Dawes on Learning to Write Political Songs and Following Up a Polarizing LP
Not long after Dawes released We’re All Gonna Die, their 2016 album that polarized fans of the Seventies-leaning classicist band with its turn toward a poppier, more synthetic sound, they received some advice from a close friend.
“He was like, ‘Now that you’ve made We’re All Gonna Die, you can do anything,'” recalls lead singer Taylor Goldsmith. “Now, nobody knows what to expect.”
But when the Los Angeles group convened two years later to record their new album, the foursome – Goldsmith; his younger brother, drummer Griffin Goldsmith; bassist Wylie Gelber; and keyboardist Lee Pardini – decided that perhaps the most radical thing they could do would be to make a record solely for themselves. “Sometimes you meet badass 45- or 50-year-old people and they’re like, ‘I just don’t care anymore. This is who I am.’ That’s how this Dawes record felt when we were making it,” says Goldsmith, 32.
The result is Passwords, the band’s insular, stubbornly unpretentious new collection. The album makes it clear that Dawes, who have been relentlessly compared to their West Coast heroes like Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne since their inception, are uninterested in evolving on anyone’s terms but their own. The album mixes laid-back SoCal balladry and Eighties-referencing, synth-driven heartland rock, with Goldsmith ruminating on thirtysomething alienation, the failure of communication and the blissful promise of lifelong commitment as he prepares to marry his girlfriend Mandy Moore in the fall.
Rolling Stone recently sat down with Goldsmith to discuss Passwords, his evolution as a songwriter, and what a socially conscious Dawes song sounds like in 2018.
Your new song “Crack the Case” strikes me both as your way of addressing what’s going on in the country, and a commentary on your struggle to find a way to talk about those things.
The first verse of that song came when we were doing the music video for “Roll With the Punches” and I had a phoner that day, so during a break I had to take a call and do an interview. The election had just gone down and the interviewer was like, “What do you think of this presidential election?” And I was like, “Man …” It was the last question: “OK, we have 30 seconds, what do you think of this?” kind of thing, and I was like, “Fuck, anything I say is just going to be fodder to be misunderstood or be reduced to a pull-quote that is just going to either make someone nod their head along, like, ‘OK, that’s what I think,’ or make someone go, ‘Fuck him.'” Obviously, it’s not hard to imagine how I feel. I’m in my early thirties. I live in Los Angeles, California. I’m an artist. So it’s not hard to imagine. You could have guessed on your own. But in terms of how I want to engage with that, it’s not as simple as just saying, “Well, I think this is bullshit and I don’t like him!” That doesn’t help anybody. In fact, it does the opposite and it helps widen the gap from anybody that would be willing to talk to me about it.
So “Crack the Case” is you saying, “Hey, let’s try to have a conversation about this”?
I think about songs that have approached current events before, certain Bob Dylan songs. I realize we’ve lived through fearful and anxious times before, but I feel like there was something about the attitude that when you said “the answer is blowin’ in the wind” or “the times they are a-changing,” that that was enough to heave a sigh. But if those songs had been written today, if I wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” for this current moment that we’re in, I feel like people would be like, “Yo, what the fuck!” A song like that suggests that it’s unsolvable or too vague and impenetrable for us to actually get to a good place, and we cannot accept that reality. Or a song like, “The Times They Are a-Changin'” … OK, changing into what? With “Crack the Case,” I didn’t want to answer anything because I don’t know if a song is enough to do that. A song is a song, at the end of the day. But that song is a suggestion of an approach for myself. I can come to a conversation and I can hear where somebody else is coming from without immediately saying, “I can’t believe that you would think these ways.” And rather than judging and alienating others, I do think there’s an opportunity that no one is taking, myself included, to actually understand why somebody is coming from a certain place.
If you live in a certain part of West Virginia and you work in coal and all these jobs are going away, and then you’re asked, “How do you feel about letting a whole bunch more people into this country?” when you feel so personally threatened in your own world that you’ve created, of course it’s going to be a more complicated answer than if you ask me, who is a guy that plays guitar in California. And that’s very easy to reduce that into, “Well, that makes someone racist,” and that’s not true. That doesn’t make someone racist. That makes someone scared, and for good reason. And rather than pointing a finger in their face and saying, “This makes you fucking racist,” it’s about being able to say, “I’m so sorry that this is a troubling concept or time or attitude. Let’s figure out a way to sit at a table and say, ‘I’m going to respect whatever you have to say and I’m going to expect the same.'” And maybe that will allow us to get to a place where we can find a way forward.” Maybe that’s idealistic and naïve, but I also feel like if I wasn’t idealistic and naïve, I wouldn’t be a songwriter.
“Crack the Case” works because it feels like a bona fide Dawes song, and not like you trying to write a song you feel like you’re supposed to write.
It’s important to me that it isn’t just about current events. There are so many songs where you listen to them 10 years later and it’s like, “Ahh, Dick Cheney!” and it’s like, “I don’t know what I can draw from this anymore other than as a historical artifact.” So it was important for me that I wanted the song to be about that but I wanted it to be about the emotions beneath it rather than the specifics.
