Name: Erin Dawson
Occupation: Guitarist, musician
Current release: Please Us, the new album by Nasturtium, Erin Dawson's duo project with Geneva Skeen, is out via Room40. [Read our Geneva Skeen interview].
Recommendations: On a purely groove-based appraisal, I can’t say enough about "Prisencolinensinainciusol.” Its history as an Italian language song attempting to mimic what English sounds like from an Italian-speaking perspective is pretty famous, so I won’t say much about that. It’s just ... the groove here and the play between the brass and the rhythm section is so hypnotic.
Rothko - On The Day We Said Goodbye // One of my favorite sounds is the electric bass. I stumbled onto Rothko only kind of recently, but they’ve become a major fixture for me. This track specifically plays with a lot ideas that I value—the improvisatory vibe in its beginning, the call and response between voice and and the other instrumentation, texturing with non-musical elements, and most importantly, the pacing. There’s no rush. So much patience here. Lots of love here.
If you enjoyed this interview with Erin Dawson and would like to find out more, head over to Instagram or bandcamp for more information, recent updates and music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
A childhood friend showed me an AC/DC guitar riff using cowboy chords—you know the riff. After he showed it to me, it dawned on me that musicians aren’t these wizards who individually find sounds and tunings in isolation, who make meals from rotten fruit. They just combine chords together, er ... at least that was my first-blush understanding. What a bunch of phonies! That happened a couple years ago.
I started writing music soon after this, pretty elementary stuff, but specifically using only chords. This path to composition isn’t weird for a young person, but I suppose this attraction to chords departs from a lot of folks for whom guitar is their primary instrument. People like me. Chords became a permit I carried in my musical purse and functioned as a gateway to other musical building blocks.
Now that the scales had fallen from my eyes (no pun intended, though pun always intended), making music myself (with these common chords) didn’t seem too farfetched.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
As an undergraduate music performance major (I say this in real debt and with only a nice vibrato to show for it), originality wasn’t prioritized. It took me a long time to allow the idea that deviation (from an amorphous thing: here, I guess, I mean anything splintering from the kind of training one would receive in this tradition) could inform my practice.
Things clicked for me when I could start aligning originality with organization. As a kid, I listened to Shostakovich, but also Hella, but also Bill Frisell, but also The Vandals and pop punk. I wanted to make music in similar veins to all of these projects, but how could that ever happen?
It took so long to realize that organizing and compartmentalizing the desire to write in these traditions didn’t have to come from one project called Erin Dawson—that separation provides a container for me to think through. And thank god, because can you imagine what that would sound like?
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’ve written lyrics about pockets of fat on my upper legs, about being a carnivore watching the TV show LOST, about how bizarre fundamentalist Christianity is.
I never intended to do this. My eyes don’t exactly roll back in my head, allowing me to become super confessional when using voice, it just sort of comes out. My identity just sort of comes out.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I’ve had a hard time listening to my intuition. I still do. I feel like I’m outing myself by saying this and I don’t even know what I’d be outing myself as. Again, maybe because when you’re a classical musician, your needs are few—replicate the piece. Perform the piece beautifully. Wresting this aim from creation, from composition, has been difficult for me. The latter requires experimentation. Your hands—my hands at least—need to be busy asking and answering questions that just froth, naturally.
It took me so long to acknowledge that basic questions around sustained creation even exist. Should one (I) have an a room of one’s own to create? Should you (I) need that? Should you attend to your practice like an appointment, or let it find you? What even is “a practice”?
I’ve answered most of these by now.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My path kind of went like this:
Inheriting my mother’s acoustic guitar > buying an electric guitar after hearing “…And Justice for All” > BOSS digital four track with amp modeling that I’d kill to hear today > an Alvarez Yari classical guitar and piano > the music notation software tool Finale and a text book on instrumentation and how to write for instruments other than your own > Logic Pro X > feeling ashamed that I make music in the tradition that anyone reading this appreciates or makes music in primarily with guitar > giving a rude hand gesture to that shame and embracing whatever instrument I had in proximity, which often included guitar > synths > treating the studio as “an instrument.”
