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Steve Dawson: Finding the Secret of a Song

Steve Dawson: Finding the Secret of a Song
Jakob Baekgaard By

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I began writing songs as a way to try to unravel and understand things. I didn't know that at the time, of course, but I have come to understand that. —Steve Dawson
It might be that singer/songwriter Steve Dawson was born in California and raised in Idaho, but he has become a son of the city he calls home: Chicago. He is teaching at the acclaimed Old Town School of Folk Music and while preparing others for a life in music, he has also followed his own musical path as a part of the band, Dolly Varden, and not least as a solo artist. He has released a string of noteworthy albums, and Roy Kasten of St. Louis Riverfront Times calls him: "One of the most underrated songwriters in American music."

Dawson's backing band Bonsai Funeral Wedding connects him with the Chicago jazz scene, including such local luminaries as vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Charles Rumback. Together they have recently made an album of lyrical folk- jazz, Last Flight Out. It brings names such as Van Morrison, Tim Buckley and John Martyn to mind, but the use of Quartet Parapluie, a classical string ensemble, also underlines that Dawson has his own approach to how songs and sounds are shaped.

All About Jazz: You were born in California and raised in Idaho. Could you tell about your relation to those places and how they have shaped you?

Steve Dawson: I lived in California until I was 12, in San Diego. We lived for a few years in a community on the ocean called Del Mar, by a giant forest preserve. I'd spend full days wandering around in the pine forest by myself. My family was coming apart at the time. My mother had serious substance abuse and depression issues and when my father left us, she plummeted. Eventually my dad had to take us because she couldn't care for us and he moved us up to Idaho. I've always been pretty good at being alone, though, so that didn't bother me too much. We lived by a mountain stream, the Big Wood River, just north of Hailey, near the Sun Valley ski resort. I'd spend entire days walking up the stream watching birds, turning over rocks, fishing. I loved that part of Idaho. The solitude in both places shaped me. I discovered a reverence and wonder of nature and the sense that we are guests here. I feel a real affinity for California, though. It still feels like coming home when I go there.

AAJ: You later moved to Chicago in the late '80s and still live there. How has the city evolved through the years you have been there? How would you describe it and your relation to it, especially the music scene?

SD: I moved here because the cost of living was reasonable and there were dozens of music venues and places to play. Chicago is a music-loving town and people come out to hear original music, which, I've found, is a rare thing. The legacy of the '70s folk scene was still happening when I arrived in 1987 and I felt accepted and encouraged by those people. My first band was called Stump The Host. We started as an acoustic trio and turned into an eclectic twangy rock band so I got to know a lot of the venues along the way -from the tiny bars where we'd play acoustic sets to the big showcase rock venues like Metro and everything in between.

The scene in the late '80s and early '90s was more cliquey and competitive. Bands stuck to themselves and didn't collaborate. A few bands in the early 90's got signed to big record deals and that raised the competitiveness. It wasn't healthy or conducive to music making. Stump The Host got a lot of attention from major labels at the time, too, and it was stressful and not helpful to creativity. When that all died down, around 1996 or so, things felt better in the city. People started collaborating more and letting their guard down and there was a general feeling of just making music rather than it being some kind of career path. It's basically stayed that way since the mid '90s and just gotten better and better and more open, in my opinion. Chicago is non pretentious and has both a great work ethic and a Midwestern down to earth sense of community, and some of the finest musicians in the world.

AAJ: Chicago is known for its jazz scene and your backing band, Funeral Bonsai Wedding, features some prominent jazz musicians: vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Charles Rumback (who has replaced Frank Rosaly). Could you elaborate on your connection to the Chicago jazz scene in general and this band in particular?

