So imagine you’re an in-demand producer and sideman with about 170 dates lined up supporting Birds Of Chicago and Matt Andersen – plus three or four albums to produce when it all grinds to a halt thanks to COVID-19. What do you do? If you’re Steve Dawson, you re-think how you produce records, and you put together three solo albums to be released this year.
“When the gigs and production work went away, I was freakin’ out because that was my life,” Steve said from his East Nashville home. “I knew what I was doing for the next year.”
After a couple of weeks, Steve started contacting friends to ascertain their interest in remote recording and, in doing so, came upon a unique production template.
“With the core group of Gary Craig in Toronto on drums and Jeremy Holmes in Vancouver on bass, we would invite people to send (in) their songs,” he recalled. “We’d Zoom with them on a Sunday, talk about the song, and then Gary would tackle the drums, send it to Jeremy, [who] would tackle the bass, and then he would send it to me. I would add everything else and mix it, so by the next Saturday people would have their song recorded and mixed.”
In the end, Steve was able to produce over 100 songs using this method. The confidence Steve gained in this process lead him to further expand his production capabilities.
“We developed a different way of working within that framework where I was more involved,” he said. “If I was fully producing somebody, I would sit-in virtually while they were doing their vocals. We had this travelling rig set up [with] a microphone and pre-amp that would show up at [an artist’s] house.”
An example of this arrangement is the latest album by Kat Danser, One Eye Open. Once set up in her Edmonton home, Kat could see a horn section play its parts in a Vancouver studio while Steve was recording the proceedings in Nashville.
“We did four or five albums over the year for people and then my three albums.”
The first of Steve’s albums is Gone, Long Gone, which focuses on his songwriting, or more specifically, his co-writing with Matt Patershuk of La Glace, AB.
“We’ve worked together a fair chunk on his music over the years, which has been really fun,” Steve said. “I respect him a lot as a writer; we get along really well personally as well and hang out as friends. The collaboration thing was something we kind of talked about a bit before COVID.”
Although Steve had lots of musical ideas to work with, he wasn’t feeling it lyrically, so he contacted Matt.
“I don’t really like the traditional co-writing thing too much,” he said, “where you sit in a room for three hours and are expected to come out with a song. So I asked Matt if he had any lyrics kicking around, and he had tons [so] he sent me some. I found some that kind of matched what I was working on, and I thought it was really cool.”
Steve would either send Matt a song with music and no lyrics or a song with a verse and no chorus or Matt would send lyrics for Steve to put music to.
“In the end, we wrote 15 or 16 songs like that,” he said.
Seven of those songs can be heard on Gone, Long Gone, with the rest slated for Steve’s third album release later this year. The middle album will focus on pedal steel guitar.
“It’s like a psychedelic pedal steel instrumental album!” he said.
Steve’s production work started in the late 90s and early 2000s when he was in a duo with Jesse Zubot and established Black Hen Music. Since then, he’s produced artists like Old Man Luedecke, Kelly Joe Phelps, John Wort Hannam, Jenny Whiteley, Jim Byrnes and the Sojourners. Many of these albums have been released through his company. After many years of being based in Vancouver, Steve made the move to Nashville in 2013.
“I wanted to change it up basically,” he said. “Vancouver is not the most artist/musician-friendly place on the planet. It’s getting insanely expensive. There’s not a ton of work in the kind of music I was making and interested in. We looked at Toronto and realized it’s also brutally expensive there. We went to Nashville, really liked it and just decided to go for it. I knew probably three people here at the time.”
One of those people was Allison Russell of Birds Of Chicago, who Steve knew from Allison’s days in Vancouver when she was in Po’ Girl and Fear Of Drinking. Extensive touring with Birds Of Chicago lasted three years until the pandemic. Steve has an interesting perspective on the current success of Allison’s solo album Outside Child, which has garnered multiple Grammy and Juno Award nominations. It’s an album Steve played pedal steel on.
“Maybe her solo career wouldn’t have even happened if the pandemic hadn’t hit,” he surmised. “Birds Of Chicago was this thing that kept rolling and rolling and rolling. There was never any thought of stopping, so it took the pandemic to make that happen. Allison had made the album anyway, but it definitely was partly a product of the pandemic.”
Now that Gone, Long Gone has been released, Steve is hitting the road for some shows in western Canada in April.
“I had two tours cancelled, and I kind of threw my arms in the air after the second one got cancelled in 2021,” he recalled. “Because I was putting the records out, I figured I might as well try to do some shows. I booked the shows assuming they would get cancelled until a month ago when I realized it would happen.”
The tour will feature a band consisting of Jeremy Holmes on bass, Joachim Cooder on drums and Chris Gestrin on keyboards.
For more information on Steve Dawson and Gone, Long Gone go to stevedawson.ca.