“Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a big part of how we all learned how to do this thing in the first place,” Dawes’ singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith tells me when our conversation turns to the legendary rocker, and his band. “Benmont Tench, especially, has become a friend, but he was such an inspiration, too.”
Dawes burst onto the scene from a Los Angeles suburb in 2009, and, after a brief foray into punk, quickly carved out a niche in the burgeoning Americana circuit. Inspired by the music made by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell, and so many others, in the Laurel Canyon area near Los Angeles in the 1970s, Goldsmith and company quickly made fans of some of their heroes, born out of the infamous Sunday evening jam sessions that included Tench, Jackson Browne, members of the Black Crowes, Connor Oberst, and their friends Jonathan Wilson and Blake Mills, and their participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The band’s latest album, Passwords, was released last year, but it was the T-Bone Burnett-helmed The New Basement Tapes project, Lost On The River, which paired long lost Bob Dylan lyrics from his late-60s Woodstock period with music and melodies by a group that included Elvis Costello, Jim James, Marcus Mumford and Rhiannon Giddons, as well as Dawes’ support slot on Dylan’s 2013 North American tour, that brought Goldsmith to the broader public’s attention.
Goldsmith sat down with Rock Cellar to discuss his hero, Bob Dylan, the impact the legend has on nearly everything he does, and what The New Basement Tapes project taught him.
Rock Cellar: You’ve toured with Bob Dylan, and there are definitely hints of Dylan in your music. Were you a Dylan aficionado growing up, or cutting your teeth as a musician, early on? Were you really familiar with A Tree with Roots or Great White Wonder, or any of the bootlegs that have circulated out there, for instance?
Taylor Goldsmith: I actually wasn’t, really. I mean, I’d heard of Great White Wonder and A Tree With Roots, but I never got a hold of them. But I’m a massive Bob Dylan fan. I have every single record. I know every single song. And I’m obviously very familiar with The Basement Tapes. But I don’t have the bootleg stuff. But Dylan is the greatest songwriter of all time.
Rock Cellar: With Dylan, often it seems for musicians that the more obscure the track is, the better. I interviewed Steve Earle recently, and we agreed that, in learning his songs, you find a real empathy, and that his stories are more straightforward than they might seem, and that his lyrics are much more understandable than people generally give him credit for.
Was there a realization like that for you, especially now that you’re established as a songwriter, and you’ve seen Dylan up close, on tour with him? Is there something new that you feel you bring to the table in what you hear and what you get from his records?
Taylor Goldsmith: I feel like, to me, he’s a lot of different writers. Back when I started listening, I listened to the very protest-driven songs, which are very direct, that black and white, early-era stuff. And then there’s a very abstract “Blonde on Blonde,” “Bring It All Back Home,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” … You know — “binoculars on the head of a mule” — that kind of spirit that I obviously love.
And then there’s the more recent eras, where he’s like a movie singer — a really long-winded story singer — on Desire, Blood on the Tracks.
But I’m a fan of all of this. And I feel like he’s a different singer and a different songwriter, at so many different times. But I do think that when you’re really playing one — when you pick a guitar up and you sing a Bob Dylan song, and you get into the feel in the song — in most cases, you just realize the power of it. The other night, we were at a little party thing at a friend’s house, and someone started singing “Joey.”
They knew all the words to “Joey.” So we all started singing the choruses together. And it was just out of control how good it was. It was just so epic and so ambitious in terms of what he was trying to get after with this song. So, yeah, it’s a story song that you understand, but it also has so much poetry.
So much lyricism to it.
Rock Cellar: There is a spark and spontaneity to Bob’s recordings. As someone who has been influenced by him, is that something you think carried over into the way you work? Since your work on the New Basement Tapes project, do you think the lessons you learned will have carried over into your recordings?
Taylor Goldsmith: I think they have to have carried over. I’m very proud of the records we make with Dawes, but I feel like some of the best guitar playing I’ve ever played was on The Basement Tapes, at least for me. For what I want for myself.
And I think a big part of that was because, you know, we’d get two verses into a Marcus song, and then Marcus would look over and give me a nod, and it was time for the lead guitar solo, and that’s what’s on the record. And so forcing me to think on my feet like that brought out a way of playing guitar that I’m actually trying to do when we’re making Dawes records.
Whereas the Dawes records are tracked; I go back I’ll overdub the solo. And I’ll over-dub it once, and if it’s no good, I’ll over-dub it a second time. And it ends up being this really tough thing, like, “What the fuck? I can play it so well every night on stage. Why am I having a rough time?”
I find that when you take away the comfort zones, when you force yourself to not have the comfort zone, you are just operating at a heightened awareness level.
