Devin Dawson Talks Debut Album, John Fogerty, Johnny Cash & John Mayer
Nashville-based singer/songwriter Devin Dawson popped onto the music scene earlier this year with his debut single, "All On Me." Soon after, he hit the road with GRAMMY winner Maren Morris, earning enough acclaim to be selected as the opening act for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's joint summer tour.
Dawson sat down with the Recording Academy at Austin City Limits 2017 to talk about his biggest musical influences, his debut single, and the title track from his forthcoming 2018 debut album, Dark Horse — a song which almost didn't get written.
I noticed this morning that "All On Me" currently has something like 26 million plays on Spotify. Let's rewind to sitting down to write or jumping in the studio to record that song. Where was your head at, what went into the song, and did you have any idea that this is where you'd be by October of 2017?
I wrote "All On Me" with my guitar player and one of my good friends Austin. Taylor Smith. We had this every Sunday [songwriting] ritual going, which was kinda crazy because I used to write every day, all day during the week. My publishers liked me to take a break on the weekends, but I write everyday — it's like my obsession, it's my addiction. There's something different about Sundays. You just wake up whenever you want and get your coffee, and there's no rush or pressure to get anything done or write anything.
So, because the pressure was off, we always wrote really good songs on Sundays. I went to my local coffee shop, and I have a bunch of titles in my phone that I’m kind of inspired by. I kinda just did a little Russian roulette through my phone, and I landed on "All On Me," and I was like, "Man, that feels good today." I brought it to Austin, and we [worked on] it, and wrote a little poem for the chorus before we had a melody. The melody just kinda made itself known, and the rest of it wrote itself. It was one of those songs where I don't remember who did what, it just kinda fell out. I think I knew when we wrote it that it was something that I wanted to sing, rather than giving it to somebody else as a songwriter.
I didn't know that it know that it would have 26 million plays to this day and we'd be playing it at ACL Fest, but I definitely did know that I wanted it to be a contender for my first offering as an artist, you know? And now it's on the radio, and it has a life of its own, and that's what you dream about for a song. It's cool to look back and remember. I still feel every time I go into that song live, I remember that same feeling of the day I wrote it. It doesn't get old. Hopefully I can keep feeling it for 50 years.
I've read that you credit "three Johns" as some of your biggest musical influences: Mayer, Cash and Fogerty. Can you share a bit about how each has inspired you, and what's your favorite song by each?
First, John Fogerty — I'm from Northern California and CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival] has this kinda Northern California rootsy rock-country-soul thing going on. My favorite song by them is this album cut called "Long As I Can See The Light." I remember the first time my mom showed me that song and I just fell in love with it.
Next, Johnny Cash — I actually grew up 3 minutes from Folsom Prison. Orangevale [California] is my hometown, and it's right next door. I'm kind of subconsciously inspired by him and his artistry. Nobody was like him before and nobody has been like him since. I love wearing all black, and maybe that's where it came from. I mean, I love "A Boy Named Sue," but a song that actually he didn't write is one of my favorites — "Hurt," which is a Nine Inch Nails/Trent Reznor song. It just has so much raw emotion to it, which is what I try to feed off of.
And lastly, John Mayer is huge influence of mine. I think I was maybe 16 or 17, and my mom showed me "Neon" for the first time. She's kind of dictated my love for music and influence from country, rock ,soul, and R&B. It's really hard to choose a favorite of his, but I think "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room" is one of my favorites because of the images and the emotion. It just all fits together really well, and it sounds good when you sing it.
You did a huge radio tour last spring and you hit the road with Maren Morris. Next up, you opened for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill — so basically you've had a pretty boring summer, am I right? What's been your favorite or most memorable moment of the past 6 months?
(laughs) Right, yeah, we haven’t done anything. We started a radio tour in February. Usually, you do about 15 weeks, but ours ended up being like 20-plus weeks, because I was on the road with Maren Morris for a month. I'm a huge fan of her artistry, and her trajectory in the last year has been really inspiring for me. Her fans are are the people who I want to sing to, so that was really cool for her to take us under her wing before we even had any music out. That was an amazing experience, a lot of learning. Then I got to go on tour with Tim and Faith this summer, and I got to play my hometown. I think playing to a sold-out arena in your hometown — that is by far one of the biggest bucket-list checks that I've had. It's been a year full of a lot of firsts, and they all mean a lot, but that one is definitely up at the top of the list for sure.
Coming off a big summer, you just opened day three of ACL 2017. What's next for Devin Dawson?
I'm literally about to board a flight to London. I'm about to play some showcases over there, and spread the Devin Dawson word, plant some seeds and shake some hands. I want to be able to have a base over there, and spread my music across the world. After that, we're on tour with Michael Ray, on the Get To You tour, which is his new single. He's one of my good buddies, we're both on the same label and we all live in Nashville. We're one week into that and it's just been a brotherhood. That's the kind of tour I love to be on. So we'll be doing that until mid-December, then a new record coming out at the beginning of the year and we'll be hitting it hard next year too. So we're non-stop — hopefully for the rest of my life.
What's your favorite song that you’ve written — released or unreleased — and can you tell us a bit about the story or inspiration behind it?
It's hard to pick. Certain ones are favorites to perform, certain ones are a favorite to record, certain ones a are favorite just because of the lyrics. They're all my babies, and how do you choose your favorite child? But, in the next few days we're going to release a song called "Dark Horse," which is also the title track to my record coming out early next year.
The story of that song is interesting because it actually came about after the record was done. It's really this song that, as a new artist, tells people who I am, what I believe in, and what I'm about. When you're trying to write that song — I feel like I'd tried to force it for so long that I just kinda had to give up and let it come to me. And it came to me after the record was done. Luckily, I have an awesome team around me that believes in me enough to let me slip that on at the last minute, and it became the title track. It's one of my favorite songs form this record, and I can't wait for the world to hear it.