Brandon Dawson is a communicator, a teacher. On the inside cover of his new CD you’ll find a picture of two hands entwined in a graceful pose. “It’s a mudra,” Dawson says, “They’re found in Hindu and Bhuddist art and teaching… They’re symbolic gestures, used to convey a larger concept. Sometimes the very act of performing the mudra is believed to be healing to the body and soul.”
He says the image is taken from an ancient painting of the first Dali Lama, “My friend Elizabeth designed the cover, and when she found that image, we both loved the idea. She tried to find out what this particular mudra means, and as best we can determine it’s the ‘teaching’ mudra. That seemed perfect for the intent and direction of the CD.”
Dawson has worked as a teacher, both in US high schools (“as a substitute”) and in University courses abroad. But he says that ultimately everything he does, whether writing songs, welding locomotives (which he did for a time while living in Idaho), or helping other artists find their path (which he currently does for several artists in Cincinnati), it’s all about teaching and learning, about finding the best way through… the one that brings life to everyone involved. “I don’t care what I’m doing… if I can find that spot, that “it” in any process… I’m happy there.”
That “it” is the message of Dawson’s music, and of the new CD: “Becoming Human.” “It’s about life, pursuing life and letting go of the things that get in the way, fear, materialism, competitiveness. It’s about becoming more fully ourselves.” Dawson’s quick to point out that he’s not speaking from a point of completion, “This is something I’m learning right now, rubbing up against every day. But the ideas are what I aspire to.”
Although Brandon’s name may be new to you, he’s no stranger to the music industry. After nearly fifteen years in radio, and at least as much time promoting, producing and managing the work of other artists, the time has finally come for his own music to step forward.
Dawson moved to Ohio from his home state of Idaho several years ago, looking for a change of scenery. He found it on the road, spending nearly three years tour managing the band Over the Rhine. Working with that band, as well as other artists like Hem, Kim Taylor and Griffin House have given him a different perspective on what he wants from his music, and what he sees it accomplishing, “The industry is so broken now, in such a shambles… but there’s never been a better time to put out new music, to get it to people without all the garbage and the machinations of the industry. I just want to write good songs, play them with my friends, and get them out to people who care. I really believe there’s a middle path in there by which artists can survive, and the people who care about the music can find it. But the sooner we put the rest of the madness to sleep, the better.”
Brandon’s music fuses together a number of different styles including soul, blues, singer-songwriter folk and straight ahead rock & roll. ”Different people tend to point out different things,” he says “I guess there’s a lot rolling around in there.” The comparisons, while plenty, are all reaching for something elusive, because in the end, it’s none of these, it’s a synthesis. Chris Whitley, Jeff Buckley, Elvis Costello… sure, there are pieces of all of them. But ultimately his sound is all his own, uniquely forged through a decade of crafting his own songs - as he says in the opening track “Milk & Honey” - in his own sweet time.
For “Becoming Human,” Brandon assembled a lineup that includes some of Cincinnati’s finest musicians and performers, drawing heavily from the Blue Jordan Records family. The basic lineup for the record included Brandon on acoustic and National guitar, Mike Helm on Bass, Josh Seurkamp on Drums, and Sharon Udoh on Piano and Hammond organ. The quartet gathered at a performance space in Cincinnati, and recorded nine songs essentially in one long session. Over the next week, other musicians stopped by Brandon’s little hideout in the central Cincinnati neighborhood of Norwood to lay down backing vocals, an electric guitar and the odd tambourine; and then Brandon mixed and mastered the songs himself.
Ask him about the record, and he’ll tell you that he’s most proud of the community vibe of the whole thing: “We didn’t hire any of this out to some high powered studio, on some label’s dime. It’s me and my friends, start to finish. Recorded right here in our neighborhood. Even the cover photos are by my friend Juli. For all its strengths and weaknesses, I love that we did it ourselves.”
So far, people are focusing exclusively on its strengths. Radio station WNKU picked up the song “Milk & Honey” before even receiving the official release, and fans across the country are uttering a collective sigh of “it’s about time.”
As Dawson says in the new CD’s liner notes: “It was never time before. Now it is.” Check it out for yourself. You’ll find that good things do indeed come to those who wait.
Brandon Dawson - Vocals; Acoustic, National, and Electric Guitars
Mike Helm - Electric Guitar, Bass, Vocals
Tony Moore - Bass, Upright Bass
Joshua Seurkamp - Drums, Percussion
Sharon Udoh - Organ, Piano, Vocals
Brandon's new CD "Becoming Human" was released in June, 2008. It is currently being played on station WNKU in Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati.
