Steve Dawson’s new solo album, At The Bottom Of A Canyon In The Branches Of A Tree, tells a powerful story of faith lost and artistry reborn. Crushed by the late-2017 deaths of his mother- and father-in-law—and prompted to deal with the long-ago loss of his own mother and abandonment by his father, all while fending off a general state of despair—Dawson quit songwriting and performing. This was a startling shift for the prolific singer-songwriter behind the celebrated Americana band Dolly Varden and the boundaries-pushing jazz-folk ensemble Funeral Bonsai Wedding. At The Bottom Of A Canyon In The Branches Of A Tree is being released July 12 by Pravda Records on 12” LP vinyl, CD, as a digital download and on streaming platforms. CD and digital formats include two bonus tracks.
He put his creativity on ice for months, then traveled to the Catskills Mountains for legendary guitarist Richard Thompson’s summer songwriting camp, where singer-songwriter Patty Griffin was the special guest. Griffin’s remarkable ability to address stone cold reality in prayer-like songs illuminated a path for Dawson.
Over the next three years, Dawson wrote dozens of songs that he recorded in his home studio, Kernel Sound Emporium in Chicago. Although the songs delved into darkness while exorcising ghosts, the process was joyful. He loved playing all the instruments, singing, producing and embracing the freedom to explore. He created three or four different versions of some songs in search of the optimal arrangement. He sang of “the thrill of letting go.”
The new album, his first for the venerable indie label Pravda Records, carries on the thrilling progression of Dawson’s recent work. His songwriting continues to grow in depth and lyricism while his voice has never sounded more rich or resonant. The album’s twelve songs (plus two CD/digital bonus tracks) tie together the American musical influences that span his life: the late 60’s/early 70’s folk-rock of California, where he was born; the country music of Idaho, where he grew up; and the blues, gospel and soul of Chicago, where he has spent the bulk of his adult life. Fans of Dolly Varden, Funeral Bonsai Wedding and Dawson’s previous solo works will recognize the beautiful melodicism, brilliant craftsmanship and emotional depth expressed in the soulful balladry of “Hard Time Friend” and “Forgiveness Is Nothing Like I Thought It Would Be,” the folky reflections of “The Spaces In Between,” the sublime yearning of “Beautiful Mathematics” and the gentle dreamscape of “We Are Walking in a Forest,” a duet with Dolly Varden’s Diane Christiansen.
This is material that couldn’t have been written at any other time in Dawson’s life—and it addresses life in the here and now. At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree revisits depths that many of us have experienced in recent years and takes us to heights to which we all aspire. It’s the inspirational music we need to hear in 2021.
Today Glide is excited to premiere the music video for “22 Rubber Bands,” one of the standout tracks on the new album. Sunny acoustic strumming, a mellow bass line, subtle yet moving organ, and dreamy guitar playing immediately wash over you before Dawson’s calming voice comes in. Mixing a folk sensibility with power pop sounds, the song showcases Dawson’s song craftmanship as well as his ability to build layer upon layer of infectious sounds. It’s also intriguing to hear how he tries out different vocal styles to make for a truly vibrant listening experience. To add to the charm of the song itself, the video provides a fun visual with hand-drawn animation. If “22 Rubber Bands” is any indication, we are in for a real treat with the rest of the album.
Dawson describes the inspiration and process behind the song:
“When my kid was 4 or so we’d walk home from daycare through the neighborhood. There was always a hunt for tiny colored rubber bands and by the end of the walk there was always handfuls of ‘em. Not sure where they came from but it was a fun, joyous memory of just being together without anything to do other than eventually make it home. Daycare was at a kid named Wolf’s house, and we did pass the Johnny Machine garden in Wicker Park, and would often stop for a snack at a little corner store where there was a giant hole in the sidewalk out front. This song went through a lot of musical changes. It started as a rock song but after a lot of experimenting it arrived where it is today. I love the Cure and I was trying to do that hypnotic, swirling thing they do and I’ve always wanted to have a song with a stuttered lyric, like “ch ch changes” or “ba ba ba Bennie and the Jets,” so I added a stutter to the backing vocals.
The video is an animation by my wife, Diane Christiansen, and her assistant Iz Mozer. They’d been working on it for a while and at some point realized that the song felt really good matched with the images and then went about finishing it with the song in mind. Diane and I have been collaborating more and more in recent years on the visual art / music connection. Our largest collaboration is a giant inflatable opera installation called, “Birth Death Breath,” that was done with Jeanne Dunning and is currently being shown at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.”
Photo credit: Matthew Gilson