Dolly Varden has been at the center of several of the most heated, intense music debates this writer has ever engaged in. The point of contention: The best band to come out of Chicago in past 20 years. While many folks tout Wilco as that city’s shining beacon, Dirty Impound fervently believes that Dolly Varden – who’ve been playing and recording as long as Tweedy’s gang – consistently produce better, more readily engaging music.
In terms of melodic, song-focused rock, there’s only a handful of acts to emerge in the past few decades of the same caliber as Dolly Varden, whose albums hold up with the same resounding quality as works like Carole King’s Tapestry, Badfinger’s No Dice, James Taylor’s In The Pocket, John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, and Big Star’s #1 Record (though Chris Bell’s solo classic I Am the Cosmos is perhaps more apt). What’s so lovely and enticing about their tunes is how unforced everything feels. Nothing is layered on that doesn’t belong, and always the phenomenal, pop-friendly voices of husband-wife team Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen float above it all – a pair of singers, particularly in their interlacing harmonies, that could have held their own in the days when you had to be as good as the Everly Brothers and Petula Clark to be on radio.
What one finds with Dolly Varden’s work is a totality that’s simply a cut above of what most bands are doing today, and each new chapter only finds them growing stronger and more comfortable in their skin. For A While (released January 22) is crazy catchy yet flecked with curiously insightful observations and interesting musical curves. It’s the kind of record that only a band that’s been hard at it for years and years could produce – music a little wiser and pleasantly weathered by challenges that emerges with the quiet wisdom that they are lucky to be alive and doing their thing. On For A While, Dawson (singer/songwriter, guitars, piano), Christiansen (singer/songwriter, guitar, melodica, organ), Mark Balletto (guitars, lap steel, vocals), Mike Bradburn (bass, vocals) and Matt Thobe (drums, piano, vocals) coalesce the many strengths evident on earlier releases into a focused, top-tier example of post-Beatles rock at its very finest. There is darkness and light wrestling here – often within the same song – but the abiding feeling is there is something good waiting at the end of all the struggles, and at least there are warm hands to hold as we walk through life’s inevitable valleys. Without question, this is one of the best albums we’ll hear in 2013, but DI’s gut says this one will endure as a beloved companion for many, many years to come.
We are delighted to present this ranging conversation with Steve Dawson, where we discuss the new album, the band’s history, what interests him as a songwriter, and more. Dolly Varden is on a short, cherished list of bands that were part of the impetus to start Dirty Impound nearly three years ago to create a space that celebrates and spotlights the finest rock ‘n’ roll out there, particularly the kind made by working bands madly in love with making music. As this conversation reveals, Dolly Varden surely fits this bill.
It’s a heavy thing to throw at any musician, but there is a timeless quality to Dolly Varden. One can’t neatly situate your music in one era because it seems like you’re shooting for a greater benchmark that’s not about what’s on radio at this moment.
I’d say that’s true. I don’t really listen to current radio, and current radio in Chicago is all dance music or stuff from the 70s and 80s.
Radio used to let genres mingle and they’re very stubbornly separated now. Dolly Varden is clearly a rock band but one with the classic philosophy that embraces twang, blue-eyed soul and more, and incorporates those elements as the song dictates.
Exactly! I guess I get cues from The Beatles, who tried a lot stylistically and put them side-by-side on records. And those records flow just beautifully!
I wonder where it went wrong [Dawson laughs]. No, man, I’m serious. When did popular music lose that openness and reach? Specificity is the rule now.
I suppose it is, I’d never really thought of it that way. Business-wise, The Beatles’ albums were the most popular albums ever [at that stage]. Now, they really do just want one thing. There must have been some huge record along the way that had six Number One singles on it that all sort of sounded the same…
…Thriller. I think that’s one of the turning points. It’s the same thing that happened in the 70s with movies where the box office success of Jaws and Star Wars birthed the continuing focus on event films. What I appreciate about Dolly Varden, and your solo work as well, is you have these songs you NEED write and there’s no scheming or audience premeditation behind how you shape them.
No, no, there isn’t. There’s definitely no scheming -what happens happens. Dolly Varden started in 1995, and prior to that Diane and I were singing together in a band called Stump The Host that started in 1986. That band was even whackier stylistically because we had a fantastic, super twangy guitar player and a saxophonist that played with all these blues artists, plus Diane and I singing two-part harmonies. Such a super fun band! So, Diane and I have been singing together since 1988.
I moved to Chicago from Boston and rented out a room in the first floor of a two-flat from a friend of mine. Diane lived upstairs and owned the house. I didn’t really talk to her because she was the landlady for the first six months I lived here. I’d just give her the rent check, but at some point we were singing some old country songs and she came down to sing with us. Then, the rest is history.
The sound of your voices together is special. I don’t know what it’s like to sing with your partner but I’d imagine there’s something extra going on beyond the norm.
From the very first time we were singing songs together we thought, “Wow, this is weird.” It’s not so much the sonics, the matching tones, but more the almost effortless ability to phrase things together and start and end notes together. That’s probably more due to her because she’s really good at following, but it’s super weird. We don’t spend a lot of time analyzing it. We just do it.
