Steve Dawson

Interview: Steve Dawson and the Catharsis of Songwriting


Steve Dawson has produced, engineered and mixed over 100 records for other artists, but when the world shut down in 2020, the multi-instrumentalist turned up the volume on his own creativity, churning out enough material for three full albums. The first, Gone, Long Gone drops this Friday and features collaborations with Allison Russell and Fats Kaplin.

I recently sat down with the seven-time Juno Award-winner to discuss why he couldn’t stop writing, how all musical roads lead back to Duane Allman, and why the goalposts keep moving when it comes to promoting new material.

AH: Gone, Long Gone is the first of three albums you have due out in 2022, all of which were written following the 2020 COVID lockdown. Does this mark the most prolific time in your creative life, and was churning out this much content a matter of having a necessary distraction during such an isolating time?

SD: It was definitely a coping mechanism, yes. But also, there was just a lot of material sitting around half finished, and ideas I’d had for years that had never seen the light of day that I finally had time to look closer at. I was working on music for a number of artists, all remotely, and these opportunities kept popping up to work remotely with people that I may not have been able to do in person, so those opportunities would inspire something else to get finished, and it all just kind of kept rolling.

AH: For someone who spent so much time on the road prior to the pandemic, what was the transition like for you to go from touring brain to songwriting brain? Was it a slow process to find that creative comfort?

SD: It’s hard to say because of all the additional stresses that were coming up at the same time. Aside form the touring that got canceled, I had to cancel a number of album projects that I was set to produce. So there were stages of panic, and that led to revelations of possibilities and eventually the good I was able to surround myself with outweighed all the craziness and impending doom that was also lurking. But definitely the songwriting became something of a catharsis as well as a distraction, and allowed me to kind of bury myself in some work instead of sitting around with nothing to do.

AH: With so many songs to package and marry together, how did you go about choosing what would live on what album and in what order? What made Gone, Long Gone the first of the three that people would hear?

SD: Well, the second album is a self-contained thing. It’s called Phantom Threshold, and is all instrumental, somewhat-psychedelic pedal steel music with a full band. So that was always its own thing. Then the other two—Gone, Long Gone, and the 3rd one which is called Eyes Closed, Dreaming were the songs I had either written or adapted from traditional songs. In my weird mind, the first album is more of the original stuff and the 3rd album is more traditional, either literally traditional, or just felt more traditional in some way—either lyrically, or musically. Looking at it now, that doesn’t seem terribly accurate, but that was my process for the groupings—original, then weird pedal steel, then more traditional.

AH: With that said, what would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to Gone, Long Gone front to back? And, would those revelations change when they hit play on the future albums created during that same period?

SD: I’m not sure. It’s funny because I’ve been sitting on this stuff for about a year now, which is a really long time to keep something to yourself. I have literally played it for no one, so it’ll be interesting to see what people think as all this music sort of rolls itself out over the coming months. But I think there’s some interesting songs, cool textures, I find the guitar playing to be inspired and engaging, and I think the process allowed for some very cool musical moments to happen, so I just hope that comes across to the listener.

AH: Songwriting involves pulling something into the universe that didnt exist before, and here you are having done it with more songs than some artists create in an entire lifetime. What are you most proud of when you sit back and look at all that you accomplished with the right side of your brain during this time?

SD: I haven’t sat back and looked at it like that, and likely never will. I feel great about what I’ve recorded, but don’t feel like it was an incredible feat or anything. Maybe in a few years that will change, and especially when I start to reflect on 2020/2021 at some later point in life. But for now, it just seems like a reflection of what life was like during that time. I feel like if I had stopped working on music it would have been a disaster for me emotionally, so I’m just glad the ideas kept coming, and that I had a friend like Matt Patershuk, who I did a lot of the writing with, to bounce stuff around with and sort of engage with another human creatively during that period of time.

AH: What would the Steve who first picked up a guitar think of not only Gone, Long Gone, but the work that went into writing and recording it (and the albums to come)?

SD: That was quite a while ago, and seeing as how I just wanted to be Duane Allman when I first picked up the guitar, I might be disappointed that I don’t sound more like him now. But me now doesn’t mind that I’ve internalized my influences a bit, and hopefully come up with some creative guitar playing and intriguing tones and sounds that would have pleased me back then!

AH: Let’s stay in the conversation with Young Steve for a minute. What advice would you give him in terms of how to tackle his musical dreams? What would you want him to have done differently if you could have set him on the path?

SD: It’s really hard to know the answer to that. Everything I’ve done has led to new opportunities, and opened new doors that led to other musical adventures. I’ve stayed pretty open and said yes to many crazy things that if I’d turned down would have sent me down different paths. Maybe if I’d said no more, I’d be fabulously wealthy and playing in some massive band, but it’s pretty hard to say. While I don’t think I’ve executed my career perfectly, I can’t think of many disastrous decisions that I would change. Maybe I should have moved to Nashville sooner…

AH: Logistically, how do you plan on properly promoting three albums in one year? Is 2022 going to involve more touring than usual for you, or are you also looking at outside-the-box methods to put the music in peoples earpods?

SD: I don’t even really know what it means to promote stuff properly any more. The goalposts keep moving, the technology keeps changing and it’s hard to keep up. I do my best. I want to stay active and engaged. I don’t want to just go out on tour endlessly, though. I do know that. I’d like to be smart about it, do the touring that I have on the plate for now, do some festivals, and then leave things kind of open to play with other people, produce records, do sessions and all that other stuff. Making my own music is more of a luxury that I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself for it to be wildly successful.

AH: You get a phone call tomorrow saying there’s an opening on a massive multi-city tour, but the fun part is, they tell you to name the headliner. Who would you want to hit the road with if you had the choice and why?

SD: Keith Richard and the X-Pensive Winos. I’ve probably seen 1000 concerts, and probably half were great, maybe 100 were amazing, and probably five changed my life. Seeing them in ‘95 or whenever that was was one of those life changers for me, on several levels. And they’re all still alive and playing, so that helps.

AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?

SD: Nope. I prefer the surprise and the journey.

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