Devin Dawson likes to say he has a tendency to over-write his songs. It's a slight perfectionist streak that's been with him at least since his teenage years – back when he was playing bass in a heavy metal band called Shadow of the Colossus, working to master the intricate, time-shifting riffs and play them with unfailing precision.
"I think it was the discipline and the pushing of the boundaries and testing your limits for me – 'How fast can we do this? How perfect can we do this?'" he says. "And I will always hold that. I need to satisfy that part in my brain as a creator. That's why I think I'm so hard on my lyrics. I'm very picky about my lyrics and I think sometimes it's to my detriment."
Though he's traded in the brutal noise and angst of his youth for a more mellow, measured perspective in his new home base of country, Dawson's discipline is evident on his solo debut Dark Horse, which was released in January via Elektra/Warner Bros. A native of Orangevale, California, 29-year-old Dawson (born Devin Dawson Durrett) came to Nashville to focus on songwriting but found his way back to the stage after a mash-up of Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" and "Style" sung with his friend Louisa Wendorff went viral in 2014.
Things moved quickly from there. Dawson inked a publishing agreement, then signed with Warner Bros. and started recording with producer Jay Joyce. In 2017, he accompanied Maren Morris on her headlining Hero Tour. His debut single "All on Me," which mixed a breezy acoustic groove with world-weary angst – in the video, Dawson and his love interest await a doomsday-like event – took a steady, year-long trip to finally peak at Number Two. The album's newly released second single "Asking for a Friend" offers another example of how Dawson's painstaking process can make for thrilling art.
On its face, it's a relatively simple conceit: a guy approaches someone in a bar and – in a nod to George Strait's "The Chair" – pours on the charm by pretending to be a romantic middleman. By the second verse, a different picture begins to form: he likely knows this person and is struggling to express his feelings while asking forgiveness for some unnamed transgression. It's a classic country songwriting trick – take a well-known phrase and tilt it just enough that new layers reveal themselves.
As the song builds from gentle acoustic strums and percussion to skyscraping rock and back again, Dawson's character lays it all on the line. "What if I told you he hadn't slept in weeks? And he was standing right here in front of you instead of me. Is there any way you could ever love him again?" he sings, followed by a pregnant pause and one more repetition of the title, as if to preemptively take the sting out of a "no."
"It's like the hands up, 'I'm asking for a friend, but I'm really asking for myself,'" says Dawson. "That's the classic way you hear it. But there's also the literal, 'I need someone. I'm asking for a friend.' It's like the iceberg effect – a lot of it is underwater – that's the part of the song that you just subconsciously feel him coming back with his tail between his legs."
Dawson wrote "Asking for a Friend" with Brett Beavers and Connie Harrington, two seasoned Music Row tunesmiths with credits including Dierks Bentley's "Home" and Lee Brice's "I Drive Your Truck." Writing a song like "Asking for a Friend" that employs such classic country wordplay is inevitably a tricky proposition even for the most skillful writers – often these attempts fall flat or end up feeling like pale imitations – but Dawson impressed his co-writers with his determination to stick the landing.
"I just give a fuck. I care about getting the best thing that feels right to me"
"He knows what he wants and navigates a co-write with such energy and conviction, it makes working with him a pure pleasure and privilege," says Harrington, recalling the session that resulted in "Asking for a Friend."
Cris Lacy, Sr. VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Nashville, says that ability was one of the reasons she wanted to sign him to the label's roster. Even though Dawson's sound incorporated a wide range of styles, from hard rock to soul and beyond, his songs all shared a certain country sensibility.
"The craft of his songwriting was what country songs are made of," says Lacy. "A lot of furniture, as we say. A lot of details, and very honest and plainspoken. So while the instrumentation might have been a little more out there for country radio, his songwriting was 100 percent what Nashville was built on."
Where many of his peers in the present moment have resorted to more impressionistic, list-style songs, Dawson's work tends toward the specific and narrative. And though he labors obsessively over his lyrics, unlike many perfectionists, he says he actually knows when it's time to stop tinkering.
"I always know the rhyme that feels right or the word that is the right one to express that sentiment that I'm trying to go for," he says. "I'm always like, 'Yes, that's the one, don't fuckin' touch it.' But again there's also that [feeling of] something's hiding. It's not quite right."
This confidence manifests itself in myriad ways on Dark Horse. Near the end of the album, the love song "Prison" nods to Dawson's heavy music background with a thrashing chorus and snarling allusions to being "locked up" and serving time, to the point that it's hard to tell if he's happy or just surrendering. "Secondhand Hurt" mixes elegant, atmospheric pop with a cigarette metaphor to examine the lingering regrets of the one who broke things off. In "Symptoms," Dawson sings about falling in love like it's a terminal infection ("I don't need saving, a DNR," he states at one point), while Jay Joyce's stunning production combines elements of dub with the R&B-inspired groove and melody to include warped, tape-manipulated drums, nearly subliminal droplets of vibraphone and stuttering eruptions of bass.
"We stayed up to 3 or 4 in the morning, that day, that night – you know when you're in that moment, like, 'Don't fuck this up, don't fuck this up, keep this inspiration up, keep it going,'" says Dawson. "That was that whole day."
Working with Joyce, a stylistic maverick whose work with Eric Church and Little Big Town has bridged mainstream pop smarts with playful experimentation, Dawson was able to fully realize the visions he had for his songs.
"It was the best relationship creatively that I could have been in in this town, just to be fearless and daring and do whatever felt right, not for any other reason or not pointing it anywhere," he says. "Just doing what felt right for the song and what felt right to him and me and my band."
That clear sense of vision served as a guiding force for Dawson while he was selecting and recording material for Dark Horse, the point at which his label team had to trust his instincts.
"Everything was him," says Lacy. "He would never cut a song that – if I said, 'I love this' and he said, 'That's not me' – he would never cut a song he didn't feel reflected him."
Dawson gives his most personal mission statement with the album's title track "Dark Horse," an intense number that joins the recent boomlet of other hyper-specific tunes from country artists, such as Thomas Rhett's "Life Changes" and Walker Hayes' "Craig." Over patient guitar arpeggios, Dawson acknowledges his tendency to not smile for photos, to always dress in black, his preference for "California smoke" over liquor. "It ain't that I'm self-conscious; I'm just conscious of myself," he sings, outlining a singular, well-defined point of view. Here and on the rest of Dark Horse, Dawson's deliberate approach and attention to detail are craftsman-like, but utterly relatable.
"I just give a fuck," he says. "I care about getting the best thing that feels right to me, that feels honest from my perspective, for my story and my truth as an artist, if I'm writing for myself. I care about making it feel right and honest coming out of my mouth. If it doesn't, people are gonna know that. I want to make sure it's perfect."
He thinks about it for a second, how this trait could be a liability but instead he's managed to turn it into an asset.
"Yeah, meticulous. OCD. Anal retentive," he says. "Any of those work, for sure."