How being force-fed Gram Parson and The Jayhawks opened up the world of americana.
Dean Owens has long been a favourite of Americana UK and our readership, and he ended a successful 2022 by being voted our readers’ Best UK Americana Act for the second year in succession, and also picking up our readers’ Best UK Americana Album for ‘Sinner’s Shrine’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Dean Owens at his new home on the Scottish side of the Tweed at Berwick to get his views on his awards from our readership. Apart from sharing his gratitude for the appreciation and recognition the awards imply, he lets slip the fact that he will be releasing more tracks related to ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ which will add to the overall experience of the album. As a successful UK americana artist who is based in Scotland, he also discusses the potential challenges of a UK americana scene that is very London-centric. Everyone’s childhood has an influence on their development and ultimately on their adult life, and Dean Owens explains how his dad was obsessed with westerns, and how even now it seems perfectly normal to him that his parents have a life-size cut-out of John Wayne in their living room. As someone who was heavily influenced by his older brother’s punk records, he shares that it was a manager getting him to listen to a Gram Parsons and a Jayhawks record that ultimately changed his musical life. Though punk was his first love, he also describes belatedly catching up with Scottish musical icons Gerry Rafferty and Rab Noakes.
How are you?
I’m great, and I’m just in Scotland now in Berwick-on-Tweed, I’m on the Scottish side of the border but it is a bit different from Edinburgh. I moved down here about a year ago, and while I wouldn’t say it makes things easier I’ve got a better standard of living here and I’ve got more space. It is also on the border, and I like borders and I like border towns.
Americana UK Readers Best UK Americana Act 2021 and 2022, and Americana UK Readers Best UK Americana Album 2023 for ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ – what does that mean to you personally?
Awards always mean something, especially when they are from the readers and the fans because they are the people who buy the records and come to the shows, and accolades are always nice. It’s funny, it is like reviews when you get a good one you are delighted and a negative one is only one person’s opinion, haha. Thankfully the reviews for this album in particular have been really great all over. It was one of those albums I knew was taking a slightly different direction from my previous albums, saying that with every album I make I try not to repeat the formula, I like to work in different situations with different people and even in different places and countries. I’d got into a really good place working with my Nashville producer, Neilson Hubbard, and the team there, and to move from that to Tucson, Arizona, and work with the Calexico guys was a big step. I wouldn’t call it a gamble but there was a chance it might not have worked out, but thankfully it did and I got to make the record I’d wanted to make for a long time. I was fortunate to get to work with those guys, and it isn’t often in your life you get the chance to work with musicians that you are also a fan of. I’ve been a fan of Calexico for years, and Calexico records have accompanied me on my big road trips around the US since the ‘90s. It is nice that people who read Americana UK and similar sites seem to have really got it.
You used Kickstarter for ‘Sinners Shrine’ and released it via Eel Pie Records/Continental Record Services, do you think that approach is part of the reason for the record’s success not only in the UK but across Europe?
To be honest, I would have robbed a bank to get this record made if I’d had to. There was nothing that was going to stop me from making this record, certainly not money, when I knew Joey and John from Calexico wanted to work with me the record was going to happen, haha. It is great to have a fanbase of sorts where you can do the Kickstarter thing and they get their little rewards and collections you can offer them nice incentives and you get their support. It is a nice two-way thing, and nowadays most record labels, apart from a few majors, don’t have the money to give to artists to go into the studio anymore. When I started out with my first band that was never the thing, you just got money from your record label to go into the studio. When I think about some of the money we were offered with my first band, and at the time we thought it was a shit deal, but if someone offered you that now it would be outstanding.
I think Kickstarter and Crowdfunding is the only way that small independent artists can do it, and then if you are lucky you get the support of a small independent label like Continental and Eel Pie to help with the distribution side and take that headache. I’m sure other artists have said this, but I feel like in the last few years I’ve gone from being an artist who is songwriting all the time, and just thinking about recording and playing, to someone taking care of all these social media sites I have, it is just ridiculous. Then to think I’m going to put a record out and I’m going to try and manage that as well is quite terrifying for someone like me. I personally think I need a label to help facilitate everything, and there are people out there who can do it for themselves and I’ve got a lot of respect for them, but my mental capacity is not there to deal with everything because at the moment I’ve got Twitter, two Facebook accounts, an Instagram account, I have a mailing list and a website, I have Patreon. By the time you’ve serviced all these things, where is the time to write songs? I think Bob Dylan would only have made one album every ten years if there had been social media back in the ‘60s if he had to deal with all this other shit we have to deal with these days.
Sometimes I feel like I’m not going to deal with social media anymore, but that is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I have asked myself what would happen if you stopped social media, would people seek you out, would there be a what happened to him thing, or would people just simply not care? One of my favourite albums is the first album Mark Olsen made after leaving the Jayhawks with his then-wife Victoria Williams, they made an album out in Joshua Tree in California and the only way to get that record was to send them a cheque to their house. They then sent the album back and that was it, there was nothing else in between, apart from many miles, and I loved that at the time. I remember getting that CD sent, and you could see the Joshua Tree stamp on it and that little mystery and magic were there. I wonder sometimes if that is what would be nice again, but then again that is like imagining what things would be like without electricity. You would need to have a really big solid fan base to make it work I think.