SD: I worked for many, many years at a place called the Jazz Record Mart, owned by Bob Koester of Delmark Records. Over the years I met and worked with Jason Adasiewicz, Frank Rosaly, Josh Berman, Keefe Jackson and lots of other amazing musicians and great people. I met Jason Roebke through Frank and Jason and I asked those guys to play on my first solo album, Sweet Is The Anchor, in the early 2000's. I'd been going to their shows and my mind wondered if it could work to combine what they were doing with the songs I was writing. I do remember the first gig I played with them and it literally felt like I was floating. I'd never experienced time in that way before -as an expansive, fluid expression. It was magical and I knew I wanted to explore that more. I didn't feel like I was up to it at the time, really. I had to up my game. It was, and is, a very different feeling than playing in rock- based bands. I enjoy both very much but it is very different.

AAJ: I know you have studied jazz composition, but I primarily think of you as a singer/songwriter in the somewhat diffuse Americana genre. Could you talk about the tension between classic songwriting and jazz in your music and your own take on the musical tradition(s) you feel you belong to?

SD: Genre categories are limiting and I never think about them until it's time to qualify something as it's being released. Even then I never know what category to choose. That's been an issue for my whole adult life. Genre subdivisions are for marketing and the music business, they aren't really about music, in my opinion. Labels that were courting Stump The Host had no idea how to market us. I love so much music and I really just think about how it makes me feel. So, to me, George Jones and Billie Holiday and John Coltrane and Nick Drake and Neil Young all hit my heart in the same way and I don't subdivide them into 'country,' 'jazz,' 'folk' and 'rock.' My dad listened primarily to jazz when I was growing up and I worked for so many years in the Jazz Record Mart with all forms of jazz playing constantly— including lots of early "free" jazz like Eric Dolphy and Albert Ayler -that it feels very familiar and comforting.

In terms of songwriting, though, I was drawn to songwriters who sang about real sorrow and truth because, I think, it helped me cope with my own fucked up family. It was helpful. I began writing songs as a way to try to unravel and understand things. I didn't know that at the time, of course, but I have come to understand that. But that's just words and melody. That's not genre. I love a well-crafted song but that's not genre based, either. Many of the classic jazz standards began as brilliantly crafted songs for Broadway or film. I don't see a lot of difference between Rogers and Hart and Willie Nelson, honestly.

The biggest difference, I think, is the concept of controlling the elements of time and structure. Country, rock and pop tend to stick to a tighter concept of structure. Of course there are exceptions, but, in my experience there is less freedom to expand, contract and let go within those genres. Whereas with jazz and it's many sub categories the expansion is expected. I find that in black gospel music, too, and I am very drawn to and inspired by gospel music. Van Morrison, in an interview at some point in the 80's, said he thought that rock would grow into a more free expression like jazz did, but that it was stopped. Why was it stopped? Probably revenue, I suppose. Probably the audience for rock didn't want to go there. I don't see it as a conflict to combine the personal narrative songs with the more expansive structures.

AAJ: You have written a book with Mark Caro about the secrets of songwriting: Take It To The Bridge: Unlocking The Great Songs Inside You (2016). I believe it's a summation of your lessons as a songwriter. Could you elaborate on some of your own songs that you are most fond of and your memories of writing them, and perhaps what you learned in the process?

SD: The book came directly from the songwriting classes I teach at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I give weekly assignments. I was being encouraged to make a book of the assignments and my friend and writer, Mark Caro, figured out a way to do that. The book wouldn't exist without Mark. The biggest lesson I've learned over the years is that the best songs come from letting go. And maybe this, too, is a connection to the jazz or improvised music world. Then again, in reading interviews with all the songwriters I admire from Dylan to Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to Patty Griffin to Paul Simon, they all describe their process this way. So I think it's just a way of writing songs. I don't ever preconceive or think about what a song will be and I try to let the song dictate where it will go with both words and melody. Of course there are many thousands of hours of songwriting practice baked in -I've been working on songwriting for about 40 years now—so a lot of things happen instinctively.