And I think The New Basement Tapes was forcing us to do that. It was like, ‘Oh shit! We can only do one or two takes of these songs.’ Everything was done live, so the solos had to be the final solos. So it was just, like, I really had to plug in, in a way. And I felt like that’s just downright better than the other way. So it’s true, it’s easy to fall back into old habits. But I feel like it was a learning experience big enough to where I feel that I can’t not do it that way anymore. It was very eye-opening.
Rock Cellar: There are a lot of lessons to learn from the way Dylan works, then?
Taylor Goldsmith: Yeah. You just see how his songs work when you’re singing them. And I feel like The Basement Tapes era is a particularly playful period, when you look at, like, “Million Dollar Bash,” and “Hand Me A Bottle of Red,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” for instance. There’s a lot of playfulness and a lot of goofiness that I really like to get to play around with.
And then, also, there’s some very serious and weighty stuff, like “I Shall Be Released.” And then, you know, it’s definitely a specific-sounding period for his songwriting, because you can almost hear the immediacy. You can feel that he was writing those words, one song a day, or maybe several a day. So I feel like that really matched the way we approached The New Basement Tapes recordings, as well.
When you sing a song and you see even something as simple where he’s placed a chord, you’re always just, like, “man, that’s amazing.” You develop such an understanding, because there’s such a power there. And I mean, you know, we’re all in the same game of trying to write the best songs we can, so, yeah, I have a pretty deep reverence for him. But at the same time, he’s worked more than anybody. That’s hard to match.
Rock Cellar: How did you end up getting involved in the project? Because, boy, if there was a list of dream projects that a musician could ever imagine, this would certainly be at the top.
Taylor Goldsmith: Yeah. Absolutely. I think, because of my touring with Mumford & Sons, Marcus put in a word for me with T-Bone. And T-Bone was open to it. Also, Van Jones, who made the film and who stayed with us every day in the studio, well, he and I are friends, too. He told me, ‘I mentioned your name at one point, because they were looking for interesting people who could be a part of it.’ I’m in debt to those guys, and anyone else involved.
I realize that, you know, when it comes to guys like Elvis Costello, and Marcus, and Jim James, everyone’s aware of them. So for me to be involved with them had to definitely take a little extra digging. And so I appreciate everyone giving me a shot and letting me be a part of it, because it was truly one of the greatest experiences I’ve had.
Rock Cellar: I can’t imagine being on the floor of Capitol with -– forget everybody else -– but Elvis? I mean, you’ve got to be a little bit intimidated. I’ve talked to him a few times about working with McCartney, which I can’t even fathom, but he was like, ‘Oh, after a while, we were just sitting there writing a song.”
And I’m like … how does that happen? That doesn’t compute.
Taylor Goldsmith: It was very much the same thing. I didn’t meet him till the first day. So we started recording, he came in, and we shook hands, and we all cracked some jokes for an hour or so, and got coffee. And then, eventually, we were putting on instruments and showing each other songs. And it was incredible. I was definitely nervous.
But I came in really, I think, over-prepared. I didn’t want there to be any room for me to be the guy that anyone might think, ‘Oh, this is why you don’t invite the guy that no one’s heard of!’ So I wrote a bunch of ideas, and recorded a bunch of ideas, before we even got in there. And then I got the lyrics — I got a hold of the words, like, a week before we started — and so I worked on some of them on my own, though some of the words we didn’t see till we got in there.
So some of it was written on the fly. You know, there were some times on the record that the part you’re hearing was something that was written down an hour before. I think that’s definitely the case with “Liberty Street.”
That didn’t exist until earlier that day. And then, also, I think, to a certain extent, “Kansas City.” Marcus had been fooling around with it, and then finally when it came time to cut it, he said, ‘Okay, I’ve got to finish that. Okay cool. I’m ready.” So there was a lot of that. It was really a blast, because you don’t hear about records getting made that way anymore. But we didn’t really have a choice.
We recorded, I think, 43 songs in two weeks!
Rock Cellar: That’s an incredible amount of material. And, of course, there are multiple versions of some of the songs. Has anybody said to you, who know the Dylan material, or know The Band well, that you had a sort of Richard Manuel moment there at the keyboards? That you really evoked that kind of spirit? Was that conscious?
You have to be a Band fan, I’m just guessing, from Dawes and your taste and so forth. Was that a conscious thing, or did the song just kind of come out that way?
Taylor Goldsmith: Oh, yeah, I’m a total fan of his. You mean “Liberty Street?” Yeah, it just kind of came out that way. I mean, obviously Richard Manuel is one of my favorite singers of all time. But, yeah. I mean, I didn’t know if we were going to even get to it. It was sort of this last minute thing, where we were in the middle of one and then decided to do another one. That’s kind of how everything was.