MidPoint Music 2009 Festival Write-Up
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"When Brandon Dawson moved here four years ago, he hadn’t written a song in a very long time, but a ..."When Brandon Dawson moved here four years ago, he hadn’t written a song in a very long time, but a longstanding gig as Over the Rhine’s road manager fueled his desire to return to songwriting and performing. And what a comeback. Dawson’s debut full-length, Becoming Human, is a friends-and-neighbors recording that immediately connects with the listener, transcending outside influences and moving effortlessly from personal to universal. Forget about hanging a tag on it. All you need to know is that Brandon Dawson plays music with conviction, passion, power and faith.
[Sounds Like]: Bruce Cockburn covers Jeff Buckley at Over the Rhine’s Sunday picnic."
By Brian Baker
Becoming Human, and Renouncing Fear: The Thunderstruck Interview with Angela Pancella
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Brandon Dawson hails from Tyler, Texas, where he learned at a young age how to play guitar, cards, a...Brandon Dawson hails from Tyler, Texas, where he learned at a young age how to play guitar, cards, and a mean 1099 form from none other than Willie Nelson. That outlaw country ethos is present in much of Dawson’s music to this day if only muted slightly by the neo-French pop aesthetic and James Joycian lyrical muse.
No, actually, none of that’s true; it’s something fellow Blue Jordan recording artist David Wolfenberger wrote for Dawson’s fake bio. Here’s something a bit more true: Brandon Dawson grins when he enters the Speckled Bird Cafe in Norwood, Ohio, where we arranged to meet for this interview. He listens a bit to the music playing in the background. “Django Reinhardt, right?” he asks the guy behind the counter. Right. Then they chat about the appropriateness of the choice, seeing how the cafe has just begun serving a gelato line called Django’s.
Over the course of a couple of weeks of running into Dawson, I’ll hear him extol the virtues of King’s X (he’ll give me a primer on which albums to listen to and in what order) and Maurice Mattei (a local musician who has written a song cycle based on stores at Cincinnati’s Kenwood Mall, so songs with titles like “Aeropostale” and “Forever 21”).
When it comes to music of all genres, Dawson is contagious enthusiasm personified. With the dominant music-geek stereotype that of the elitist snob, it’s refreshing to spend time with someone so filled with curiosity and joy. Which is why it’s surprising, as we talk about his debut album Becoming Human, to hear him discuss the tough process of renouncing fear.
But let’s start at the beginning.
First of all, I’m not sure what brought you to Ohio from Idaho.
I lived in Idaho until I was 30 with the exception of some time in Switzerland and some time in Hawaii. Over the course of about three years we [Dawson and his family] went through a series of catastrophes—relational, financial and familial—that just got us to the place where we desperately needed a change. I was in a downward spiral vocationally. I was welding locomotives: blue-collar, twelve-hour days, cigarette in your mouth, lunch box, staring at the flame for twelve hours, and waiting for the horn—literally that life.
Not what you saw yourself doing.
No. The irony is that that still remains one of my favorite jobs ever. I really enjoyed it. At the end of a day of welding, you’ve made a train—a freaking locomotive that weighs several tons. It’s very satisfying. But yeah, we needed a change. And friends recommended a community of people in Ohio that they knew that they could vouch for. Their initial recommendation sounded ludicrous.
Just the idea that we would move to Ohio. Like, “Why?” But as often happens, it just got to the point where it seemed to make sense. And so one day driving home from work, I was thinking through some things and got to the point eventually where I made this shift in my mind about how I was thinking about it, that it seemed the only thing to do.
What it came down to, for me, was that we had had a very negative experience with a community that we were just fresh out of, and I was trying to decide whether to give up on the idea of community or whether to give it one last shot. And I read something that basically talked about the general idea that if you’re pursuing love, if you’re truly pursuing love, you can’t go wrong. And in terms of a spiritual ideal, like trying to find God or serve God, He’s really not so concerned about anything as He is about whether or not your life is directed toward love. And I thought, “There’s a whole lot of reasons I don’t know of to go to Ohio, but I do know that the reason I would be going is because I want to learn to love better. So we’re going.” That was the clincher.
You had already been in community, but with negative experiences?