What you just said reminds me of James McMurtry’s song “Cheney’s Toy.”
Oh, man – I love James McMurtry!
I’m also thinking of McMurtry because the video you posted a while back of you singing his song “Out Here in the Middle” was so moving.
What a song. That whole record is great. He’s never written a bad song.
“Out Here in the Middle” actually seems like exactly the type of political song you’ve been talking about and trying to write.
I was listening to a lot of him when I wrote “Crack the Case.” I listened to James McMurtry for a couple of months and that song came out. It’s not a coincidence. I think he’s actually better than anybody at being able to adopt a voice and to present an attitude of someone that he doesn’t even line up with and do it in a way where it feels human and it feels rounded. It feels nuanced and fair. Like in “Out Here in the Middle,” I feel for that character. I don’t judge them. And that’s the case with all of James McMurtry’s songs. He never presents these characters for us to judge, but only to sympathize with. He has a capacity for compassion with every sketch that he makes with a person that he is not.
Does that feel, ultimately, like your job, as a songwriter?
Yeah, totally. Especially because in your early twenties and your late teens, you’re learning how to do it and the stuff that comes out is going to be very self-obsessed, because you’re very self-obsessed. That’s what you’re supposed to be at that time. When I think about how little regard I had for a world around me when I was 20 years old, it makes me wince. But now, as time goes on, I don’t want to write a song about how scared of my depression I am anymore. That feels embarrassing for me right now. I feel like I’ve talked a lot about myself over the course of five or six records and now, with this new album, I’m like, “How do I do this without embarrassing myself with what comes off as a really pretty weird self-obsession and narcissism?” The idea of any songwriter being like, “She broke my heart, she left,” which I have plenty of songs about, so I’m all about it. And that still resonates with me, but trying to gear up and write another one? I’m just like, “Wait, what?” Does anybody want to hear that? They’ve all been there. We’ve talked about this. It’s about trying to inhabit somebody else’s perspective or attitude, and that is not only more challenging but also more enriching.
As you get a bit older, how do you find yourself doing that? I imagine it only becomes easier for someone to retreat more into their own world as they get more comfortable.
When Kanye West talks about how much credit he deserves on “Through the Wire” and how people aren’t taking him seriously, it’s really profound and moving. And then later on Dark Twisted Fantasy when he’s explaining to us that this is what it’s like being on top, I’m down with that, too. I think the human condition and the feelings that we all share can be explored from any point in your own life. So I think there’s something really to be said for the 20-year-old Dawes where we’re all hungry and no one know who we are and my songs are all about wanting to go on tour and wanting to leave L.A. And then eventually it’s like, now my songs are about tour, because that’s all I ever do. But I’m not going to pretend that I’m that guy that I’m not anymore. As time goes on, I’m getting married and I’m not burning to get on the road, but I do have an avenue with which to share my thoughts. I still have a perspective and I try to read a lot and pay attention. A song like “Telescope” was about a friend of mine. He doesn’t know it’s about him. Just trying to keep that antenna up is all that really takes. And if anything, getting to be a professional musician, I have more time to do it. It’s my job to pay attention.
When you think back on early Dawes records, do you wince at that lack of awareness of the world around you?
I do, but I love it. I’m stoked that every night I’m willing to sing pretty much any song off of North Hills or Nothing Is Wrong. That doesn’t mean I think they’re great. We’ve grown but we haven’t grown so much that we resent our earliest records. I look at this newest record, and I believe it’s our best. I know that won’t be agreed upon by everyone, nor should it, but by what I want for myself and from myself, that’s how it feels.
What do you mean by that?
I don’t want to say this without sounding dumb, but I feel represented by the songs. There are times in any career where there feels like a certain amount of posturing, like here’s what I’m supposed to do because I want to be a musician, or songwriter. When I listen back, I know the moments to call bullshit on.
Are you saying that there’s less posturing on this new record than there has been on previous Dawes albums?
I’m really proud of a record like We’re All Gonna Die; I liked that it was polarizing. I liked that some people were angry with us. But I did sometimes feel, within myself, “Am I doing this because it’s antagonizing and different and it pushes or am I doing it because it’s what feels real?” And sometimes I don’t know what the answer to that is. With this album, I know that it wasn’t for the sake of itself. If anything seemed different or out-there, it’s just because that’s what put a smile on our face.
There’s always this voice in anybody’s head of, “What’s going to take me to the promised land?” With every record we’ve suffered from that disease a little bit less, but with this record we were just like, “That is not the game we are playing.” We’re making these long songs with a lot of words, really slow, and we’re not in the running for being the next whatever band. You want to be the tallest and coolest and strongest guy and all these things, but when you get better at accepting those things about you, you like yourself more and the world around you can pick up on that energy as well. I feel like this record has more of that than anything else. I feel like we like ourselves as much as we ever have.