Interview: Dean Owens on hooking up with Calexico and beating the lockdown blues

Edinburgh’s Dean Owens kicks off the New Year with a Celtic Connections showcase followed by an ambitious schedule of releases recorded with Tucson’s Calexico

At the beginning of 2020, the year looked promising for Dean Owens. He had just returned from Arizona where he had laid down tracks with Calexico for what promised to be his most adventurous album of his career. In addition, Owens was lining up a new addition to the Scottish music calendar, a tribute to Johnny Cash to be held in Cash’s ancestral homeland, and then there was a career-spanning “greatest hits” album coming out and a tour with his latest line up, The Southerners, to promote it. You know the rest of the story already.

Cash Back, held in the quaint Fife village of Aberdour in early March, was a resounding success but news of a virus was spreading as fast as the virus by then and just one week later the tour to promote his ‘Man From Leith’ album was cancelled after just one show as the nation went into lockdown. Since then, as with most musicians, Owens has relied on live-streamed gigs along with Bandcamp songs and merch sales to maintain both a presence and some income. However, behind the scenes he has been incredibly busy and now, with a hopefully brighter year ahead, he has begun to unveil some of the fruits of his labour.

‘Sinner’s Shrine’, the album recorded with Calexico, is in the can with post-recording production carried out over the internet and will be released later this year. The liaison has continued as Owens and his Tucson buddies have worked on songs leftover from the sessions along with some new recordings during lockdown and these will be released on a set of three EPs called ‘The Desert Trilogy’ (with yet more to come). First off however is a very socially distanced “live gig” which is set to be one of the highlights of this year’s Celtic Connections Festival.

AUK caught up with Dean, a runner up in our 2020 Readers Poll for best UK Artist, to chat about the collaboration with Calexico and the upcoming ‘Desert Trilogy’ releases.

Hi Dean, it’s been a weird year but it looks as if you’re one of those people who have actually been quite productive during the lockdowns.

Well, I suppose that I’ve tried to be as positive as I can be. Not being able to play live has been the toughest downside and that’s still ongoing. I’ve got bookings coming up which were postponed from last year but they are now looking incredibly doubtful and the chances of them being rescheduled again are pretty slim. It’s that unknown element that is probably hardest to bear but, fingers crossed. Having said that I have been incredibly busy on the recording front, finishing off the album and then recording a whole bunch of new songs which will be released on the EPs.

The first chance we’ll have to hear some of these songs will be on the upcoming Celtic Connections appearance.

Like everything else, Celtic Connections has had to adapt to the pandemic so it’s online and much smaller than it would normally be so I’m incredibly grateful to Donald Shaw, the festival director, for including us in the line-up. The show will be me and my buddy Kevin McGuire, bass player in The Felsons, playing along with Calexico’s Joey Burns and Martin Wenk. It wasn’t an easy thing to do as we’re in different parts of the world so it took a lot of editing. Kev and I recorded our part which was then sent to Joey in Boise, Idaho and then to Martin in Berlin. The film and sound were then melded together by the talents of sound engineer Garry Boyle and filmmaker Ruth Barrie. We’re not trying to look as if we’re in the same room but we are playing together in the same headspace and I think it’s turned out really well.

Following the Celtic Connections show, you have the staggered release of your Desert Trilogy EPs which maintain the Calexico connection. How did they come about?

Once we had finished the tracklisting for ‘Sinner’s Shrine’, there were a couple of songs leftover. I want to release the album on vinyl so that limited the number of tracks I could put on it leaving me with a bunch that were, to my mind, just as good. Then, during lockdown, I was recording some songs and I sent them to John Convertino, really just to ask his opinion of them. John got back saying he’d like to work on them and soon enough a couple of other folk I had met in Tucson also got on board to flesh them out. There was Naim Amor who is a huge vintage guitar enthusiast and who added some great twangy guitar while Tom Hagerman from the band Devotchka added some string parts and then Martin Wenk weighed in from Berlin with his distinctive trumpet. It wasn’t planned but we were really chuffed with the results and soon enough I had this bunch of finished songs which I had to figure out what to do with. I’d already decided to hold off on the release of ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ as I figure it deserves as much of a launch as I can manage later in the year if the restrictions are loosened. So, I decided that I could release these new songs as a kind of lead into the album release over the next couple of months. They’re in a similar vein, inspired by my time in Tucson and the Sonoran desert so it all kind of fits together. There will be three EPs and it was important to me that I wasn’t asking people to buy the same thing twice so although there’s a song from the album on each, the other three tracks are just as important, they’re not throwaway ideas, they’re all fully realised efforts.

Well, I’ve heard the EPs along with the album and if you combine them, it’s as if you have two fully-fledged new albums of music coming out. In addition, the sound is quite a departure for you with Calexico adding their widescreen desert romance to your songs. I’m thinking here in particular of New Mexico, the lead single and a song you first recorded 20 years ago.

This all grew from a chance encounter with Joey Burns. I got chatting to him after a benefit gig he was playing in Tucson a few years back and we kept in touch. I sent him my song, ‘New Mexico’, the stripped back version which is on my first album, ‘The Droma Tapes’ and he liked it. So, once I got back to Tucson, it was one of the first songs we did. There’s also another old song of mine, which will be on ‘Sinner’s Shrine’, sounding quite different from the original. And there’s actually another album’s worth of music that I’m planning on putting out at some point. So the EPs are a mixture of the songs written during lockdown and recorded remotely with the Tucson crew and some of the songs leftover from the actual album sessions. The idea that a guy from Leith can get to Tucson to record with the likes of John and Joey is still quite astonishing and, while it is a bit of a departure in terms of style, it’s still me singing and writing, I’ve just added in some new spices.

Dean’s Celtic Connections show with Joey Burns goes out on Sunday 31st January, tickets here.
You can pre-order The Desert Trilogy EP’s here. 
Thanks to Gaelle Beri for the picture.
And here’s a brief taster of the Celtic Connections show…

About Paul Kerr 416 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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