Music and art are all about breaking new creative ground and exploring new territory. Dawes continues to expand from their California roots and grow in new directions. They’re often described as carrying on the Laurel Canyon tradition of bands like The Byrds, Crosby Stills & Nash and others, but songwriter Taylor Goldsmith wants to blaze new ground with Dawes.
The Dawes tour takes them through New England in March with shows in New York City, Boston, Hartford and Northampton. I spoke with Taylor Goldsmith about Dawes’ inspiration, direction and finding a sense of originality in a saturated music scene.
Tom Matthew: Your new album “We’re All Gonna Die” takes a little bit of a departure from Dawes history and carves a path into indie-rock territory. Tell me about the inspiration behind the new music.
Taylor Goldsmith: I think we’ve always been a band that follows whatever comes naturally to us. I realize there are some artists that take a more conscious and deliberate approach to their subsequent albums, but us, it’s always been the music revealing itself to us.
Like anybody else in 2017 we listen to all sorts of stuff. Any high point of music history has been the culmination of the 15 years before it. Right now there’s a lot of R&B records, hip hop records we continue to get back into, Tom Petty records, Bruce Springsteen records.
I think that we didn’t really think about trying to be different, trying to incorporate other sounds, it was really just let’s chase that high that we’re always chasing on every record, feeling like we’ve accomplished something that we hadn’t yet. So I think that’s been the biggest goal of ours.
These songs were born out of the same place in terms of me writing them, on piano or acoustic guitar or something, and we just kind of fill them out as a band in the studio. And I think when the people see the show live, it’s really clear that these songs fit in the catalog.
We knew it had its own identity and own personality in relation to the other albums, but we by no means thought this was different for the sake of being different. This is what got us excited, this made us feel like it’s something we hadn’t done before, and it feels like we’re being true to ourselves.
TM: So it’s just a natural evolution of your music.
TG: Yeah, and I think that goes for any band. The worst direction a band could possibly take is saying, “Well that worked for us before, let’s do it again.” I think that goes for a person that thinks consciously about the fact that they want to grow and learn and just be a better person, and be more well-rounded or more cultured, or whatever word you want. To continue on some sort of journey as an individual.
I think in that sense, a band is as much of a living breathing thing. If we were to stop at any point, and not continue that trip of figuring out who else we are, what are some other sides of who we are, then we would just stagnate and die.
TM: I understand your old friend Blake Mills came in as producer on “We’re All Gonna Die”. What influence did he bring to the album?
TG: He has a very original mind, extremely musical. But most importantly I feel he has a really healthy way of never being referential, never taking an idea because it sounds like something else.
And that’s something that even we would be guilty of. There’s a certain moment with a certain riff for an outro that me and the keyboardist Lee were working on because we thought it sounded like Thriller or something, and that made us really happy. Blake was like, maybe that’s exactly why we shouldn’t do it. Maybe that’s exactly why we should look for something else.
I don’t think it’s a conscious thing with Blake, but I think he’s so good at always making sure the music that he’s hearing back at him, whether it’s through the production or the arrangement of parts or whatever, that it’s something that none of us have ever heard before.
When I would go back and listen to songs like “We’re All Gonna Die” or “One of Us”, while it felt like singularly us, it also felt like music we hadn’t heard, and we didn’t know how to classify it as easily. I attribute that to Blake’s never ending quest to surprise himself and those that he’s working with.
TM: In the past Dawes had been consistently labeled as carrying on the Laurel Canyon sound. How do you feel about that comparison?
TG: I think that any band, the dream is to get to the point where you’re the reference. The dream is for a younger band someday to say “You sound like Dawes” the way people say “You sound like the Grateful Dead” or “You sound like the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan.” When you become the reference, that’s every band’s dream. Anything short of that is always uncomfortable, because you don’t know what to make of it.
When people were telling Loudon Wainwright or much later Conor Oborst, “So people say you’re the new Bob Dylan, what do you think?” I don’t think they knew how to react to that, because it’s not who they are. They’re Conor and Loudon, and that’s how they want to be perceived, and eventually over time that is how they are perceived.
So I guess it’s the same. If people are saying Laurel Canyon sound in relation to Dawes, on one hand I’m honored people are talking about our band. If they’re looking for catch phrases that means they’re trying to communicate who we are, which is a good thing. But on the other hand, if someone was asking me “Do you think you’re a Laurel Canyon sounding band?” I’d say I don’t know exactly what that means.
In my own head I don’t think so, because I look at songs like “Most People” or “When My Time Comes” or “Things Happen”, none of those songs to me sound like a Laurel Canyon thing. And definitely nothing on “We’re All Gonna Die” as well.
