Featured Interview – Steve Dawson

Two years ago, it became apparent to producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson that it was time for a change.  His home for the previous fifteen years, Vancouver, Canada was facing financial pressures that were having a major impact on the local music scene. So Dawson and his wife made a decision to leave without having any idea of where they wanted to end up. Dawson explains, “For a bit, we were thinking of moving to Toronto. It is Canada’s largest city, there is a lot going on, and I know a lot of people there.  Vancouver is getting ridiculously expensive to live in – and so is Toronto.  But it just didn’t feel like a big enough change. I really wanted to shake things up.”

“I did a gig in Vancouver with Sonny Landreth – he was telling me all the things he liked about living in the south.  Colin Linden was also on that show. Colin is Canadian but lives in Nashville. So my wife and I came down to Nashville for a week to stay with a friend. We poked around and really started to like the place. People that live in Nashville don’t think it is cheap but believe me, compared to Vancouver; Nashville is a very inexpensive place to live. At that time, the Canadian and US dollars were of equal value. Now the Canadian dollar is tanking and the US dollar is much stronger than it was a year ago. I don’t think we would be able to do the move now.”

Wanting to live in a city that had plenty to offer musically, Dawson has not been disappointed with the live music scene. “One thing that happens when a city gets expensive to live in is that the arts community takes a hit. A lot of artists can’t afford to live in Vancouver anymore, so as a result there is less going on. While Nashville is way smaller physically, there are a hundred times more things going on here. We sold our house and moved here a week later. I searched for, and found, a place that I could live and work in. I didn’t have a job or any leads here. I just like it. Any night of the week there are two or three shows that I want to see. It is pretty cool.”

Dawson set-up a recording studio, which quickly paid dividends as many Canadian musicians have been willing to travel to Nashville to record in addition to getting a chance to soak up some of the history and culture of the famous musical city.  Visiting musicians can stay at the house while recording, which certainly helps them feel comfortable. As word has gotten around, local bands are also starting to utilize the studio and Dawson’s experience as a producer.

“Even though it was foreign to me, I was interested in the recording studio from the start. I’d glean what I could from watching the engineers and producers that I worked with in the early days. When I started doing acoustical instrumental music, none of the record labels had any interest in our vision. So I started my own record label, Black Hen Music, twenty years ago so that we could release our stuff. We couldn’t find a producer that we felt we could work with, so I co-produced the project. I experimented in the studio, doing things that I had read about people doing, and working on getting the sound we wanted.”

“From there, friends started asking me to produce their projects, and even though I didn’t fully understand what that meant, I still did it. I got into producing by accident but now I do it all the time. When you are on the road touring, you can spend eight hours a day getting from one gig to the next, setting your stuff up and there is very little music involved. Those two or three hours of the live show are very special but you are only playing music for that little amount of time. When I am here producing, I can work on music ten – twelve hours a day. That feels like what I want to be doing.”

“I still love touring and playing gigs. I used to do five or six week tours but I doubt that I will ever do that again unless some really exceptional circumstances come up. Some of my early projects had success, which led to doing more production work. And I have developed my own style of producing which has appealed to some people. Things are working well for now. I am busy but I also know that I don’t have any job security.”

Going back to the beginning, Dawson got hooked on music listening to records his aunt left lying around. His family wasn’t particularly musical which meant he was on his own to pursue his dream of being a rock guitarist. He took a few lessons as a youngster, none of which took hold as the fledging guitarist had trouble articulating what he wanted to learn. After a sabbatical, he began again in earnest at the age of fourteen, learning finger-style acoustic picking. From Beatles & Rolling Stones records, Dawson quickly discovered Chicago blues and legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

“One of my early favorites was a record by Long John Baldry called It Ain’t Easy. I was two or three years old and loved the sound of that recording.  Things came full circle when I ended up playing in his band for the last few years of his life.  I never stopped digging. I kept going back to the Delta and country blues artists. That was the point where I started collecting 78 rpm records and other stuff. I was able to find a lot obscure and interesting music, including Hawaiian music. It has been a discovery process that included a number of teachers along the way but mostly it was the self-discovery that was most productive for me.”

His first experience in a band can only be called interesting. “It was a bad band because none of us could play. We called ourselves punk rock – all we knew was to turn up the amps until they distorted! I got bored real fast because I wanted to learn how to play. So it became a matter of finding other like-minded people and bands were the vehicle for playing together. There were actually opportunities to play in Vancouver at the time. They were lax about enforcing age requirements, so I was able to start doing club and bar gigs when I was sixteen.”

Eventually Dawson ended up in Boston for a couple of years before heading back to Vancouver, where he started a group called the Spirit Merchants. The band created a heady mix with their love for the sounds of Little Feat and the Allman Brothers Band in addition to ragtime and jug band music. The drummer introduced Dawson to his roommate, a fiddle player from Medicine Hat, Alberta, named Jesse Zubot.

