Dolly Varden’s Steve Dawson goes solo

By Mark Guarino

The death of a parent, the theft of recording equipment, the terrorism of 9-11 and the anger created by its aftermath all figure into the new album by Steve Dawson, but not in ways that stand up and demand attention.   

Dawson, the primary songwriter and singer in the long-time Chicago band Dolly Varden, writes lyrics that create vivid images, but don’t necessarily evoke a complete story. The songs, however, don’t sound fragmented due to his sublime vocals that break with anguish, murmur in isolation and can suddenly break out and summon rigorous heights. “Sweet is the Anchor” (Undertow) is a vocalist’s album, awash in the languor of country music and the Saturday night highs of soul. The obvious touchstone is the early ‘70s, when rock cross-pollinated with country on the West Coast (Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Gram Parsons), Al Green was cutting his best work in Memphis and Van Morrison soaked up both sides of the aisle on albums that belted blue-eyed soul in the context of folk music and jazz.   

“I’m more of a fan of singers than songwriters,” Dawson said this week, from his home in Wicker Park where he lives with his wife, the painter and songwriter Diane Christiansen, and their 13-year-old daughter Eva. “I love that early era Elton John stuff, Wings, Jackson Browne. When I could walk around with an A.M. radio to my ear and hear Stevie Wonder in the mix. It was a great era where the genre wasn’t as important as a catchy song.”   

Dawson’s album was recorded mostly at home, which meant sessions in an impromptu studio space but also the living room and bathroom (“the vocals sound pretty good in there”). The sound is warm and intimate with Dawson handling most of the instruments although notable free jazz players Jason Adasiewicz (vibes), Frank Rosaly (drums) and Jason Roebke (bass) cameo, including Christiansen on vocals and Joel Patterson (Devil in a Woodpile, Kelly Hogan’s Wooden Leg) on pedal steel guitar.    

Collectively, they tighten the emotional underpinnings of the songs, which range from blank-faced loss (“Temporary”) to quiet rage (“The Guilty Will Pay”). Dawson and company know how to make even a haunting elegy (“Friend Like a Wheel”) sound entrancing despite a sinister lyric (“your good time buddies are leaving on two legs … while the pornographic cowgirl in your bed/is pulling all the grey hairs from your head”).    

The darkness and agitation that bubble just underneath Dawson’s top shelf melodies and easygoing voice is what has long distinguished his songwriting. Driven by strings and golden guitars, “Love is a Blessing” is his best nod yet to Al Green while “Sweet is the Anchor,” a sensual pop melody, features harmony vocals shared by his wife. They are songs that wrestle with the demons in the others — “I’m the One I Despise,” a country song plagued in self-doubt, and “Temporary,” a song Dawson reports was influenced by the death of his mother in 2003 (“bang your head against the wall/and scan the screens for one last memory,” he sings).   

“You never really know where something is going to go. You can start with a seed of an idea and it makes a path of its own sometimes. The more I write I let things follow their own course. The impulse is that everything is temporary and life is temporary. I guess (the song) was reassuring me and others that that’s okay,” he said.   

Dawson, 36, was raised in Utah where he discovered his father’s record collection when he was 12. His father, a wildlife illustrator whose work appears on postage stamps and in the National Geographic, had everything from classic rock to jazz. (Dawson reports his own daughter is currently going through the same experience he did at the same age. “We caught her writing a song the other day and didn’t want to say anything,” he said.)   

He moved to Chicago after attending Berklee School of Music in Boston. A friend told him Chicago’s music scene was bearing fruit and provided musicians endless opportunities to play. “It was great advice,” he said. Upon his arrival he met Christiansen, married and they formed Stump the Host, a country rock band that preceded Dolly Varden. In 1995 Dolly Varden released the first of four albums that would reflect both the hook-ready depth of Dawson’s songwriting and the dynamic collaboration of all five players. From the beginning, the strength of their music drew the attention of major labels and the band was heavily courted. The process, however, led nowhere.  

“It was always the same line. Either the head of marketing or the label president would say ‘I don’t know how we would market this — two singers and it sounds kind of like country and kind of like rock.’ I decided I wasn’t going to argue with those people,” he said. “With every one of those (comments) I could have answered, ‘well what about Fleetwood Mac, what about Neil Young?’ None of those people would get signed in the current market, I guess.”   

Dolly Varden remains a rare band in Chicago, or elsewhere, that can boast a track record of consistently strong albums and a live show packed with a level of musicianship and songs that don’t reference their heroes from decades ago, they rival them. These days, they play to a devoted following in the Midwest and East Coast and also in Britain where they receive regular airplay on the BBC. Following the theft of their gear in Nashville and the subsequent release of their fourth album, Dawson said the band decided to take a break in 2003 so all five band members could concentrate on their respective families. They are currently recording a fifth album and expect to release it next year.   

“It was a really good thing to take a step back,” he said. “Everyone came back thinking that we’re probably not going to get a major label deal and tour the world with Dolly Varden. The question was, ‘do we still want to do this?’ The answer was a resounding ‘yes’.”

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