Dawn Landes has just completed a whistle-stop tour of the UK. She was only around for a handful of dates before touring the states. She was kind enough to take some time out, and answer our questions.
Below follows an interview KV conducted via email, where Dawn tells us about unusual cover versions, her cinematic wishes and tales from the backline (Sorry, that is a nerdy and terrible music gag!-Becky)
KV: Your new album, ‘Fireproof’ is about to come out, what else are you looking forward to this year?
Dawn: Well, I spent the summer building a recording studio with a few friends in Dumbo (Brooklyn) so I’m excited to get in there and record some music! That’ll have to wait til after the US and UK tours are over. I’m touring with Jason Isbell from the Drive By Truckers in the states and Josh Ritter in Europe.
KV: Sometimes you combine slightly dark lyrics with whimsical and playful melodies. I like it when melancholy and whimsy are linked; is that important for you, in terms of how you approach songwriting?
Dawn: Yeah, I love contrasts. They make things stick out in unusual ways. Like yellow on red. I never approach two songs the same way, but it’s interesting, you are actually in two places when you’re recording the song. Unless you happen to record it at its inception, you’re working with two worlds, the one that inspired the song and the one that’s gonna present the song to other people. hmm
KV: There are some interesting/left-field arrangements in your music; obviously as a recording engineer you have time to nurture all the parts in the studio. Does it ever get difficult to translate them live, particularly on the solo shows?
Dawn: Yes, its so hard to play a song solo and hear all the other parts swimming around in my head and not be able to communicate them! A few years ago I started experimenting a bit with looping onstage, and that helps a little, but nothing compares to having other musicians up there with me.
KV: Louisville has a diverse musical history. With people like Will Oldham and Dave Pajo coming from there, were you inspired by music from the area while you were growing up?
Dawn: I didn’t really find out about a lot of Louisville music until I moved to NYC… maybe because it was a bit before my time, but also I was kind of a big nerd and didnt get out that much. I did know about FreakWater and King Kong and had seen them live, but discovered Will Oldham and My Morning Jacket & Sebadoh much later. I love all of them, and I really dig the music Tara Jane O’Neil makes.
KV: You’re well travelled and I know you have recorded in Europe: have you always been fuelled by a desire to live in different places?
Dawn: Yeah, I think there’s a little bit of gypsy blood in me. My mom’s moved around a lot and my grandparents were sharecropper farmers, always moving around, farming on other peoples land.
KV: Did studying at NYU and moving to New York alter the way you made music?
Dawn: I’m sure it did. Although when I was at NYU I was too scared to play outside of my room. The city was pretty overwhelming for the first 2 years. Then I quit school and started working in studios and that’s what really affected the music-making.
KV: You’ve mentioned elsewhere, that you write scores for films. Do you have a wish list of filmmakers you would like to work with or genres you would particularly like to explore?
Dawn: Wow, yes I’d love to do something with Miranda July, she’s incredible. Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, I mean, this is a wishlist why not go for it!
KV: Does your love of film influence characters and themes in your lyrics?
Dawn: hmm, maybe not in such a direct way, but when I’m working on a song, it’s the images that get stuck in my head. I feel like I’ve stolen more ideas from novels and even newspapers than I have from films, but it’s possible.
KV: Can you tell us a short story from your early days a recording engineer?
Dawn: Well, I made a LOT of mistakes. And apparently I had an inability to say NO to things, so a lot of times I’d lie and pretend like I knewhow to do something without exactly knowing everything I needed toknow. That got me in some trouble Here’s a story from my brief stint as a Live sound engineer:
I was subbing for some front of house engineer at a hip avant-guarde club downtown called Tonic (sadly, it’s not there anymore) and it was my first night, I didn’t really know the room very well andit was a packed house. John Zorn was premiering a new piece, and if you know his work, it’s extremely experimental… So the piece had severe dynamics and the string players were doing all these crazy high notes and I wasn’t sure if it was feedback or not- I was so scared. A few people in the audience turned around several times and gave me evil looks, but it turns out it was the piece! Except for one note apparently, because John Zorn came up to me afterwards and whispered in my ear (something like) “You’re new here, right? Well, good job tonight! There was only one moment of feed back and I kind of liked it, maybe I’ll write it into the piece.”!
KV: Was there anyone whose presence in the studio made you nervous or confounded your expectations in any way?
Dawn: Artists you mean? I really learned a lot from working with Joseph Arthur. I was never nervous around him, just impressed with the way he made his art come alive in the studio… thats hard to do with strangers around I think. And he pushed me, which I think you need sometimes to get to another level. Up all night, everything is spontaneous and immediate… I assisted a session with Linda Thompson and she was so relaxed and funny- her voice is godly! I think she was surprised to see a girl assistant- she said something to me like ” …and what are You doing here?” with a wink . I think it probably has something to do with how comfortable someone is in a studio environment.
