a recent phone call. “I also did a lot of work with kids with special needs. It was normal to me to be able to think about the people around us that need help. It didn’t seem like an outrageous idea to be like, ‘Let’s foster and adopt.’ It was like, ‘Of course we’re going to do this.’”

Zott and his wife, Nancy, had set some ground rules. They wanted the children they fostered to be from near them, so that the kids didn’t feel far from home. That rule they were able to stick with. Another was to foster children no older than 2. They did OK with that one for a while. They registered with a Michigan agency called Orchards Children’s Services, one of thousands of private and government-run foster and adoption organizations nationwide. They received their first placement in the fall of 2015, right as JR JR was launching what would become the band’s last LP on Warner Bros. Records.

“We just dove right in,” he said, his wife sitting nearby and chipping in to the story every so often. “I remember going to play a show. Nancy was holding him in the back with headphones. We were playing ‘Gone’ for the first time in this big amphitheater. … His family situation worked out for his grandmother to take him. So I had to say goodbye to him while I was on tour.”

Several months later, while playing a show in Detroit, Nancy received a call for an emergency placement during the encore. This time it was a set of two brothers, 2 and 5 years old, who had been waiting all day for a foster placement. Taking on older child was not in their plan, but they weren’t about to split up siblings. Zott still remembers rushing to a Meijer department store to buy clothes for the children.

Daniel Zott on JR JR leaving Warner Bros. and starting its own label, EZ Records:
When we first went there, they were considered the artist-friendly label. They had the Flaming Lips on there for years, and some of the classic songwriters like Paul Simon through the years. Our A&R guy was a legend; Lenny Waronker, who A&R’d Graceland for Paul Simon. He also produced all the Randy Newman records in the ‘70s. … We had a song called “James Dean” that we put out as a single before our 2015 LP came out, and it did really well on Spotify. … But they were telling us, ‘Well, we don’t care about that.’ They didn’t see that as a sign to go to radio or do anything with that song. … The ironic thing is that everything [labels] do now is based off streaming stats. … We felt like they were always behind on things that were important.

Warner Bros. pressured the duo to change its name from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.:
When you’re in a big machine, they have to play it safe with things like that. It was one of those things that was looming all the time; that they felt nervous about. The relationship with [former NASCAR driver] Dale Jr. is great. We’ve actually been thinking of doing something with him on a late night show. He’s still so sweet to us, and it would be fun to clarify [what happened].

On the record that would have followed 2015’s self-titled LP:
They didn’t even go to college radio with the single. We called them out on that. We had a top 10 song nationwide … with “Gone,” and it had made them a ton of money. We felt like we were in great financial standing with them, so we thought for sure they were gonna go all-in on this next album. … The fact that it didn’t even go to college radio was insulting to us. So we sat down with the CEO, at the time—who was the fourth CEO while we were there—and he didn’t want to spend any more money on us. He just told us that.

Warner Bros and JR JR had an amicable separation, letting the band keep all of its masters. The band already had its publishing rights. Several of the songs Zott and Epstein wrote between 2015 and 2016 now comprise the Invocations part of the double album they released on their own label. The Conversations segment was written and recorded more recently about changes in the lives of the two band members.

A couple of days later Zott returned from JR JR’s tour to meet his 2- and 5-year-old boys.

“It was amazing and hard. It was definitely a leap outside of what we were thinking we were going to do,” he said. … “It’s easier to have your heart broken for situations like that.”

The boys had grandparents nearby, but they were older. They eventually took the older child but could not take both. The younger boy, Johnny, is now the Zott’s eldest child.

After realizing they were capable of watching after two kids at the same time, they were soon fostering again. Their next placement, Isaiah, was a newborn, right from the hospital. They adopted him in less than a year, which is a rarity. In fact, his adoption was finalized before Johnny’s. They fostered one more child briefly, but haven’t since, because after a lull, Nancy and Zott were expecting their first biological child—third son Theodore.

“I never felt the need, like, ‘I have to have my genes’ [and] my wife was starting to feel the same way,” he said. “Of course, once we became fine with where we were at, then she got pregnant. And that was the start of another journey.”

Fostering and adoption are a significant part of the Zott’s life story, and they’re keeping their license to foster more children active. They’ve dealt with the speed bumps of red tape and bureaucracy—Nancy has become an expert in the process, Zott said—and the heartaches that come with taking children into their lives only to let them go.

“One of the things we really tried to make a conscious effort to do was to be really encouraging about the parents—not act like that’s not a thing that’s going on. We were here to help, and that includes the mother or the father. That’s the difference between foster care and adoption.

“You go in knowing that your goal is to return that child to his parents,” he said. “Everyone struggles and we’re just here to help.”

There’s a song on Invocations / Conversations that Zott would have never thought to write if he never had children. “Wild Child” is about the sense of wonder that children have that adults always seem to lose as they grow older and replace it with the stresses of life.

“Whether it’s the energy they have, or the curiosity, the imagination; I look at them and go, ‘You’re so wild and I want to be wild like you,’” he said. “The stress can take away from that, or the kids can bring more imagination into your life than you had previously. That’s been the trick for me.”

Daniel Zott is often asked about his experiences by people in his community who are curious or considering fostering or adopting children. Hearing the question is a sign to him because not everyone has the thought at all.

“There are people to whom it seems crazy,” he said. “So if you’re thinking about it as something you might want to do, to me that already is a sign that you are in a place where you need to investigate it. You need to go to a meeting and check it out. It’s a huge step just thinking about it. … There’s a beautiful thing if you’re having that thought in your head.

“In terms of practicalities, it’s hard and it hurts, but so does everything else that’s awesome in life,” he said.

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