First Published April 2021
A MAN OBSESSED
Last Friday singer/songwriter DEVIN DAWSON added a little edge and a lotta cool to the weekend’s new-releases by dropping the ‘Live’ edition of his EP, THE PINK SLIP, the studio version of which came our way earlier this year. Now if you’re any kind of a country music fan at all, then you’ll already be well aware of Dawson from Hardy’s 2019 hit One Beer, on which he featured with Lauren Alaina. And trust me, from the minute you first hit play on ThePink Slip’s opener Range Rover, you know you’re gonna be comin’ back to this collection again, and again, and again.
Dawson, a native of California, is a man obsessed with music and its depths. Inspired by a magical triumvirate of Johns in the fearsome forms of Cash, Fogerty, and Mayer, he moved to Nashville to study songwriting in college. And yet…he also played bass in a deathcore band called Shadows of the Colossus. Not exactly the kinda guy you’d imagine going on to become someone The Tennessean newspaper would refer to as, “…one of country music’s most tenderand articulate wordsmiths.” And yet…Dawson, who had been on the road for up to three-hundred dates a year for five years prior to Covid, actually owes the ultimate queen of country/pop, Taylor Swift herself, for the break that really set his career in motion.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Devin a few weeks back, not long after the studio version of The Pink Slip had first entered our sonic solar system. And from a songwriter’s point of view, what a pleasure this chat turned out to be.
We began by focusing on one of the tracks from The Pink Slip, a song he’s called one of the most important he’s ever written. The song is He Loved Her, and it’s about Devin’s grandfather, Jerry. I’ve loved this song myself from the first time I heard it because it takes me right back to the kinds of songs that made me fall in love with country music, songs from artists like Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Vince Gill in the 90s. So I asked Devin to tell how He Loved Her came to life…
“Yeah, it was actually kind of an interesting day. I came into the writing-room that day and I wanted to write a song, and I don’t know if I was calling it ‘Tombstone’, but something about what I would write on my tombstone. And I tend to get a little, like, darker with my songs sometimes, and sometimes I need my co-writers to help me out and find the middle-ground a little bit [laughs]. They were like, man, we really like the idea, but it’s a little bit too morbid. Is there any way we can soften it up? I wrote it, by the way, with Jordan Reynolds and Nicolle Galyon. And Nicolle was like, ‘Well what if you had three words to put on your tombstone, what would they be?’ And the first thing I said was, he loved her. And I didn’t know why that was the first thing that came to my head. It was just really simple. And Nicolle was like, ‘Well that sounds a little bit more like a title.’ [Laughs]. So we started writing it, and we ended up writing a verse/chorus, and then scrapped the entire thing because it wasn’t quite right yet. We started writing it as a love-story about this guy who loves his wife so much that he wanted to do anything to make her happy, ya know. Like, she wanted him to paint the house, and as soon as he was done, she told him it was the wrong shade! Every morning she’d cook him breakfast and he still ate it even though she burned the eggs, stuff like that [laughs]. And it was funny, but it was almost like I started not to like her as much! And it’s important for me to like everybody in my songs, most of the time. So we went downstairs, had a bite, came back up to the studio and literally started over from scratch. I don’t know if I’ve ever really done that before in a writing session. It’s kinda hard to forget what you’ve [already] done and go forward, tryin’ to find the right thing again. But I said, ya know what? When I think about ‘he loved her’, I think about my grandfather, and I think about my father, I think about my grandma, so why don’t we just go ahead and tell that story.”
I love it when I get the chance to speak with songwriters like Devin. And one of the reasons I was so looking forward to speaking with Devin specifically, is because songwriting is almost literally at the core of who he is. Devin has often spoken about how he writes every day. I wondered if that process is one that happens ‘by the clock’, or more by feel, by the mood of the day?
“I think it’s both. It helps to do it as if it’s exercising, as if it’s working-out, ya know. It helps to do it every day. You figure out how to instill inspiration, or make it happen sometimes. Obviously I would rather write a song only when I’m inspired, and only when it happens randomly. But I’m not just gonna sit around in a dark house and wait for inspiration to hit, know what I mean? It’s our job to get up and find the inspiration, and use tricks to get us into a place that might inspire us. But a lot of times, when you write every single day…think about how you’re supposed to write something different every single day? Thousands and thousands of times you’re supposed to write something different? It’s really hard, and it’s kind of daunting when you think about that. But, there’s just so many things to write about, and so many different ways to do it. And not every day is great. But I think just talking things out, and saying oh, that’s kind of a cool song, what if we wrote about that? That helps too. I’ve kind of toned it down a little bit, where rather than writing a song every single day, I still write every day, but I don’t want to be force-finishing a song in three hours or four hours. And this year has definitely gifted me a lot more time to focus more on songs that might be served better if I took a little bit longer to write ’em! [Laughs].”
