song by song

Thoughts on writing and recording the songs on “For A While” by Steve Dawson

1. Del Mar, 1976
This song is filled with memories both real and imagined from growing up in Del Mar, California, in the 70’s. There is a famous racetrack there and I really did see Buck Owens sing at the Del Mar county fair, and pickle weed is a real thing that apparently only grows in a few coastal locations around the world. A girl who lived in the neighborhood and I did hang out and play together a lot and sadly I really can’t remember her name. This song was written very quickly. Once I had the chords and melody, the words came spilling out almost and fast as they are sung on the recording. We tracked the acoustic guitar, organ (Diane), drums, bass and Mark’s electric guitar live in a few takes and then I overdubbed the vocals, a second acoustic guitar, Mike’s bowed bass part, and the melodicas at my home studio, Kernel Sound Emporium.

 2. For A While
I wrote this song as a simple acoustic fingerpicking tune about the passing of time.  We tried it several ways with the band,  but once Diane started singing it it came alive. I re-harmonized it around a chromatic bassline that added some nice dissonance and propulsion. The lyrics all came fast once I had the rhythm and the refrain line. We tracked the full band live at Kingsize in Chicago and added Diane’s vocal and my harmony at our home studio, along with the organ and tambourine.

 3. Done (Done)
I’ve found that anytime I’ve done anything with the business side of the music biz as the motivating force it’s been a soul-crushing disaster. Somehow every couple of years I forget that and I dip my toe back into the bucket of the biz. This song began as a simple folk song and was set aside until we came across the thumping beat that pushes the verses along. The last verse, to me, makes it not just another bitchy song, but one that has some hope. Without that verse I probably wouldn’t want to sing this song. We tracked drums, bass and 2 guitars live and overdubbed all the acoustic instruments and vocals. The band named the song based on the reoccurring 8th note vamp.

 4. Girl in a Well
This is a weird song and one of my favorites on the album. Songwriting is a mysterious thing and often times songs show up fully written – I pick up the guitar, play a bit and the song unfolds almost in real time. This one came out that way. I sat down and starting playing the opening guitar vamp and the words and melody appeared. We tracked this live with 2 acoustic guitars, Diane and I singing, and Mike playing bass. The only overdubs are the mellotron flutes.

 5. Walking the Chalkline Again
I was coming up with a lot of songs in 2011 and into 2012. For some reason they were everywhere and it was hard to keep track of them. This one came one afternoon while I was waiting for a student to show up for a lesson. The first verse popped out and I heard it in Rick Danko’s voice for some reason. I had to work hard to get the bridge section but that’s now my favorite part. The extended ending was improvised. We tracked guitars, bass, and drums live at Kernel and overdubbed vocals, piano, additional guitars and Zack Kline’s violin.

 6. Mayfly
Another one where I sat down to play a bit of guitar and the song jumped out nearly fully formed. The first 2 verses came all at once. I got up to make a coffee and think about what to do next – after two verses my instinct would be to write a bridge, but that didn’t feel right on this song. Then it dawned on me: look to the future. This was written within a week of the 21st anniversary of my marriage to Diane. The chords to this song are nearly identical to Done (Done). Tracked live at Kernel – me sitting, singing and playing 5 feet from Matt (drummer), with Mark in one corner playing lap steel and Mike in the other. Diane’s voice was overdubbed along with very simple, spare piano chords.

 7. The Milkshake Incident, part 1
A secret that will not be revealed, I’m afraid. I have lots of little guitar tunes that come from tinkering around. Some of them become songs with words but many just exist as instrumental bits. I played this tune for the band and  once they all joined in it came alive. There is a Milkshake Incident, part 2. Someday we’ll release that. It has words. It was great fun mixing this one and playing around with the tape delay on the drums.

 8. Temperamental Complement
While I was driving around Chicago one day I heard a radio interview with a woman who’d written a book about introverts and extroverts being drawn to each other as “temperamental complements.” That was all it took and the song was basically written by the time I got home. I had most of the verses and the chorus and Diane finished off a few of the verses. Can you guess which lines are hers?

 9. Saskatchewan To Chicago
I teach songwriting classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music. I love it. One assignment I regularly give is to write a blues form song that doesn’t sound like a blues. An example would be Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” There’s hundreds of ‘em. This is a rare example of me doing one of my own assignments. It’s the story of 4 generations of the Dawson family – all true facts! Zack Kline plays some nice fiddle on this one. We tracked the guitars, drums and bass live and I overdubbed the vocals, organ and fiddle, all at Kernel.

 10. Why Why Why
This song pounded on my head and made me get the guitar out and sing it even though I was in the middle of prepping for a client’s recording session. So in 10 minutes I “wrote” the song live as I recorded a demo, and that is basically the song as you hear it on the album. It is a fun song to sing and the recording was fun to make. Matt played drums live along with 2 guitars and bass and me screaming into the room and then he overdubbed a second drum part. Organ, lap steel, a second acoustic guitar and the vocals were overdubbed.

 11. Favorite Friend
When the band first started talking about making a new album in 2010 or so, we talked about having the songs be a sort of travelogue of our history together. This song contains some of the first lyrics I wrote with that in mind: “halfway home, halfway home,  past Roman walls and winding roads, I don’t know I don’t know but I am grateful for them all.” That was a memory of our first tour of England and driving back to London from Scotland after our last show, passing Hadrian’s wall. I carried that around for a while until the favorite friend bit showed. I found that they worked nicely together and so the song became something else. As time went on I began coming up with more songs that seemed to be about time passing, mortality and gratitude, and so the overall theme of the album changed. We recorded this at Scott Balletto’s I & M Studio near Joliet, IL. We sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor: me, Mike and Mark all playing acoustic guitars all all of us singing, while Matt played piano. No overdubs on this one.

 12. Thank You
Another song written in 2010 loosely based on our experiences traveling in the UK. We were quite struck with how people in shops or pubs say, “thank you,” with virtually no emotion as a response to almost anything – rendering it completely meaningless and insincere. I’m sure we Americans do the same thing, but hearing it with British accents struck us as really funny and we couldn’t stop saying it in response to pretty much everything.  It has come to be a great song to play live and it seemed a very nice, and sincere, way to close the album. Drums, bass, piano (me), and lap steel tracked live at I & M by Scott Balletto, with vocals, percussion and an electric guitar overdubbed at Kernel