Writers of new Dolly Varden album have come a long way
By THOMAS CONNER firstname.lastname@example.org January 16, 2013 6:00PM
Dolly Varden June 9 2012. Clockwise: Diane Christiansen, Steve Dawson, Mark Balletto, Matt Thobe, Mike Bradburn. | Photo by Sarah Gross
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Updated: February 19, 2013 2:17PM
‘For a While,” the new album from Chicago’s venerable Dolly Varden (out Jan. 22) sounds like a band of musicians utterly comfortable in their own skins. The songwriting of Steve Dawson and wife Diane Christiansen is built on carefree melodies and sweet-but-never-cloying harmonies, making its creation seem deceptively easy. The thoughtful, reminiscent verses transmit a modest wisdom. The woody, moseying arrangements show off occasional experimental flourishes — the kind a grown-up musician tries out, not the brash theatricality of a grand-standing whipper-snapper.
It’s an adult album for the adult at heart.
Dawson, 47, teaches songwriting and guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
“My songwriting class has a bunch of older dudes,” he says one afternoon in a Wicker Park diner. “We were talking about that certain freedom you find once you hit 40. The pressure’s suddenly off. You don’t give as much of a sh--. We were all saying we wish we had this attitude at 22. Instead of worrying all the time about what people think about what you do, we could’ve done anything.”
Dolly Varden hasn’t done anything and everything, but they have done great things. Could they have done more? Sure. Courted by major labels after their 1995 debut (“Mouthful of Lies”), the band was positioned to ride Chicago’s wave of breakout stars in the mid-’90s. It didn’t happen.
Funny story, that.
“It’s kind of complicated. ‘Mouthful of Lies’ was sniffed by all the majors,” Dawson says, almost sheepishly. “You know, this was ’94, ’95, the years of Liz Phair and the Smashing Pumpkins. Chicago was intense. There was pressure on to be the next band signed out of Chicago. We completely failed at doing that. …
“We did a showcase at South by Southwest and had a room full of every label [representative]. It was ridiculous. That led us to a showcase in New York for RCA. It was a complete disaster. They flew us out at the last minute, put each of us up in a room at the Four Seasons. Record labels are crazy. The money they spent — we could have recorded a whole album with that money. They put us in this crappy club. We rented a drum kit that had no cymbals. It wasn’t our best. We had to go to dinner after with the entire RCA staff. I at least told the president that he should release all [of RCA’s] Sam Cooke records.”
“For a While” looks back a fair amount. “Del Mar, 1976” is rich with memory and sensory detail. “Saskatchewan to Chicago” explores a family tree back three generations. In the title track, Christiansen casts her mind back to 1965 before hoping for the future: “It’s happening too fast / but with any luck it’ll last for a while.”
Depending on how you look at it, 2013 could be Dolly Varden’s 20th anniversary. Dawson thinks that’s jumping the gun a little.
The first band he and Christiansen were in together, Stump the Host, folded in 1993, though the couple continued working together in what would basically be Dolly Varden.
He refers to 1994 as a “lost year.” Fishing for identity in the wake of the scene’s overkilled urges and exiles in Guyville, the couple realized they should stick to what they do best: writing simple narrative songs with harmony singing.
“It’s part of that wisdom of age thing, I guess,” Dawson says. “I’m still learning to go with my strengths as a songwriter. There are things I do well and things I don’t. I’m not good with cynicism. I always admire Elvis Costello, all the wordplay and bite, but when I try that it sounds so forced. I don’t do clever songs. That thing Robbie Fulks does so well, I don’t do that. And that’s fine.”
What Dolly Varden does is in the realm of whatever we call modern American music now — alt-country, roots, Americana, what have you. Part of that ’93 to ’95 soul-searching, though, included genre crisis, as well.
In a 2002 interview with the Sun-Times, Dawson recalled, “At first, we were so confused musically that we didn’t know what we were doing. We felt like we wanted to try anything but roots rock.”
“That attitude made us refuse to court [Chicago rootsy label] Bloodshot,” Dawson says now. “We were like, no, we don’t want to be that. We could have been put on the same trajectory, I guess, as Whiskeytown or the Jayhawks. Or Wilco.” He pauses. “It seems weird to think Wilco was ever alt-country.”
Dawson grew up in Idaho, where as a teenager he resisted everything resembling country music: “In the ’80s the only thing on [country] radio was Mickey Gilley and Juice Newton.”
Dolly Varden (named for the trout, not the Nevada mountain range or the Chicago-area railway, though all the names spring from the Dickens character) is completed by pros — guitarist Mark Balletto, bassist Mike Bradburn and drummer Matt Thobe — who support the good thing going between Dawson and his romantic and musical soulmate.
Dawson describes the band’s chemistry as “feeling really good, really natural,” adding that the songs for “For a While” seemed to emerge from a common source among them, with themes of mortality, retrospection and gratitude.
Thus the “Thank You” closer — a song that, like the band itself, began as a bit of an upstart and turned into something more genteel and lovely.
“The initial writing of that song came during a tour of England for the first time,” Dawson says. “It was a really difficult tour. Lots of things were going wrong. Anytime you ask anyone in England anything, no matter what their response is they end it with, ‘Thank you!’ Or ,‘Cheers!’ Our van got robbed, and the police came. They said, ‘Well, there’s really nothing we can do. Thank you!’ It became this snarky thing, and the song sat around a while. Eventually it became more sincere, as a way to end shows and say thank you to fans. That’s another thing about getting older. I definitely have become sort of more willing to be grateful and show gratitude for things rather than expect things. That’s another thing that happens as you get older, I think. You sort of realize that your time is limited and you might as well enjoy and be thankful for the things that are happening. So I wrote a new third verse to the ‘Thank You’ song that was more about that. A nice parting way.”