An Interview with Steve Dawson

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Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with the talented Steve Dawson. Among other things, we touch on what he’s been up to during the lockdown, his newest music, his opinion of the music scene today, and what he’s looking forward to the most once COVID-19 breaks.

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Steve Dawson, you can head over to his website and dig in. Enjoy this interview with Steve. Cheers.

Andrew:
Steve, I appreciate you taking the time today. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?

Steve:
It’s been a real roller coaster, that’s for sure. I teach music at a place called the Old Town School of Folk Music and since March 2020, we’ve moved all classes online. Now we’re starting to move back to in-person classes. I spent all of 2020 finishing and mixing the new album in my home studio and then planning the release. Right now things feel really good but it’s definitely been rough. We lost a dear family member to COVID in May last year, my 51-year-old, perfectly healthy brother-in-law, and I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. So much loss all over the world. So much sorrow.

Andrew:
Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?

Steve:
I learned guitar in 7th grade in the Idaho public schools from a wonderful woman named Linda Terry. She was a fiddle champion and a music lover and I felt inspired and encouraged by her to really dig deep with music and to take it seriously. I’ve loved songs and music as far back as I can recall. I loved the sound of songs on the radio and I was drawn to Beatles records that my parents played.

Andrew:
Who were some of your early influences?

Steve:
Once I was learning guitar, I would get songbooks as gifts for my birthdays and Christmas. I remember learning all the songs on Neil Young’s Harvest album, The Best of Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, Cat Stevens. The big one, I guess, was getting the complete Beatles songbook. Those chords were more challenging and I really had to practice. Along the way, I heard Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, Rickie Lee Jones, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and Jackson Browne. Those records all blew my mind in different ways. They still do.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about recent events first. Tell us about your new album, At The Bottom Of A Canyon In The Branches Of A Tree. What is the meaning of the album’s title?

Steve:
It’s a line from a song that just showed up one day that I liked quite a bit. The image is a memory of a family photo that was taken in San Clemente Canyon in San Diego when I was little. In my memory, my sister and I were propped in the low branch of a tree. It might have been from a dream. Old memories sometimes feel like dreams.

Andrew:
What lyrical themes do you tend to explore with your music? Is your music intensely personal, or are you only telling stories, so to speak?

Steve:
For the most part, I write very much from personal experience and my own memories and thoughts. I’ve occasionally tried to write through characters and it’s not usually the best fit for me. I think I’m usually trying to work out some question or confusion about something that happened in my songs or trying to find hope or gratitude. The facts often get mixed up with thoughts or images or dreams that are fiction, though. And stuff gets changed to make it singable and musical. I think there’s co-mingling of personal experience and fiction in all writing whether it’s written in the first person or through characters. It’s not an either/or, I don’t think.

Andrew:
How about the production side of things? Do you self-produce, or do you bring in outside voices?

Steve:
I’ve done both. For this album I did everything: wrote the songs, played all the instruments, sang all the parts, and recorded and mixed it in my home studio. I did invite my friend Alton Smith to play piano on two songs. My wife and Dolly Varden co-singer, Diane Christiansen sings harmony on one song and my friend Michael Miles plays a very cool banjo part on one song. Other than that it’s all me. I’ve worked with producers and collaborators in the past to varying degrees of success. The best experience was with Brad Jones in Nashville who produced Dolly Varden’s The Dumbest Magnets album. I love recording and mixing and I’ve been doing it in some form or another since I was a teenager with a Tascam four-track. It’s something I’m always intrigued by and actively working on. I’ve helped dozens of Chicago singer-songwriters record their debut albums, which is super fun. The studio is called Kernel Sound Emporium.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Cassettes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?

Steve:
I love LPs. Everything about the experience is satisfying including the large artwork and images, the notes, and, of course, the sound. I have thousands of CDs but I only listen to them in the car at this point. I also have hundreds of cassettes, too, going back to the 80s. I can’t get rid of them.

Favorite albums:
Neil Young, After The Gold Rush. I never get tired of it. The songs, his voice, the sound, the guitars. Love it.

Stevie Wonder, InnverVisions. It blew my mind when I first heard it and it still does.

Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved A Man… She’s my all-time favorite singer and this is probably the best of her albums, though it’s tough to choose a favorite.

Patty Griffin, 1000 Kisses. I listened to this one a lot as I was making the new album. Devastatingly great singing and songs. There’s no way to quantify how she does what she does.

Al Green, Call Me. I go back to this one every time I need a jolt of reality about recording. The drums, in particular, are the best sounding drums ever recorded, I think. So simple but so complex. And his singing is outrageous. I love the subtlety on the whole thing and I love the strings.

Phoebe Bridgers, Stranger In The Alps. This one came out around the time I started working on the album and it completely floored me. Her use of imagery is stunning and the soundscapes around her voice are compelling and inspiring.

Andrew:
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?

Steve:
Pretty much everything I do is music-related. I write songs, sing them, play guitar, teach songwriting and guitar and work on getting better at recording myself and others. I mean, I like movies and whatnot, but I don’t know that I’d call it a passion. I love being in nature. But I pretty much do music and sleep, honestly.

Andrew:
In your opinion, what is the state of the music business these days? Should artists be hopeful? Scared? Both?

Steve:
The music business has always been and always will be a giant scam that is built to exploit and profit off the work of artists. It’s been that way since recording technology began. Artists are horrible at advocating for themselves and the myth of fame as the goal is so ingrained into our general consciousness that young artists jump at the chance to give away their rights for their chance at the lottery. Spotify is just the latest and most egregious form of utter disrespect for music creators, but it’s not new. I don’t see it getting better, honestly. The best way for people to support their favorite musicians is to buy music or merch directly from them in person or on Bandcamp or direct through the artists’ website. I will say that my new album is on a Chicago indie label called Pravda and they are awesome so far. Indie labels are fighting the same battles as musicians, really. They aren’t the issue. It’s the bigger structure and mindset.

Andrew:
Last one. We seem to be nearing a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of COVID-19 restrictions. That said, what’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world?

Steve:
Are we, though? I’d like to think that but numbers are back up to where they were a year ago and all because half the country for some insane reason won’t take a free and effective vaccine. It makes me livid. I am beginning to do shows again and I hope that we won’t have to go back into isolation. That would suck. I would like to tour in 2022 and I’m cautiously optimistic but we gotta get more people vaccinated.

Interested in learning more about Steve Dawson? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

Andrew has always felt himself to be a "jack of all trades, master of none" type of person. With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found Vinyl Writer in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Stories from the Stacks. Over time, the column grew into a website which now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process.
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