A mere few months into this year has already determined a successful 2011 for Vancouver-based producer and recording artist, Steve Dawson.
Not only is Dawson in the midst of a full-bore tour for his March 29th release, Nightshade, but two albums he produced last year won Juno awards at this year’s festivities (Old Man Luedecke and Jim Byrnes). This means Dawson has produced five Juno winning albums for other artists, as well as winning two of his own.
“With music, sometimes it’s hard to have a real plan, so I wing it,” laughs Dawson. “I feel like I’m still working at it like anybody else.”
Over the last decade, Dawson has become one of the foremen of the roots world. Known for his eclectic style, diverse musical palette, ear for arrangements and brilliance on stringed instruments, he is applauded by critics and cohorts alike as being one of the hardest working Canadian musicians around.
His fifth solo release, Nightshade, has all the characteristics of a well-produced roots album: pedal steel, banjos, searing electric guitar, back up vocalists (Jill Barber, Jeanne Tolmie and Alice Dawson), well-crafted lyrics and song arrangements that don’t lie. Steve Dawson comes to the table with seasoned professionalism that can’t be bought with pocket change.
Nightshade contains 12 tracks — 11 originals and one cover track (The Mississippi Sheiks) — and comes off as a successful roots montage with strong blues guitar and chillingly dark vocals, telling finely crafted stories.
A Vancouver native, Dawson got involved with music in his early teens. Upon graduation, he spent two years at Boston’s Berklee College studying music, returning back to Vancouver to cut his chops in the west coast music scene.
The Spirit Merchants was Dawson’s main touring band throughout the ’90s, until the band evolved into a duo, whereby Dawson and Jesse Zubot (violin) created Zubot and Dawson, exploring acoustic instruments and experimenting with elements of folk, jazz, blues and even Hawaiian music from the 1920s and ’30s. The duo found measurable success in the Canadian roots scene, culminating with a Juno award in 2002.
Shortly afterwards, Zubot and Dawson joined forces with Toronto jazzsters, Kevin Turcotte and Andrew Downing, to form The Great Uncles of the Revolution. This project was also met with a Juno in 2003, as well as the Grand Prix de Jazz at the 2003 Montreal Jazz Festival. At this point, Dawson found himself experimenting with acoustic, instrumental music.
“It was a huge part of what I did for quite a while… it was a lot of abstract music, not commercial, but we were able to carve out a little niche for ourselves,” says Dawson of the early part of the millennium.
While this was going on, Dawson released his debut solo album, Bug Parade (2001), and got to work building a studio to house his growing collection of vintage instruments and recording gear. After several years of success as a producer, Dawson could now take his Black Hen Music label (started in 1998) to a new level with his production studio, the Henhouse.
“[It’s been] twelve years that I’ve really been focusing on production,” reflects Dawson. “Basically, I like to keep diverse and not focus just on one thing.”
This statement might lend some explanation as to why Dawson has taken the time to learn so many instruments.
“For me it’s always been a question of necessity… either I need to bring somebody in or do it myself,” he says, with regards to playing instruments such as pedal steel, lap steel and banjo when he’s producing.
Maybe Dawson’s secret recipe is his refusal to stay in one stream for too long. This might explain the multi-instrumentalist’s obsession with vintage instruments and experimentation in the studio.
“I like weird, old instruments with some soul to them,” says Dawson.
He likes them so much that he even devoted time to study the pedal steel guitar under the direction of Greg Leisz, who Dawson refers to as his mentor, as far as the instrument is concerned.
“It relates to the other instruments I play… but the pedal steel suddenly incorporates your knees and feet, so it’s actually a really daunting instrument,” he explains of the instrument integral to the Hawaiian music that has influenced Dawson’s own sound.
This study of the pedal steel, which was made possible by a grant he received from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2005, inspired Telescope (2008), which went on to receive a 2009 Juno nomination.
Another genre that Dawson has delved in and out of over the years is, of course, the blues. Much of his work as a producer has been with blues artists, and his own accomplishments as a slide guitarist point towards influences such as Duane Allman and Ry Cooder; despite obvious blues influences, Dawson can’t be pinned down as a blues artist, but more as a musician who takes certain elements from the genre, making them his own.
“I don’t consider myself a blues musician. I like taking what I’ve learned and applying it to my own music. Slide has been a big part of what I do and it translates to both acoustic and electric,” explains Dawson, who enjoys mixing traditional and modern elements together.
However Dawson’s music is categorized, his taste and style as a producer has been held in high regard by some big kahunas in the roots world, expanding his production resume to include artists such as Jenny Whiteley, Kelly Joe Phelps, The Deep Dark Woods and The Sojourners, to name a few. Such work has earned Dawson multiple wins at not only the Junos, but the Western Canadian Music Awards and Maple Blues Awards.
2009 saw the release of Dawson’s tribute to the 1930s group The Mississippi Sheiks, which features 17 artists, including Bruce Cockburn, John Hammond, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The North Mississippi Allstars, Bill Frisell, Bob Brozman, Geoff Muldaur and Madeleine Peyroux. Next year Dawson would like to take this bluesy project out for a test drive, playing some shows for his fans.
Gelling with his current bandmates, Geoff Hicks (drums), Keith Lowe (bass) and Chris Gestrin (keys), Dawson is happy to be touring Nightshade and keeping busy with a number of recording projects.