Yeah, and positive forms. In Hawaii we lived in a community situation. I was basically doing missions work there although I was at college. We lived in sort of proximity community situations with people in various settings and then close intentional living-in-same-place community settings. So basically we moved here to give it one last shot. It was good. I kind of thought this would be the place where I either learned that that was where my life was headed or whether I gave up on it for good. And it turned out to be neither. I learned some very good lessons but I learned more about how I need to relate to community situations in order to be successful in them. It was a good move, it remains a good move. I don’t know that we’re in Cincinnati forever but it was the right choice.
What’s your theological background?
I was raised by parents who, when I was young, neither of whom were Christian but sent me to a Christian school because they thought I would get a good education there. So I grew up going to a conservative Baptist private school. My father had a religious experience when I was about nine and joined a Pentecostal church. So I spent the weekends going to a Pentecostal church and spent the week in a conservative Baptist school, and to be completely honest got very little out of either. Basically, from the time I was a teenager, of my own volition apart from my father because I had moved away from him—my folks are divorced and my mother and I moved to a different town—joined a Christian church and was part of a fairly evangelical Christian movement from that time on until—I’ve shifted drastically on a lot of that stuff over the last six years, but that’s what my background is.
When did you move to Cincinnati?
2005. Very early 2005.
So the shifts were happening before then and continued in.
They were. I’m not sure how much you want to know, but I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.
How much you want to tell the whole world is what I’m asking!
The thing is, it all relates to the record, honestly, because the record is written directly out of most of the shifts. It’s very germane. When my son [Avian] was born, he had a lot of health problems. The routes that we had to follow in order to actually find care for him led us out of the medical establishment and into alternative health circles. By the time we saw the fifth pediatrician and he recommended that we sedate him so that we could get some sleep, we left. We just said, “That’s it. We’re done with doctors.” And so, having been from a conservative background, we ventured into this very scary world of alternative medicine where we thought we were getting into all sorts of hooey strangeness. And we found a community of people that loved us and cared for us like we had never experienced before. And the genuineness that we found in the people with whom we related … I think we were very lucky, because there is a lot of strangeness out there. We fell into very good hands. And the first alternative doctor that we saw for Avian still remains a close family friend and is a wonderful person. So it challenged a lot of our preconceptions about things that we didn’t think were changeable, culturally, relationally, and spiritually and philosophically eventually as well.
We started to recognize that in order to really care for our son, we had to open ourselves up to things to which we had previously been closed. And some of that was having doctors that came from vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds. One of the best doctors that we saw was here in Cincinnati, Dr. K.K. Bhardwaj, who died about two months ago. He was nothing less than miraculous, the stuff that he did for my son. We had lots of great discussions with him about his belief.
When you grow up in a conservative background, you think that compassion is the birthright of Christians. And I found such great compassion and true care and love and empathy in people to whom I had not previously opened myself up. It changed me, and it changed what I was willing to believe was real. Eventually it just moved us into this place where we said, “Dogma aside, labels aside, I can’t deny this compassion. I can’t deny the weight of these relationships. These people are the most Christlike people I’ve ever met in my life. And in one sense, if God doesn’t have room for them, then I don’t have room for that God.” But I still believe God does have room for them; I just don’t think my former system of belief did. Yeah, I mean there’s a line in the song “Becoming Human” where it says, “It’s not a new direction.”
I think my family and some people that I know from the past would say that I’ve turned my back on something or gone in a different direction. I see this as a consistent movement in the pursuit of love and it’s caused me to open myself up to people in a way that I previously haven’t.
So where else do you see this in the record?
Well, nearly every song is written out of that process. I could go right down the line. Like, “Milk and Honey” is about the decision to move away from fear and to choose to open myself up to the next phase of my life and to believe that it could be good. I don’t know if it comes across that way but it’s very definitely literally for me about that. “No More” is exactly the same thing in many respects. “St. Elizabeth’s Waltz” is about my first days here in Cincinnati and connecting with this new community of people and with this [church] building that represented them and how I was going to choose to relate to that. Right down the line nearly every single song, comes out of that process.
Tell me about your musical background.