I mean, I actually think that we tried to steer clear of emulating The Band, or emulating how Bob Dylan might have written the songs, because we just would have been chasing something that we couldn’t ever really nail. And it just would have been a little transparent, I think. I do like the idea of Elvis Costello writing an “Elvis Costello” song, using Bob Dylan lyrics, though. That’s much more exciting to me than the idea of Elvis Costello trying to approximate how Dylan would write. That’s how we all approached it, though, I think.
Rock Cellar: You said you had the lyrics about a week ahead of time. You were certainly in a crunch, and the clock was ticking, and you wanted to deliver — like you said, you’re kind of the new guy on the block — but did you learn anything about Dylan in that time alone with his lyrics, that either you didn’t expect or that was a treat for you?
Taylor Goldsmith: I think what I learned — definitely from the words and from Bob Dylan — but also from the whole project in general, from Elvis, from everybody, from the way that things recorded — was just that things are better when you just don’t treat something too precious. When you get in there and do what you’ve got to do, work your hardest, hope for the best, but don’t over-write things, don’t over-record, that’s when it works out for the best.
I mean, at least for this project, it did. I shouldn’t make that generalization about all music. But I feel like, for me, it was like, “Oh, this feels fresh.” And it feels fresh every time I go back to those recordings of The New Basement Tapes. Because you can hear the fact that we were really thinking on our feet, and working on the fly, and we were all not sure if we were even going to make it to the next chord!
And I feel as though that’s always something that’s infectious. You know, you listen to original The Basement Tapes, and it’s exact same experience, in the same sense. Obviously, with them, they’re in a basement. We were in the nicest studio in the world. But I still feel like that spirit of, ‘Holy shit, here we go …’ was still in play. And I feel like that every time I hear that on a record. I always find myself going back to those records, in a way that, for a certain set of reasons, I don’t go back to other records that you can tell were meticulously labored over, and all that.
Rock Cellar: You said earlier that when you got there, you hadn’t really met everybody. You had a coffee, talked for an hour, joked around, and then got to work. Was there any discussion of the elephant in the room: The enormity of the task? Did T-Bone or Elvis — did anybody — put the fear of God in you, or was that kind of unspoken?
Taylor Goldsmith: No, everybody was so mellow. T-Bone is obviously a man of many talents. But one of those talents is that he’s incredible at not letting stress or anxiety enter into the equation. It won’t happen if he’s around. He’s just really good at always making sure to say, “Oh, we’re good. We got this. We’re cool.”
For all I know, he was secretly panicking in his own head. But I don’t think he was. He was just so good at keeping us smiling and laughing and getting us ready for the next thing. So I never got freaked. That just never happened. I went in there with no idea what to expect, but things went pretty quick. T-Bone would maybe listen to everyone’s version of each song, and he’d pick his favorite version, and then we’d do that one. But in the end we just recorded everything. We recorded, like, five versions of some songs. One day we recorded seven songs! I mean, it was insane. That’s unheard of. So we just recorded absolutely everything, and then he went back and he put the record together. So that was cool, because, I mean, I was kind of really curious. “Well, how are we going to really enjoy this experience while we kind of a good portion of our stuff is left on the cutting room floor?” But instead, we actually got to do it all, and he really did choose the best takes.
Rock Cellar: Were there songs that, when you had them ahead of time, you thought, “Oh, this is going to be great,” but then they didn’t turn out that way? Or were there songs that were a struggle that you now go back to and go and think, “Wow, we really captured something magical”?
Taylor Goldsmith: Yeah, for sure, to a certain extent. There was one of mine — my version of “Lost On The River” — that I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is my best one.’ And then we recorded it, and it sounded cool, and I was cool with it. But I’m grateful that the songs of mine that made it are the ones that made it. There were those kinds of moments.
And then, also, in the movie, Rhiannon Giddons was having trouble with one song, but you know how movies are, it was made to seem way more intense than it was. It was actually fine. I know she was bummed, and I felt for her in that moment, because that’s a rough feeling, and we’ve all been there, but no one was worried that we weren’t going to get a performance, or that she wasn’t going to be happy with it.
Like when she says, in the film, ‘Let’s just move on,’ all of us are sort of thinking, ‘Okay, we’ll move on. But we are going back to it, because we are going to get it.’ So that’s about as tough as it got in terms of were we going to not get something.
And even then, we were never scared that we weren’t going to get the versions. And so that it was, in terms of toughness, because all in all it was a really magical experience.