Creative Quarantine: Singer/Songwriter Steve Dawson

Musician Steve Dawson at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Armitage Ave, Chicago | Photo Credit: Matthew Gilson

1. How are you holding up?

It has been a surreal experience around here. My new album, “Last Flight Out,” has been getting some of the best reviews of my life and I received one the City of Chicago’s “Esteemed Artist” grants, while at the same time my beloved brother-in-law, Jose Gonzalez, contracted COVID-19 in early April, got very, very sick and then died two weeks ago.

I can barely stop to comprehend all this. Jose was one of the best people I’ve ever known. He was 51 years old and in great shape with no underlying health issues. There’s no logical reason why he should have gotten it so bad. He was told by his job that he had to come in despite the stay at home order to “make the monthly revenue.”

I go from livid to despondent to disassociated. Everyone who knew him felt like Jose was the guy who had your back – the person you’d call if you were in a jam. It’s a tragedy. And I understand that there are 95,000+ similar tragedies in the USA.

Our sociopath president and his apologists can’t even pretend to have empathy for all this horror and loss. They can only focus on his litany of petty grievances and self-victimization.

My wife, Diane, and I were looking into ways to get out of this country recently but then we thought, “we can’t leave… that would be the height of selfishness.”

If the current administration does manage to gain a second term I do think this country will devolve into lawlessness and the grievance amplification will boil over into more extreme and widespread violence as the last few threads of democracy snap.

I thought I was unable to be shocked anymore, but to see people, large groups of people -and people I’ve known and thought of as smart and decent – denying scientific facts and protesting basic safety measures like wearing a mask because of a meme they read on Facebook or a cockeyed video they saw on YouTube is really depressing.

So that’s how I’m holding up. 

“We can’t leave… that would be the height of selfishness.”

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

I haven’t written a song or a poem since February. It’s killed my drive to create. A wise friend told me to stop listening to the news and over the last few days I’m attempting to do that. I’m also grieving Jose and that isn’t a place where I can be creative. My creativity comes later, as a reflection. I’ve learned that. 

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

Not really. But I’m not in a good place. I’m teaching all my songwriting and guitar classes online through Zoom. It’s working well, but I much prefer the in-person experience. I miss being with other people making music together. I do wish that, as a society, we’d realize that we don’t need to be traveling constantly. This lock down has been great for the environment. I wish we learn a lesson from that. 

4. Of the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?

It seems like Josh Ritter is handling it well. He’s doing a weekly concert series on YouTube. Gerald Dowd has been doing a series with his family that is really, really funny and sweet. I confess I’ve been mostly teaching and trying to get enough exercise and sleep. I haven’t really been checking out much of the work by other artists. When I finish teaching the last thing I want to do is spend more time on the computer. 

I am truly, deeply gratified that people are responding to the new album. It was a joy to make music with that incredible cast of musicians: Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone, Jason Roebke on bass (and string arrangements), Charles Rumback on drums, Melissa Bach on cello, Vannia Phillips on viola, Inger Carle and Andra Kulans on violins, and with Diane Christiansen, Jenny Bienemann and Alton Smith singing harmonies. John Abbey captured the whole thing live at Kingsize exactly one year ago.

The reviews have been amazing and I can’t wait to play these songs in front of a live audience with this incredible ensemble again. The release show has been rescheduled for Sept 20th at the Old Town School of Folk Music and perhaps by then we will have figured out a way to play shows in some capacity.

The album comes across as very timely but I think that’s because all of the stuff that’s happening now – all the discord and selfishness and rage – has been brewing for years.

Covid-19 has added a new horrible layer to the mix but all the stuff that’s made the reaction from the top-down such a failure has been building since Ronald Reagan.

The distrust of government, the systematic breakdown of public education, the race-baiting and blaming, the development of propaganda through Fox News, and right-wing talk radio. This is the logical result of all that.

These songs were written over the last few years. One of them, “While We Were Staring Into Our Palms,” was written after Philando Castile was murdered in his car by a police officer in 2016.

I watched the video, cried, and then started seeing comments from people saying he was to blame. That felt like a breaking point to me. He clearly did absolutely nothing wrong and it was there for everyone to see, plain as day.

So, the song came out and it was about an ending. Some ideal of what America was or is or might have been was washed away. So the songs came from that place but also from a place of, “okay… what now?”

So the only thing I could see as a path forward was to really work on being more kind and more compassionate. So the song, “However Long It Takes,” came out of that thought.

And that’s where I am. I am so so happy that people are hearing the album and responding and that it seems to be a source of comfort or healing in some way right now. I love making music and singing and will continue to do that and I do intend to move through the time I have remaining with an intention to be more kind and filled with love. 

Steve Dawson, best known as the leader of Chicago band Dolly Varden, has been called “one of the most underrated songwriters in American music.” Dawson’s latest project is Funeral Bonsai Wedding, an expansive jazz-folk collaboration featuring some of Chicago’s finest free jazz musicians. The album, “Last Flight Out,” also featuring the Quartet Parapluie string quartet was released on May 8th. Dawson teaches songwriting at the Old Town School of Folk Music and he co-wrote a book on songwriting and the creative process with Mark Caro called, “Take It To The Bridge.” Originally from California, Dawson has called Chicago home for 30 years.