I am happiest with the songs that seemed to show up fully formed, or at least 70% or more fully formed. Some of those would be "Del Mar, 1976," "Ezra Pound and the Big Wood River," "However Long It Takes," (from the new album), "Mastodons," "Mayfly," and "Obsidian." Every songwriting experience is different but those all reached out to me and 'said,' "okay, here's the song." It was my job to get it down in the notebook and not mess it up. In a few cases I have to do some editing after the fact or rearrange the verses. Sometimes I need an extra section, though more and more I'm finding that it's best not to add more sections. It's a semi hypnotic state that feels very calm and unquestioning. It happens to me but I can't make it happen. I have learned, though, to trust it and not get in the way of it.

AAJ: In jazz, there's often this idea of constant improvement and music as a learning process that is never finished, whereas I get the feeling that the classic singer/songwriter idiom is more about inspiration, which means that some of the earliest songs could be the best because it's not necessarily about the craft, but rather the idea of pure immediate expression that's important. In this way of thinking, learning more about the secrets means that you can potentially ruin the purity of the music. How do you feel about this schism?

SD: That's very interesting and I don't think I've ever thought of it that way. I definitely think of music as a learning process and that the more I work at it the closer I get to playing and singing what I hear and what I want to hear. But one can never fully get there, I don't think. I don't think anyone can. It's a constant search, a seeking, and a beautiful pathway. Certainly I practice my guitar playing and that gets better. That's a satisfying experience where there is clear evidence of improvement based on thousands of hours of practice. Songwriting seems to be the same path, honestly. I feel like my grasp and understanding is getting clearer but that I'm not there yet and I probably never will be—but I'm trying.

I suppose there is a school of thought that being naïve about the inner workings of music theory makes for more pure expression. I don't believe that. I think the problem is that once people start learning theory that they begin to feel constrained by what they perceived to be rules. One thing I did learn in music school, as I got deeper and deeper into studying harmonic theory, is that theory is an attempt to explain things but that it's an abstraction. At some point anything is possible and theory will attempt to make sense of it, but it is really a theory not an absolute.

The mathematics of music are so very beautiful, though, and I wish I'd seen that sooner. The universal truths of the very basics of music are stunning. Plus I think I've gotten better as a lyricist, too, and with saying more with less and using better images. The rock / pop music business is a youth cult and I think that's where a lot of the bias against older musicians and a long-term learning process comes from. Some people do write brilliant songs in their passionate 20's when the senses are open and the world hasn't beaten down the desire to be heard. That is true.

AAJ: Elaborating on the former question, the singer/songwriter idiom often has this romantic idea of music as being intimately connected to the writer's own biography and the deeper the feeling, the better the music. What's your take on this?

SD: When Bob Dylan transitioned from statement songs like "Blowin In The Wind" and "The Lonesome Death of Hatti Carroll" to songs of personal experience and feelings, like "It's Alright Ma" and "Tambourine Man," in the middle 60's it opened the doors for what popular songs could be about. It was a seismic shift. The Beatles, who were the most popular act in the world at the time, took notice and changed their writing style to include personal experiences and their actual feelings into their songs. The shift from universal songs of love relationships to songs about true personal experience enriched and expanded the art form, in my opinion. Of course Billy Strayhorn was writing about personal experience in the 1930's and Hank Williams was in the 1950's, but the combo of Dylan and the Beatles really changed things. The time was right, I suppose, too, with the cultural changes going on in the '60s.

I suppose it went too far in the 1970's when the stereotypical sensitive singer -songwriter dude with an acoustic guitar singing about his feelings became overbearing. But the best of those records spoke to me deeply as a teenager trying to understand my own feelings. Honestly I think they saved my life and gave me reason to strive for something. In my family so much fucked up stuff happened and no one ever talked about it. So there was all this underlying anxiety and sorrow that no one ever addressed. To hear a voice on a record address sorrow, loneliness and confusion in a truthful way felt like a revelation to me.

I write from personal experience using images from my life. I've tried to write in more general ways using concepts from my imagination and those songs are not good. They are constructed and they feel false. I've found that people respond to truthful things and specific real images. They know when something is real even if they don't know exactly what you're talking about.