Devin mentioned using certain ‘tricks’ as part of his songwriting process. I asked him what kind of methods he might be referring to there, if he wouldn’t mind sharing a little about them. But also, because he has those ‘tricks’, would I be right in thinking that he wouldn’t be a believer in the notion of writer’s block?
“Hmm. I mean, it’s really just about doing it, and then your muscles get used to it. Then you kind of forget that you’re writing a song. Literally, the best thing you can do is just talk to somebody. Just sit down with somebody else that writes – or maybe somebody else that doesn’t, whatever – but just start talking. That’s where the human interaction comes in. And that’s really what a song is anyway, people are listening to you talk to them in musical form. Some of the best ideas just come from talking. Then you kind of build up this sense of – like a radar – something that would be a good song, or at least a cool line, or a different thought. I almost call it like spidey-senses [laughs]. You know how sometimes somebody says something, and you’re like, ‘Whoah, whoah, whoah…that’s a song! Let’s talk that one out!’ So it’s more so just the reputation of it, and figuring out when it is there, I guess. And writer’s block, I’m not a huge believer in it. I’ve definitely been – maybe once in my life – in a place where I thought I had writer’s block. But it’s not writer’s block, it’s just a lack of inspiration really. In Nashville, we do a lot of co-writing where we get together with a couple of different people, and I think that can save us from writer’s block. Because when you’re off, somebody else is on, and that might cause you to be inspired. So that helps. I think if I sat down every day on my own and only wrote by myself, I think I would experience writer’s block more. But that one time where I did feel that I had something along those lines, maybe I was writing but I didn’t like any of it, and I couldn’t finish a song, and I was a little anxious, doubting my skills and things like that. I sat on the couch one day and I said, I don’t care what this is, or how good it is, I’m just gonna write what comes out! I’m not gonna second-guess, I’m not gonna wait for the perfect line, I’m not gonna think about if it’s the right hook, or if it’s right to the title, or whatever! I’m just gonna write a song and see what happens randomly. And I got through that song, and it’s actually a really cool song. It’s a little different because it’s a little more abstract, but what it did was allow me to find some inspiration and get through and still finish something, even if it wasn’t like what I normally deemed as perfect. So again, I think it just helps to be rudimentary and keep doing it over and over. Do it as if it’s an exercise that your body wants to get back into every day.”
Some country fans here in Ireland will, of course, know Devin from his Pink Slip EP, and more from his Dark Horse album. Even more again might be aware of his talents from his role on Hardy’s hit One Beer, alongside Lauren Alaina, or for co-writing God’s Country for Blake Shelton. But maybe, and without even knowing it, probably half the country will have come across the Blank Space/ Style Taylor Swift mash-up he did with Louisa Wendorff back in 2014. I wondered how defining of a moment was it when Taylor herself ended up sharing that video?
“I’m not so sure it was defining, it was more…affirmation, I guess. It gave me an opportunity. I feel like that was probably my first big break and the thing that allowed me to have a little bit more attention on me. It was my third year of college, and one of my friends, Louisa, did a bunch of mash-ups and she had a YouTube channel she was trying to build. She was really good at singing, but she didn’t necessarily know as much on the arrangement side, and how to mash-up a song with another song the right way. I was songwriting, and I was singing, and I was really good at arrangements and making things my own. So we kind of just teamed-up, because that’s what you do when you’re in college. You’re surrounded by all these other talented people that are trying to find their way as well. So her and I got together and worked out an arrangement of the two Taylor Swift songs, and I ended up just singing some harmonies. But she was like, well you should take a verse, and I was like, well ok [laughs]. We listened back on the iPhone we did it on, and we thought, well that’s really cool actually! So then we talked to our other friend if she’d do a video for us and she was like, yeah. And then I talked to my twin brother, Jakob, the producer, and I was like can you record this for us? It was just kids having fun, and thinking what we did was really cool, so we wanted to share it. That was really all we did it for. We made the video, put it out, and somehow…Taylor saw it…I still don’t know how, I think her dad might have shown her is the rumour, but I’m not really sure. She saw it, and tweeted it out, and put it on her Facebook and Instagram and everything. It absolutely blew up and went viral and all that stuff. And it gave me the opportunity to ask myself, ok, what do I want? Do I want to be an artist? Do I want to just write songs? I’ve been in bands since I was twelve, thirteen years old, so being on the stage was something that was really important to me. And having a chance to do it myself, not with a band, kinda selfishly saying this is what I wanna say. I think I would have done it without Taylor, but it would have looked a lot different. But I’m thankful for her for putting me up there and giving me the platform and the opportunity to skip some steps and be discovered like that. How that informed the rest of my career was definitely priceless. I’m very thankful for what she’s done.”