I’ve always sung, since I was little. My family is not musical; there as never music really at our house. Which is strange to me now. My mother always listened to the radio. She would listen like in the bathroom as she was getting ready for work in the morning; it wasn’t like there was ever music intentionally. But I always grew up singing. I remember my sister had the ELO records; I just remember a lot of those, like the strange early musical influences. I remember one birthday my mom got me a record player when I was probably nine and gave me three albums. And they must just have been the ones that were on the shelf, because she gave me Pat Benatar’s Get Nervous, the Rocky IV soundtrack that had Survivor’s “The Eye of the Tiger” on it, and the only one I ever actually listened to: the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer. The gatefold album. Aw, man. I listened to that endlessly. “In My Room” was the one that I listened to over and over.
And then I was involved in churches growing up, and the churches that I was involved in, worship music was always really big. And I was always friends with musicians but I was never a musician. So when I was twenty and moved to Hawaii, I just thought, I knew I was going to be at school, I knew I was going to have large amounts of free time, so I bought a really cheap guitar and took it with me and started to learn to play it there. And then when I moved back to Idaho, I joined bands with friends of mine who were kind of surprised that I could play.
How do you think you ended up being friends with so many musicians, in
the days before you could play music?
There’s a Lakota Sioux word, “Iyeska,” that has several different definitions—in a language context it means “Translator.” I’ve always been a translator—explaining the artist to the culture and vice-versa. For that reason I think artists have always gravitated to me, and I to them, because not only did I understand them, but I was able to explain them to the wider culture, and to sometimes explain the intricacies of the culture to them.
And you’ve mostly been involved with the industry side of music.
From the time I was sixteen. I got my first radio job in high school; I just thought it would be fun, I was sick of busing tables. Off and on, I worked in radio until I was thirty. I went to Hawaii to get out of radio and ended up running the radio station at the college because nobody else knew what they were doing.
Why did you want to get out of radio?
Because even when I was 21, 20, even then I hated the degree to which I knew that to be successful in radio meant that I had to be something other than myself. I had to stop being a person and become a personality. I hated that from the very start, that was my least favorite part of the whole business. I was pretty good at it by accident from the start; until later on I never really applied for radio jobs. I would always be at one station and somebody else would hire me away to the bigger station, to the next place and to the next place. And I recognized that if I was going to stay in this as a career, it meant number one that I would have to move cities about every two to three years in order to advance markets, and number two that I would have to become someone else on a fairly serious level, and I just was unwilling to do that. I didn’t know much when I was twenty, but I knew that that was bad. So I tried to get away from it but I couldn’t. I went to Hawaii, worked there for about a year, when I came home I took a couple of years off and worked at a bakery and saved some money to go to Switzerland, I went to Switzerland, but when I came back from Switzerland and got married, I needed to make a living. At that time the whole consolidation thing was really beginning to happen. I just went to one of the big radio groups in Boise, got a job, ended up programming an adult alternative station, doing mornings, and by the time I was 30, ten years later, realized again that this is the best job in this industry I was ever gonna get, it was a great job, it was a wonderful station, I had a wonderful staff of people—and I hated it. I hated the industry.
So I finally got out and that was when I swung a hammer for two years and became a welder and so on and so forth. But during that whole time, I was playing music, I was working with friends who were in bands, kind of pseudo-managing them, just getting my feet wet, getting in the industry as well, learning more about that side of things.
Did you like learning the nuts and bolts of the music industry?
I’ve always been a big picture person. I can’t be in anything and not know the whole scenario. I did like that part of it. I’ve always kind of naturally been a consultant, too. So when I moved to Cincinnati, and there was the opportunity to tour manage and things like that, it was something that I had never done but it was probably the only thing that that time [in radio] had actually qualified me to do in some ways. So it came pretty naturally. The irony is that I still hate the business. But the business has changed to the degree that I think there are opportunities open to do this stuff, to use my knowledge and experience in ways to help people and myself hopefully succeed without having to deal with all the parts of the industry that are abhorrent at this point.
What do you find abhorrent about the music industry?
Where to start? The industry was started, in most cases, and much like radio, by people who actually cared about music—about finding the artists, and helping them get the beauty inside them out so that the rest of the world could experience it. Doing the things the artists couldn’t do for themselves.
But it’s long since become a meat grinder, where a bunch of greedy, untalented hacks have realized they can ride someone’s talent for quite a while, and milk them, without actually having to do anything. Don’t get me wrong, there are good people out there, but they’re vastly outnumbered.
Today, the people with the creative spark, with the talent that drives the industry, are beholden to the managers, and the agents. They labor in obscurity hoping for the right break. I tell the artists I work with to stop negotiating from a position of weakness: “You have the power—the songs, the art. Without that, there’s no industry.” So we’ve got to take some of that power back, and demand that the industry function to facilitate the creation of art, not the making of money.