AAJ: I would like to return to Funeral Bonsai Wedding and your latest album, Last Flight Out. This album strikes me as being connected to a folk-jazz sound with people like Van Morrison, John Martyn and a record like Ryley Walker's Primrose Green, but the raw, earthy expression is balanced by the ornate use of strings. Could you talk about this album, the process of making it and the songs and the sounds you had in mind?

SD: I made the first Funeral Bonsai Wedding album in 2014. Frank Rosaly was the drummer on that one. It was definitely inspired by Astral Weeks, mostly in the raving quality of the singing and the free-style scattering of images but also in the attempt to combine jazz instrumentation with folk / rock based songs. Frank moved to Amsterdam around 2016 or so and I thought that was the end of the group because he was such a huge part of what made it work, in my opinion. Around that time I was playing pretty regularly as a guest with Robbie Fulks when he was doing his Monday night residency at the Hideout in Chicago. When he decided to stop doing that I did a month of Mondays there featuring various incarnations of groups I've worked with including Dolly Varden and Funeral Bonsai Wedding.

I'd also been interested in working with the Quartet Parapluie string quartet led by cellist Mellisa Bach. I'd known her through Jay Bennett (Wilco), who we'd toured with in the early 2000's, and I loved her group. I asked her to join FBW at the Hideout for one of the Mondays and I asked Jason Roebke if he'd do some string arrangements on a handful of new songs I'd written, and a few older ones that I thought might work with strings. It was a whim and a possible disaster but I'd gotten more comfortable taking and enjoying musical risks.

The results were stunning beyond any expectation. Roebke's arrangements were complex and rich but complemented the songs almost to a scary degree. The string quartet seemed to effortlessly glide through the arrangements and I had to stop a few times to hold back tears. That night at the Hideout I decided to make a record with this group. The record is pretty much what we played that night, with the addition of Charles Rumback, who's musicality adds a whole new texture to the ensemble. He's very intuitive and supportive of the songs -a great listener. We played one other concert and then went into the studio at Kingsize and recorded the whole thing live in about 5 hours.

AAJ: The lyrics on the album are also important. I see them as a way of examining what it means to be in the world, and actually think of them as inspirational songs, whether it's the plea for kindness in "While We Are Staring Into Our Palms" or the feeling of being overwhelmed by beauty in "However Long It Takes." How did the lyrics come about and what do they mean to you?

SD: I think that's exactly right. I see them as attempts to understand things and how we got here, collectively. And some hopes for kindness and a personal vow to be more compassionate and to face the world with love. There is a definite plea for kindness in "While We Were Staring Into Our Palms." That was written in response to our police officers repeatedly murdering young black men. We are in such a profoundly dark place in the USA currently. It is shocking. I think a lot of it has been brewing for a long, long time and we are just now seeing the full picture in the extreme. I really do hope that we can come out of this with more compassion and empathy for each other.

AAJ: You have also played with the band Dolly Varden. Could you tell about the origin and sound of this band? Is it still active?

Yes, Dolly Varden is still active, though we've only played a few shows a year over the last few years. Our last album, For A While, came out in 2013. We're doing a new one and that's on the agenda for something in the next year or so. Diane Christiansen and I started singing duets in the late 80's and that became Stump The Host. When Stump broke up in 1993, we knew we wanted to keep singing together -and we were married with a one-year old -but we didn't know how best to proceed. It took some awkward turns as we tried on different musical approaches but eventually landed in an organic, acoustic-guitar driven approach where the songs were the focus. We've really learned to play well together and the band feels like family after 20+ years of making records and touring together.

AAJ: How do you see the difference between being in a band where you write songs and being a solo artist? How has this change affected your music?