Some mysteries are best left alone. If you dig too deep you’re not doing yourself any favors.
[Laughs] I agree totally. I have the same feeling about songwriting. Although I do know a lot of music theory, the stuff like lyric stuff and why certain melodies work I don’t really want to investigate that. I want to keep the mystery there.
With your phrasing, it seems like you’re often coming across things in the moment rather than thinking them out beforehand. It’s that natural lilt to the left or right of a word that often makes your phrasing stick.
We stare at each other while we’re singing and a lot of people have said, “Oh, that’s so sweet that you’re looking at each other.” Well, we’re really just watching each other’s mouth to make sure we follow each other really well [laughs]. Part of it is sweet but more of it is about lining things up well.
Tell us a bit about making this new record. For A While coalesces the band’s strengths in a really appealing way. There’s something of all of what you’ve done before distilled into this album.
Well, thanks, I kind of agree, and we all kind of agree. I just think the time was right, and a lot of the songs showed up at the same time out of the blue. I didn’t plan on writing any of these songs. We’d get together and say, “Let’s make a new record.” I had a few things laying around and we tossed those around, but when the seed was planted for a new Dolly Varden album all these songs started showing up. So, if we got together every four weeks, I’d say, “Hey, I’ve got four new songs!” A lot of this album seemed to happen really organically like that.
The last album [The Panic Bell (2007)] took a really long time, and it was spread out because we were all doing a lot of different things. We recorded it at this place an hour south of Chicago, and it was kind of a hassle to get there. I think some of that shows in the record, that it was just a hard slog. [For A While] was just smooth and it all happened just the way you’d want it to happen.
Panic Bell does have a conflict riddled undertow, or just a tension or scrappy quality.
There’s a lot of dark stuff in the lyrics. With [For A While], there’s dark stuff but there’s a lot of gratitude as well. There’s always dark stuff but this one feels like we come out the end of it grateful for what there is and what we have.
That’s made explicit a few times on the record. Every working rock ‘n’ roll band will relate to “Mayfly” [possibly DI’s favorite Dolly Varden song of all-time, a stunner in the vein of David Crosby’s “Laughing”].
That’s one of them that emerged suddenly. I sat down at my desk not intending to write a song and it just bubbled up out of nowhere. I thought, “Well, that’s pretty cool” [laughs]. I’ve read a lot of interviews with songwriters where they talk about the same experience, where a song shows up in about the same time it takes to sing it. You tweak it a bit but the way it comes out is the way it is. Neil Young talks about that a lot. I really, really admire him.
To me, [“Mayfly”] is obvious stuff, both real and made up, and in any song there’s a mixture of actual facts and made up stuff to keep the mood going. I could go line by line and identify which is real and which is made up but ultimately to the listener it doesn’t matter because it all has this dreamlike quality, albeit a fact filled dream [laughs].
I never want to ask a songwriter, particularly one I like as much as you, to parse a song line by line.
I’ve done that before when people have asked and they always respond afterwards, “Ah, I wish I hadn’t known that.” It spoils their own take on things.
However, as I look back now, [“Mayfly”] was written during the week of Diane and I’s 21st wedding anniversary. Someone pointed that out to me. I played it at an open mic thing the week I wrote it and someone said, “That’s about your anniversary,” and I was like, “Oh, I guess it must be.”
Saluting resilience in the face of adversity is a cool aspect of this song. It’s far easier to just trudge along and take things as they are despite a steady descent in the arc of one’s dreams, aspirations, etc. A simple, direct lyric like “we are lucky” is bolstering both to the artist and the listener. Yeah, the van might be upside down right now but we’re alive and aware, so we’re lucky in that way.
One thing I wanted to delve into with you is your obvious affection for 70s singer-songwriters. I share this passion/love, and I’m always tickled when it emerges in your work, particularly on your solo albums. It’s not a nostalgia thing in your hands.
It just informs who I am. As a teenager I’d listen to those records and they defined my world and how I perceived things – Jackson Browne records and Van Morrison records and on and on, Joni Mitchell, etc. I grew up in one of those families that never expressed any emotion of any kind, so I lived an emotional life listening to singer-songwriters. It was like, “Oh, this is a safe way to express feelings.”
I grew up in the exact opposite situation with people who had an excess of emotion and an excess of friction and a tendency towards conflict. What I found in singer-songwriters was a buffer and refuge against the unfocused volatility of my family. These songs gave me some sense of what might be going on below the surface with these people who ran hot all the time.
There’s definitely been a backlash against [70s singer-songwriters], but I think that’s calming down. I teach at the Old Town School of Folk Music and it helps me gauge where trends are, especially with people my age or a little younger in their 30s. And people are asking for James Taylor songs and stuff that ten years ago was too un-cool to voice. Enough time has passed that people are realizing it’s good music and want to dig into it.
This is the nature of things with music. The farther away from the origination date the more it’s allowed to just exist on its merits. The previous decade is always going to have eggs thrown at it but the 1950s and 1960s are now sacrosanct, and we’re moving there fast with the 1970s. Personally, I just liked radio better when I was a kid. It was a blast to hear Al Green, Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Marley and The Bee Gees in a single set. Popular music was interested in a broad audience and not just a subset likely to spend money on certain bits.
