Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dolly Varden - The Art Of Songwriting - Part Two

The second half of an article I recently wrote for the Illinois Entertainer

Dawson’s compositions over the years have been notable for their strong melodies and poetic lyrics that emphasize visual imagery. Sometimes they’re inspired by a single phrase he comes up with or hears from someone else. The beguiling “Temperamental Complement” came to Dawson as he was listening to an NPR radio show about how introverts are more likely to have successful relationships with extroverts than other introverts, and vice versa. Temperamental Complement” might just be Dolly Varden at its most adventurous. A high-powered, alt rock arrangement backs Christiansen's vocals, which are electronically altered to the point where some people have failed to recognize it's her singing. Then there are lines like, “bird underneath each arm, moving without incident, no cause for alarm" and "spooning with a stranger's dog." 

“Making literal sense is not really that much of a priority for me,” Dawson explained with a laugh, when asked about such lyrics. “It's more about the feeling. One of the assignments I give my class is to write a song that's meaningless, that just has a musicality to the language. I've had songs over the years that are very image heavy and non-linear.” Even Dawson's most wistful and autobiographical material, like “Del Mar, 1976,” a look back to his childhood, and the family history of “Saskatchewan To Chicago,” leave much to the listener's imagination.

 The studio trickery on behind “Temperamental Complement” is a result of Dawson’s growing technical expertise. He’s started recording other performers in his home studio, including Melanie Budd and Eugenia Elliott. On the other hand, songs like “Mayfly” and  “Del Mar, 1976,” were given bare bones productions that evoke a live performance in a local club.

The one feature all Dolly Varden’s songs have in common, regardless of genre or production techniques, is compelling vocals. It’s been that way since Dawson and Christiansen performed together in their first band, Stump The Host. With Dolly Varden, they take turns singing lead and backup, and on the disturbing “Girl In A Well,” sing in perfect unison. Sometimes, the vocal arrangements spring naturally, like when Dawson plays a demo for Christiansen, and she starts to sing along when it feels right. Occasionally, the process gets more complicated.

“That’s maybe the most contentious thing about us singing together,” Dawson revealed. “How we’re going to go about doing it. If there are arguments, that’s often where they’ll happen.” According to Dawson, Christiansen’s concern is that too many duets, particularly on songs with a Country & Western flavor, can easily become a cliche. “On ‘Done (Done),’ I had to really encourage her that it would be good for us to sing the whole song in two-part harmony together.”

Even with Dawson and Christiansen doing less singing together on For A While, Dolly Varden’s basic approach hasn’t changed much over the years. “We’re not dramatically different,” Dawson acknowledges. “Which I don’t know if that’s a good thing. A lot of bands really go through drastic changes. But I feel like what we do is already such an amalgam of influences, and those influences have been there from the beginning.”

Looking back on Dolly Varden’s extensive career, Dawson notes that he does like some albums better than others. For A While ranks up at the top, along with another one of his favorites, the 1999 release, Dumb Magnets.

“Those two records as a pair have a similar sound,” he said, “I think they all have a certain character.”

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