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Talking With: Devin Dawson

The grittiness of rock, the emotion of soul, and the songwriting and lyrical content of country.

Posted in MusicWorld on January 9, 2018 by
Photo: Jimmy Fontaine

Devin Dawson’s debut album Dark Horse comes out January 19, and he couldn’t be more excited for you to hear it. The Orangevale, California native moved to Nashville in 2012 and has immersed himself in the songwriting community since. No stranger to the life of a musician — Dawson previously toured in a metal band 300 nights a year for five years — he’s introducing himself to the world as a solo artist. He looks forward to sharing what he’s been working on for months in writing rooms and studios in his adopted hometown. In fact, Dawson is so passionate about songwriting that he’s released a 12-part video series chronicling the creative process behind each song on Dark Horse (you can view the series here).

Dawson was recently included on Music Row’s “Next Big Thing” list for 2018 (he also graced their cover in October) and he will join Brett Eldredge on tour in 2018. We caught up with him on his first day back in Nashville – he was touring with label mate Michael Ray – after he finished a songwriting session. He opened up about his first heartbreak, why songwriting is so important to him, and how his mother influenced his love of music.

You just finished your first writing session after being on the road for a while. How did that feel?

I haven’t been in Nashville in six weeks, and I need to write songs to live. I haven’t been able to do that, so I was just overflowing with creativeness. It was a much-needed day. I woke up early and was in the publishing house by 10, and something kind of jumped out at me, but I didn’t want to go to too far because I wanted to bring it up to my writers. I feel like I gauge my days when I’m writing whether I wrote a good song or not. I always say, ‘If I wrote a good song, I could get hit by a car and it wouldn’t matter, but if I write a bad song, I want to get hit by a car,’ [laughs].

You grew up near the gates of Folsom Prison. Was Johnny Cash an early influence on you?

Absolutely, but not as much sonically as artistically. I mean, I grew up in Orangevale, which is just right next to [Folsom Prison]. It wasn’t anything special. But then when I moved away and started telling people where I grew up, they thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever heard, and I was like, ‘OK, cool!’ No one before Johnny Cash was like him, and nobody after him is like him. His vulnerability and the way that he leans into the dark side and is not afraid of it, that definitely shaped my artistry.

Who are some of your other musical influences?

I always quote the three Johns: Johnny Cash, John Fogerty, and John Mayer. I listened to whatever my mom played. She played a lot of country — ‘90s country like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw. She also played rock like Joe Cocker, Credence Clearwater Revival, and soul like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. Then I started discovering my own influences; John Mayer was huge to me when I was in my early teens. I dove head first into his whole repertoire. That shaped me sonically a lot, but so did all the metal bands I listened to. All of these things that I grew up listening to have, in some way, culminated into this sound that I’m trying to capture every day — the grittiness of rock, the emotion of soul, and the songwriting and lyrical content of country.

My mom would always say, ‘Listen to this lyric’ or ‘Listen to that bassline’ — she was always sitting me down and encouraging me to analyze the music because she wanted to share her passion. And she could not sing or play anything to save her life, but she’s the biggest music lover I’ve ever met. I’m really thankful for that.

You moved to Nashville in 2012. What inspired you to make that move from California?

I’d been touring in a metal band for five years after high school, I just really liked the energy in Nashville. It’s weird, because when you’re touring in a band you don’t really get to experience any place that much because you’re either setting up and soundchecking or doing something with radio, and then after the show you have to leave to get to the next place, so you feel like you don’t really get to see much of the town. But every time I was in Nashville I just really liked the people, the pace and the energy. And, obviously, the songwriting and music community — it was something I had always wanted to be a part of because I’m obsessed with songwriting.

The band ran its course, and I had always been writing my own songs on the side. Those songs took over more of my heart and I just wanted to pursue that full-time. I took a year off back home and I did a bunch of odd jobs to make sure that music was right —I baled hay, I worked at Home Depot, I drove a forklift, I went to culinary school. I realized very quickly that this is what I was put here to do. I remember talking to my dad and telling him that I wanted to go to Nashville. He’s a huge academic, a rags-to-riches story, and he told me I should go to college. I didn’t think I was much of a college guy; but the next thing he said was something I’d never heard out of his mouth: ‘I’ll help you pay for it.’ That was really big for me, because he raised my brother and I the same way he was raised, with no financial help. Now, I’m thankful for that, but at the time was pretty hard.

He found Belmont University; I saw that they had a songwriting program, and I thought, ‘I can skate through this, this is what I do every day.’ I didn’t know what was going to happen and how amazing Belmont was going to be for my life. For me, college was more about the community than the curriculum. It was more about the people surrounding me and challenging me to be better, and getting the excuse to do that for four years. Before, I felt like it wasn’t OK to do this, or that it wasn’t secure, but Belmont brought some security and concreteness to the world of songwriting for me. They prepared me for the structure of it. I’d be doing this whether or not I was getting paid — or because I went to college to do it — because this is what I was put on this earth to do.

