“…because I had a post office box” – The Black Hen Story Part II - an interview with Steve Dawson
By Douglas Heselgrave DH: So, you haven’t exactly followed a traditional career path. You’ve taken a lot of risks. I mean, some people study music, but you studied music and almost immediately started your own record company. How did that happen? SD: I played music for years as a kid. But, as far as formal education goes, I went to music school for two years at Berklee in Boston. DH: That’s quite a prestigious school SD: It’s kind of jazz school, and I went there to learn more about jazz, but I got really into country and bluegrass and western swing there. There was a strong scene for it there at the time. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings were there at the same time as me. DH: So, did you know them? SD: Yeah, we were in some classes together. I can remember that we were in a ragtime finger picking class. (laughs) The thing about Berklee is that they’ve got a ragtime finger class. At a music school in Vancouver, you’d never find a class like that. I had a teacher that played with a thumb pick and I’ve played with one ever since which has really changed the way that I play. A lot of things from those days had a big impact on me. DH: Did the idea of starting your own label come out of anything they taught you at Berklee? SD: (laughs) The business thing as far as starting a label goes was an accident really. Or, maybe not an accident, but we had to have a business entity to get people to take our records seriously, and at that time in the late nineties, it was hard to get signed playing the kind of music we were playing. Right after school, we started this band called The Spirit Merchants. That was me and Jesse Zubot on fiddle - and we had a rotating rhythm sections that came and went on various tours. We did that for years and toured Canada and the States. Then we got more into the acoustic side of music, and that’s how Zubot and Dawson started. Because the music we were playing at that time was all acoustic instrumental music no one was interested in releasing it. So, we put out our first record ourselves in 1998 and got Festival Distribution to distribute it for us. But, they wouldn’t distribute our music without a label attached to it because they weren’t in a position to promote anyone’s music for them. So, having no label, we needed to start our own. The funny thing is that the label didn’t really exist. DH: What do you mean? SD: We just had a post office box - which was a huge boon because none of my friends even had it together enough to maintain an address. So, Black Hen for a few years was just that post office box. It was funny. We actually put out a few records on the Black Hen label in the early days that we had nothing to do with. We put them out because we had an address people could contact us at. Somehow that put us at the head of the curve. DH: Sounds like you had your business plan thoroughly sussed out…. SD: Yeah. Crazy, but that’s really what it was. In those days, I was getting evicted out of my apartment every three months, so this way I had an address people could reach me at. So, after we put out the first Zubot and Dawson record and it did fairly well, suddenly our label was legit. We’d been nominated for a Juno and people wanted our services. By that time, I’d started to figure out the processes involved in putting out records. So, we put out three records between 1998 and 2002 and during that time, pretty much all we did was Zubot and Dawson records. DH: So, how did you figure out how to produce a record? Did you take any formal training? SD: I guess the first record I officially produced was the ‘Strang’ album by Zubot and Dawson which I co-produced with Jesse. We were learning everything as we went, including how to set sessions up, record instruments, use gear etc. I knew next to nothing before that. But my good pal, Shawn Pierce, who I went to Berklee with knew what he was doing, and engineered that record, did a great job, and so I learned a lot from watching him. Around that time I was teaching guitar to Bruce Fairbairn's kids. Bruce produced a lot of records for Bon Jovi and other big American bands in those days, and he invited me down to his studio to see a Scorpions record get made. So, I got to see lots of wild stuff there - recording guitar chords one string at a time, recording guitar solos one note at a time, triple-recording every part, etc. These are not approaches that I use in my work, but I could really appreciate a guy with great ears and talent who had a sound, knew how to get it, and got people to buy into it. I think Ruby River by JT King was the first official production for someone else. She just asked me to record her record for her, so we turned her house into a studio and went for it. We had some pretty funny gear back then, but we just made do with what we had. The main project that came up around that time though that allowed us a huge amount of studio time and freedom was with Bocephus King. We made two or three records around that time that we had enough time and willpower to endlessly experiment with sounds and instruments, as well as trying out all the weird things that we'd heard other producers doing - recording instruments from another room, putting a mic into a long pipe and recording a guitar amp through it, spinning a mic around a room while someone is