At the same time I do understand the fact that we have acoustic guitars, a lot of lyrics, guitar solos, and harmonies. That stuff could be pretty associative. So I understand. But I also feel like, and I feel this way for any artist, is that to put the impression they leave musically into words is near impossible, and requires a lot more work that a few phrases.
TM: Art is always about breaking new ground, yet people trying to relate to it do so by comparing it to things they already understand. So it’s kind of a mash-up.
TG: Yeah, I get it totally. It’s part of the trip, I do it too. People ask me “What does that band sound like”, and I try to explain it too, so I don’t begrudge anybody in those efforts. But it’s an impossible task when you really get to the heart of it. If I asked you “Explain to me the subtle differences between Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen”, you could say a couple things but at the end of the day, you have to tell someone to just listen to it.
TM: Who are some of the modern bands that you look up to or admire these days?
TG: There’s a lot of stuff with hip-hop and R&B that really blow us away in terms of how forward thinking they are, in terms of the sound that they get. Something like the Anderson Paak record or even the new Childish Gambino.
You can draw a lot of links to older soul music but at the same time they seem to be so good at throwing genre out the window and not being concerned with maintaining some hip-hop identity or R&B identity. Their intentions seem to be “Let’s fuck people up, let’s create something no one has heard.” So that’s something that’s always exciting.
There are younger songwriters that we truly love, like Cass McCombs, which our keyboardist actually played on that record, or Bonnie Prince Billy or Bill Callahan. They’re getting older now, but they still feel relevant now to me.
TM: You have a reputation as a talented lyricist. What kind of themes do you focus on with your writing?
TG: I try to keep it interesting in terms of not going back to some same place that I have before. As a guidepost for me if I’m going to feel like writing it, I have to feel like it does something for me. I have to feel like that there’s some sort of catharsis in there for me, putting something in a perspective that I haven’t been able to talk about until that point, and then being able to look at it and say that makes me feel better about the situation.
Whether it’s something to do with love, or looking at our culture today, or death, or whatever it is.
I think there are so many songs that have this sense of announcement where they can pick up a guitar and say “She left me and I’m lonely, and I’m sad”, and a lot of people are going to be moved by that, including me. But then there’s something to be said for the kind of song that is able to say those things but then take it to the next place, and offer some version of how the narrator is dealing with it and how to put it into perspective, and some sense of carrying on or responsibility.
That kind of stuff is what makes for the greatest songs, the songs that all of the sudden don’t feel simply manipulative or bad, but actually feel like I can take this and apply it to what I’m going through and it can help. I’m not saying I achieve that very often, but that’s definitely the brass ring.
TM: It sounds like a really personal perspective.
TG: What the opposite of that would be in this day and age would be trying to have a more social perspective or public perspective, and I feel like that’s a harder thing to do. I don’t know if it’s simply the times that we’re in. If anybody stood on a street corner right now and got up on a soap box and said “Hey everybody, everything’s gonna be okay”, I think a lot of people would say “Fuck you! This doesn’t help with anything.”
I think if there is any opportunity for us to share experiences and find them edifying and find them hopeful, it is by tapping into those deeper and more personal currents, and talk about what’s going on at a personal level, on a base level, just what’s going through someone’s mind.
I’d love to write the more broadly appealing socially conscious songs, but I feel like to do that and for it to mean anything other than you getting to pat yourself on the back is a lot harder in 2017 than it was in the past. It’s a trick thing, and I find that the stuff that can shift how I look at the world, whether that’s my own relationship with myself or someone else, or even my political opinions.
Sometimes it will be through the most personal and impressionistic songs from someone like Leonard Cohen who probably doesn’t even have that agenda, but his sense of peace and calm is enough to fuck me up and make me rethink some things.
TM: If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to make it in the music business, what piece of advice could you give?
TG: My advice is always to try to get it going in your hometown, first and foremost. I think a lot of people, they talk about needing to get on tour, and sometimes they’re even able to book that tour for themselves, and they have like 20 dates, but then they end up playing these clubs to virtually nobody. But when you hear these stories where a local group can play to 300 and then 400 and then 500, then all of the sudden even if you’ve never left town, people are knocking on doors and asking who you are.
I’m pretty sure something similar to that happened to Dave Matthews Band, and I think it’s the case more often than not, where if you can get something going where you’re from, people will come to you, people will notice.
So I think when people always ask me should we book a tour, that’s actually not where it’s at. It is eventually, but people look at that as the next step sometimes a few steps too early.
TM: What’s the best way for fans to stay in touch with Dawes?
TG: We’re as available as anybody else, Twitter and Instagram more than anything else. We’re not on Facebook all that much, but sometimes we are. We’re not the most tech-savy bunch of dudes. I wish we were. It would probably do our band some favors, but those are the best ways of communicating with us folks, Twitter and Instagram.
TM: Thanks so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you at Infinity Hall in Hartford on March 12!
TG: Right on, man! Thank you.