All the way from Kentucky via Brooklyn, Dawn Landes has packed her bags and is on the road again. She tells Tony Clayton-Lea about learning French, marrying Josh Ritter and being the girl next door
WE’LL forgive the excitement – Dawn Landes is about to head off into the great white yonder of the touring schedule. She is, therefore, in somewhat of a tizzy as she cancels the milk and makes sure she switches off the lights instead of switching on the immersion in her New York gaff. For some people, heading back out onto the road is akin to hitching a lift on the highway to Hell. not for Dawn.
“Today is frantic, but I love it, and I’m so excited. I know some people think of it as a necessary evil, but the only evil part is the planning. But I love all of it, and to make it even better, this time I’ve got all the guys with me. It’s better that way, but it’s more than that – it’s being able to achieve the sound I want to get out on stage. I’ve played a bunch of solo gigs, but it’s more fulfilling for me musically if I can have a whole range of sounds. The music is more muscular, for a start, and I also love to see people swaying and moving around. It’s fun to see that. The downside? Well, I don’t do a lot of songwriting on the road, and that’s maybe because I don’t seem to get a lot of time alone. You’re always with people, even if you’re playing solo gigs, sharing hotels, cars...”
Landes is a Louisville, Kentucky-born singer, songwriter and audio engineer who has spent far too much of her time in the depths of recording studios to be in any way in awe of the process. This is possibly why her albums to date (2002’s Dawn Music, 2006’s Two, Three, Four, 2008’s Fireproof, and the recently released Sweet Heart Rodeo) comes with a flourishing signature, attention to detail and a heart-shaped centre. Sweet Heart Rodeo, in particular, arrives with the kind of instinctive touches that have marked Landes out as one of a kind. The back story to the album is cutely drawn (the romantic entanglements of Landes’s grandmother), but with Landes involved there’s got to be a twist.
The first is that she wrote most of the material in Paris. People-watching, city-watching. “I was in Paris for the winter of 2007 – 2008, for about four months. I’d always romanticised the city, I suppose, and France in general. I’d toured over a lot and maybe it was the challenge of not knowing what people were doing and saying. Also, I found the language so beautiful I wanted to learn it, so it was a trial by fire. I took lessons and now I can speak French – yay!”
Despite there being lots of accordion-based music in and around the boulevards, Landes says she was drawn more towards the musical styles of Serge Gainsbourg and François Hardy than anyone else. She was, in fact, so taken with the city and its musical heritage that she plans to record a French-language album – just for artistic reasons.
“I don’t necessarily think in commercial terms. That said, I’ve had success with some TV commercials that my music has been used in. But those things more or less fall from the sky. I don’t even see them coming. They’re fun to do, especially if you’re commissioned to do them, but I don’t get anything artistically from them. I’m not a very business-minded lady, which is, I suppose, good. I mean, I’m not stupid about things, either – I can keep myself fed.
“Living in NYC, though, it’s such a struggle for most people. Everyone around me is almost in the same situation, so I don’t really notice. But, then, with music, you’re not supposed to think about stuff like money. It’s all about freeing your mind, isn’t it? I look to culture for that – movies, books, visual art.”
One of the album tracks, Little Miss Holiday, is a perfect example of what Landes is talking about: it was written as a response to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and
“I just love the fact that I can play music for people and get them moving, swaying around, in whatever way they want, internally or externally, all over the place
employs a faltering café conversation between the film’s child prostitute, Iris, and the teenage actor who played her – Jodi Foster.
“When I get moved by something I investigate it,” says Landes. “And Taxi Driver was incredible – it kicked me out so much that I started researching the movie, and I discovered that the real Iris was actually in the film, but she wasn’t credited – how about that? I also heard they met in real life, and the idea of these two people sitting at a table over a cup of coffee, not having much to say to each other, was compelling.”
It is to Landes’s credit that her narrative curves work – there is little or no sign of straining to impress, and no sign whatsoever of over-reaching her creative aims. Connection of some kind for the listener is crucial, she says. “It doesn’t matter what they connect with as long as they grab onto something. Perhaps an image, or even a misheard lyric. I just love the fact that I can play music for people and get them moving, swaying around, in whatever way they want, internally or externally, all over the place.”
Thank her family background for such a free and breezy attitude. “My brother is a jazz musician, my grandfather plays the violin, and my mom sings. This was never a profession for anyone, but I always had music around when I was growing up. Plus, I was a dancer when I was kid, and experienced lots of movement.”
We hear noise in the background of her apartment in Brooklyn – it could be husband Josh Ritter mooching around (the pair married recently, and yes, they sure kept that fact hidden) or it might be the plumber coming in to disconnect the water.
Either way, it’s time for a last question. Landes has been described as “a girl next door of the indie pop-type persuasion”. Is this true or false? “It depends on what or whom I’m next door to,” she answers sweetly. “I like a little bit of unpredictability. To me, the girl next door could be a wild girl, because we don’t know much about her.”