DOES IT RIGHT: Dawes' new album 'North Hills' has earned the band comparisons to CS&N and Neil Young.
Song of the South
Indie folk act Dawes takes a page from the Laurel Canyon playbook
By Cat Johnson
LOS ANGELES, 1968. High above the city, in the countercultural hotspot of Laurel Canyon, in what can safely be described as an act of divine convergence, three musicians named David, Stephen and Graham sit down to play music together for the first time. Some say it happened in Joni Mitchell's cabin, others swear it was at Cass Elliot's place, but specifics aside, it was in this moment that Crosby, Stills & Nash, one of many musical legends that would call Laurel Canyon home, was born.
Fast-forward to 2009. At the invitation of longtime Laurel Canyon fixture and music producer Jonathan Wilson, the members of a young band known as Dawes attend an informal jam session, make a good impression on the producer and find themselves in his home studio, recording their first album. The resulting collection of songs, with its rich harmonies, easy style and catchy melodies, is a celebration of the Laurel Canyon sound of decades past and an introduction of that timeless sound to today's audience—a feat Dawes guitarist, songwriter and vocalist Taylor Goldsmith attributes to Wilson's experience. "Jonathan didn't try to redirect the performance or the band," he says from his home in Los Angeles. "He did such a cool job of just letting us focus on what we do, and getting [the album] to sound appropriate for the music that it is."
Wilson understood that Goldsmith and the other members of Dawes had a vision for their album, titled North Hills: they wanted it to sound intimate, like it does when they just sit down together and play. But getting that warm, live sound required doing something the band hadn't done before: stepping away from the digital recording realm and entering Wilson's analog-only world, a move that Goldsmith describes as "incredibly powerful."
"It's a whole other experience that analog creates," he says. "I thought that anyone could just record digitally, then record to tape to get the analog sound, but I was wrong. Totally wrong." They also recorded the songs live, with no overdubs, which increased the pressure on the band members. "We had to step everything up in terms of performance," says Goldsmith. "We were all mic'd up in the same room, so if someone fucked up their part, we all had to start over." In the end, the spontaneity and immediacy of the recordings add the crowning elements to the already rich Dawes sound, with its laid-back delivery, spacious storytelling and irresistible hooks.
Dawes is understandably being compared to new, harmony-heavy roots bands like Fleet Foxes and Delta Spirit, as well as their undeniable 1960s influences like the Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young. Goldsmith says it all goes back to the inspired musical legacy of Los Angeles. "When I think about all my favorite records, almost all of them were made in L.A.," he says. "From the Band to Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash, it's almost across the board."
When asked about the current Los Angeles music scene and the role of Dawes in it, Goldsmith sees beyond the glitz of the pop music machine and notes that there are some new bands that are carrying the torch for the Los Angeles that used to be. "You can find a handful of bands that have that great sound," he says. But he puzzles over what that sound is called. "I'm not sure how to describe it," he says. "I mean, how do you pinpoint Neil Young, Warren Zevon or the Band? Folk songs with a rock band? Roots rock? It all just gets lumped under rock & roll."
Regardless of what it's called, the members of Dawes are just fine being musical ambassadors of the Laurel Canyon sound. "We're just drawn to that sound," says Goldsmith. "California permeates through our music without us even realizing it."
HIPNIC II, with Dawes, the Mother Hips and more, is Friday–Saturday, April 30–May 1, at Fernwood Resort, Big Sur. Tickets are $65 Friday/$70 Saturday available at 831.667.2422. Visit www.folkyeah.com for more info.
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