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Interview: Devin Dawson discusses showing his happy side on ‘The Pink Slip EP’ and trying to stay creative during the pandemic

The singer-songwriter talks about his latest release.

Devin Dawson
Credit: Atlantic Records/Warner Music Nashville

Devin Dawson has worked hard over the past few years to build a fan base not only in the US but here in the UK too.

The singer-songwriter made several trips across the pond to perform live in support of his 2018 album ‘Dark Horse’, and he’s really starting to gain traction here. Due to the pandemic Dawson, like every artist, hasn’t been able to tour but he’s treated fans to new music in the shape of ‘The Pink Slip EP’ last month.

I caught up with Devin recently to talk about showcasing his happy side on ‘The Pink Slip’, discuss the challenges of staying creative during the pandemic, and to find out what’s coming next…

Things have changed a lot since we last saw one another. We’re in the midst of a pandemic and we’re still on lockdown here in the UK. How have you been?

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Tennessee was one of the five top worst states. California is just crazy right now and pretty much shut down. I haven’t had much chance to go see my family because I’m from Northern California, even though they’re not quite as bad as I think LA is right now. It just seems like a freakin’ movie dude. I can’t believe what’s happening (laughing). Not to just force the positive, but it’s been a pretty damn good year. I’ve been getting to spend time with my wife and my dogs, and time at home with the studio and working on new songs and writing music as slow as I want to. I’ve had a pretty good year. Very restful, I’m definitely thankful for a chance to actually get to justify some rest. I do miss being over (in the UK) dude. I do miss traveling and letting the wheel roll a little bit.

This last year has been the complete opposite of what you’re used to. Have you found it hard to be creative during the pandemic?

Yeah, the very beginning, the first three weeks to a month definitely. It’s hard for me to create when I don’t know the possibility of what’s the best case scenario that can happen. When there’s no end goal, when there’s no mountain to climb and I don’t know how tall it is, it’s like, ‘why am I doing this?’ I think my body felt like I needed to write and do something but my mind was like, ‘well, there’s no reason to do this yet’. I would start something and then I would just have no motivation to finish it. In that first couple weeks everything was unknown right now and we didn’t know if it was gonna last two weeks or last two years. The first couple weeks, I definitely had a little bit of, ‘I’m not even gonna try to write a song’ and then I figured out where my inspiration came from and things became more clear and I started to figure out what I wanted to write about. How to write and how to be on Zoom and have a writing session. I’ve never really had a bad Zoom write.

I actually really enjoy it. I know, there’s some people that absolutely hate it. I think some people really like to hear the track and be a part of the production and that can be a little hard. I never write lyrics down. I remember everything in my head and I have no problem just singing it with a guitar. For me, in my process, I think it works really fine and it even makes it more possible to just be even more comfortable up here in my studio. I can run downstairs and make a sandwich or I can walk out on the back deck and just whatever. I’ve really enjoyed pivoting my creative process and seeing the songs that have come out of it. It’s allowed me to give more time and attention and detail to songs that I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to in the past because of just not having the same amount of time.

I’ve been speaking to lots of artists the past few weeks and some absolutely love the Zoom writes and some have found it very difficult to adapt. Overall though, artists seem to like that there’s less time wasted on a Zoom write…

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There’s no bullshit on Zoom. I’m not just sitting there and we’re not just drinking, although I might be drinking by myself, but you can hang. You don’t want to just open the Zoom and be like, ‘alright, what are we writing today?’ You want to come in and still warm up the leather seats a little bit. There’s no bullshit. When you’re done, it’s like, ‘alright guys, thanks, later!’ so it is a little bit quicker and a little bit more regimented. For me, I just feel a little bit more comfortable. As a co writer, I think something you need to get over very early in your co-writing career is the fact that you just need to be completely chest wide open, everywhere you go when it comes to creating. You can’t get together with somebody you’ve never met and hold something back. Regardless, as humans, we’re constantly going to maybe be a little self conscious of things and hold things back, whether we try to or not, as much as we tell ourselves, we don’t want to and we want to be open and creative.

For some reason, sometimes when I’m on Zoom because I’m here by myself, sometimes I just say shit maybe that I wouldn’t say. I talk about creativity and genius like it’s like a portal. When we’re just normal and we’re acting like ourselves, and we’re not trying to be anyone and we’re not trying to search for the line, if you just kind of sit back… it’s like squinting your eyes, it just comes out when you’re not trying kind of like everything else in life. Sometimes it allows me to just get into that flow state of not being nervous about needing to finish it or it being a hit, or where it’s going to go/ Sometimes it just allows me to just be and exist. That’s when I think the good stuff comes out. For whatever reason, sometimes it’s easier for me to get in touch with that on Zoom.

