We caught up with Taylor Goldsmith, front man of the Americana L.A. band Dawes, post-Bonnaroo to discuss playing with legends like Robbie Robertson and Jackson Browne, songwriting, Occupy Wall Street, and going head-to-head with Ludacris.
LxL: Bonnaroo was my first time seeing you, and I was able to catch part of both your sets. I thought you guys sounded great, but my real question about the show is what was it like going head-to-head with Ludacris?
Taylor Goldsmith: (laughs) That was actually sort of a relief. Not that he is not incredible, but we were more worried about playing at the same time as a similar artist who we might share fans with. At Hangout Fest, we played at the same time as M. Ward. We have played a bunch of shows together and we are all buddies at this point. So we thought “Ahh that is inconvenient” where as someone like Ludacris, with all the people he is playing to, which I am certain was a much larger crowd than ours, I doubt they would want to see Dawes anyway even if Luda wasn’t playing.
LxL: You guys are heading out on a European tour in July. Have you had a chance to travel in the past?
TG: Only as a little kid. We are just starting to tour internationally but it’s really fascinating to play certain size venues and then go somewhere like France and Germany and really be starting from nothing again. It can really be like pounding the pavement but can be really exciting actually.
LxL: It’s interesting; you guys have a sound that is steeped in American tradition. It’s interesting how European audiences respond really well to that sort of thing.
TG: Yea I’ve noticed that. I wonder if they find a little more romance in it than maybe American audiences might because they are so used to it or surrounded by it. Not just the music, but the lifestyle the music represents.
LxL: Your latest record, Nothing is Wrong, has way more songs about being on the road than North Hills. Is that just a consequence of being on tour more, or is there something about the road that points at a bigger reality/theme?
TG: Ya, I don’t really try to illustrate simply “This is what it’s like to live on the road.” I didn’t want to limit it to one experience, and have it be applicable to someone with a similar life. Sometimes I thought it was romantic and it was within the world of a traveling musician or someone who is out in a different place every night. I like to believe it’s not simply about that. I would love to think a song like “On Our Way Back Home” could be related to by someone who has never left their hometown.
LxL: I was going to say traveling songs is very much in the tradition of The Band. You guys had the opportunity to tour as the backing band for Robbie Robertson. What was that like?
TG: That was amazing. He has been one of our heroes for our entire musical careers and well before it. If anyone would have ever told me you are going to get to meet Robbie Robertson I would have been over the moon, but to have him like our music and ask us to back him up for some TV performances was more than we could believe. It was truly incredible; he was really humble and gracious. At rehearsals, [Robbie] would say, “we are doing these rehearsals for me. I’m the one who’s rusty. You guys know what you are doing.”
LXL: With you guys having a love for The Band, any words on Levon Helm and his influence?
TG: It was really touching. With his passing, you saw his reach as an artist and all the people he impacted with entire festivals dedicating themselves to him. Everywhere we went, people were singing songs dedicated to him, which you don’t see very often on that scale. It was the kind of thing, where as sad as it is, and we played at his ramble in December, and the way it all unfolded, it was actually sort of beautiful. He has done so much for so many people just by being an inspiring musician; not even really a songwriter. I hope he would pass on feeling that he lived a life extremely fulfilled and really proud.
LxL: Favorite Levon Helm song?
It always changes I revisited a bunch of stuff recently but I was listening to “When I Paint My Masterpiece” which is a Bob Dylan song but it’s so cool hearing Levon sing it.
LXL: You’ve had the honor to meet Jackson Browne as well, who is obviously considered one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Who do you consider your songwriting heroes? I am guessing Jackson is one of them?
TG: Jackson would definitely be one of them. But along with him, John Prine, Warren Zevon, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Will Oldham. Paul Simon. Joni Mitchell. There are so many people I feel I have been invested in their entire catalogs that they really had strong impacts on me for a long period. Like recently I felt so invested in Willie Nelson, especially early Willie records when he was writing his own material, and even later Willie records when he was just doing cover songs because of his beautiful voice. It’s tough because someone like him will be my biggest influence for like a span of six months and every song that I write. Then a year later his influence on me won’t even be on the radar in terms of music I’m working on; at least not in my consciousness.
LXL: A lot has been said about your lyrics. What is your songwriting process? Do you write to work through issues for yourself or do you write with others in mind?
TG: I guess I don’t look at it as a specifically cathartic experience though that is inevitably what happens. I have tried to write about experiences that weren’t my own with songs like “A Little Bit of Everything” and a little bit with “So Well” but it’s tough because I don’t feel like I’m confident in that quite yet. I don’t feel like I am aware enough of situations I have not gone through. Therefore, I specifically write about songs that deal with my own personal experiences for the most part. If I am dealing with a certain emotion or if I am in a rut, I will write a song about some thoughts that I haven’t been able to put words to and put them in order. After, I do feel a lot better about it and I am even able to move on from it in a lot of cases.
