Q&A with Nashville-based Canadian musician Steve Dawson, the music flows out of him is so natural and authentic

"The music has put me in places and with people that have greatly impacted me, my life and my career. The music has taught me to listen and think and be creative, but it’s more the places and people that I’ve worked and travelled with because of the music that have had the biggest impact on how I see the world."

Steve Dawson: A Kaleidoscope of Roots Soundscapes

Over the past two decades, Steve Dawson has become such an indelible fixture on the musical landscape that it’s tempting to take him for granted. The music that flows out of him is so natural and authentic that it’s possible to forget all of the toil that went into producing it. "Eyes Closed, Dreaming" (release day: March 24 2023, Black Hen Music), the newest album from Steve Dawson is, without reservation, a pinnacle and career highlight for the Nashville-based Canadian musician. With its beautiful melodies, inspired instrumentation and soulful vocal performances, Dawson’s newest music soars effortlessly over the very high bar he’s set for himself over the past three decades. And, when you consider that Eyes Closed, Dreaming is the third record – following Gone, Long Gone and Phantom Threshold - to be released under his name within a year, the phenomenal level of accomplishment that the album represents is thrown into high relief. The third instalment of Dawson’s ‘pandemic trilogy’ was recorded under lockdown conditions with artists contributing their parts from various corners of Nashville, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver. As challenging as these restrictions were for an artist like Dawson who has always thrived on the chemistry of creating music live off the floor with musicians rubbing elbows together in the same room, Eyes Closed, Dreaming is as warm and immediate sounding a record as anyone could ever hope to hear. 

(Steve Dawson / Photo by Laura E. Partain)

As usual, Steve has called on a bunch of his very talented pals, selected from a veritable who’s who of North American roots musicians, to help him bring the new songs to life. His old Birds of Chicago partner, Allison Russell contributed some very stirring vocal support on three tracks, while Nashville legends Fats Kaplin and Tim O’Brien keep pace with Dawson, playing mandolin and various strings on several of the album’s most compelling compositions. Legendary LA drummer Jay Bellerose’s signature sound takes the rhythms to a higher level on five tracks with the rock-solid house band of Gary Craig (drums), Jeremy Holmes (bass) as well as Chris Gestrin and Kevin McKendree (keyboards) guiding the music into some very thrilling territory and holding the course for the rest of the musicians. Eyes Closed, Dreaming is rounded out with adventurous string arrangements from Ben Plotnik (viola/ violin) and Kaitlyn Raitz (cello) as well as a Stax-inspired horn section recorded mid-pandemic in Vancouver with Jerry Cook, Dominic Conway and Malcolm Aiken. Additional vocal textures were skilfully added by Keri Latimer, and Steve’s daughter Casey Dawson. Beautifully recorded, sensitively arranged and played, Eyes Closed, Dreaming, like all of Steve Dawson’s albums is like a master class in composition, melody and counterpoint. From beginning to end, it is quite simply stunning and almost certainly features some of the most beautiful and engaging music you’ll hear this year.

Interview by Michael Limnios           Special Thanks: Geraint Jones (G Promo PR)

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? What touched you from fingerstyle and steel/slide guitar?

I just try to directly channel whatever is inspiring the music that is coming out. Since I usually write with the guitar, I guess it’s always guitar-based music, but I honestly don’t listen to a lot of guitar music anymore. I’ve been influenced by so many players on different instruments in my life it’s hard to say who has impacted me the most. But I suppose Buddy Emmons and Greg Leisz (who I took lessons from) on the steel guitar, and then Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder and David Lindley, along with acoustic players like Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi John Hurt are my enduring favourites.

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your career so far?