You recently put our your new EP ‘The Pink Slip’ and it couldn’t be more different to what we heard on ‘Dark Horse’. The only way I can describe it, is that there’s a lot more colour across these songs. Were these written pre or during the pandemic?

They came before. Honestly, it was a little bit of a happy accident. The songs are definitely indicative of what I’ve gone through in the last three years, having some success, making some money, buying a house, falling in love, getting married and getting a couple dogs, and building that life that I’ve always wanted and becoming genuinely happy. Whether I know how to justify that or make sense of whether I deserve it or not is a whole nother thing but regardless, I am happy. My job as an artist is to put out music that just tells about what I’ve gone through since the last time you heard from me (laughs). These were the first songs we recorded and we wanted to do more, but we couldn’t finish them the right way we wanted to and COVID (came) and all this stuff. For me, it was just so important to put new music out, that was my priority regardless of if it’s a single or an album or radio, I don’t know what it is in this scope of music in this world of a pandemic we’re living in, but I just wanted to put out new music. It’s been so long since ‘Dark Horse’. These were just the first six songs that we got done that we really felt good about. When they were grouped together as six, I just saw them for that hopeful and inspirational thing that was maybe a little unexpected from me, even for me. It was just really good timing coming into a year where I think we can all use a little bit of hope and inspiration (laughs).

These songs are definitely feel good. I was expecting something more introspective and a little dark before I listened to the EP…

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Yeah, that’s what I do really well!

Devin Dawson - The Pink Slip EP
Credit: Warner Music

It was nice to be caught off guard though and that’s something you always do so well. What reaction have you had from the fans?

Honestly, (your reaction) has been the reaction. It’s like, ‘wow, I didn’t expect this’. When I first posted the EP cover people were like, ‘what? A big pink cover?’ I wasn’t trying to do this to have a reaction or have a knee-jerk moment or anything like that, it was really just about serving the music. I post, most of the time, all in black and white on my socials and stuff, and that was my brand for a while. When I came to think about a couple of these songs and the imaging and the branding of ‘Range Rover’, I was like, ‘I don’t see that in black and white’. As much as I love black and white, and as much as that’s part of my thing, my songwriting and the way that I serve my songs is also the most important thing to me. When it came to do a video for ‘Range Rover’ we definitely wanted to do it in colour. It’s upbeat, it’s cheeky, it’s heavy, it’s funny, and it’s got this kind of swaggy thing to it. It’s not dark, it’s not moody, it’s not emotional in a way so it was more so about serving the music rather than trying to force staying in the boundaries of something I’ve created, or rather than force this moment where I did something completely unexpected.

I didn’t want to walk down a freakin’ red carpet in a pink suit. I just didn’t want to make it this huge thing, I just wanted to do what felt right for the music. It was just a process of easing my fans into that in a way so I started posting in colour and then I posted the EP cover, and people were like, ‘wow, this is the last thing I expected from you but I can’t freakin’ wait to hear what it is!’ These (songs) showcase that happier side of my brain. Because the music is sonically a little bit more upbeat and a little bit more colourful, I think your first tendency is to maybe focus more on the groove and the melody, but I still really truly believe that if you just read the lyrics by themselves they would still make you think and they would still challenge you. Wrapped up in a certain lighter, brighter bow, maybe (the lyrics) are just the second thing you hear, rather than the first thing which you’re used to from me. I’m super stoked about it and I’m proud of it but I’ve got like 10 million ballads on deck. There’s a lot of darkness pent up in me now (laughs) so whatever’s coming next… I’ll always be that ‘Dark Horse’ and I’ll always fly that flag. I really like singing that music and doing something more introspective and emotional so while I might have taken a stab at letting people in on on how happy I’ve become I also miss the darkness a little bit too.

It’s probably for the best that you’ve kept those heart wrenching ballads away from the pandemic…

I know, right? Honestly, either you want to hear something that makes you happy or you want to hear something incredibly sad so you know you’re not the only one that feels that way. It just worked out man. I didn’t really get a chance to even finish a couple of the ballads I wanted to put on this EP because of timing and whatever. Everything happens for a reason, dude, and I’ve really become at ease with that notion throughout my life. Just knowing that none of us have any freakin’ control over anything sometimes (laughs) can be really healthy. I guess that’s what this EP is. It was proven to come at the right time and it’s been really cool to see the response and how people have loved it.

