Give It Up for Dawes: Taylor Goldsmith on the Record

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Give It Up for Dawes: Taylor Goldsmith on the Record

Taylor Goldsmith admits that he’s been pretty lucky during the current stultifying Pandemic lockdown, all things considered. He and his wife of nearly two years, actress/musician Mandy Moore, get along great and didn’t mind spending so much time together in their native Los Angeles, and they’re actually expecting their first child, a son, in early 2021. They often co-write together, as on the missus’ new Silver Landings comeback, her first album in 11 years, and Goldsmith, 35, has spent the rest of his free time perfecting the Dave-Cobb-produced Good Luck With Whatever, the seventh effort from his folk-rock quartet Dawes, and its first for legendary imprint Rounder.

Moore’s spring tour was canceled, as was his, he adds. “So I look forward to concerts coming back, but sometimes I feel like it’s around the corner, and other times I feel like it’s three years away, and anybody who says they know for certain one way or the other is lying to you.”

So for his extracurricular viewing and listening entertainment, he’s been consciously steering clear of anything that reminds him of the COVID-19 existential crisis. “If it’s something that’s going to drag me through the dirt, I just can’t do it,” proclaims the singer, 35, who put thoughtful, cheerful topspins on Band-retro new Dawes tracks like “”Still Feel Like a Kid,” “Free As We Wanna Be,” “Between the Zero and the One,” and the childhood reminiscence “St. Augustine at Night.”

“Whereas if you’re going to uplift me and make me feel like there’s a reason to move forward, I find myself going back to those records—like the new Killers album Imploding the Mirage—over and over again. I just can’t stop listening to it, because it makes me feel hopeful, strong, and positive.”

His followers will probably soon be viewing the charming, disarming, yet subtly cynical “Good Luck” in the same optimistic light. “Although obviously, our universe is much smaller than the Killers’,” he sighs, self-deprecating to a fault. “As with all our records, some people may hate it, some people won’t, but it’s fun thinking that if we just stay the course and keep doing what we do, like The Killers did, we’ll get to a point where even the haters will be like, ‘You know what? We’ve really got to give it up for these guys!’”

Paste: Speaking of The Killers, you actually co-wrote some material with Brandon Flowers, right?

Taylor Goldsmith: Yeah. There’s a B-side song on his album The Desired Effect called “Desired Effect.” Then the other song was “Never Get You Right,” which was really cool the way it got written. I was on tour with Conor Oberst—we were Conor’s backing band—and I was texting back and forth with Brandon, who needed lyrics for a song, so we were trying to write something remotely. But then Conor and I just sat down and wrote this batch of lyrics and sent it over to Brandon, and he said, “It’s not the right thing for this song, but I really like ’em.” So he took those lyrics, embellished them, and wrote “Never Get You Right,” a whole new song just from those words. So it was really fascinating, and just a testament to the good technician that Brandon is. He knows how to see a song in ways that most people can’t.

Paste: But one of your cuts, “Memorized” from NBC’s This is Us, just got nominated for an Emmy Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. Was it an actual assignment?

Goldsmith: That was an assignment—that started from zero. And it was a trip to do, because Dawes isn’t a “hit” band, you know? We’re very aware of our own particular lane. But the mission was to write a fake hit song, something that the audience would perceive as an arena-sized hit, because that’s how this artist is portrayed. So I was like, “Wow. I’ve gotta try to go for something I’ve never written! And I have to make it believable.” People have to hear it and intuit as, “Oh, I can see that being a hit.” So Sid, the guy that scores This is Us wrote the music, and sent it over to me, and I came up with a draft, and the chorus with the title was there from the beginning. So then we just started chipping away at it, until it made sense for me and Sid and the creators of the show. And it was a blast—up until recently, I’d never done anything outside of just writing songs about my feelings, for Dawes. So to be asked to do that, I was like, “I don’t know how to do this, I’ve never done it before, but I’ll give it a try.” And it ended up being so satisfying, now I want to do more. All the time! And I was so blown away when we were nominated, because I just didn’t think that was a possibility.

Paste: With this album, you’re tapping into The Band, circa “The Weight.”

Goldsmith: They have always been this guiding light for us. And early on, frankly, it was a little egregious. With our first record—like a lot of people’s first records—I was like, “I don’t know how to do anything other than honor my heroes and hope that some personality comes through.” You listen to early Dylan, and it feels like Woody. You listen to early Springsteen and it sounds like Dylan, and early Tom Petty sounds like The Byrds. And I think that that’s a beautiful time in any artist’s career. So when I listen to our first record, it feels like “How do we sing The Band songs, because we really just love The Band?” And then as time goes on, you try and get away from it, and you hope that your personality, your singularity, your idiosyncrasies, just find their way through, no matter what.

So for us, as time has gone on, I’ve always been like, “You know, I have no control over this, because you don’t get to invent your own signature, you don’t get to invent your own fingerprint.” It’s a synthesis, and it just happens on its own. And with every record that we make, we’re tuning the focus a little more and making it that much clearer who we are and how we’re separate from everything else. So while The Band were this very obvious influence, initially, they’ve still always been a beacon for us. Especially in these times, where you don’t see groups like that, mainly because they celebrated their personality. Nobody in that band is the best at what they do, and yet when they’re together, there’s something in their DNA that can only happen when those five guys are playing together. That’s the same way I feel about the dead, the same way I feel about the Stones. So we’ve always wanted to make sure that came across — with our band. I really want you to feel Griffin (Goldsmith, his drumming brother). I want you to feel Wylie (Gelber, bassist) and Lee (Pardini, keyboardist)and myself. And I don’t feel like I’m the greatest guitar player, not even close. But I do feel like I have a better sense of reading—and reacting to—Griffin and Wylie and Lee, and them to me, than anybody else possibly could.

