Steve Dawson's Henhouse
By Amanda Ash
Steve Dawson's Henhouse doesn't look like much of a music factory from the outside. The Vancouver studio is located in a small, baby blue garage nestled in the corner of the award-winning producer and musician's well-manicured backyard. If you didn't know that artists such as Jim Byrnes, Shuyler Jansen and Old Man Luedecke have trucked through the place, you'd probably mistake it for his young daughter's life-sized playhouse.
Inside Henhouse's double white doors, however, you get a totally different perspective. The smell of fresh wood wafts through the air. Multi-coloured guitars hang from the blood-red wall like lighted sconces. Keyboards, a pump organ, lap steel, bookshelves and amplifiers all sit flush to the corners like a well-played game of Tetris. Nothing is out of place. Everything gleams with a slick professionalism — from the hardwood floors to the ancient organ.
Considering how many instruments call the Henhouse home, the tiny recording studio doesn't feel claustrophobic. In fact, it's incredibly open. Almost big. That's because the Hen den's mother, Dawson, is very particular about space and the effect it has on his production process.
When Dawson helped build the Henhouse (named after a black chicken that attacked his ankle up on the Sunshine Coast) in 2006, he put his country heart and engineering-oriented mind into every two-by-four piece of plywood. But as each nail was hammered into place, Dawson also made sure to build his studio in the image of his personal music philosophy.
"This place works great for that because all my stuff is accessible and ready to go," Dawson says, referring to his neatly organized gizmos and gadgets that could make the cover of Better Homes & Gardens. "It was harder before when I was working out of apartments or rooms in a house and had something in mind that I wanted to do, but had to dig through three closets. This room is deliberately laid out so there's no separation between anything."
The Henhouse layout suits Dawson's ambitious lifestyle well. Accessibility and efficiency are key for the multi-talented musician, who lives a very busy double life touring his 2008 records Waiting For The Lights To Come Up and the instrumental Telescope, while producing albums like the Deep Dark Woods' latest release Winter Hours and the upcoming Jim Byrnes disc. You can't waste minutes rooting through tangled piles of wires when you've only got seconds to work.
When Dawson's not on the road, he spends a good eight hours a day in his snazzy coop, so an open concept layout also seemed like an apt comfort choice. "I thought about having a sectioned-off studio where you've got a mixing room and tracking room, but then I realized I'd only ever be using half the place at once because I work so much alone," he says.
Dawson's production skills were never acquired professionally; rather, he learned them from fellow sound engineers as he was growing up. He started by producing friends' albums, and before long, he found himself straying from intense editing and sound manipulation towards a more organic process.
"Everything I've done has live performance at the root of it. Ten percent of what I do is live studio recording," he says, using previous works with Jesse Zubot as an example. "But pretty much everything I've done, there've been a group of people in a room together playing music together, which I think if it wasn't that way, I'd find it really boring and stagnant. I like having the interaction.
"There are a lot of intangible results that come from [live recording]. You can have a song with lyrics and a set structure of verses and choruses that can be described on specific way, but you can never really know what's actually going to happen when you play. It's impossible for three, four or five people to play the exact same thing. Having the option of playing live you get different feels, emphasis, sounds, and mistakes — which are cool."
The open room, free of inorganic clutter, makes the Henhouse conducive to capturing a live-venue sound. Of course, the limited space can sometimes make it hard for ten grown adults to jam together, in which case Dawson takes refuge at a friend's live Vancouver venue, the Factory.
Cramped quarters or not, Dawson can still create big things out of the Henhouse. His four shiny Juno Awards, eight Juno nominations, three Canadian Folk Music Awards, six West Coast Music Awards and two Canadian Independent Music Awards just go to prove it.
Dawson is very much a perfectionist when it comes to the Henhouse and its productions, but he's even more so when it comes to himself. Practicality rules so that nothing gets in the way of work — even if that means keeping an old, beaten guitar that Van Halen helped him pick out in a Toronto music store (and is also signed by BB King and John Lee Hooker) stored in a box and out of sight because it's just not useful.
But for musicians, at least you know your records are in meticulous hands that follow a strict philosophy. "The wall is reserved for what I use," he laughs in response to why his famous first guitar isn't a showpiece. 'It's a crappy guitar I would never use. But, maybe, one day, I'll put it up."