By Steven Church
I first met Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer and songwriter for the California rock band, Dawes in 2012 at the Sanibel Island Writing Conference. Taylor taught a songwriting workshop, and I was there to teach a creative nonfiction workshop. Though we didn’t know much of each other’s work initially, we hit it off pretty much right away and began a friendship that continues today, a friendship forged in a shared appreciation of words and music. Taylor reads my books and sometimes sends me songs he’s working on. I try to make it to a couple of live Dawes shows every year; and we occasionally bounce text messages back and forth on a range of subjects, as we did recently when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. So in advance of their upcoming tour in support of the new album, We’re All Gonna Die, I thought I’d talk again with Taylor about songwriting, voice, playing live, album structure, books, and other things.
Steven Church: Dawes has been on a pretty steady rhythm the last few years of recording and then touring extensively. Can you talk a little about the difference between recording a song and playing it live?
Taylor Goldsmith: As Bob Dylan once said - "a song doesn't live until it's on the road." It's fun to look at the recorded versions as a sort of blueprint, a structure for us all to follow but then to talk to ourselves within it. We've even gotten to the point recently as a band where we agree that the less original 'parts' we play the more alive the song tends to feel. One of the most meaningful things about the marriage between words and music is that the music guides the impression; and sometimes playing a little harder or slower or singing a little higher or lower can change the meaning of words. We try to let the song tell us how it should be played. Sometimes that means fast and loud and sometimes that means slow and quiet. We don't really have a preference between the two. We've been lucky enough to have an audience that seems to be willing to follow us into the gentle stuff as often as the aggressive stuff, which allows us to play a song like “That Western Skyline” as often as “One of Us.”
SC: If every set list, every show, tells a different story, one that’s also part of the album’s story, how do you make those decisions about the order of songs?
TG: Of course we want to balance our sets and our records but fortunately that has so far taken care of itself as the records get written. It’s as if there's some part of my brain that I don't have direct access to that knows what kind of song the record needs next...at least according to my own criteria. Someone else might find one of our records too slow or another too aggressive, but for me, if there is a certain idea or mood lacking, it'll just keep tugging at me until the needed song gets written. We've often come into the studio with about 13 or 14 songs and pare it down from there. And more often than not, those leftover songs not only make it onto the next record, but determine the direction of the record as a whole. I often feel like the first few songs you have for a record dictate how the next ones are written. For Stories Don't End my first song was “From A Window Seat” and for We're All Gonna Die it was the title track. In both cases I was a little surprised at them being this sort of first building block. But I think their idiosyncrasies (at least in relation to other songs I've written) really helped give the sense of the new record being the beginning of a new chapter for the band.
SC: How do you think changes and advances in technology, social media, etc. have affected the relationship between your songwriting process and your audience?
TG: Frankly, I want to share new material as soon as it’s written. And it seems like we're living in a time where that's more and more possible. For a while musicians dreaded new songs ending up on YouTube or something, but now I feel like finding a video of an unreleased new song just adds to the spirit of discovery we've always loved about our favorite music. And hearing the released recorded version only adds to the perceived insight into the creative process. To me, it only seems like a good thing.
SC: Your songs often have a strong narrative voice, a kind of oral storytelling quality, and an honesty that is palpable. Is that something you have to create, or does it just come naturally?
TG: I like to think that the secret to unearthing what it is that people are drawn to in your writing is to stay fully committed to being yourself. Which is not ever easy to do. But I think the slightest glimmer of a singular voice is what makes any sort of writing reflective of the human condition. Once we feel like we've entered into the murky waters where we're hearing the voice someone uses when they're talking to themselves, that's what it's all about.
SC: Absolutely! And it seems like you’re constantly refining and expanding this voice, challenging yourself to explore not just new material but new ways of writing about it.
TG: I think the only way to offer that to an audience is to constantly find new ways of getting out of your own way, to stop questioning whether or not something has been explored already or if there's a way for you to sound smarter or whatever. When something inspires you in a genuine and honest way and you can put that feeling across in your own language (that is as specific to you as your own fingerprint), then you try to live in that zone forever.
SC: As I said, many of your songs have a storytelling quality, but many of them are also essayistic in that they seem interested in exploring an idea as much or more than expressing shared emotion or coming to some kind of easy conclusion.
TG: Some of my favorite songs are written by people who are exploring a world that is otherwise foreign to them. Guys like Warren Zevon or James McMurtry creating little universes that go way beyond all of our shared experiences--whether that's getting into the head of a dead celebrity or into a part of the world you've never been or whatever. Their writing suggests a power of observation that I would assume every writer is always working on and trying to improve.
SC: I think I’ve been guilty of assuming that some of your songs are autobiographical or “confessional,” but it seems clear with, Stories Don’t End, All Your Favorite Bands, and We’re All Gonna Die, that you’ve been kind of moving away from that a bit. I mean, the songs are still coming from that Dawes “consciousness,” but they seem less about you. Is that a fair assessment?
TG: Music is an interesting medium in the sense that everyone assumes the songs are autobiographical. People don't do that with movies or books to the same extent. I don't know why. I guess it's just because that's been the precedent set by songwriters up to this point. I don't have any problem with it and it's true that a lot of my music is autobiographical, but I have enjoyed trying to find different experiences and perspectives from which to speak. It helps make an album feel more like a collection of essays rather than a longer meditation on one man's outlook.
I also feel like most listeners are looking for some sort of common ground with the writer. We don't want a peek into someone's private life for the sake of the peek itself. At least I don't believe that's the richest part of the things we hear or watch or read. I only care about someone airing their dirty laundry as far as I can relate to it. It can very quickly start to feel exploitative or just plain indecent. And I've been guilty of this as much as anyone else. But with these handful of songs off of these last two records, I've been enjoying taking myself out of the equation and seeing how much I really have to say. I definitely feel like I’m testing my mettle, but I guess that's how it should always be.
SC: A lot of writers are big music fans, but you and Griffin in particular have always struck me as two of the biggest book fans of any musicians I know. You read a lot, in a range of genres and styles. Can you talk a little about how literature influences your songwriting process?
TG: As time goes on working in any artistic medium, the more you start to recognize that they are all very much different sides of the same process. Sometimes watching the right movie or reading the right essay leaves me feeling "this feels like a song." And I'm sure that filmmakers or essayists say the same thing about the things they watch or hear or read. If I didn't read, I would have such a harder time writing songs. I feel like just the simple practice of having words flying across your eyeballs regularly does more good than we could ever know. For me, I've always found that writers with a more lyrical sensibility are the ones I go back to. People like Proust, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Miller, Didion, Auster, Delillo. I don't even have to know what they're talking about all the time. The beauty and the rhythm of the sentence - that's more what I'm looking for I think. Griffin is better about getting after nonfiction. Guys like Bertrand Russell and Buckminster Fuller. I try to dip my toe in those waters but it's often way too far over my head for me to really be able to penetrate. I feel like songwriting can be this big, constant game of 'What If...?', so sometimes trying to read the actual experts feels like it's way above my station. I feel like novelists or poets, like a songwriter, are willing to paint enough of a picture for you to do with it what you will. Maybe that's why I keep getting drawn back to them.
Steven Church is the author, most recently, of One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals, and he’s a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for the literary magazine, The Normal School. He teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State where he is the Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing.