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Devin Dawson interview

We talk to the All On Me star about his debut album Dark Horse, touring in the UK and more.

Devin Dawson
Credit: Warner Music

Devin Dawson is the name on everybody’s lips when it comes to breakout stars in Country music right now.

The singer-songwriter recently released his debut album Dark Horse and he’s already got a Top 10 single under his belt with All On Me. With so much buzz around him, Dawson has the potential to crossover into the mainstream in a similar way to stars such as Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett.

I sat down with Devin when he visited the UK recently to talk about Dark Horse, discuss pushing the boundaries of Country music and to find out what his plans are for touring in the UK later in the year.

Dark Horse is finally out and it’s picking up fantastic reviews. Are you glad to have the record out there?

Are you kidding me? Of course man! I feel like, especially for a new artist, it takes a long time to get your first album out and it’s not even a guarantee that you’ll get the opportunity to put out a full-length album. If you’re on a label you never know if they’re going to want you to wait or if they’re going to wait until the single does something to put out an album. It’s never a guarantee that you actually get to put out an album. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be able to put out this body of work that I’m very proud of. I worked really hard on it and my whole team has worked really hard. I’m excited to have it out in the world and for good or bad, love it, share it, hate it, steal it whatever… it’s there for you and it will be there forever. It’s pretty crazy. I’m excited.

The album artwork is really striking. Can you tell me how that came together?

Yeah. I think for the first album for a country artist it’s traditionally your face in a field with a logo and that’s great, it works. For me I just wanted to serve the art for this record in a completely different way. I have five tattoos. It’s not like it’s a tattoo design but it’s kind of reminiscent of a tattoo design I guess or something that feels like it could be a tattoo. The artist, his name is Chris Panettiere, and I worked every day together for a month over text and FaceTime and calling. I just had this vision. I still wanted to like capitalise on having my face on the record. As a new artist you want to show people who you are and what you look like but I wanted to do it in a more artistic statement way instead of just a picture.

Everything lyrically on the record is represented by an image on the cover. There’s a bunch of little nuggets, that’s what I call them, like little things around my face that have to do with a song. Each song has its own kind of moment on the album – figuratively, literally, visually… everything has its own moment and nothing steps on each other, they just all work so well together. It was kind of this metaphor for this common thread between all the songs. I wanted to make a statement and I wanted to give people a reason to listen to the whole album or buy the whole album physically.

When I was a kid there were certain albums I would buy because I liked the cover. Then I would discover that I loved the music too. I wanted to give people an incentive to have it physically whether it’s a vinyl or a CD or whatever. Hopefully it allows them to dig into the record with longevity and it allows them to hear new things every time. Then they can say, ‘oh that’s what the cover means’ and they see that’s from that song and that’s where that lyric came from. It just allows people to hopefully dive in a little bit more and it not be so surface level.

One of the things I really love about the record is I feel it’s fresh and different to everything else out there. I like how cohesive it is, especially when you’re going into a market that is focused on streaming singles. What challenges do you face as an artist to get them to listen to the whole body of work?

I think what you just said is right. Everyone has such a short attention span in this day and age because everything’s so easily accessible. We’re all ready for the next knowledge and ready to consume the next thing. It’s a challenge and honestly it’s a lot to ask of somebody to listen to an entire record, which is why we rolled it out over a year before we release it. I released All On Me last January and then we released Secondhand Hurt then I Don’t Care Who Sees, then Dark Horse, then Asking For A Friend and Symptoms over a year to allow it to build. When the record comes out there’s six songs that they haven’t heard in addition to the six that they have. That’s kind of a good way to get people to listen to the whole thing and it’s getting them excited for what’s coming next year and get them excited for a whole cohesive work.

I think for people to enjoy your record it needs to be cohesive. You need to think about the sequencing and what song is first and what’s last and where does it meet in the middle. People should never have to skip or go down. Maybe they want to hear their favourite song or whatever but everybody should listen down like vinyl where you’re not allowed to just skip to the next song. I think you just have to give them a reason to listen and to buy the whole album. The easiest way to do that is just put 12 great songs on there. Don’t just put filler songs and then let people buy it because of the single. I’m blessed for that single and I love the single but there’s so many other moods and emotions and moments on this record that I want to be heard as well. I think if you build it they’ll come.

If you put out a record of great songs that can be a deep record, they’ll listen to the whole thing. That’s been really good feedback that everyone has a different favourite song or that they listen to the whole record and they can’t even choose a favourite ’cause they love them all. That’s a dream for me as a songwriter and it makes me happy that I tried to make an entire record that people would listen to and it’s starting, it’s happening.

I feel with Dark Horse that my favourite songs are going to change the more I listen to it and I discover something new with every listen…

I think that’s also a testament to the production. When I was working with Jay Joyce, he’s really good at putting a lot there so that you can discover something new every time you hear it but also not doing so much to where it’s overwhelming on the first listen. There’s a balance between the two that you need to find and he’s exceptionally good at that.

