Interview: Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes talks to Josip Radic in Zagreb

This interview represents a bit of a first for Americana UK. We in the UK may be hurtling towards Brexit, but at AUK Towers we are doing our small bit to maintain active relations with Europe, and in the true spirit of togetherness with our European colleagues, we are publishing an interview with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes by Josip Radic, from Zagreb. Taylor Goldsmith is promoting the new Dawes album ‘Good Luck With Whatever’ , recorded with Grammy Award-winning roots music producer Dave Cobb. For those AUK readers who are interested, you can keep a lookout for Josip Radic’s band’s new album, ‘May’, by Kensington Lima. 

“I wanna give this everything I’ve got because I assume I’ll be getting a real job in the next few months. I didn’t think we’d be able to stretch it very far”. Luckily, Taylor Goldsmith is not talking about the effects of the pandemic on the music industry and his band, Dawes, but rather his attitude just before recording their debut album ‘North Hills’ back in 2009. Produced by their Canyon compadre, Jonathan Wilson, the album introduced Taylor’s signature songwriting and their raw but gentle, “western skyline” sound.
The fact that it’s 11 years later and I’m having a conversation like this with you is really far beyond what I thought it all could be. It’s hard to dream of being a band for a decade. Every band does it, but the ones that actually make it happen are few and far between. We feel particularly lucky.

 A hundred venues, six albums, a couple of band personnel changes and one Bob Dylan comment on their song ‘A Little Bit of Everything’, Dawes now consists of Taylor, his brother Griff on drums, Wylie Gelber on bass and Lee Pardini on keyboards. The new album ‘Good Luck With Whatever’ is their seventh album and it sounds like they have mastered their game but they still feel like kids! It also has something to do with Dave Cobb producing the sessions at RCA studios in Nashville.

We have been fortunate enough to love every experience we’ve had with a producer. They all bring different qualities of ours out and it’s something we like to chase down. We don’t wanna get too comfortable with any single producer too many albums in a row because we like watching the whole thing grow in new ways. Dave was different from other producers in the speed he likes to work. It was a marathon! Not any time for overthinking which, I think, is a real strength of his. All the music he makes sounds like you can hear the urgency, you can hear that the band doesn’t always quite know what to do, that everyone is reacting to each other. It’s not particularly comfortable, but it helps the album feel alive.

That urgency translates to the record’s nine songs
I love it when a record is around 40 minutes, the ideal time for 2 sides of a vinyl. I know not everyone listens to records that way anymore, but I do. So I enjoy keeping that in mind”, says Goldsmith although there were, in fact, eleven songs recorded. “We got the arrangements wrong as a band, so the two songs will probably be rerecorded and reinvented. A lot of our songs have had that kind of life. For example, we tried ‘Picture Of A Man’ on Stories Don’t End’ and on All Your Favourite Bands’ before we found the right version on We’re All Gonna Die’. It went from being a throwaway on one record to one of our favourites on another, so sometimes we need more time with a tune to really figure out how to play it.

The gentle and bittersweet ‘St. Augustine at Night’, for example, stands halfway between Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Homeward Bound’. Goldsmith introduced it live in 2019 and only added a bit of piano to the finished track.

I have family in St. Augustine, so I’ve developed a bit of a relationship with the town through their eyes. As someone from LA, the idea of this small beach town where everyone knows each other and life is lived at a slower pace has a certain romance to me. But I think the song is also about everyone in the sense that, to some degree, we all have to come to terms with watching our lives pass us by. No matter what we all set out to do, no one actually achieves all of it. And one thing we can all hold onto is our early impressions of where we’re from, how that shaped us. I guess that sort of thing has always fascinated me, cause it’s come up a lot.

Despite the fact (or maybe just because!?) it’s not what you’d call a typical top 40 chart song for the 21st century, ‘St. Augustine’ soon became a fan favorite.
I think it’s really rare that a band could write a song like ‘St. Augustine at Night’ and feel confident it’s gonna be a fan favorite with their audience. But at this point, after 7 records, if someone gets into Dawes, I am pretty sure it’s not for our upbeat, hooky earworms. We just don’t know how to do much of that! I think it takes a lot of time and a lot of luck to build up a relationship with an audience where they will accept and enjoy a song like St. Augustine.

It’s not unfair to say that their songs are simply bigger than the band itself.
I honestly don’t know how it happened for us. And it’s also probably part of the reason we’re not some giant band. That’s just a different sport that we don’t know how to play. But if I were asked if I had any advice for someone else trying to live in the same lane that we live in, I really wouldn’t know what to say. The only thing I know for certain is that the only writers that definitely can’t make it happen are the ones that quit trying at some point.