I’m a big fan of letting my lack of expertise or my pursuit of expertise guide me. Being passably adept at a thing doesn’t help me find interesting musical ideas. In terms of the tools I use now, and in terms of the instruments I’m trying to learn, I want to know enough that I can get one, good tone and maybe play scales, but not enough that I could show off in front of people after two drinks.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Music notation software implicitly asks you a weird question. It asks, “Who do you think you are writing for bass trombone, even though (1) you don’t know any bass trombone players and (2) even though you didn’t know that bass trombones were different than traditional trombones before seeing this in a dropdown menu? Additionally, how dare you?”
So that kind of thing has made me question the way I make music.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I appreciate an alone together approach when collaborating. Real-life collaboration brings out the worst angels of my nature—I become egoistic and sensitive, I become annoyed when people show up a little late, etc. I become, in other words, un-chill.
File sharing is that alone together approach for me.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have a boring and uncool answer to this one.
I know this about myself: I make my best work when I am happy. And when I feel safe.
Saturday mornings are sacred to me. It’s when I’m happiest. I have an iced coffee and the whole day ahead. I can experiment with sounds that I wouldn’t play with during the week, when efficiency is priority. I’m not Beethoven. I shouldn’t tear my hair out when I can’t solve the musical puzzle I’ve made for myself. But I do sometimes feel pretty glum when I feel like I’ve made a maze from which I can’t escape.
For me, Saturday mornings are about putting that aside. I open a new project, I sit down with an instrument and record myself improvising, then transcribe or isolate parts of that recording for another day. Maybe a Saturday.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I wrote a piano trio which was performed at a New Music recital when I was a music student. When the piece was finished and the applause petered out (everyone received applause; I wasn’t special), someone in the row of seats in front of me turned around to ask me if Scriabin was an influence.
To answer your question, and hers, he was!
This was big for me because this era of music, the explosion of incredible Russian classical music around this time, is still my northstar. The dynamism between atonality and saccharine melodies glued together by a kind of auto fictional filament is my vibe. My viiiiiiibe. This is why I think I work well with Geneva Skeen.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
See above. I like to be happy when working. That doesn’t mean the work has an affect of happiness, but feeling buoyant frees me up to not think every decision I make was the wrong.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I tried to answer this myself by reading The Hatred of Music, which wasn’t helpful.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Ok, the word “gender” is used in this prompt and as a trans person, I legally must filter my answer through this lens. My eyes roll back in my head as I right the following—
Punching down musically, should be discouraged. The opposite phrasing is more apt: punching up musically is encouraged. As I write this, #IfAllMenDisappearedForADay trends. Let me ask you, 15questions.net, what if men disappeared? What musical traditions would we keep? Would we eventually, hundreds of years later, mourn The Great Women Theory of history-appraisal as a limiting aperture to think narratively about human progress?
Something I heard recently makes me think of this. Les Filles de Illighadad features the first Tureg women to play guitar professionally. So, yes—I guess what I’m saying is that these are the kind of culture signs and specifics I’m delighted to see broken and hopefully copied.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I return null.
(Though inter-sensorial connections are intriguing!)
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
God, this is good. I don’t even know.
I don’t know, really. I just know that the closest we can get to god is to share in their act of creation. For me, a non-Catholic, I value deeply the act of confession when its adjacent to confession. Sometimes, my confessions are silly, sometimes, confession arrives in the same way—sorry to go here—that I’ve heard serial killers are wont to “leak” information. Their murderous conquests, of which they’re proud, slip out, unconsciously, during casual conversation.
To me, music functions similarly. I confess through melodic ideas, textures, and good lord, probably gain staging. I already feel gross using this as my referent, but what are ya gonna do? I confess to at least that.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don’t know what it can express which words cannot, but I have an idea of how it can express it.
It’s many, many bars of C# as a sine wave, changing every once in a while its oscillation. Harmonized with, eventually, many, many bars in the future, D#. Then back to C#—that’s it. Life and death.