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Paste: Which is interesting because the bass rides herd on “None of My Business,” but with “Didn’t Fix Me,” “Still Feel Like a Kid,” and the title track, you let the keyboards control everything..

Goldsmith: Yeah. And a lot of that is just the mix. When we were doing “Didn’t Fix Me,” that is largely a guitar riff. And the way that Dave Cobb found the mix that he was looking for, the keyboards were kind of out front. I still hear it as a shared riff between the two of them, but I also know that I’m way too close to it to have any kind of objectivity, because I was in the room when it was made. But I love that — it’s giving a personality to this record that maybe our other ones don’t have, with shifting roles. And Dave really has this incredible sense of catching a spirit, catching a ghost, because we never got past a second or third take—Dave recognizes how precious that is. It was very live-oriented, and he didn’t give you an opportunity to overthink, and that forced us to live with a moment of inspiration or a moment of innovation, when it’s very easy in 2019, when we recorded it, when the studio can do anything. We just kept moving on, and at the end of two weeks, when we listened back to it, everything had an urgency, everything had this little light on. And that’s how it felt. Obviously, it doesn’t sound anything like “Highway 61,” but when you listen to “Highway 61,” you can hear them thinking on their feet.

Paste: There’s a new believability factor at work, too. Like Springsteen’s “My Hometown,” “St. Augustine” had me believing that you were actually born in Florida, and I had to double-check that you actually hail from California, as I’d thought.

Goldsmith: That’s cool to hear. And that’s the whole question — how do you land on something that feels real, whatever that means? How do you do it? With a turn of phrase, a certain reference? But I chose “St. Augustine” because we had family there, and whenever we were on tour and had a show in, or near, St. Augustine, we would ask our agent for a day off so we could all hang out and go fishing or whatever. So this song is a composite—it’s not about one person in particular, but it’s based on my experiences there, and based on my conversations with family, and just seeing how that town is, how everything is interlocked and everyone knows everyone. So it’s about St. Augustine in name and references, but I’m hoping it will be relatable to anybody that has a home town. Which is everyone.

And I love that Springsteen song. It’s about what it means to watch your life go by and reconcile yourself with that, and the pride that you take in where you come from, in recognizing that this put a stamp on me that I cherish. And that’s how I identify myself. But there was that aspect of a little bit of research involved, which is a new thing for me. But I find that a lot of the novelists that I love do a lot of that, like Thomas Pynchon. And he was a big part of this album for me—I wrote songs like “Good Luck With Whatever” and “Between the Zero and the One” right after reading “Gravity’s Rainbow.” That book loomed large. But in songs like “Zero,” where I mention the Tarot, I had to look shit up, because I didn’t know how the Tarot works. And I needed to, to write that verse, to put it over the top of believability. So I actually bought a Tarot deck and studied it to find out what card means what.

Paste: There’s also a recurring them on the record of mankind’s enslavement to his own fast-moving technology, a la the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.

Goldsmith: And with “Free As We Wanna Be,” it’s funny, because when I watched “The Social Dilemma,” I thought, “This song is about that movie, exactly.” Like “If I don’t look up from the mirror in my hands, I’m gonna miss what’s on TV”—it’s meant as a joke, but I think it’s something we’ve all experienced. You wonder if you should put your phone down, and then you do. But you just plop in front of the TV instead—we’re addicted to something to such an extent that we’re not willing to acknowledge it, because it’s terrifying. I don’t wanna be the guy that simply dismisses it as evil. It’s like alcohol — if you can exercise a little discipline, then sure, it’s great to see that so-and-so just had a baby, or it’s great to see what my wife’s day looks like when she’s at work and I’m at home. That’s nice. But that discipline that I’m talking about is not something that I see practiced by many people, myself included. So we don’t treat that world with the respect that it needs so it won’t keep zapping our brain. So I’m still learning how to draw my own lines, and I’m not really encouraged by my results so far. And “Free As We Wanna Be” is about our complicity.

Paste: The only thing missing from your album title is the word ‘dude,’ as in “Good Luck With Whatever Dude.” It just feels like a big shrug, as humanity hurtles toward its own extinction.

Goldsmith: That song is all paranoia. “There’s a man with a chainsaw standing out in my yard.” And it’s trying to be funny, like it could be my gardener, or it could be Leatherface. Or you see a car parked across the street, and you populate it with your own details to make that story as horrific as you want. And that’s something that we all do, and it’s the basis of the conspiracy theorist in all of us. But with that song, it kind of hinges on that last line, how “All of my biggest fears are the ones that never come true.”

For me, even during COVID-19, even during this election, like I was telling some fiends of mine, “I am the worst fortune teller that you have ever met. Everything that I decide to be scared of, and every way that I interpret a situation — like “Oh, my God—this could happen!”—you could pretty much take that to Vegas as insurance that it won’t. Because everything that I get concerned about is just not the way that things unfold. And I think we’re all really bad fortune tellers. If you told all of us two years ago that COVID’s on its way, and these are the general points of what it’s going to be, I think we’d all tell the worst version of that story imaginable. So while what we’re dealing with is needless and sad and horrific and scary in a lot of ways, we’re also cracking jokes, we’re also seeing family, and we’re also singing songs. And that’s a weird thing to say. But it’s also just what human beings do.

Watch a full Dawes concert from 2013 via the Paste archives:

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