For a guy whose band is named after a particularly stubborn variety of trout, Steve Dawson
certainly has his feet planted firmly on the ground. An Idaho native, the founder (along with wife Diane Christiansen) of alt-country group Dolly Varden
has been building a strong following throughout Chicago for nearly two decades now. The band (which formed after the breakup of the short-lived Stump the Host) has released several critically acclaimed albums, including 2002's Forgiven Now
, a statement full of soulful harmonies and the blunt, moody songwriting that has characterized Dawson's career. Dawson fans can expect an extension of that on his recent solo debut, Sweet is the Anchor
, with a few twists.
"It was more out of practicality than any need to express myself as a solo artist," Dawson says about the decision to step out on his own. "Dolly Varden sort of took a hiatus. We didn't break up, but we sort of agreed to take a little time. It just wasn't enough; I was writing a lot more songs and I wanted to release them."
Stylistically, the move made sense. While his soul and rock influences were reflected through Dawson's work with Dolly Varden, several songs on Sweet is the Anchor really wouldn't work within the group's catalog.
"Soul is probably my favorite kind of music," he says. "I'm a huge fan. I can always put on Al Green and not be sick of it. It's the one thing I can always put on and enjoy. So I always wanted to do that." "Love is a Blessing," the standout track on the album, is a nostalgic throwback to the smooth sounds of Green and his contemporaries, with subtly funky strings and drums complementing Dawson's rich voice.
Though his pipes may be the selling point, Dawson's use of the pen is what has powered along all his ventures (he's been compared to Raymond Carver for his inventive use of language and subject matter). It's this prowess that he brings to his weekly gig teaching songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
"I've been teaching there for about a year now," he says. "I'm about discussing options and nurturing people's creativity. I make no claim to know the right or wrong way to write a song...I don't know that there is one right way."
Dawson has certainly found a successful formula for his own work, and it doesn't seem like he's heading out to sea anytime soon. "I definitely intend to keep doing music until I drop dead. It might be in a more mellow context, and I won't be touring all the time. But I definitely love doing it and I will keep doing it."
Nothing fishy about that.
In the beginning:
My first show ever was at an ice rink when I was in junior high. We put a little band together called Eyez. One of the guys in the band's uncle managed the ice rink, and they had a stage set up on the ice, and obviously it was really cold. I remember we just sucked so bad.
I get live at:
I've always enjoyed Schubas, and the Old Town School of Folk Music. We've had some good shows at the Metro, FitzGerald's and the Hideout, I love the Hideout.
What's cool in your neck of the woods:
I live in Wicker Park...Earwax Cafe is nice. The real fruit smoothies at Earwax.
Fresh from the woodshop:
Sweet is the Anchor (Undertow) is out now. The new Dolly Varden album (tentatively titled The Panic Bell) will be available early next year.
July 9 at the Chicago Folk & Roots Music Festival (3:30 p.m.) in Welles Park.