‘Good Luck With Whatever’ was offered on presale with a number of goodies, T-shirts, vinyl mats, photo books, etc. Some of the bundles were sold out in days which speaks volumes about Dawes’ relationship with their fans. Instead of running to the van or hiding at the toilet, Taylor and the rest of the band tend to spend their after shows at the merch stands and bars, taking selfies, signing LP covers, or just casually chatting.

The better I’ve gotten at being myself, the better things have gone for the band. When I can get to a place where I don’t care how ridiculous I look onstage, the better the show is. When I stop thinking about what might be expected of us as a band or me as a writer, the better the song is. It’s a weird juxtaposition of not always caring about what the fans think, but on the other hand, making sure I am constantly aware of the gratitude and debt we have to them.  What’s so incredible is that we feel supported in our growth and in our challenges to ourselves. I’ve never picked up on a “please just make North Hills again” type of energy from any of our fans.

Naturally, all of that can sometimes be a hassle as well?
I try to be available, I try to stay in touch. It gets harder as time goes on and life changes, but it brings me so much joy to connect with other people. It kinda feels like the point of the whole thing in the first place”.

In 2018, Dawes were playing huge arenas opening for ELO on their North American tour. As a headliner, they pack Nashville’s Ryman or New York’s Beacon Theatre. But, a European audience is yet to discover the band in the way it discovered their peers such as The Killers?
Yeah, it definitely feels like we are 5-10 years behind in Europe, which is actually a joy for us. Of course, I would love to play big rooms and theatres in every city but there is something very special about a club that only fits 250 people and the way that it makes us play. It’s a completely different energy, makes me feel like I’m in my 20’s again. Touring Europe makes us feel like a young band. But after 3 weeks or so, I think we get a little too sleep-deprived and a little too much back pain from the van, haha.

The night before conducting this interview, we were witnesses to Kanye West’s Twitter tantrum and rants on record companies, music publishing and the importance of artists owning their masters. How is Taylor managing through the music industry maze?
I have to admit that I’m one of the lucky ones. We were on a label for our first two records and now on Rounder records for this new one. The ones in between were self-released.  We’ve had 3 different management companies along the way and we’ve been really lucky that we’ve only worked with good people. I think our biggest lesson was learning that we should all try to own as much as we can. Maybe that’s more appropriate for someone in this same sort of Americana universe and less relevant for someone making it in pop, but we own almost all of our masters at this point and I own all of my publishing. People always told me it was a good idea, but I never started understanding why until recently. It takes time for that stuff to gain value, but I’m so glad I listened cause they were right. I realise not everyone has that choice though and that’s why I feel lucky about our experience within the big, bad industry.

‘Nothing Is Wrong’, released in 2011 and featuring concert staples such as ‘Time Spent In Los Angeles’ and ‘Coming Back To A Man’, was really an introduction to Dawes for a lot of people. As a songwriter, what can Taylor Goldsmith from 2011 learn from Taylor in 2020 and vice versa?
I’m really proud of the record, but I have never been one to project my current tastes onto past work. I just apply it to the next one. Would I wanna make Nothing Is Wrong again? No way.  Are there songs that I don’t connect with any more from that time? Absolutely. But I appreciate it as a time capsule. I think the biggest takeaway for me when I consider how I write now versus how I wrote then is how personal Nothing Is Wrong is. For better or worse, honestly. When I listen to the early works of an artist it strikes me that it’s typically pretty self-consumed. No offense to any younger readers but that’s so typical of a lot of folks in their early 20’s. And I was no exception. I guess I didn’t think twice about airing my dirty laundry and talking about myself as much as people could stand to hear it.

Later and especially on the current record, that attitude seems to change?
I’ve noticed that as a lot of my favourite writers got older, Joni, Leonard, Zevon, Dylan, Costello, especially Costello, they started inhabiting the experience of other people. And that, to me, became the mark of a really powerful writer. An ability to stop talking about “me” but also “you” or “them” and do it in a way that still suggested that they were witnessing the fullness of humanity. So it’s something I try to keep in mind and strive for. I still write a lot of personal songs, and I’m really proud of that. But I’ve enjoyed trying to challenge myself into writing about others, conjuring up experiences that I haven’t had and somehow still making them truthful to a listener.

‘All Your Favorite Bands’ from 2015 was, in fact, Taylor’s way of saying goodbye to his “roaring twenties”, the highs, the dramas, “the 5 AMs, the worried friends”.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when you put it like that, I guess you’re right. It feels like the last record of ours that could be heard as a break-up record. It’s probably because I met my wife the week it came out. There have been break-up songs since, but not quite as prevalent as on that record.

Playing live and recording it with Dave Rawlings as a producer was a different story altogether?
We made that record in Nashville and it was one of the most fun experiences we had ever making a record not only because the whole thing was more or less live, but because Dave doesn’t work with computers. Like it or not, it forced us to live in the moment a little more.  And hanging with him and Gillian (Welch) every day while we punched up songs and listened back to takes is such a fond memory for me. And yeah, it’s the last record we made where we ended each night at one of the neighbourhood bars. I guess I’ve never thought about it like that, but that time definitely represents the end of an era. Which I guess the end of your 20’s is supposed to be.

