Dawes was never out to defy expectations. Yet, when the band released its debut album North Hills in 2009, they garnered an immediate outpouring of favorable reviews, much of it pinned to the notion that they were championing a revival of the sun-dappled Laurel Canyon sound, the same style that fostered a new generation of fabled folkies—Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and the like—back in the surreal '60s.
While Dawes hasn't necessarily distanced themselves from that vintage description, they haven't stopped there, either. Over the course of their succeeding albums—Nothing Is Wrong (2011), Stories Don't End (2013), All Your Favorite Bands and last year's We're All Gonna Die—they've not only expanded that soft-rock palette, but also etched an identity all their own.
Nevertheless, the quartet couldn't be faulted if they chose to simply bask in the glow of their accolades. In a telephone interview, Taylor Goldsmith, Dawes' primary songwriter, insists that the group is intent only on making their music, without regard to money and fame. To wit, they make music for the joy of it, including occasional side projects like the ad hoc outfit The New Basement Tapes (where Goldsmith, Elvis Costello, Rhiannon Giddens, Jim James and Marcus Mumford created a sort-of sequel to the legendary Bob Dylan/The Band Basement Tapes sessions) and Middle Brother (an indie supergroup featuring Deer Tick's John McCauley and Delta Spirit's Matthew Vasquez). This, while remaining dedicated to driving Dawes forward.
Currently in the middle of a 50-city tour—their largest to date—Goldsmith says the band is pleased to be playing music live for their fans. It is, along with recording, the thing that makes their efforts worthwhile. "If we were just to record our songs and then leave them alone, it would take away half the fun," he says. "Bob Dylan said it best: 'A song doesn't live until it's on the road.' And, for the kind of music we make, that couldn't be truer."
Dawes' celebratory shows prove that. There's a populist appeal that's shared between Dawes and their followers, and the excitement they generate while playing live is palpable, even on first encounter. "We've never been a cool band," Goldsmith says. "We've never been hip and fashionable. When you are that kind of band, it can also be intimidating to the fans. We've never waited for anyone to get on board and tell us we were hip." As far as he's concerned, that's what has made their relationship with their audience genuine. "The role that we play in people's lives has been purely about the music, and that makes our dance with them that much more fun and that much easier."
Dawes has, in a sense, done it their way. And, despite early accolades, Goldsmith says it hasn't swayed their future course. "It was great to have Rolling Stone and The Wall Street Journal respond in such a positive way and champion us the way they did," he says. "We were lucky that people took notice."
Goldsmith refers, of course, to what every new band faces: being a small fish in an ocean. "When we set out, four guys from L.A. writing songs about their feelings, it didn't seem like there was much of a market for that," he says. But there's always a market for that sort of thing when the artists can write without affectation, giving themselves to their audience. That's why the group continues to charm both fans and critics.
But their objective, Goldsmith maintains, is to make the best music they can and keep the same optimistic spirt and enthusiasm they found on North Hills. "We've always wanted to be honest and reflect the world we live in, and not necessarily be guided by dreams of headlining huge festivals, or playing for 10,000 people or making a million dollars with a radio hit. That just wouldn't be the way to go." CW