“I still haven’t met her”, revealed Devin, continuing, “but I’d love to give her a hug and say thanks one day [laughs]. Maybe write a song or something!”
I’d heard that Devin had actually been gracious enough to write Taylor a thank-you letter…
“Yeah, you know we’re very close as far as our proximity, she lives in Nashville, and I know a lot of people who are really close with her. And I’ve talked with her parents. There were a couple of people in the industry that I know really well, who were really close with her, and I asked one of ’em, I said hey, if I just wrote a simple thank-you would you forward it to her? And this person said of course, and I just said thanks [in the letter]. I honestly had forgotten that I did that until you said that. I just wanted to say in it, hey, you just pretty much kick-started my career, whether you knew it or not, so I just wanted to say thanks. I owe you at least that! [Laughs].”
It’s also worth noting that around the time all of that happened, Taylor – because the lady oozes class in every possible way – made sure Devin got tickets to the Nashville stop of her 1989 tour. And, not only that, she made sure that Devin and Louisa’s mash-up video was part of the evening’s pre-show entertainment, too.
Getting back to Pink Slip, and Devin’s song, I Got A Truck, Devin has shared how it was written following a late-night chat with none other than Tim McGraw. Again, I love to hear about how moments like this end up sparking a song. I asked Devin would he mind talking us through that night and taking us into that kind of moment, and of course, to tell us about the song itself too…
“Essentially, I went on tour with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill for a couple of summers, and I just got to know them. The first night we were opening up, I finished my set, and we end with Dark Horse and I let my band play the outro out as I walk off stage as I give hugs and shake hands and stuff. I was walking to the back of the arena, and for whatever reason, Tim McGraw – I think he had a lot of family in town that night because it was in Louisiana which is his home state – but for whatever reason, his dressing room was right next to ours that night. Usually it’s on the other side of the arena! So it was the first night, I got off stage, went back to my dressing room, and Tim was just standing there in the hallway warming up his voice, singing with his guitar player. It was just a really good opportunity for an icebreaker so I walked up with my guitar and started singing and playing, and said thanks for having me out. He just kind of started going into a wisdom conversation, if you will. He started telling me about some advice that he’s held onto all these years, things that he thought it was important for me to hold onto. I think he just saw a lot of himself in me at that time, and he just wanted to share his story. He was telling me about how he got his start in Nashville from a guy named Brian Williams who was a banker. Tim pleaded his case, told him he’d trade him his truck and all this because he needed some money because no-one else would believe in him. I was just sitting there listening to this story and thinking, jeez, this IS a f*$king song! [Laughs]. Again, it’s like that spidey-sense of something telling me that this needs to be written. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about it after we talked, and how much I related to that story, and how much a lot of it was my story as well, my same experience. I just ran with it. I was inspired by it, it wasn’t like I was forcing it. I had been inspired by it. I stayed up to like two in the morning writing it that night, and ended up recording it with the band on the bus, and givin’ it to Tim at the end of the tour, ya know, as a thanks for inspiring us, and thanks for having us out. It was just a really cool moment.”
I also loved reading about how Devin’s song All On Me came to be written, with him listing out everything that could be all on him, to trying three or four different grooves behind it. And then, fast forward to August 3rd 2018, and the moment comes when All On Me was certified platinum. Now that’s a kind of moment that a lot of songwriters will only ever be able to dream about. What was the significance of that moment for Devin, on both a personal and a professional level?
“Man, I don’t know. I think at that time especially, I was just goin’ so fast. There were so many things goin’ on in my life. If you go back to when that was happening and you look at my Instagram, every single day there was stuff happening. That’s what you dream of, but you also don’t realise how fast and how blinded you are [by it]. You literally have to wake up every single day and from seven to midnight just go and run, run, run, run, run. At the time, I didn’t even quantify what that all meant to me as a platinum-selling song, a song I wrote with my friends (Jacob Durrett, Austin Smith). Even now, it’s hard for me to quantify that sometimes, just because I can’t get out on the road and see what it means! I think a lot of times we quantify our success by when we play a show. Are people singing it back? Is it sold-out? Are people having a good time? It’s just hard for me to quantify. Like you said, as big of a moment as that is, especially being the first time it had happened, I think it was really just a little bit of affirmation. Like, I knew what I was doing was good, I liked it [laughs], ya know what I mean? [Laughs]. But you never really know if anybody else is gonna like it. So it was really like a quick moment of ok, I’m on the right track…keep goin’! It wasn’t like, I’ve made it, I’m done! [Laughs].”