You mentioned All On Me, which really was a breakthrough moment for you. The song has been huge for you and it feels like the kind of the song that the world needs right now. Where did the song originate from?

I write every single day. I probably wrote over 500 songs in the last couple of years, not necessarily for this record, and then figured out which ones felt like me. I write every Sunday with my guitar player, he’s just one of my best friends and we just collaborate really well together. I’ll show you in my phone I have titles that I’m inspired by. I have 3,000 titles right now and I just do that (scrolls through the screen and stops it at random with his finger). I literally did that one day like a Russian Roulette and I just went, ‘boom’. I stopped and it just said All On Me, which is something I’d written down four months ago. Sometimes you don’t see something and sometimes you catch something on the day that it wants to be written.

I just liked what it said and I did feel really inspired by what ‘all’. ‘All’ is everything, which is why we tried to list so much in that chorus – if you’re mad, when you’re down – it’s a lot. We really just wrote that chorus as a poem but we wanted to write a love song. The core of it is a very, very simple positive love song. When you need me I’ll be there for you, whether it’s the world or whether it’s your job. I think you’re right. I think songs like that are needed right now and I think they’ll always be needed hopefully. When I chose songs for this record I wanted to choose songs that could be timeless and considered classic. That would never get old and also still be relevant in 50 years. Hopefully that’s a song that can stand the test of time and that we will always need and in one way or another.

Have you had any fans getting married to All On Me yet?

Oh yeah! People message me everyday saying, ‘this is our wedding song and we’d love for you to play at the wedding’. Obviously I’d love to if I could but I’m just travelling so much. We’ve had a handful of people get engaged to it at a show where they’ll come up on stage or they’ll be in the meet and greet line afterwards or merch line. They’ll just get down on one knee right there and be like, ‘this is our song’. That’s the dream. I mean that’s a big moment in your life. It’s supposed to happen one time right? I’m really thankful for people allowing me and my music to be a part of that moment. That’s really special.

There are a lot of influences on the record. I can hear some soul in there, blues, R&B, a little bit pop with a heart of Country. Which artists would you say have influenced your sound?

I think before I started listening to my own decisions I’d just listen to what my mom listened to and what she raised me on, which was a lot of 90s country like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw. I always loved Johnny Cash as a kid. I grew up right by Folsom Prison so I think I latched on to him just because of that. As far as rock and soul, a lot of Joe Cocker, a lot of CCR, John Fogerty, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke…. the list goes on. Those are all like classic older artists that my mom would put on the record player. I kind of studied that when I first when I started branching out on my own. John Mayer was a huge influence of mine. What he did opened up a lot of doors for me like knowing that it was OK to do that as a songwriter. There’s no boundaries or rules, just do what feels right. Just write your truth. If a chord feels right then that’s what it should be. I think you should serve yourself over the rule book.

Dark Horse very much sounds like an album that represents who you are as an artist rather than trying to tick off checkboxes to fit in with what’s working in Country right now. Is it quite freeing when you are free from those restrictions and restraints?

Yeah I think there’s two sides to it. I think it’s freeing but I think it’s also scary too when you’re in when you’re in a place that’s undefined or when your in a path that’s not trudged or when you’re in the middle of something. It’s easy to figure out how it’s going to work if it fits in here but if it doesn’t it’s like, ‘well how is this going to work?’ It might take a little longer and it might take more effort than something that we know how to make it work but I think it’ll mean more. I know it means a lot to me to have All On Me be accepted on country radio and have people believe in it and have them kind of stand up for it when so many people were like, ‘that’s never going to make it. It’s never going to be played’. I’m not trying to do something different to be different, I’m just trying to be myself and go with my gut and be fearless. Just make the songs that make me happy. When I play those hopefully that happiness will translate through the speakers or through the audience and people will feel the same. I feel like it’s that genuine factor that is really important for an artist to have.

Country radio can be a notoriously tricky thing to get on your side. How has your experience been with it?

I’ve been very lucky. Honestly. Everything was an outsider at some point. Luke Bryan, who is the most quintessential country artist now, was a pop guy when he came in. Tim McGraw was ‘too pop’ when he started out but now he’s the country guy. Everything is always going to be too much when it comes out if you’re pushing boundaries. We want progression, we want to push boundaries and I think it’s our job to define what is the norm and what is within the boundaries.

Hopefully one day I can be considered in the boundaries, I guess… I don’t even know if I want that. I just want to do what I do and if if people like it and they listen to it then I’ll be happy. I think it has been a little bit of a hurdle, not convincing (them) but being different and having people at first look a little closer and hold you to a higher standard. I’m ok with that. I welcome that. I thrive on that.