When did you first realize that you could write a song? Did you always want to be a songwriter?

I’ve always written music; I started when I was 12 with my brother. He was a drummer, I played bass, and my two friends played guitar. We just started a garage band because we thought it was cool. We were instrumental for so long, and we would always write the music — the chords, the riffs, the transitions. We learned the fundamentals, but I didn’t really write lyrics until I got my heart broken, which was — as cheesy as that sounds — the biggest catalyst of my life. The first time you get your heart broken, it is rough. I was doing all the crazy stuff you’re not supposed to do because I didn’t know you’re not supposed to do it — like driving to her house and putting letters in her mailbox.

How old were you?

I was 19 — I was a little bit of a late bloomer, but I was focused on music most of the time. That heartbreak was huge for me, and I started writing songs for coping with those feelings. It was mostly lyrics at first, because I’d already been writing music beds, and so I guess I was writing poems. Then that wasn’t enough, so I started figuring out how to put chords under that. Music is math — it all makes sense for some reason. It’s like a puzzle. I kept chipping away at that puzzle, and I still don’t really know what it looks like, but I have the corners figured out at least, you know? [Laughs.] But yes, heartbreak was definitely the reason I started writing, for sure.

On that note, your debut album as a solo artist comes out January 19, and it’s called Dark Horse. Tell me a little about the title track — it’s a pretty personal song.

My songwriting, lyrically, has always stemmed from vulnerability because that’s what I needed to put out. But that song actually came after the record was done, which is the weirdest thing. Once that album was done, looking back, it didn’t feel done to me, but I didn’t know any better — this was the first time I’d done this as a solo artist. I just kept writing because that’s what I do, and I wrote “Dark Horse” with two of my best friends. That’s a song that’s so true to me, but a lot of those things are hard to see in yourself. I needed two people who knew me so well to say all these things that that were hard for me to see from my perspective — that’s the beauty of co-writing. It was a song we needed to let it come to be; I didn’t try to write it, I didn’t walk in there that day saying, ‘I need a title track for my record,’ or ‘I need to write about me and let people in.’ And as an artist you always want that song, you need that song, but you can’t force it, or it comes off contrived.

You were the first artist to perform in Facebook’s L.A. studio, and a Taylor Swift mashup you did got over 30 million views on YouTube. Does social media play a big part in how you interact with your fans?

Yeah, that’s just the world we live in, but I don’t do too much. As an artist I want to have some boundaries and some sort of mystery — it’s like the less you give, the more you get. I feel that way when I do let people in on Dark Horse. It feels more special than if they knew everything about me already. I think finding the balance, just like everything else, is important. I want to let people in on what I do, just at the right times.

You’ve had a lot of good press recently in Music Row, Rolling Stone, People and Entertainment Weekly, to name a few. Since you’ve been in a band I’m sure you’re used to having press, but do you feel it’s different now that you’re a solo artist? How much do you pay attention to all that?

I pay attention to everything as much as I can! I want to hear what people think. There are some things you do selfishly as a writer, but inherently there’s this need to share. You want to know what it makes people feel. It’s never going to be all good — you’re not going to make everyone happy, but maybe it helps change my perspective. I just always want to see what people think. It does feel good to have it be my thing — it’s me calling the shots and trying to tell people who I am rather than as a band.

The most incredible thing is that I get to share this whole record. I feel like there’s so much work that goes into being a musician, whether it’s writing, recording, finding a team, planning shows, or living and getting your heart broken. It’s cool to have a real record, and to be able to show people every side of what I do, and not just a single or one song at a time. I want to be considered an album artist, and I want to show everyone everything, and that’s what this album is.

Have you had any mentors who have served an important role in your career?

[Pause.] Yeah, that’s such a long list that I can’t even think of one, whether it’s my publisher, my manager, my A&R, the head of my label, other songwriters, teachers, my dad, my brother, or people who don’t even know I exist. There are so many answers to that question.

It sounds like you’ve had a great community around you.

Yeah, that’s just Nashville, man. That’s what we do here, and that’s just country music.

How did you start working with BMI, and how have they fostered your career throughout the years?

They have done so much! BMI is really great about helping you find your path. They help you plan your next move and connect the dots, but they also let you do what you need to. The best way to put it is that they start your snowball for you. They keep it going even when it’s an avalanche, whether it’s the Maui trip, or SXSW stages, or Austin City Limits … there are so many levels to what BMI does for you that there’s no one answer. And it’s great when they pay you money, too!