Have you had a chance to think about your next album?
It has been out for about a year and as an artist, you need an album to have a good life, and for me, I’d like to get another year out of it at least, and there is still a single or two to come from it. Having said that, there are plans afoot to release a very quick follow-up within this year. That sounds like I’ve contradicted myself, haha, but you may recall before ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ I did ‘The Desert Trilogy’ and since the album came out people have been asking where they can get all the tracks on ‘The Desert Trilogy’ in one place. So Bert, who runs Continental Records, got in touch just before Christmas and said I would like to put an album out of the songs that didn’t make the album but were on the EPs. What it looks like we are going to do is a double album because during lockdown I recorded what I describe as a soundtrack for an imaginary spaghetti western, I recorded a whole bunch of spaghetti western tracks with the guys from Calexico.
It was absolutely fantastic, I got to whistle my heart out, and if anyone has been to my gigs recently they will know I love my whistling. So, I was able to go full Ennio Morricone mode and get all that out of my system and that is an album in its own right called ‘El Tiradito’ and it’s inspired by the legend of the Sinners Shrine which is a real story in Tuscon folklore. So what will be released will be a double CD, with one CD containing the songs from the EPs, and the second including the instrumentals called ‘El Tiradito’. All that is going to happen fairly quickly, but I’m not in a rush to do a major follow-up to ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ just yet, I want it to have a good life. I think the new package is going to be called ‘El Tiradito (The Curse of Sinner’s Shrine)’, which sounds like a good western to me, and maybe the film will be made at some point to go with the soundtrack.
Why do you think a Scot can so successfully capture the spirit of America?
The first place I went to in America was Albuquerque, I was in my twenties and it was like landing on another planet. The landscape initially just blew me away, and growing up in Scotland my dad was a big fan of old westerns, and I’m not lying about this because my mum and dad still have behind the TV a full-size cut out of John Wayne. I’ve seen it that many times I don’t even look at it now, but when you walk into the living room it certainly gets people’s attention. I realised when we landed in Albuquerque and went into the desert that my dad’s obsession with westerns was in my life, and just felt really privileged to be there.
Then an old manager friend of mine gave me a couple of albums, one was a Gram Parsons album and he did mention the country word when he gave it to me, and I remember thinking why is he giving me a country record, I don’t like country. Straight away I was like, this is something else, this isn’t country music like I heard from my granny, and then he gave me a copy of the Jayhawks’ ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ and again, I was like this is something else. That just sent me down a rabbit hole from there, and another friend gave me an old Hank Williams record. I got into Doc Watson and went down the bluegrass rabbit hole for a while, and I’d always been aware of Johnny Cash and stuff because with my dad there would always be certain records around the house. I was more aware of the novelty side of Johnny Cash, ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and ‘One Piece At A Time’, so I didn’t take him that seriously, and then of course you realise what was there, that treasure trove of just amazing songs. I got hooked on him, and then I think you just start to join the dots between Bruce Springsteen and all these kinds of artists, Jackson Browne and stuff, and you can hear where they were influenced by the old American roots stuff.
I think the first album I thought was an americana album was a Dave Alvin album, ‘King Of California’ and it has everything I think of as americana, if someone asks me what is americana I say go listen to Dave Alvin. I do question genres, and I’m not a big fan, and I do understand americana and what it means to me, but I think it means different things to different people. For me, it’s not like me saying I’m going to become an americana artist, just like in the ‘70s people said I’m going to become a punk now, it is not like that for me because when I think of americana I think of American literature and the American landscape. I’ve spent an awful lot of time in America, and even the kitsch side like Las Vegas and all that, there is just something there for me, and I love the desert. For some people, I think it could be more of a fashion item, it is not about putting on a nice hat, that doesn’t make you americana, I don’t think.
Were you influenced by Gerry Rafferty?
Honestly no, not as a young guy starting out because my music was punk music because that is what my older brother was listening to, and I think we get a lot of our early music from our families. So the first music I can remember hearing, apart from my man and dad’s, was stuff like ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ and The Clash records. As a wee boy, I loved it because you could hear swearing on a record, I can still remember getting a clout behind the ear from my dad for singing along to ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ behind the couch. I had the headphones on and I felt the old knuckle across the top of my head, you know.
I knew of Gerry Rafferty through one of my aunties who loved ‘Baker Street’, but now I realise what a wealth of brilliant songs he had and I’ve listened to a lot of Gerry Rafferty over the last five or six years, going right back to the Humblebums and all that. I remember years ago doing a gig, and after the gig, a guy said to me “Your voice really reminds me of Gerry Rafferty.”, and I couldn’t see that at all. Now when I hear him I can see what that guy was on about, it is probably just that Celtic twang that is in there somewhere. He has made so many great records, a really sad loss.
