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Interview: Dolly Varden

| January 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

Dolly Varden has been releasing albums since its critically-acclaimed debut, Mouthful Of Lies, came out in 1995, but describing the Chicago-based quintet’s music can still be a bit tricky. Singer/guitarist Steve Dawson crisscrosses genres as the band’s primary songwriter, like a painter choosing colors from a palette. There are swatches of indie rock, folk, and country.

Dawson’s wife, singer/keyboardist Diane Christiansen, used to do more songwriting, but has recently become heavily involved with her career as an artist. All but one of the band’s album covers feature her intriguing artwork. The couple has been working with the same musicians – guitarist/lap steel player/vocalist Mark Balletto, bassist/vocalist Mike Bradburn, and drummer/vocalist Matt Thobe – throughout Dolly Varden’s entire history. For A While, their first effort in seven years, adds even more nuances to the band’s eclectic approach.

Appearing: 1/19 at City Winery (1200 W. Randolph) Chicago.

“This was an attempt to make more of a rock record,” Dawson explains from the home he shares with Christiansen. “That was the plan. I don’t know if we carried it out because I think the songs I like best on For A While are the ones that aren’t big rock songs.”

The title track (featuring Christiansen on lead vocals), Dawson’s folksy and autobiographical “Saskatchewan To Chicago,” and the delicate “Favorite Friend” encompass some of the album’s most engaging, introspective material. But Dolly Varden also does a fine job of executing the big blowout numbers. “Done (Done)” has a driving beat, “Walking The Chalkline Again” mixes gorgeous harmonies and energetic guitar, and “Thank You” ushers in a rollicking finale. The catchy “Why Why Why” seems tailor-made for a spot on the Fleetwood Mac classic, Rumours.

“I always thought of that song sounding like Van Morrison,” Dawson says of “Why Why Why.” “But I appreciate the Fleetwood Mac [comparison] very much.” Dolly Varden did a short set of the Mac Attack’s blockbuster hits as part of a tribute band weekend at Martyrs’ in Chicago this past Halloween. “I always liked them, but now I respect them more after having sort of looked under the hood of those songs.”

As a songwriter, Dawson draws inspiration from various sources, including the early 1970’s music of Neil Young, Gram Parsons, and Linda Ronstadt, as well as The Beatles.

“I also hear the comment, ‘Wow, the record is really varied,'” he notes. “Maybe that’s because the template for me was those middle-period Beatles records where every song was a world unto itself.”

Dawson adds that his best songs seem to spring from nowhere, as opposed to ones that he really has to labor over. Having read interviews with songwriters and books by Keith Richards and Neil Young, he’s discovered that other artists also feel the creative process works best when it flows naturally. Dawson teaches classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music (Fundamental Songwriting and Continuing Songwriting), but feels he can only present the mechanics, along with a forum for sharing ideas.

“I can’t teach you how to write a song,” he maintains. “You have to learn by doing it.” He gives his more advanced students challenging assignments like pretending they’re trying to write a hit single for country legend Patsy Cline. “They bring it in and play it for everybody, and we talk about what may or may not be working.”

Dawson’s compositions over the years have been notable for strong melodies and poetic lyrics that emphasize visual imagery. Often Dawson finds inspiration from a single phrase he comes up with or hears from someone else. The beguiling “Temperamental Complement” came to him while listening to a show on NPR explaining how introverts are more likely to have successful relationships with extroverts than other introverts, and vice versa.

— Terrence Flamm

For the full feature, click on the issue cover or grab a copy of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

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Category: Featured, Features, Monthly

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