In terms of my songwriting process, I write most of my songs on guitar or piano by myself. I keep a notebook and jot down what I find compelling lines and potential titles and maybe how I can apply the rest of the song to it. I had “Moon in the Water” written down for a long long time because some character said it in a really sh*tty movie, and I was trying to figure out how to illuminate the phrase at the end of each chorus and give it a different meaning. So I just hung on to that and waited for the rest of it to present itself. It’s fair to say that’s somewhat of a typical experience for me.
LxL: You guys deal with a lot of heavy themes lyrically, but sort of in the tradition of Americana, your songs often have an uplifting, cathartic tone or message. Is that something you’ve always enjoyed in music and something you aim to do?
TG: I’ve definitely always enjoyed it. When I was in a band (Simon Dawes) before Dawes, we broke up when I was 21. I was really uncertain as to whether I still wanted to play music because I was unsure if I could justify it to myself. To not only start over, but to make the purpose of my life to get up on stage and to act like a fool. So I really struggled with it for a while. I feel like before then, with that first band, I really appreciated certain songwriters and the depths that they would explore but I never could think of me doing it and had never really tried. I decided if I am going to continue to play music, I don’t want to be in a band that allows me to act like a teenager for years and years. I thought about what certain songwriters did for me, even away from music, the way they would help me as a human, just through their words. That opportunity might never be afforded to me, but I figured I would spend the rest of my time as a songwriter trying my hand at helping others. I am making that sort of my goal.
LxL: One of the big themes you guys work through is a healthy amount of questioning and doubt. Do you belief in the importance of always having a healthy amount of faith/doubt? Is it a balance?
TG: I think anything that perpetuates a healthy dialogue for what you believe in is good. I think it gets really scary when some people start coming at questions and doubts alluding to the fact that that person just hasn’t figured it out. It can be scary because you are no longer allowing others to inspire you or to help you open up your head in a new way. I am learning as I go along.
Maybe I am romanticizing it a bit, but I like to believe that is the experience that Bob Dylan went through. When you listen to the old stuff, and you listen to “The Times They Are A-Changing” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”, he is very convicted and he seems like he is trying to prove something and show everyone the answers. Then with Highway 61 and Bring It All Back Home and specifically one song on Another Side of Bob Dylan, “My Back Pages”, he seems to look at the bigger picture a little more and stop making it about little tidbits of truths that are real for him but really trying to illuminate a situation. Which I really think becomes much truer to life than any fiery political song he may have written before.
LxL: “When My Time Comes” has sort of become an anthem for our generation. Even seeing it at your shows, you can see how deeply people relate to it. Is that song where you are at now or is that more reflecting on your experiences in the past?
TG: There are parts of it that really resonate with me, and I feel like that will always be the case with my favorite tunes of mine which are songs we will continue to play. Sometimes I will feel like “No I don’t want to play ‘Love Is All I Am’ right now,” and then three months later I will feel like I really want to get that out. But “When My Time Comes” never really leaves the set because it’s one our shining points in the show with getting everyone to sing along. A lot of that does resonate with me, and I do feel like it’s a broad song that can hopefully be applied in different ways. We played that song at Occupy Wall Street, and I was really nervous that it wasn’t something specifically written for Occupy. But when I sang it, there were a lot of lines in it that were cheered on and a lot of people were said, “It was really great you did that song here”. That was the best kind of compliment I could get for having a song that could be true depending on what you apply it to.
LxL: Speaking of Occupy, you played “How Far We’ve Come” and “When My Time Comes” with Jackson Browne correct? How do you guys identify with the movement and do you feel like it fits with much of the sentiment of our generation?
TG: At first it was Jackson’s idea, and he was like “I really want to do this. What do you guys think?” And at first I was nervous since we had never affiliated with something that was political. So I really wanted to do my homework because I wanted it to be something I am proud to subscribe to if we did.
So then when I figured out what their goals were and what they were about, I became very proud to be a part of it and really inspired. To me, what was so inspiring about it is I grew up in a generation that you look at the idea of protest and someone hearing your voice and message and it’s something that is nearly impossible. It’s a very cynical generation and protest has this very negative connotation. But with Occupy Wall Street, it was really reforming a connection between the people’s voice and the government, or at the very least, an attempt to do so. Even just hearing speeches from the President addressing it saying “this is what I feel about this; this is what I am going to do to make these people happy”; even if it’s not everything that everyone set out for it to be in the beginning, just the fact that people’s voices are being heard, that was the biggest objective of all and I feel like it was achieved beautifully.