By Sean Titone
November 8, 2018
Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer and chief songwriter of the Los Angeles-based folk-rock band Dawes, is enjoying a day off from his current “An Evening with Dawes” tour when I recently caught up with him via phone in El Paso, Texas. He was hanging out at a bookstore and looking for some things to do in the west Texas town that’s situated along the Rio Grande. “I have some friends who live here and they recommended some spots to check out. There’s a general store called Dave’s Pawn Shop that claims to sell Pancho Villa’s trigger finger. A black, little, rotten finger in a glass case. It’s very funny, so I wanted to go check that out,” he said. The story of Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican revolutionary, and the journey of how his disembodied trigger finger ended up in a glass case in an El Paso shop full of strange, historical oddities seems like the perfect fodder for a future Dawes song. If anyone could wring emotion, drama and lyrical poetry out of that very specific subject matter, it’s Goldsmith.
Dawes has only been around for ten years, but it already feels like they are a vital part of the lineage of rock ‘n’ roll giants. They represent a distinct through line from the past to the present. Combining solid, well-worn songwriting and emotionally inquisitive and resonating lyrics, the band has carved out its own legacy in a short period of time. A deep dive into their resume illustrates an eclectic and diverse discography, while their experiences over the last decade, like touring and recording with some of the biggest names in music (Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, John Fogerty and, most recently, opening arena shows for Jeff Lynne’s ELO) demonstrate they are respected by their elder peers. But Dawes is more than some kind of modern act trying to recreate the past through classic rock nostalgia. They’ve also collaborated and performed with several current indie artists like Conor Oberst, Lucius, Jim James, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, M. Ward and so many others, further cementing their place in an ever-widening genre of Americana music. Like many great artists who maintain longevity and relevance over a long career, their genre of music can be hard to pin down. And Goldsmith likes it that way.
“I think every artist tries to escape being pigeonholed and reduced to a term,” Goldsmith said. “All the grunge bands resented being known as grunge bands. Bob Dylan was constantly surprising us with what he was and he was constantly changing, and was never just simply being the Bob Dylan that everyone was expecting, you know? And I think every artist that we love to talk about, every artist that is truly great, doesn’t like being reduced to a quick, easy sentence. And their work reflects that. So, I like when people have to talk about Dawes and they’re like ‘yeah, it’s a little bit of an Americana thing, it’s a little bit of a classic rock thing but it’s also not, and has these aspects that aren’t that.’ I like the idea that it would require someone to say, ‘you need to just hear it.’ Because I’d rather the music tell you what it sounds like than a blurb, you know?”
Dawes released their sixth studio album entitled Passwords earlier this summer, with Jonathan Wilson back at the boards as producer (he produced their first two albums, North Hills and Nothing is Wrong). It’s a confident and mature collection of songs that showcases Goldsmith’s penchant for thoughtful, illustrious lyrics that paint a very clear picture. It’s also notable for its embrace of some big-hearted love songs Goldsmith wrote for his fiancée, actress and singer, Mandy Moore, as well as more politically driven material that is a byproduct of the times we live in.
“I think all of us, for the last two years, have thought a lot about politics,” Goldsmith said. “And thought a lot about the way that politics affects our lives. Every record that anybody makes, it should to some degree, kind of represent what’s been on your mind for the last year and a half or two years, or however long it’s been since you released your last record. So if I’m going to be true to that, then I have to explore the feelings I’ve had in response to the political moment we’re living in.”
The political moment we’re living in is heated, noisy and often acrimonious. Enter Passwords, Dawes’ mellow, measured response that strikes a more conciliatory tone.
“I’m not the kind of guy that just wants to merely give my laundry list of reasons why I hate our current administration, or here’s what should be different, or here’s why this person’s a villain. Like, I can do that and I might feel those things, and I’m not unwilling to talk about that stuff, but I also feel like how could what I do be best put to use?”
Goldsmith is adept at writing songs that speak to what it means to be human, what it means to have successes and failures and how to navigate relationships of all stripes. His approach to Passwords was to try and unfold how we can better communicate with each other in periods of division.
“When I try to write songs like ‘Living in the Future’ or ‘Crack the Case’… I want to try and figure out if there’s any way to get back to an empathetic, compassionate attitude to remind ourselves that just because our aunts and uncles or our brothers and sisters might not think the way we do, that doesn’t make them robots. That doesn’t make them villains.”
He’s quick to add that he doesn’t want to confuse empathy with apathy, at least on his part when it comes to our current political climate.
“Like, I’m standing with the resistance, and I don’t want anything I’m saying right now to diminish that. But at the same time, within resistance and the concept of resistance, there’s also the concept of forgiveness. Because that’s where all this is going anyway, you know? Whether it’s a year from now or in 20 years, we’re going to have to look back and someone’s going to have to forgive someone for the way that they thought.”
While the importance of empathy is a running theme throughout Passwords, musically, the album extends the sonic exploration found on 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die with the synth, Wurlitzer, and inventive piano flourishes of keyboardist Lee Pardini often taking center stage.
As Goldsmith told me, “the last two records that we’ve made have definitely opened up the playing field for us. We can do whatever we want and it won’t necessarily make anybody mad the way it might have when we released We’re All Gonna Die. But now that they can see We’re All Gonna Die in the context of our whole catalog, it does free us up and that’s something really cool.”
The “Evening with Dawes” shows are a treat for fans of the band because they get an opportunity to hear deeper cuts they might not otherwise get to hear in a traditional opening band/headlining band tour. “It comes from the feeling that we want to leave it all out there,” he said. And for Goldsmith, it’s an opportunity to revisit older songs and play with different arrangements across his entire discography.
“…I often feel like this is still just the beginning. I’m 33 right now, so when I’m 43, that still feels like we should have plenty more gas in the tank. And that’s always been the dream. To be able to look at a body of work and have this epic set to show for it. That’s one of the cool things about being a touring musician,” Goldsmith said. “You get to go re-explore an emotion you had, or a thought you had ten years ago, that you don’t even have anymore. And you get to go live with it again for three or five minutes night after night. That’s something I’m very grateful for and I don’t want to take for granted.”