I’ve had a lot of highlights, luckily. Right before the pandemic I was touring with both Matt Andersen and Birds of Chicago, both of whom I loved playing with. I had lots of great tours and moments with JT and Allison Russell - we were touring as a trio, and the shows were quiet and intimate and I have a lot of good memories on stage with them. Playing with my band lately has been a real pleasure, too. I was able to assemble my band plus a lot of my old friends from Vancouver and record some live videos, which are all just coming out now. That was a real highlight for me. As far as little random things I’ve done, I had the pleasure of leading a band for Van Dyke Parks a few years back. Playing Orange Crate Art and a few other songs on stage with him was incredible. Also playing some shows with David Hidalgo was a highlight. He is one of my favourite musicians on the planet, and we had fun playing some shows together. He got really emotional when I played the steel guitar, which was surprising!

"Music to me is a way of expression that just comes when it comes. Sometimes I feel like practicing Hawaiian guitar for 9 hours straight. Other times I delve deeply into mixing music. It’s all part of the same picture to me and I don’t know what drives it." (Steve Dawson / Photo by Laura E. Partain)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I think I outlined some of those above. One other was when I was getting to know Bob Brozman a bit, who was an influence on me. We met in Slovakia at a festival, and hit it off. He invited me on stage during his set and we played one song for about 3 hours without stopping. I don’t know how or why, but people actually stayed to listen. The promoter started walking on stage and pouring Dobrovitchka down our throats as we were playing. I ended up falling off the stage and the song ended. That was pretty fun.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t really miss anything. Old music that I love was made way before I was born anyway, so I don’t have anything to miss, really. Music has changed a lot, and being a musician has certainly changed. It isn’t easy, and I don't see it getting any easier, but that’s sort of how it’s always been. I think there’s just so much great music being made right now that it’s a pretty great time to be involved. The digital world has set us back in many ways, but overall it has allowed a whole new way of creating and distributing music that is quite exciting. Now they just have to start paying us!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Listen. Be patient. That applies to a life in music, and to music itself. The older I get the more space I like in music, and the more I see that just being patient and waiting for the right opportunities to present themselves works a lot better than trying to force it. I’ve also learned that having a wide range of skills is important, especially these days. I’m thankful I can play, produce, mix and engineer records. It has allowed me to stay afloat where I would have had a much harder time if I’d just done one of those things.

"I don’t really miss anything. Old music that I love was made way before I was born anyway, so I don’t have anything to miss, really. Music has changed a lot, and being a musician has certainly changed. It isn’t easy, and I don't see it getting any easier, but that’s sort of how it’s always been. I think there’s just so much great music being made right now that it’s a pretty great time to be involved. The digital world has set us back in many ways, but overall it has allowed a whole new way of creating and distributing music that is quite exciting. Now they just have to start paying us!(Steve Dawson / Photo by Laura E. Partain)

How has the Roots music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The music has put me in places and with people that have greatly impacted me, my life and my career. The music has taught me to listen and think and be creative, but it’s more the places and people that I’ve worked and travelled with because of the music that have had the biggest impact on how I see the world.

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? How do you want the music to affect people?

That’s a tricky one. I like technique. I like to develop it and practice it, but I don’t necessarily want to hear that all the time. Sometimes I do. I mean, Django Reinhardt is technically incredible, but also plays with soul. But I also love Muddy Waters, who may not have had that kind of technical facility but is still very engaging to listen to. I guess I most enjoy people who have worked on the technical side of their craft and then just let the music take over, so it doesn’t sound like they’re playing scales or exercises. Django, Jeff Beck, Daniel Lanois, Robert Johnson, Brian Eno, Chet Atkins, Sol Hoopii, Bob Wills - these are all people that I learn from in different ways who are very skilled at what they do but play with soul.

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

I don’t think I could pretend to understand the meaning of life. I honestly just don’t really think about it. Music to me is a way of expression that just comes when it comes. Sometimes I feel like practicing Hawaiian guitar for 9 hours straight. Other times I delve deeply into mixing music. It’s all part of the same picture to me and I don’t know what drives it.

Steve Dawson - Home

(Steve Dawson / Photo by Laura E. Partain)

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