KV: By now, many people know of your cover of ‘Young Folks’. I love that it’s a totally original take on a song, with musicians who are much older than you. Will you play with those musicians again? Do you know what Peter Bjorn & John make of the cover?
Dawn: That was so fun. The group I recorded it with are called the WST band (We Sorta Tried) Amazing musicians and salt-of-the-earth people. I think we share a sense of humour. I’d love to do more recording with them, touring is kind of out of the question though, because they range from 65-87 years old and I don’t wanna be responsible for keeping track of them on a tourbus! Peter, Bjorn & John heard the cover somehow and invited me out to their show in NYC last year. They played my version over the PA before taking the stage! and afterwards they came up and hugged me and asked all about the WST band
KV: Thanks for your time, and enjoy your whistle-stop tour of the UK!
Dawn: You’re welcome!, bye
Dawn’s latest album ‘Fireproof’ is released today on Fargo records
See below for our review of Dawn at the Bardens Boudoir Winter Warmer
Dawn Landes + Thao Nyugen + Catherine Anne Davis, Bardens Boudoir, London, 27.1.08
For those who have never been to Bardens Boudoir, I urge you to do so as soon as possible. It’s exactly the sort of venue to make a person excited about live music, before even hearing a note. The door staff are lovely, the sound is clear, there is cabinet of artefacts from the past (Including, some World War 2 glue, donated by my friend Claire!). Basically, it’s a venue with character. More to the point: it’s the perfect setting for an evening of femme-led alternative music. Alas, we’ve missed the only male on the bill. Apologies for missing you, Nic Dawson Kelly. As we walk in, Catherine Anne Davis is on stage. Catherine herself is a striking presence: alabaster skin, deep red hair, a carefully put together outfit, and nonchalant guitar stance. The songs are well put together, the band are very accomplished and she has a dramatic rasp, reminiscent of PJ Harvey. However, for all the drama it’s not quite grabbing me right at this moment.
Fortunately, the serious mood is lifted by the rather brilliant Thao Nguyen [pronounced T’ow Win]. From the moment she bounces on stage and armours herself with her guitar: myself and my pals Sarah and James are hooked. Her songs are up beat, tale-telling Americana. She’s a confident raconteur both lyrically and between songs. Even more notable are her guitar skills. Accompanied by a very able drummer (to quote James they are a bit ‘Like a reversed White Stripes’), it’s stripped down country-rock. She plucks and finger picks her acoustic guitar deftly whilst her cowboy boots tap in time. Comparisons to Cat Power have been made, largely owing to her Virginian roots, but Thao is sunnier and (much as I do love Chan Marshall), a better musician than Marshall. Thao’s endearing performance has thawed both the January blues and the ‘cool’ of the venue’s art-rock postcode.
It’s getting quite late by the time Dawn Landes hits the stage and for this reason, alas she plays a slightly truncated set. Short yes, sweet? most definitely. She starts off solo with a Tom Waits cover and then is joined by a drummer and bassist. She too, is a very endearing and musically proficient performer. A little more retiring than Thao Nguyen, she seems a wee bit prone to nerves. That said, she smiles and engages with us and seems to relax with each song. She’s self deprecating, ” I messed up the ending” she says, at the end of the bittersweet alt. country ‘Twilight’ which sounded perfect under the silver-lit reflections of the mirror ball. If she did ‘mess up’ it was only noticeable to her, a perfectionist. Every note and song is heartfelt. Stylistically, she’s kind of hard to pin down. She’s very well travelled and this shows in her music. One song is in French, another is a 50s do-wap number which reminds me of the ‘Beauty School drop ut’ song from Grease! ‘Straight Lines’ is an offbeat lullaby, at one point I’m so entranced I don’t notice my own silly dancing (it seems the chap in front has though as he chuckles at my daft bopping). I don’t mind. Her songs make me happy. The Belleville Rendezvous-esque ‘Picture Show’ highlights Landes’ playful and experimental side and is my set highlight. There isn’t much time for an encore, but she duly placates the crowd and agrees to play ‘Young Folks’…on one condition: people volunteer to come up and whistle. Inhibition now numbed by a (small) bottle of cider-hic! I find myself up on stage, along with two others doing the whistling part and foot tapping. I don’t wish to know exactly what it looked like but it was a lot of fun. Enough to keep me smiling through the cold, Dalston bus-ride home. Winter-warming fare indeed.