Everybody’s aware of the ways the industry is changing. Some people think it’s already dead. You can talk to a lot of artists that think retail is already dead–the idea of selling CDs in stores. Very few independent artists, if they’re realistic, are even concerned about making it big anymore. Everybody’s just trying to make a living. But the fact is that the death of the industry as we know it opens up opportunities to grassroots level independent artists to make a living in ways that they couldn’t have before. The other industry will continue to exist, the industry that exists for the Christina Aguileras of the world who sell 50 million records. That’ll go on, and it will continue to make money off of them. But there’s a gap growing in the middle where the midlevel singer-songwriters are really struggling to figure out how they fit into the industry but the completely independent artists are finding ways now to thrive where they can sell their records, they can market them around the world. I mean, I put out this album on a shoestring. If you don’t count the cost of manufacturing the physical CDs, I figured out the budget for the record was something like 85 dollars. And the day I got the CDs from the manufacturer, it was on sale anywhere in the world. Anyone could have bought a copy anywhere in the world. Now, it’s up to me to market effectively to let people know that. But that’s something that didn’t use to happen ever. I mean, somebody could stumble onto my MySpace in Japan and decide they like a song and decide to put it in their TV show and I could have a hit through no fault of my own. Some of it’s accidental, but there are ways through different on-line marketing vehicles–through sites like last.fm and Myspace and Facebook and SonicBids and Live365 and Imeem and iLike—all these different ways that people, if they’re wise about it, can actively self-market, self-promote themselves around the world. Using SonicBids, I could be booking gigs in Europe tomorrow if I really wanted to, without an agent. That’s never been possible before. So all the things that the music industry was necessary for, if you really want to, you can do every single one of those yourself now. It’s just a matter of learning how to do it. And that’s the gap—most of the people are still under the impression that the music industry is necessary because the people there know something I don’t or have skills that I don’t. That’s not true. There’s no reason why those artists, if they get the right information, can’t do it themselves.
And that’s why, in an industry sense, I would much rather consult for people and teach them how to do this stuff than manage them and take money to do something that they could just do themselves. That just seems like a healthier relationship to the industry for everybody concerned.
So you’re into working yourself out of a job?
Yes! Actually, that’s exactly what I would like to do. I would love to get to the point where somebody says, “I don’t need you anymore.” Great! Awesome! Go do it yourself!
Getting back to Becoming Human, there’s a lot of “Right here right now” language in the album. Can you talk more about what brought you to that place?
Most of that language I think comes as a result of some of the experiences of the last 5 or 6 years. When I was younger I was bulletproof. Like, I didn’t think about consequences, I didn’t think about the future or the past, I did the things that made sense. As I got older, had a child, had some things rock that shell a little bit, I realized that inside of me there was a great deal of fear. I became, to my shock, an incredibly anxious person. And that language is about me trying to consciously let go of fear as a motivating factor in my life and choose to be present, to live here, to enjoy the present moment. The sacrament of the present moment is something that’s very important to me now. And it’s a process. It gets attributed to various people, some people say John Lennon said it, some people say Bono said it, but there’s the idea that “Songwriters don’t write from the place they’re from, they write from the place they want to be.” I don’t write from the sense of having achieved anything, I write the songs in the direction that I want to be headed. And that’s my practice now, is trying to figure out how to be present in the moment, to enjoy and experience what’s going on. Ultimately, the fear comes from worry about the future and being haunted by the past. As one of the guys that I’ve been reading says, ultimately all that you have is this present moment and your future can do nothing to harm that and the past can do nothing to discolor it, so ultimately what power do they have over you? None, as long as you live in the present.
What brought you to that? You would have had to make a decision at
some point: “All right, I don’t want to be anxious anymore.”
I don’t think it was one experience. I think it was just realizing progressively over a couple of years how consumed I was with fear. And I couldn’t write songs without referencing it, and I just couldn’t live that way. It isn’t a way to raise my son. And I think I came to the realization one day that it was really hard for me to look at my son, who’s six now, and believe and have hope for him if all I could see was my own fear about my life, about things that were happening and about events that I couldn’t control. And that was not fair to him. There was one moment at which I had a realization of how strongly all of that was coloring how I saw the world and how I was choosing to interpret my experience. And I just made a decision to talk myself out of that, to not allow myself to harbor those thoughts anymore. Which didn’t mean they went away, I mean, I still process them every day. But it means not dwelling there and saying, “I choose to focus on life, I choose to focus on hope, and cultivate that in myself and not give space in my mind for fear and anxiety.” It’s a work in progress.