SD: When I'm singing with Diane it is an amazing experience; two voices producing more than the sum of their parts. It's really astounding and magical. But I do have to "stay in my lane," as it were because if I trail off into an unexpected place she can't sing along. There's that difference. There's also a subject matter difference that is very subtle but, to me, I feel it. When I'm singing songs with Dolly Varden I am aware that what I am singing is being heard as the voice of the group and I don't want to sing things that the group doesn't, or can't, believe in. When I'm singing songs under my own name that isn't the case. I am only speaking for myself.

AAJ: I would also like you to tell something about the other albums you have made and comment on how you see the connection between Last Flight Out and the previous albums you have made as a solo artist.

SD: Albums are snapshots of a certain time and the songs and the sounds all reflect those times. When I hear my older solo albums, I remember writing the songs or how they were recorded and what was going on in my life at the time. My first solo album, Sweet Is The Anchor, was recorded in my home studio when I was first learning how to record. I remember how much fun I had just obsessing out over parts and layering. It was because of that album that I asked Frank and Jason Adasiewicz to come over and overdub parts on the album. It took me a while to muster up the courage to ask them, but when I did, what they played was so beautiful and they were so enthusiastic that it led to us playing together more.

I Will Miss The Trumpets and the Drums was an outgrowth and continuation of that process. I'd learned a lot about recording at that point and was better at it and I invited a lot more talented friends over to play on the songs. Last Flight Out is similar only to the previous Funeral Bonsai Wedding album, really. Both were tracked live without overdubs and really were about capturing a moment of collaboration with amazing musicians rather than building tracks in the studio.

AAJ: To get the new listeners started, I would like you to pick three albums (not by yourself) that tell something about where you are coming from and what you value in music and three albums of your own.

SD: I guess it would make sense to list Astral Weeks by Van Morrison since it's been a source of inspiration since I was a teenager. The lyrics and the passionate singing combined with the jazz based instrumentation really hit home with me. Neil Young's After The Gold Rush is one I always come back to and never get tired of. The melancholy and melodies in that one really move me, and the rock songs really rock. And maybe Nick Drake's Bryter Layter for the overall vibe and musicality.

I like the records I've made all for different reasons, a lot of which has to do with the memories of making them. Dolly Varden's best one is probably The Dumbest Magents. All the elements came together on that one. The songs were good and the band was solid from touring and playing together a lot, and the producer, Brad Jones, really got what we were doing and brought out the best in us. I like both Sweet Is The Anchor and I Will Miss The Trumpets and the Drums a lot -they almost feel like "part 1" and "part 2" to me. And the first Funeral Bonsai Wedding was really fun to make and some of those songs are among my best, I think.

AAJ: Finally, could you reveal something about your plans? Do you plan to tour the new record, and do you have other projects coming up?

Well, with COVID-19 touring has stopped and we don't know when venues will open up again so it's all up in the air. I've had all my shows cancelled or rescheduled for later in the year, but we just don't know. I've been working on a solo album in my home studio for about two years. I have over 20 songs tracked at this point and I think it will be a double album, tentatively titled, The Spaces In Between.

Discography:

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out (to be released May, 2020)
Steve Dawson and Mark Caro, Take It To The Bridge: Unlocking The Great Songs Inside You. A book on songwriting and the creative process (2016)
Steve Dawson and ellen cherry, The Thread EP (2015)
Steve Dawson, Funeral Bonsai Wedding (2014)
Dolly Varden, For A While (2013)
Steve Dawson, I Will Miss The Trumpets And The Drums (2010)
Dolly Varden: The Panic Bell (2007)
Steve Dawson, Sweet Is The Anchor (2005)
Steve Dawson, Demos for Dolly (2004)
Steve Dawson & Diane Christiansen: Duets (2003)
Dolly Varden: Forgiven Now(2002)
Dolly Varden: The Dumbest Magnets (2000)
Dolly Varden: The Thrill of Gravity (1998)
Dolly Varden: Mouthful of Lies (1995)
Stump The Host: California Zephyr (7" single, 1993)

Photo Credit: Matthew Gilson

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