playing a piano - goofy stuff... Most of it didn't work that well, but at least I got to really experiment and see what was possible in that environment. DH: Are you a producer for hire, or do you choose your own projects? SD: I’m a freelancer. So, my work is roughly half Black Hen projects and half freelance stuff. And, I do sessions and live work where I’ll play guitar or whatever I’m asked to do. I encourage people to come to my home studio to do sessions because I have lots of stuff here. It is nice not to have to pack up twenty different instruments if someone’s not sure of what they want. Sometimes, someone will say ‘I just want pedal steel or I just want banjo’ or something and that makes it easier, but generally I pack up my instruments and am ready to play whatever’s needed for a project . DH: Have you been producing long enough that people call you up and want you to make a disc that ‘sounds like a Steve Dawson record.’ In other words, do you have an identifiable sound that attracts people? SD: I get people saying that they really like a certain record I’ve made and that’s why they’ve contacted me, but no one has ever asked me to make a record that sounds exactly like something else I’ve done. DH: The Queen’s Hotel CD by John Wort Hannam that came out last year was the first one where I consciously noticed that it sounded like a Steve Dawson record to me. There’s something in the aural space and the production style. I liked the songs on that record, but on another level it was like any talented roots musician could sit down and jump into the soundscape you created for that one. SD: Well, that one was done extremely live with four of us sitting in a square facing each other. That’s all it is. There’s no overdubs on that record. Sonically it works because of the old studio we recorded it in and you can really feel that room in the sound of that record. The hardest thing really is controlling volume between the different instruments because if you take all of the amplification and microphones out of the equation, if you just put a band in a room, an acoustic guitar player, an electric guitar player, a drummer and a bass player, and a mandolin player, it’s way out of whack volume wise. So, you have to be able to work with people that are able to balance that acoustically. The drummer has to play really quietly. The bass player has to play a little louder than he would usually play. But, if you can get those dynamics right in a room then everything comes together. DH: You make it sound like it’s all common sense, but there must have been lots of trial and error before you could simply record an album without overdubs? SD: I’ve been doing this solidly for ten years. There’s trial and error, but not really at the time of the session. The trial and error is more in the big picture of how to create music that sounds good on a CD. It’s more like thinking ‘that didn’t work on our last record, so let’s change this. I’m always trying to think of how to get certain sounds and looking back to remember and deconstruct how we got certain sounds. DH: Are you very hard on yourself in that respect? SD: No, not really. I actually never listen to stuff that I’ve done after I’ve done it. I only hear the mistakes. The only time I ever hear stuff I’ve done is if it comes on the radio, or if I’m playing at a club and they have the CD on before the show. Usually, I’m pleasantly surprised and think ‘oh, that’s not as bad as I thought it was.’ I really find that when you work on a project and you have to analyse everything and wonder if it’s any good, there’s a lot of doubt and second guessing that’s done at the time. I work by myself a lot, so I’m not bouncing stuff off of other people. DH: Is that your preference? SD: Yeah, it is. I like working like that. It’s faster. After a year away from a project, I forget all the small details and when I hear something, it’s more of a big picture thing of where I was at in that time in figuring out my craft. I am surprised by how most things sound ok and I’m glad we took the approach we did. But, I never take out a CD and listen to my own music. It’s not that I don’t like it. A lot of people do actually listen to their stuff and friends of mine who are musicians are surprised that I don’t, so it’s just a matter of approach, I guess. DH: Do you get involved in the production decisions? Do you jump in and suggest changes in key or tempo for example? SD: Yeah, that’s usually all very early in the process. Occasionally, we’ll change stuff later or realize that we need to redo something, but again, it can be a time and budget thing. It’s not like we can always go back and retrack a bunch of stuff. I tend to record a little more than we need, so that if that ends up happening, we can cut a song out instead of getting too wrapped up in what’s not happening with a single song. If more experimentation is needed, I’ll manipulate tempo with tape and slow tape down or play around with ProTools. SD: Do some artists come to you feeling helpless, so that they want you to make all of the decisions? SD: (laughs)That’s how I work best. If I’m going to work with someone, I ask them to send me a demo of all of the songs that they’re considering – just them and an acoustic guitar. I don’t want to hear any sort of production values whatsoever, so that it’s coming to me as a completely blank slate and then they just kinda have to trust