It’s been nice to have the support of Country radio for that first song that doesn’t sound like anything else, hopefully. I feel like when I hear it on the radio or when other people hear it on the radio it stands out no matter what’s before or after it. I think that’s what we need in radio, we need we need uniqueness and we need individuality and ingenuity.

Country radio should be breaking new artists and sounds, not sticking to the same old, same old…

Yeah! You have those artists already, you have those records. If you want to go listen to those then go listen to those. We should always be trying to forward this culture in this format always.

Fans of Country music spend a lot of time debating whether or not an artist, who is doing something different and pushing boundaries, should be classed as Country or not. Is it frustrating or do you jusst ignore it?

Honestly I’ve never really had an issue with people thinking that I’m not country. I feel like maybe that’s just a testament to the way that I explain myself or the way that I plead my case. I grew up listening to a lot of country so for me like you said it’s at the heart of my music and it’s mostly the songwriting I would say, that I kind of take most of my influence from. I’ve never really had an issue with that. It’s because I’m not faking anything. I’m just telling people who I am and I think everyone is good at seeing through that if somebody is trying to be something they’re not. We all know what that feels like. I’m just telling my story and just telling it like it is. I think that that allows it to land in a good place and not fall on deaf ears.

You played some shows while you were here. How did they go for you?

It’s been great man. The first one we played was in a place called The Social, which was kind of this underground bomb shelter in a way. There was like 150 people there. It was really packed out and it was just me and a guitar. There’s something very special about London audiences. They’re passionate and they listen and they care. It was really cool because I was only supposed to play a certain amount. People just kept requesting songs and I played way longer than I was supposed to. Eventually I had to be like, ‘there’s another artist. I have to respect them’ or else I would’ve played all night.

People brought albums for me to sign, vinyls and all that stuff. That’s the dream when you come thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away and people are excited to see you in their town. I meet everyone and I hang and get to meet new friends. Last night I played SoFar Sounds Show, which was really incredible because rather than people who are already my fans coming to see me, it was really a room of people who had no idea who I was which is really refreshing and inspiring. It’s not that I felt I had to win them over but anytime anybody’s hearing an artist or a person they’ve never met you’re like, ‘alright, my job is to win you over by the end of the night’. That’s my job as an artist. I really think we did that.

The line-up was really eclectic. There was this melodic pop trio that opened the night and then I played just me and a guitar. Then there was this rap artist guy who was after me. There was this weird cohesiveness between everyone, just because everyone in the crowd just wanted to hear it, loved it and was silent. They were so accepting and cheering super loud after songs and asking questions. It’s really refreshing. Sometimes we play bars and it’s your job to garner the attention that you deserve and make people listen but it’s nice when they’re already listening because you can focus on other parts .You can focus on the dynamics of your performance rather than trying to force a moment that people need to then listen. It’s been great. I love it here. The audience here is just incredible.

Do you have any plans to come back and play some headline shows later in the year?

Yeah we’re going to try to come back every couple of months. I think my music will work well over here. I hope it will. I really do think it feels good over here. I love playing, I love the audiences and I love the people. I think we’ll do a lot of touring in the states and then instead of just taking a break for a month so we’re not too overstimulating over there, we’ll come over here for a couple months and then go back (to the states). Just keep moving, that’s the idea.

I think to be successful here, just like anywhere else, you need to come early and you need to come often. That’s what we’ve done so far and we’ll just continue to come back. I had a lot of my agency and booking people come out to the shows and get to see it just me and a guitar. Hopefully we can bring the band over at some point because that’s a really integral part of my show as far as playing the record because those are the guys that played on the record. There’s a different translation when you hear that. It sounds like the record because we did it live. I think eventually we’ll build up to that and I’m looking forward to that. There’s going to be lots of touring this year for the record and we’ll be back a lot so keep an eye out.

There are so many opportunities here now for Country music artists thanks to C2C, Nashville Meets London and Country Music Week. Just a few years ago hardly anyone toured over here…

It’s an opportunity to expand and that’s what we’re looking for as a genre. The broadness of the genre is such a beautiful thing right now. Luke Bryan next to Chris Stapleton next to me next to Cam next to Jon Pardi… we’re all different but we all work together. I think that’s just a testament to how much the fan base is growing and everyone can pick their own part of Country music that they like. I’ve been called a gateway drug to country music, like when people will hear (my music) they’re like, “OK I like that. Maybe I should check out Jon Pardi or maybe I should check out these other California guys, or maybe I should check out Eric Church”. I think we’re just all trying to spread awareness and take over the world one town at a time for Country music.

It definitely seems to be working for you…

It’s been a fun ride this last year. This year it’s insane to have an album out. I’m very proud to be part of this and I’m very blessed to get to do what I do for a living. I can’t wait to see where it goes in the future. It’s a great time to be alive. It’s pretty crazy.

Devin Dawson’s album Dark Horse is available now. Watch the video for All On Me below:

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