“Jesse is a killer player. He’s become one of the top musician’s in Canada. He is now doing experimental, improvised music. But at that time we were both discovering similar music. We toured Canada & the US with that band, including some folk festivals. That opened up a whole new world that didn’t include sleazy rock clubs. So we started doing some instrumental stuff, sort of Dixie Dregs- inspired stuff, and decided to put out an instrumental album under the name of Zubot & Dawson. Soon we did less playing in bars and switched to small theaters and festivals. That suited me because people were actually listening to the music instead of getting drunk & screaming. It was a lot more gratifying.”

The pair blended a weird variety of musical influences that included bluegrass, blues and Hawaiian into a totally non-commercial sound, yet the band won numerous awards in Canada. They opened shows for Gregg Allman and David Grisman while releasing three albums under the band’s name. They also met Kelly Joe Phelps, who was enjoying plenty of attention. That led to a partnership that has continued over the years, feeding Dawson’s interest for acoustic music. Zubot & Dawson would open the shows before backing Phelps on his sets. They stuck with it for a lengthy period before the grind of life on the road doing one-nighters lost its allure. Since then, Dawson has not had a band, preferring to use different incarnations involving a bass player or a rhythm section. He also plays a number of solo gigs but really enjoys the chance to interact with other musicians.

“I did a record called Telescope, which was all pedal steel guitar music. I was really into that about nine years ago and I put in some very serious time with the instrument.  I plan to do another one like that soon.  When I first started doing finger picking, I was into Doc Watson, John Fahey & Leo Kottke. I wanted to do a project with one microphone, in a room with no effects – just sitting in front of a mic and playing. I had written some pieces that I felt were worth recording but I could not figure out how to arrange them for a band.”

“I had not heard anything like that for some time. There is plenty of solo acoustic guitar music out there.  But the way music has changed and technology has gone, I have a hard time relating to it in any way.  When I listen to an old Fahey record, it moves me. It sounds like John is sitting ten feet in front of me. Modern guitar music sounds hyper-real, like my head is stuck inside the guitar where it is really close, loud & kind of aggressive. I wanted to do something with technique but not the flash – something like a gentle Mississippi John Hurt record.   That album, Rattlesnake Cage, was nominated for a Blues Blast Music Award in the Best Acoustic Album category.  It is a mesmerizing collection that gives listeners an in-depth look at  substantial instrumental and composing skills.

Dawson now has credits for appearing on over one hundred recordings either as a musician or as producer. “I don’t know the exact number. I am busy all the time. When I play on someone’s album, it usually only take a day in the studio as opposed to producer which, even if it is a blues project with lots of live-in-the-studio elements, it will take me three weeks to do the album properly. “

Singer and actor Jin Byrnes has enlisted Dawson’s help on six albums. “Jim was originally from St. Louis but has lived in Vancouver for thirty-five years. He is a friend and an amazing singer who has been a big influence on me. We’ve had a lot of great moments over the years. Jim is close friends with John Hammond, so we brought John in on Jim’s last record, St. Louis Times. We crammed six people into my tiny studio in Vancouver that was meant to hold three people. That was memorable.”

“When you make records the way I do, which usually means there is a band playing together in the studio, it is a lot different than a pop record where you do programming, than add some drums and bass, then begin to stack the overdubs.  That kind of process doesn’t interest me. I want to be surrounded by musicians so that people are interacting and there is some camaraderie which creates special moments. Hanging out is a big part of making a record.”

Another highlight of his career was a tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks, the famed string band from the early blues era that had many hit records before fading into the mist of time. Dawson conceived the idea on a vacation, leading to phone calls to Jim Byrnes and John Hammond. Getting them on board made it easy to enlist other artists like the North Mississippi Allstars, Geoff Muldaur, Bruce Cockburn, and Van Dyke Parks. “It was a colossal amount of work. I never made any money on it. It gave me the chance to collaborate with a lot of artists. The Olympics were in Vancouver the next year. I was approached by someone about doing a concert for the project, which could never happen in the real world. But there was a bunch of money being thrown around at that time, so we were able to fly lots of people in for a concert that was recorded and released on a DVD. It became a lot more than I ever dreamed of.”

As a studio musician, Dawson has been able to observe producers operating in a variety of recording environments. He knows that the producer’s role changes with each project.

“At the end of the day, the producer is responsible for the way the album sounds and the way it feels to people. That is the job. Some producers don’t have any technical skills. They set a mood and get you in the right state of mind. That was common back in the day. Now, because budgets are lower, artists expect the producer to have technical skills so they don’t have to hire a second engineer. As a player, my preference is to get my hands dirty, to be in the room with the band, no headphones, being able to communicate without the pane of glass. For me, it is about the feel and generating a community within the players. I can feel that better when I am a part of it rather than just observing it.”

To see the video of Steve’s performance at the 2014 Blues Blast Music Awards CLICK HERE.

Visit Steve’s website at www.stevedawson.ca/.

Photos by Mike Latschislaw as marked © 2015

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