In the last song on the album, “Birthday Song,” you start off talking from the perspective of your three year old self, learning to withdraw in the midst of difficult circumstance. Then you have snapshots of yourself growing up, other moments of withdrawing, until there’s this moment of realization: “Oh when we build our houses out of fear/a little heaven dies in every tear/But it doesn’t have to be that way/There is life and death in all we say.” But then there’s this heartbreaking line: “You don’t know that when you’re three.”
In one sense I guess it’s a reminder to myself for my son, as a parent. It’s not a line that I wrote necessarily out of self-pity. It’s a line that I wrote to remind myself there’s more at stake here than we often recognize and we have to protect innocence. And I have to protect what remains of my innocence and protect that in the world and protect it in my son.
Brandon Dawson’s CD Becoming Human is available now—see www.brandondawson.net for details. Dawson performs with Kim Taylor and David Wolfenberger at the Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky September 6.
Angela Pancella is the author of Voice and Style: Marc Connors of The Nylons and a contributor to the U2 fan site @U2 (www.atu2.com). She lives in an intentional community in Cincinnati.
Original URL: http://www.thunderstruck.org/?p=328
Cincinnati CityBeat 9/3/08
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By Brian Baker, CityBeat Music Writer When Brandon Dawson moved to Cincinnati from his native Ida...By Brian Baker, CityBeat Music Writer
When Brandon Dawson moved to Cincinnati from his native Idaho three years ago, very little planning was involved. Living a hardscrabble life that included swing shift locomotive construction and unexpected economic reversals, Dawson knew that he wanted to move his wife and 3-year-old son away, though he didn't know exactly what he was moving toward.
"I had no context for Cincinnati," Dawson says in the alcove room at the Speckled Bird Cafe on an active open mic night. "We had good friends who had good friends here and they said, 'They'll help you get set up.'"
Relocating to Norwood in 2005, Dawson did local rehabbing work which eventually put him in contact with Over the Rhine's Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist. The couple needed work done on their newly purchased farmhouse. Subsequent conversations revealed Dawson's previous experience in managing bands, and the couple ultimately tapped Dawson to be their road manager for more than two years.
Although Dawson enjoyed working and traveling with OTR, he realized how much he missed his family, so he backed away from his road commitment to the band. Once he settled into a more sedate routine, he found his mind drifting back to songs he had written years before and toward a desire to write more now and actually do something with them.
"When I finally got off the road a number of things enabled a philosophical shift for me where, for the first time in a long time, I was thinking about (music) in a better way," Dawson says. "It seemed like the moment I decided that I was going to have fun with it and let the pressure off -- that it didn't have to be about whether I was a professional writer or whether I was making a record that anyone would ever hear or play or care about -- the record basically made itself."
From contacts made through his association with OTR and beyond (Josh Seurkamp, Mike Helm and Pete Hicks, among others) and friends he'd established through his affiliation with the Blue Jordan community (including Sharon Udoh, Janet Pressley and Liz Bowater), Dawson found a wealth of talent willing to take up his cause.
"If I mentioned to someone in conversation that I was thinking about making a record, they would volunteer space or time or their expertise," Dawson says. "If you take out the cost of manufacturing the CDs, I think the budget for the record was like $83. It was a communal effort and we had a lot of fun."
Before the recording could take place, there had to be songs. Dawson had an extensive archive from years past but he was determined to work up new material to record. In January, he decided to go back to college to complete his long-abandoned bachelor's degree. Dawson's highly individualized program allowed him to pursue a semester of memoir writing that ultimately stimulated his songwriting process as well.
"Probably eight of the 11 songs were written in whole or in part about four months before the record was made," Dawson says. "From the old songs, I chose the ones I still enjoy playing and the ones I didn't feel I had grown out of yet. There was a song I almost put on the record that's 11 years old, but I ended up not putting it on because I didn't have time to mix it."
That's no understatement. The last song Dawson added to Becoming Human was the album's second track, "No More." He and the band recorded the basic track the morning the album was due to be shipped to the manufacturing plant. Dawson then finished the lyrics, recorded his vocals, mixed the track, didn't like the mix, took it to his office to remix it, burned a final master with the new track sequence and got the package to Fed-X two minutes before they closed.