Stevie Wonder and Elton John side by side on the radio…Cool…That would never happen today.
Do you feel like your solo work is getting closer to what you do in Dolly Varden or is there still some key differences between the two settings?
I’ve had that question before and I can’t really answer it well. I made the first solo record, Sweet Is The Anchor (2005), because the band was unable to get together. There was too much going – the drummer and the bass player both had new babies – and those were just songs that would have been on a Dolly Varden record if we’d made one. But then as I listen back to those songs, I think there’s some more complicated musical shifts in them, and since it was just me I could memorize them and work with all the weird turns and twists that I wouldn’t have tried to foist on the band [laughs]. The songs are maybe a little more eccentric on the solo records. But then again, the song “Obsidian” [off 2010’s I Will Miss The Trumpets and the Drums] could easily have been a Dolly Varden song, and a really good Dolly Varden song.
So, I think it’s just the project I’m working on at the time. I don’t really change gears in my songwriting. I do think if there’s some kind of feeling that needs to be expressed that’s not appropriate for Dolly Varden I’ll address it in my solo work, like being really mean [laughs]. But, it’s not like I have a lot of mean songs!
Your songs cover a nice mix of sentimental and unsentimental. That’s really valuable to have the range. You need to be able to say, “Fuck you!” in a song sometimes.
It’s just real life.
The lineup in Dolly Varden has been pretty consistent, right?
Yep, it’s been the same five since 1995. We had a different bass player for the first year or so, this woman named Lisa Wertman who we’re still really close with but needed to leave for some reason, which was so long I’ve forgotten the details [laughs]. We got Mike Bradburn on bass and it’s been the same lineup since then.
Do you have a fairly solid hometown following?
I’d say so. We sell out shows when we play here, and with this [new] record we’ve got local radio and papers helping us.
There’s a remarkable consistency and high quality of what you do with Dolly Varden and on your solo albums. The level of craftsmanship in your work really sets you apart from herd.
Well thanks, but it’s really just what I do. The thing I strive for is to make good songs and record them well, if I can anyway [laughs]. That’s the craftsman part of doing this. It’s like someone who makes really nice furniture. They want to make it as beautiful as they can.
Diane does other art as well, and I’ve found that people who dabble in multiple fields always enhance their different interests by doing so. One form of art will usually illuminate different things in another art form.
Absolutely. The only drawback of her being a visual artist is she writes fewer songs. She didn’t write any songs on For A While. She co-wrote a couple with me, but on all the other records she has at least a song or more of her own. She’s definitely spending 80-90-percent of her time doing visual art now, where it used to be more 50-50.
Her songs have a different flavor than yours or your collaborations together. Her personality differs from yours in the handling and type of subjects she explores.
I’ve told her I’d love to produce a Diane Christiansen album. Maybe some day.
How did you settle on the name Dolly Varden? Are you huge Charles Dickens fans?
I didn’t know the Dickens reference when we chose it. I just knew the fish. Diane’s dad was also a fisherman. When we were looking around for names for our band in 1994, we had books open and everyone was tossing in ideas. So, I’m a fan of Montana poet Richard Hugo, and I had a copy of one his books of poems open and in one of them there’s a line about Dolly Varden skeletons. I knew what that was from growing up in Idaho, and my dad is a big fly fisherman, so we had fish books and I got into it. “Dolly Varden Skeletons” seemed a cool, spooky combination of words, and I said, “How about Dolly Varden?” Diane thought it was cool, but the rest of the band said, “No!” They thought everyone would think of Dolly Parton, but I assured them it was a fish [laughs]. That would be the worst joke band name ever if it was a play on Dolly Parton!
Maybe that misunderstanding is part of why Dolly Varden still gets described as an alt-country band – a description that’s never fit you well.
It’s inescapable I guess. People like to categorize. And it may be that sort of movement with Uncle Tupelo and then Wilco, Son Volt and Whiskeytown – all described as alt-country – coincided with when we came up along the same time. This applies to The Jayhawks, too, at that time. It’s all really good music and that whole world with No Depression magazine. No Depression was super supportive of us, and that may be why we ended up and got stuck in that category.
Maybe early on it was true, but the description doesn’t fit at all with the three most recent albums.
Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense. Like you said, we’re much more 1970s pop radio.
The Beatles and Badfinger much more readily come to mind – melodic music with rock solid fundamentals in place.
The Beatles were the first band I loved, and I still love ‘em.
I’m glad that Dolly Varden has stuck it out. I’m glad you came back after the hiatus [2003-2005], and returned a stronger band to boot.
We figured out that we like doing it to do it. It’s not for some external goal. I think earlier on when the music industry was still the old music industry you were always searching for the bigger or better record deal or some bigger goal. So, even with your accomplishments, it’s always, “Well, what will this lead us to?” rather than just appreciating how awesome it is to record a song you really think is good and make it sound good, just to be happy with stuff like that. It was always, “What can we get from this?” I think that was kind of the way it was before we took the break, and afterwards it was, “We want to do this because we want to do this.” That’s where we are now, and it feels much, much better.