How have you found the live gig circuit now we are largely out of the pandemic?
Yeah, it’s kind of getting there. What’s been great is that through the success of the album I’ve been getting lots of interest from places like The Netherlands, Germany, and France, and I’m very keen to go and play in these places more than the UK in some instances. I find there are parts of the americana scene in the UK that is kind of insular, and cliquey as well. There are a lot of great people and I’ve got a lot of good friends and I admire a lot of people and the work they’ve done, but insular is the word, I think. I’m not interested in that, it is a bigger thing for me, when you talk about americana music I think you have to be careful you don’t alienate other artists, and other parts of the country as well. I’m trying to choose my words here, I think when you put the word United Kingdom after anything, you have to remember all the parts of the United Kingdom. I’m not daft about it, I know there is a hell of a lot more people, a bigger population, in the London area, which then means there are more musicians and bands, and people doing it, and they will get more notice because there is more media down there. Just look at Celtic Connections which has just been on, I call it the biggest winter roots festival in Europe, and I think even in the world now, that has got everything in there, artists from everywhere. And I think we in the americana scene could take a leaf out of their book really.
A few years back you did the Cash Back In Fife festival, any plans to repeat it?
Who knows, I never thought of it as a one-off and on the other hand, I never thought of it as a regular thing. It went so well, and it was literally two weeks before the world shut down that we managed to get that wee festival in, and it went so well that we said we can do it next year. There were a lot of people interested in playing it, but then we had the pandemic and the hotel which was the venue had COVID problems, and the goalposts have been moved a bit there. I’d like to think we will do it again, and people ask me all the time if I’m going to do it again. I think 2023 is going to be an interesting year for a lot of artists because people are still finding their feet and there is a backlog, I mean all these festivals are still putting people on they booked two years ago and who can now come and play. I think things are going to settle so maybe get this year out of the way and then see where we are. If I’ve got the energy and desire, it would be nice to do it again.
You had Rab Noakes on the bill in 2020.
Geez, that is a real sad one, losing Rab, and a real shock as well. It was really great just seeing and hearing Rab, and he was another artist I didn’t appreciate until much later on in my life. When I first met Rab he was a radio producer, and he was calling himself Robert Noakes at that point and he had his company Neon Productions. Now here is an interesting thing, I see people getting these trail-blazing awards and that, and Rab Noakes was the first person to put an americana roots type show on the radio in Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland, and he didn’t just have Scottish artists on there he had people up from London on sessions. He was so strong in pushing just good roots music onto the airwaves, and he was one of the first people to go to Nashville to make records at a time when it was really hard to do that. I only appreciated all that in more recent years, but he is one of the people I would like to see get more recognition. It is a shame it is going to be after he passed away, but he touched a lot of people, I was at his funeral and it was quite amazing the number of people in the business who were there. Yeah, Rab took part in the festival and Ian Rankin, my friend Kirsten Adamson took part as well and she is moving onto things with her new record.
I heard a rumour you produced Kirsten Adamson’s new record.
I did, and it is a really lovely record and I’m not saying that because I helped, she has all the talent. I did produce the record as an old-style producer, and I loved doing that and it is something I would love to do more of, and I’ve been lucky enough to produce a couple of albums for country artist Ags Connolly and a couple of smaller things. It is just a great thing to do, and she is a young artist and I felt a bit of a responsibility to help her get her songs out there, and we co-wrote a couple of songs for the album and I really think she is the real deal.
She is close to Scottish musical royalty with her dad being Stuart Adamson.
Her dad is someone who casts a long shadow, and he is someone I was aware of when I was at school with his band Big Country. It is lovely working with Kirsten because I was meant to work with her dad in Nashville shortly before he passed away, I was out there working and he was living there and a mutual friend put us together to write some songs. Unfortunately the week we were going to do it Stuart had to leave Nashville, and by the time he got back I had to leave and we just said we would do it next time we were in Nashville. And unfortunately, there wasn’t a next time. So it feels like a nice thing to be writing with his daughter, and we’ve become really close as well.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums, or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
At this moment in time, the records I’m listening to are a John Coltrane record called ‘Ballads’ with the John Coltrane Quartet. I’m listening to a great American band, Spoon, from Austin, Texas, and their new record is called ‘Lucifer On The Sofa’. They’ve done many albums and I heard a track and then I just loved the album which has got a bit of a feel of The Replacements to it. Then I’m listening to Aimee Mann, and I’ve always been a big Aimee Mann fan, and ‘Batchelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo’ is the album I’ve been listening to most recently. I’m listening to stuff all the time, but if I have to pick three, there you go.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?
Thanks again for supporting me and I am extremely grateful because they are so many artists out there, and for them to pick me is a lovely thing. Look out for the new stuff, I’ve got a busy year this year, and there are a couple of things I’m not even telling you about, but ‘El Tiradito (The Curse of Sinner’s Shrine)’ should be out in the next couple of months. I also hope to see folks at gigs.
Dean Owens’ ‘Sinners Shrine’ is out now on Eel Pie Records/Continental Record Services.
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