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You mentioned that you have been writing a lot. What’s the plan beyond this? Will you be wrapping these songs into a longer project down the line and are these going to be standalone?

I think it’s gonna be more of a standalone thing. Initially I went in and I wanted to create a whole album but obviously, there was a lot of factors that didn’t allow us to kick the ball down the field that far. I worked with Jay Joyce on ‘The Pink Slip’ EP who I did ‘Dark Horse’ and just to be completely candid, it was a lot harder to find our middle ground this time than it was on ‘Dark Horse’, maybe because they were a little bit happier and they were a little bit more upbeat. Honestly, that’s the direction he wanted to go. When your producer sees something in you, you’ve got to allow them to chase that. It’s easier for someone else to see something in you than it is for you to see it yourself. He saw these groupings of songs and all these hundreds of songs I’ve written, and I think these are the ones he gravitated towards because again I’m exuding happiness, I am happy. Regardless of that, that’s what we started with, and then we didn’t get to finish it the right way.

All that being said, I think after this project it was time for me to try to do something else as far as the production goes and have a little bit more say in my own sonics. I have a twin brother who I’ve worked with, and I’ve played music with him since I was 12 years old, and he’s a producer and a writer, and he plays in Hardy’s band. He’s just insanely, incredibly talented and we’ve been waiting for a moment to get a chance to work together on a big scale. We’ve done B-sides and covers, and certain things like that for the label together, but we’ve never done an official master. For this next grouping of songs I’m going to be releasing, I’m actually starting to record again in a couple of weeks, I’m going to be working with him for the first time. I don’t picture myself grouping that with something else I did with a different producer, in my head it’s just two completely different worlds. I do believe (‘The Pink Slip EP’) is going to be a standalone thing. There’s been some incredible streaming numbers and certain songs that have raised their hands so hopefully we can go to radio with one of those. In the meantime I’m just working on what comes next. I do believe it’s probably gonna be a whole album, or at least another EP, but it’s just gonna be a different production. It’s gonna have a different feel to it. I feel like this is the one chance in my life where I get to actually feel okay about smiling on ‘The Pink Slip’ and then I want to get back to my roots a little bit (laughs).

It’s such a shame you haven’t been able to get back here to the UK as you were really building something special. It seems so long ago since we saw you…

I think it was the beginning of 2019, when we came with Dan + Shay. You know, I’ve been there three, four or five times a year since I started. That’s something I was really, really passionate about. Something that’s important to me is coming early and coming often and including everyone as much as I can. As much as it’s a lot more work, I really feel like my music has been received well over there and I do believe it will continue to. But you know, I can’t even tour in my backyard right now so I just got to focus on the things I can do and reminisce on the things I used to, I guess.

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It’s hard to talk about plans for the year as we have no idea what the year is going to look like from one week to the next but is there anything you have plotted in?

I definitely want to do some more live streams. We did a really cool live stream around the release of the EP and I want to do a full band live stream. I’m itching to put these ‘The Pink Slip’ songs into a set with ‘Dark Horse’ songs. That’s the excitement when you get into your next album and you’re like, ‘how do I mix these in with what I already have and what kind of journey can I create live? How are these songs gonna fit together?’ I just haven’t had a chance or an opportunity to do that. I think a live stream would be really cool and sell some tickets and all that stuff, because we’ve done a bunch for free. That’s one thing I definitely want to work towards but also just writing. I just have a really good feeling about the music I’m writing right now and getting back to my roots and just finding that sweet spot, I guess, and having the time to do it. It is a little bit hard as somebody who’s had so many awesome things happen. I’m working really hard but I don’t know where it’s gonna go (laughs). I don’t know what I’m allowed to do. I don’t know when I’m gonna play a show again. To not have those accolades along the way can be a little bit like discouraging, and you feel like you’re creating in a vacuum but sometimes that’s when the best art comes out, when you don’t need to worry about where it’s gonna go. You just write what happens and then all of a sudden you come out of it and you’re like, ‘wow, that’s really honest’. I’m just focusing on writing and trying not to drink every day.

It’s hard. I mean, there’s literally nothing else to do most days is there?

I know dude (laughs)!

Devin Dawson’s ‘The Pink Slip EP’ is available to download and stream now. Watch the video for ‘Range Rover’ below:

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