"I didn't even have time to listen to the final CD to make sure there was actually audio on it," Dawson says with a laugh. "It was a complete leap of faith."
The leap has clearly paid off handsomely. Becoming Human sports the contemplative hopefulness of early Bruce Cockburn and shimmers with the effortless grace exhibited by his former employers. Sending the CD to local public radio station WNKU without any promotional plea or airplay-inspiring hyperbole, Dawson was amazed and delighted that Becoming Human was immediately added to the station's playlist.
For Dawson, the most important aspects of Becoming Human are its very existence and the way it came to be. Although there are naturally things that he would have changed given a longer production time, he believes it is the best representation of where he is right now creatively.
"I'm really proud of it for what it is and I'm happy with what it is," he says with an infectious grin. "I don't wish that it were anything else."
Original URL: http://citybeat.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A146001
CinWeekly Feature 8/27/08
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by Rich Shivener - CinWeekly Music Editor Potential album titles still adorn a dry-erase board in...by Rich Shivener - CinWeekly Music Editor
Potential album titles still adorn a dry-erase board in Brandon Dawson's office. He narrowed the list down to All the Things I Said Before, Things that Slip Away, Becoming Human, Milk & Honey, Zero is Always Zero and Zero.
He ran with Becoming Human, and the singer-songwriter leaves little doubt that it was the right choice.
The album is an extension of his soul, something beaming with Norwood pride and a knack for slide-guitar-laden alternablues.
Dawson, 36, pieced it together in three surprisingly different locations - his office/apartment, Crossroads Community Church and St. Elizabeth Church. Good friends steered him away from a recording studio. "If you take out the production costs," he says, "I think the album costs $83 to make."
On a rainy Thursday afternoon, Dawson hugs a friend sitting at a table at The Speckled Bird Cafe. He then walks outside to the corner of Carter and Mills avenues and motions toward a building across the street.
"That's where it all started."
It's where he shares an apartment-turned-creative space with Mike Helm (singer-songwriter), Elizabeth Herron (artist/graphic designer) and Dave Nixon (writer/teacher). "For a while we were calling it the Bird's Eye View," he says.
His office - or one side of a room - is strewn with notebooks, pens, paper, books and two computers: an acceptable mess created by someone who's a husband, father, musician and writer.
"This is where probably about half the songs on the record were written from start to finish," he says. "I set up microphones in (Nixon's) room and did the engineering in here all myself.
"Actually," he adds, " 'An Apology' - which is one of the songs on the record - was recorded entirely in here. I did it all myself - the slide guitar, the vocals ... everything right in here."
Crossroads Community Church in Oakley seats 3,500. However, on a Tuesday evening in May, four people sat in a circle on stage, with the lights out and some candles lit. Dawson wielded a resonator guitar while three friends - Josh Seurkamp, Sharon Udoh and Mike Helm - handled drums, keys and bass, respectively.
"Basically, we just set up, tuned our instruments and started playing," Dawson remembers. "Everything was tracked live. We didn't do any individual tracking. I don't think we did more than two takes of anything."
Across the street from the Speckled Bird, St. Elizabeth Church towers. Artists rent rooms in the back.
Zach Stutzman teaches evening drum lessons in one. He ran into Dawson when the singer-songwriter still had an unfinished record.
"I just happened to mention to him that I was looking for somewhere to mix the record, and he said, 'Hey, I'm only in there during in the evenings. If you want to use it during the day, it's all yours.' "
Indeed it was. Dawson tracked electric guitar, vocals and miscellaneous elements - and he left with a record 90 percent complete.
Before long, it was June 10, the last day to ship off the master copy of Becoming Human and its artwork if Dawson wanted to receive a shipment before an upcoming gig. After some last-minute thinking, he tracked vocals for "No More" in his office.
He remembers mixing the song in a mad rush and barely listening to it in the car; he had to burn it to the master disc and speed to FedEx-Kinko's in time to overnight Becoming Human to his manufacturer.
"The store closes at 9," he says, "and I got there at 8:58."
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Brandon's typical setlist can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, focusing almost entirely on original material.
At a typical solo, acoustic show, Brandon would move between acoustic guitar and National guitar, playing 45 - 60 minutes with 1-2 choice cover songs in a set.
A full band show would be similar, only involving the addition of some electric guitar. Brandon has also done longer engagements, dividing the night between acoustic and band sets... filling as much as three hours.