Some artists are naturally loathe to discuss their work in microscopic detail, lest any telling trade secrets be revealed. Not perpetually-disheveled Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith. At the mere mention of the Los Angeles group’s slightly sinister new sixth set Passwords, he sings like a canary over every last nuance of the jonathan-Wilson-produced set, which opens on two dismal dirges—the Brontosaurus-stomping “Living in the Future” and the abject ode to apathy and ennui, “Stay Down.” And he holds nothing back.
“On one hand, it was important for me to start the record with those two tracks, since they were the bleakest of all he songs, and I felt like if the album were to end with either of those songs, we would have been sending a listener off in the wrong mood,” he explains. “And that’s a mood that we don’t believe in or subscribe to. Other more upbeat numbers like “Crack the Case” and “Time Flies Either Way” are a reaction to that attitude, so I was questioning certain things in life, of what it means to be alive at this moment in time.”
Elsewhere, he expands on these theories, like in “Feed the Fire,” wherein his need for stardom is the same flame that will eventually consume him, and on “I Can’t Love,” which—without cynicism—celebrates the new love he’s found with his fiancée, actress Mandy Moore. “And ‘Greatest Invention’ is a swan song to an image of a woman that never existed,” he says. “And the whole record is about where we’re living, how dark I might feel about it, and then finding some sort of purpose and some sort of meaning in a connection with just one person.”
A sweeping agenda for one meat-and-potatoes California rock recording. But Goldsmith simply seems to aim a few degrees higher than most of his peers.
Paste: You have to be congratulated on two specific things. The first being that you actually made it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro with your fiancée Mandy Moore this year, since it was the top of her lifelong bucket list.
Taylor Goldsmith: Yeah, and it’s funny, because that wasn’t really a dream of mine. I wasn’t a thrill seeker in that kind of way. I mean, I love the thrill of getting onstage and everything. But the idea of pushing my body to its limits was never a taste of mine. But in doing so, it really taught me a lot about the Earth itself. When we started it, when we were in Tanzania driving up o the mountain, she actually got emotional as we first saw the mountain. Tears came to her eyes, and it was a really big moment for her. And I couldn’t help thinking, “Why is that not happening to me? Do I have the wrong outlook? The wrong relationship with nature? Am I going to fucking die up here because I didn’t respect it enough, because I wasn’t humbled in that same way?” It was really funny, looking back. But as it went on, I learned to respect and appreciate and to be in awe of what was going on. To get to the top of that mountain, it was the first time I’ve ever felt that I’d actually achieved something I set out to do that was really fucking hard.
Paste: So what’s on your bucket list, then?
Goldsmith: Ha! I consider myself an open-minded person, relatively, and an ambitious person, relatively. But for me, it’s always been really creatively focused. I want to say maybe I’m selling myself short a little bit. But for me, the bucket list stuff is more like, I want to release a 20th album under the name Dawes. It’s always come back around to the music, and that’s cool, and I stand by that. But Kilimanjaro definitely taught me that there’s a little more to life.
Paste: The second thing you have to be congratulated on—and you probably instinctively understand what an incredible honor this is—is, Dawes just secured the opening slot for the upcoming tour with ELO. THE ELO.
Goldsmith: Ha! Yeah, it was insane to get that news. Our agent brought it up to me eventually, saying, “I wanted this for you guys,” because we heard it from our managers, but at that point it had already been in the works. And we didn’t know. It was like when we all heard The Replacements were going to do a tour—ELO wasn’t a thing. I mean, obviously they make great records, and their most recent record is incredible. But they hadn’t toured in 25, 30 years, so the idea of opening for them just wasn’t on our radar in terms of possibilities because they don’t tour. So it wasn’t even a thing to think about angling for. We’ve done a fair amount of opening slots. But this is actually the first tour where we have to go the day before for a full production rehearsal. The first show is August 2, and we have to go to Oakland August 1 to run the whole set changeover and everything, because supposedly their production is just next level, totally unfathomable. It feels like we’re opening for Roger Waters or somebody—it’s just massive.
Paste: Jeff Lynne is a fucking genius. Just for the ELO album Time alone, not to mention all the other incredible hits.
Goldsmith: Truly. And it’s funny—making Passwords, you know how it is with artists you’ve always loved. It’s like this rotating space. Like, for a while I’ve been rediscovering my deep love for Willie Nelson, then all of a sudden that finds its own way—in its own version—onto a record. Or you rediscover your love for the Stones—whatever it is. And with Passwords, that was very much the case with ELO. So it was really serendipitous almost that right after we finished this album we were offered that tour. And Time is incredible. It was written as a concept album, and you read interviews with Jeff Lynne from that period, and there’s a whole storyline that goes with it, like, “This is what my character goes through over the course of the record.”
Paste: Like Lynne, you’ve always seemed to understand what makes a great song tick.
Goldsmith: Thanks. It’s a weird moment to be writing tunes like that, because I feel like so much of music that works, or that is good—so much music that I love, like Drake, Kanye West, or Father John Misty—has a certain self-referential quality, a narrative specific to the artist themselves. And the diet that I came up on as a songwriter was where the artist kind of took a back seat. It wasn’t about furthering you own narrative, like, “What is going on in the life of Taylor Goldsmith and Dawes?” It’s more like, “I want that work to exist without that context.” How Thomas Pynchon was kind of upset that these authors were becoming rock stars, and he said, “I’m actually going to disappear. And sure, you guys can all come up with theories on who I am or where I am. But the work is going to have to exist without you saying that this must mean this in his life.” So for me, with these songs—and considering the world that we live in musically right now—there’s an old-fashioned nature to them. In the structure, I’m not talking about the way they sound. But they’re not concept records about my own specific relationships or battles within myself, if that makes any sense.
Paste: Like the old rule in journalism – never use the word ‘I.’
Goldsmith: Right. It’s like Hunter S. Thompson broke that rule, and that was okay. But now no one else gets to. If anyone were to go here, he sort of co-opted that world. So now if you’re going to make a name for yourself, you have to go back to that cardinal rule, like you said.
Paste: Music itself has so much power. You can put on The Beach Boys at 6 am, walking through San Francisco—or ELO’s Time—and it can change the whole mood of the day for the better.
Goldsmith: And it’s weird, because you can populate it. With whatever mood or story you need to. And those two examples are perfect. The Beach Boys and ELO—despite my deep, deep love for both of them, they’re not really filling in all the blanks, lyrically. It’s very broad, in terms of what they’re talking about, and then they make you do the work. And because the music is so beautiful and therefore so associative, it’s up to you to populate with whatever story you’re going through. And music does that in a way that other art can’t in that same way, because it’s so abstract. Along with fine art, it’s one of the only mediums where you’re actually removing language at a certain point. And obviously, there’s the lyrics, which have always been my favorite part and why I do what I do. But when there’s a proper harmony on an outro on a Beach Boys or ELO record, that creates an emotion that is inevitable and not something you can connect to a specific lyric. Or you can, but you always feel, “Why does that not feel like enough? Why does this emotion feel more complicated than that? Well, it’s because it’s music, and it creates a deeper, richer experience, and every time you pin it down into a sentence you get the feeling that you’re coming up short.