Just a year later came ‘We’re All Gonna Die’ which took the audience by surprise with many of your fans not expecting that radical turn in terms of sound and production.
I know it might be hard to believe but we didn’t even realize it at the time. We just thought we were making the next Dawes record where we tried to come up with interesting ways to play my folksy songs. I figured it would end up being the logical extension of songs like “Things Happen”, “Most People”, “When My Time Comes”, but it didn’t hit people that way.  We weren’t able to see how different it was for us until other people heard it. And yeah, there were some major dissenters and a little bit of that hurt at the time. But looking back, it’s probably why I feel so grateful for that record. It really made the statement – “from here on out, we can do whatever we want”. I even love the hate at this point.

Turns out it was just what the band needed at the time when the tag “Laurel Canyon/West Coast rock” became a bit of a drag?
One of my favourite pastimes as a music fan is figuring out what records by certain artists are good and which ones are bad. If Joni or Costello were always batting 1000, it would take the fun out of it. I think as we get caught up in the story that releases tell us, we want highs and lows, we want surprises despite how much we might think otherwise. And I don’t mean to suggest that I see We’re All Gonna Die as a disliked record. It’s one of those slow burns that now, when people bring it up to me, is typically some version of “it caught me off guard at first but now it’s far and away my favourite Dawes album.

Taylor is not a stranger to sharing some demos and work-in-progress on Instagram here and there. What is in Dawes vaults, are we likely to be surprised by a huge rarities box set sometime in the future?
I sure hope so. I don’t think we’ve earned that yet though. I hope I don’t sound like a jerk when I say that I still feel like we are making our relevant records. I’m sure there will come a time when we’re not, which will be hard to stomach, but that’s when we should start talking box sets (laughs). If anyone still cares about us at that point.

Earlier in 2020, pre-pandemic, the band got to play with Phil Lesh, but he was just the latest on their dreams-turned-reality collaborations which started with Robbie Robertson, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne and others sharing the mic and stage.
I mean we’ve been so spoiled. It’s hard to want more when we’ve clearly had the lion’s share. At this point, it would be a dream to play with Mark Knopfler or Bruce Springsteen.  But, again, I’m not holding my breath. That would be way beyond what we think could be possible.

The current line-up with Lee Pardini on keys, “the 15th most famous person in San Jose”, as Taylor put it recently, is the one that seems the most definite. Pardini is an accomplished session player, he recorded with Roger Waters on his solo album ‘Is This The Life We Really Want?’, but with Dawes, he seems at home, and not just musically speaking. How hard is it having and being a part of a band compared to being married?
It’s absolutely harder than a marriage. With a band, there are’s 3 more sets of feelings, not just one. Not to mention the crew on the road. Staying in a band is a constant challenge to maintain some level of patience and always make sure you’re listening to those around you. We’re lucky that we know how to navigate each other and be there for each other at this point.

We can’t escape talking about the effects of the pandemic, not just on a personal and band level, but on music, economy and society as well.
All I know is that it’s pretty scary. A lot of venues won’t be able to hang on and I assume the ones that do won’t be able to afford to pay artists what they used to. To say nothing of the artists that have to pivot and come up with new career paths. I’m bad at talking about what a government could do for artistic communities, because, in my experience, that’s not how America works. I understand everyone has their own version of hardship they’re having to deal with through all of this.  But we’ve felt a real wave of support for this next record and it’s not lost on us that a lot of that goodwill comes from the fact that our fans are aware of what covid does to our business. It doesn’t go unnoticed and means the world to us right now. Hopefully, it’s all over sooner than later.

During the lockdown, Goldsmith ventured into pop songwriting for other artists. Is he worried or afraid, if that’s not exactly the word, of some artistic compromises that are sometimes needed in that market?
Not at all, because it’s not my song and it doesn’t really have my name on it. At least not as the artist. If it represents someone else’s experience, then I am nothing but proud. It feels a lot like puzzle making to me. When it works, I just feel proud that it hangs together, not necessarily that shares any part of me or my worldview. And it’s been a real lifesaver at a time like this. Not sure if I’ll do it indefinitely but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see how much I’ve enjoyed all of it.

The Beatles’ 7th was ‘Revolver’ and Pink Floyd’s was ‘Obscured By Clouds’, both albums anticipating a masterpiece follow- up ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’.
HaHa. One can only hope. Because of COVID, we actually are gonna go make our next record fairly soon I think. Can’t make the claim that it’ll be a masterpiece, but it’ll be very different for us.  Which I hope is how recording every record feels for us for as long as we’re a band.

Dawes ‘Good Luck With Whatever’ is out now on Rounder Records

 

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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