me. (laughs) I leave a fair amount to chance, although I often use the same musicians and I know what I’m going to get out of them. I don’t always use the same players, but I have a stable I tend to use over and over again. A lot of it is that I don’t plan stuff out thoroughly beforehand. When you leave stuff to chance, that’s when interesting things start to happen. I used to plan out stuff more, and I realized that the stuff that sounded cooler was usually the spontaneous stuff that wasn’t planned so I eventually kind of loosened up on those reins a bit. Now, I’m totally comfortable going in with a vision and some concepts. We change instruments around all the time, but I won’t dictate exactly what gets played. I try and bring in the best people, so I’m not going to have to tell the drummer how to play the drums, but if I think something should be in half time and he’s playing double time, I will tell him. DH: Do you see a time in the future where you won’t produce and play on everything that comes out on Black Hen? In other words, could the label grow to accommodate a certain type of record that you don’t necessarily play on? SD: It’s happened already. I’m involved in most of the records that come out, but if something comes along that’s done that I really like, then I’ll put that out. But, we don’t actually do distribution. We don’t physically handle that end of things. We have distribution deals in Canada and the US for all of our releases. The CDs sit in a warehouse in Toronto and we send them to our various distributors. DH: How do you divide your time? You’re wearing a lot of different hats…. SD: There’s the gigging side of it, the label side and the production side. So, you’re right, I’m always working. I don’t have to do much with the day to day running of the label. We have someone who does that. Mary Cassel has worked full time for us for the past two years. She’s working on organizing releases and mailing things out and just doing the things we need to do to make a label run. I’m not ever really sitting in the office waiting for the phone to ring, but I’m often working two or three hours a day on the kind of unpredictable things that inevitably come up. It’s mostly email and weird problems and situations that happen. DH: Do you enjoy this side of things? SD: It’s a love hate thing. I’ve never loved the label life. To me, it’s been a necessary part of what I do. DH: Would you happily be on someone else’s label if the conditions were right, or is this something you have to do for yourself in some way? SD: Yeah, I’d go on another label if the conditions were right. But, in the meantime, what we’ve developed is this thing that has a sound, it employs a few people and generates a lot of music, and I also can’t imagine not having it. On the other hand, it’s a time suck and it drives me crazy. It’s like one of those things that I can’t explain why I do it, but it does maintain itself and it does manage to keep chugging along. As long as it does that… DH: It seems like you’ve created this amazing venue to release your own music. You can put out music you care about and I’m sure a lot of artists are very happy that you’ve given them a high quality, caring environment to put their music out in. SD: For sure. It’s not an easy thing. We’ve just learned as we’ve gone along and we’re always improvising and doing what we have to do with things that come up that we never could have forseen. DH: Do you have any new projects to tell me about…… SD: It hasn’t stopped. The fall and the winter have been back to back records. I did the Mississippi Sheiks project, the Jim Byrnes record and the Sojourners all in a row. Right after that, old Man Luedeke and Jenny Whitely’s projects were rcorded back to back.
Del Rey recording for the Mississippi Sheiks project DH: Is that a typical work schedule for you? SD: Typical is hard to define. It’s been heavily weighted in the recording producing department more than it usually is. But, overall, I’m always this busy. It’s just a case of what I’m doing. DH: Do you have requirements for artists that come onto your label? SD: We have an understanding that artists have to tour and promote a CD or it will fail. It’s not a signed agreement, just an understanding. Nobody wants it to fail. I do everything I can to make it a good record then the artist has to go out and promote it. One of the ways they do this is to go out with a trunk full of CDs and sell them at concerts. Jim Byrnes sells tons of CDs from the stage for example. Our sales are heavily weighted in the gig area still which is great. Most of my artists are reliant on selling at gigs, but the itunes thing is really picking up for us. There are other digital ways to sell, but that’s creeping up to almost being equal to CD sales. DH: Does this change how you work? Do you have any sound issues with MP3s? SD: I don’t even think about it. All I can do is make something that I know when it gets pressed to CD or vinyl is going to sound good. Beyond that, I just have to walk away from it. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is now. Either they have to step up and improve the quality, or you have to come up with your own system, and that’s a whole other thing that could suck time and worry. DH: I think everyone eventually surrenders to the new technology. I used to be outraged comparing ipod to CD to vinyl of the same song. I harangued everyone who listened, then after a while I shut up. I understand why they want to crunch beautiful sounding music into a tiny little file, but they have to find another way to do it. SD: It’s not that there isn’t a way. It’s just that it’s not efficient. It would just take longer to download and would be a bigger file. People can do that. It definitely warps the work you do if you get caught up in how it’s going to sound on the worst platform – which is MP3. It’s not the sound as much as what it’s doing to the music market that concerns me. I’m too ingrained in the whole old school way of thinking that considers an album a concept. That really works for me that there’s a release of a record that makes sense as a group of songs. Of course some of the songs will be better than others, but some of them work well on their own as singles. But, all the talk these days is about how the concept of the album is dead, and I really fight against that. DH: I love the sense of a snapshot of where the artist was at a given point in time. SD: Related to that, I’m trying to follow a vinyl format with shorter records. DH: I like that, too. Forty five minutes is the perfect length of time to maintain a cohesive artistic vision. In the nineties, CDS crawled up to 70 minutes a pop and they didn’t all warrant that length. SD: They’re maxing out the format. That’s too long. The concept of the album isn’t going to die, but it needs to be tightened up. We haven’t figured out how it’s going to translate into the digital world, but I don’t think the album will die as a concept. What are you supposed to do – constantly work on music that always sounds different? Maybe that’s cool, but I don’t feel like I’m alone, and I feel that a lot of the great music being produced isn’t pandering to the MP3 format and people are still making great albums. DH: While, you’re managing a label and all these other people, you’ve been trying to have a solo career of your own…how do you prioritise what to do at any point in time? SD: I really relate to other people that I know who make records – like Daniel Lanois or T Bone Burnett or Buddy Miller - in the sense that, for me I don’t really get hung up on my own records. I don’t feel a driving need to put out one every year. I do put records out every few years and then I go and tour behind it. There may be gaps, but I don’t really worry about it. In the middle of everything I do, I’m still writing songs and eventually I have enough where I have to put out a record. I’ll probably do that pretty soon because I have a bunch of material. I don’t have a grand plan for my solo career. I’m just happy to do it. I do have enough work that it’s not really essential that I make records really. I’ve been lucky so far. But, I love making records and I love making my own records and I’m not going to stop that. I still really love playing music live, so I’ll keep touring. DH: That brings up another question. When it comes to touring – how divide time up? You play with a lot of different people. SD: I just kind of take it all as it comes. There’s no way to plan for that stuff. So, for instance, last year I went to Europe with the Sojourners and Jim Byrnes, but I’m not going this time. I’ve got too many conflicts. I will go again, but I just can’t go this time. I go to Europe once or twice a year, and tour in the States and Canada as it seems appropriate. There is a bit of a struggle in that I’ve been touring constantly for the last fifteen years and you know it’s hard to justify why you’re doing it sometimes. I have felt like I’m just grinding away and playing the same venues over and over and then for me, I really started struggling with the fact that I spend eight hours a day in the van, and when I’m at home I’m making music for those eight hours. So, how can I justify doing this? When I really started struggling with that, I pulled back from touring and worked on crafting records. Yeah, but then when I’ve been producing a lot, I miss the touring. It drives me crazy however I look at it. But, I used to tour with bands for the sake of it. You go out and sometimes it really builds and you feel a good momentum and a purpose to what you’re doing and sometimes it just feels like you’ve played the same crappy place you played six months ago and the audience hasn’t changed or grown. So, when it gets like that, I have to really think about it. At the height of when I did the last Zubot and Dawson record, we toured and were gone for a year at a time. It’s hard on a relationship and I don’t have it in me to be gone that long again. I have a child and a whole other set of things I’m involved in. It’ s hard to be away. I try and keep that under control. Thankfully, I work with enough bands that I always have work for live playing and by chance none of them are hard core touring bands. They pretty much play a maximum of eighty shows a year. I have three or four situations like that. I probably do 150-200 gigs a year still. DH: That’s a lot. You call that slowing down? SD: Yeah That is quite a lot of gigs. About a quarter of those are local. Still, I guess that I’m away a quarter of the year. But, that’s way less than it used to be. I try and avoid doing that slogging same old same old kinda thing. I try and be more careful these days. DH: You have to if you’re in it for the long haul. SD: That’s for sure. If I thought about it, I’m sure I’d feel exhausted. (laughs)