Staying with the craft of Devin’s songwriting, he once said in an interview with Rolling Stone – when talking about the level of detail he gives to his lyrics – that, “I always know the rhyme that feels right or the word that is the right one to express that sentiment that I’m trying to go for.” I asked Devin to talk about the nuts-and-bolts of his songwriting – aspects like rhyme, rewriting, syllables in a line – and other elements that are crucial to the detail of how he writes…
“I think the more that you write, you discover your own superpower within a song. A couple of mine are knowing what rhyme is right, regardless of if I don’t know what comes before it yet, I feel like most of the time I know. Either it’s not right and something else is hiding there, or this is the right word so we need to figure out how to say everything before it. Another thing that I feel is one of my superpowers is knowing where certain things go in a song. Like, sometimes before you start a song, you just start talking and you’re like, well what if the chorus started with this? And then someone else says something but I’m like no, that sounds like the second verse. Or that sounds like the bridge, or whatever. Knowing where a certain idea goes in a song is something that I’m really conscious of, especially in country music. A lot of time you don’t want to just give everything to them [the listeners] in the first verse. You want to give them a reason to listen to the second verse. And you want to make sure that when they get to the third chorus, they’re not just like, ‘Oh, we’re here again,’ ya know. You want it to be, ‘Oh, we’re here again!!’ There’s certain little things, like details like that, that I think the more you do it, the more you gravitate towards what you want. I think there’s a lot of power – not in rewriting, necessarily – but in editing. I think rewriting a song probably means that it wasn’t good enough. Or that the idea wasn’t good enough. Or for whatever reason you didn’t write it right that day. So I think it’s more about editing, and taking a good song to a great song by just changing the word ‘but’ to ‘and.’ Sometimes it’s just getting it all out and just expelling this creativity, and getting it to the best place you can, then putting it aside and waking up the next morning and listening to it. I bet ya you’ll hear a million more melodies and a couple more words, and you’ll be like why didn’t I just say that?! [Laughs]. Getting some space from a song is something that’s really, really important.”
Going back to God’s Country, a hit so big that it’s almost become a living entity in itself. A Billboard Hot Country Songs #1, a platinum seller, Single of the Year at the 2019 CMA Awards, a Grammy nominee in 2020, and winner of the ACM Single of the Year prize that same year…but… does that kind of success bring any kind of negative pressure with it? The kind that, perhaps, might hinder or harm a writer less sure of themselves than Devin? In the sense that sometimes when someone has a hit with a certain type of song, everybody then wants that song’s ‘brother’, or the latest version of that song…
“Yeah [laughs]. Yeah, but I didn’t feel any pressure from it at all. I think because it was a song for somebody else, there was no pressure attached to it. Like, if I had released ‘God’s Country’ as an artist, and I had a huge hit on it, I think there would be pressure for me to come back with another hit as an artist. As a songwriter, I write every single day, and I write so many different things, ya know. But no, I didn’t really feel any pressure from that song. I think, if anything, it allowed me to feel less pressure, and opened my own mind to things that we could ‘get away with’ or whatever. Because when we wrote that, it was probably something that was more Hardy was gonna sing, than I was. It was a little bit more redneck, or country I guess [laughs], than I would normally go. Or at least that’s what I told myself [laughs]. But the cool thing about that song is that when Blake did it and made it a hit – and it would definitely not have been as big of a hit if Hardy or I cut it! – and we’re thankful to Blake for that, but when it became a hit I started putting it into my ‘live’ shows in my set, and doing my version of it. And I recorded a little acoustic version of it. And I started to realise that this was my own version of it, this is how I would do the song. And it made me realise that, no matter what it is, if I wrote it and I’m singing it, it’s a Devin Dawson song. It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘too this’ or ‘too that’, people don’t care about those intricacies. They just want to hear something you wrote. So rather than make pressure, I think it relieved pressure in my own mind as far as what I could sing as an artist. If that makes sense?”
And indeed, it did make sense. And it might also have answered part of my last question for Devin, which might also take him back to that moment with Tim McGraw. What’s the best piece of advice that he’s ever been given as a songwriter? And to follow that up, what’s the biggest lesson Devin has ever learned as a songwriter?
“Gosh, advice? Man! I don’t know, I think the best thing you can do is just do it a lot. I think we all suck at some point [laughs]. It’s about how obsessed you are with it. Like, I just love writing songs! I’ll literally be in the middle of a conversation with somebody and they’ll say something, and I’ll go into a trance and start thinking about songs because of what they said! And they’re completely talking still, and I have no idea what they’re saying anymore [laughs]. I can’t help that, ya know! That’s just something that I was born to be enthralled by. I think walking around with the mysticism of always looking around and opening your eyes and opening your ears, I think that will inform your songwriting. Be obsessed with it. Just like anything else, if you’re not obsessed with it, then you probably shouldn’t do it! I think that’s a huge thing. And then, as far as the lesson goes, yeah, what I said earlier. Even though that informs my artistry even more than my songwriting, I think.”
~ THE PINK SLIP (LIVE), the brand NEW EP from DEVIN DAWSON, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms. The original PINK SLIP EP is also available on all platforms.