A Conversation With Dawn Tyler Watson
"Everyone's got to be different. You can't copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing."
― Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues
A 2020 Juno nominee for Blues Album of the Year (Mad Love), Dawn Tyler Watson is in constant touring motion. Each season Watson expands her base and territory. Not an overnight lift to the stars, but the hard slog – roadwork, recordings, songwriting, radio, networking, and flat out dedication. B.B. King, Willie Nelson, and Tony Bennett were built for travel and found solace in hotel rooms. I remember working with jazz drummer Roy McCurdy of Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson fame and the bag of comforts he displayed in his hotel room. The candles, the small trinkets, and bedside sculptures – things that connected with home. Still, it's about the challenge of performing at a level above. Here's that conversation.
Bill King: You've worked long and hard to get where you are. It's always about finding your place and voice within art. How comfortable are you with where you reside both musically and personally at this moment?
Dawn Tyler Watson: At this present movement, I'm ecstatic. I have the most fun, feeling the most centred and performing consistently at a level that appeases my drive for perfectionism. Not to say I'm perfect by any means, but I am way more accepting of my imperfections now than I've ever been in my music as well as in my personal life, and I think that has made me a more authentic artist.
B.K: Both Rita Chiarelli and Sue Foley carry a heavy schedule of touring and are career women. Do you feel a bond with these artists?
DT.W: I know both Rita and Sue personally and have admired both their carers for years. It always seemed to me that they were "doing it right" whatever "it" was. Up until recently, I felt like I was in the grips of those artistic maladies, the dreaded Imposter Syndrome. Winning the IBC in 2017 was a real affirmation for me. In November of 2016, three months to the day of the finals at the Orpheum, I underwent sudden and very unexpected open-heart surgery. It came out of the left field and smote me. To be so suddenly faced with your mortality gives one a pretty big wake up call. After being told that it would take three to six months before I could get back to work, three months to the day, we won that competition, beating out groups from Mississippi, Louisiana, Chicago, and Kansas City - bands that came up from the very breeding grounds of the blues. That was the end of the Imposter Syndrome for me. Today I am proud to call these women my contemporaries.
B.K: Am I correct in thinking you began by singing jazz standards?
DT.W: My first introduction to the blues was through jazz. I was accepted to the jazz program at Concordia University here in Montreal. Before that, I sang everything. My first band, an all-girl trio, was a mix of 80's pop and "old school" R & B. I grew up listening to top 40 radio and mimicked everything I heard. Jazz came later when I started at Concordia, but I fell in love immediately.
B.K: Where did you grow up, and what was homelife all about?
DT.W: I grew up in London, Ontario. My parents settled there after emigrating from England when I was four years old. We lived in an all-white neighbourhood, and I went to an all-white school, and although I don't remember feeling any direct racism at that time, I never felt comfortable in my skin. I never fit in. It was difficult at home, as well. My parents loved us but were raised with a "spare the rod spoil the child mentality," so there was a lot of discord. At first, it was fairy tales that I used to escape my feelings. Then music.
My parents listened to everything from Andy Williams and Barry Manilow to Gladys Knight and Diana Ross, on the record player. And we watched shows like Lawrence Welk and Soul Train on the T.V. every week. My older brother listened to Supertramp and Styx and formed a rock band in high school. He taught me how to play a few chords on the guitar when I was around thirteen, and I was drawn to Kenny Rogers and John Denver. But I listened to whatever was played on the top 40 radio stations in the '70s. As I said, I was like a sponge, I'm mimicking everything I heard, and I loved it all.
B.K: Do you remember the first recording that caught your ears? Was there a song you sang along too?
DT.W: Man, there were so many! But I remember singing the crap out of The Way We Were by Barbra Streisand and The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia by Reba McEntire. I also knew the entire soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar by heart and could mimic all the voices.
B.K: Ten Dollar Dress was your debut. Do you ever pop it on and have a listen? If so, what do you hear now in your recordings that differ from the debut?
DT.W: Funny, you should ask that. I recently had a moment to listen to a couple of tracks off that record! And you know I feel that "jawbreaker!" And Mad Love is a continuum of that album. It's great to be playing mostly original music again. The two albums I did with Paul Deslauriers in between had a couple of originals each, but as you know, our thing was to refresh cover tunes and make them our own - though creative and original, we were still making other peoples music for the most part.
For me, songwriting is another area where in the past, I feel that I fall short, so winning Songwriter of the Year at this year's Maple Blues Awards was super affirming. I feel like winning that was a real acknowledgment that what I have to say is valid and vital. It feels good.
I also notice that my voice, although older, has more power to it. I think I sing with more conviction on this last album than I ever have before. I had a renewed confidence that came from winning the IBC, and I feel that this is apparent. However, this last album is also the most personal record I've done to date. It came through a lot of heartbreak and emotional turmoil, and I think that that shines through as well.
B.K: How much time have you spent studying the giants –Sarah, Ella, Etta, their stage presence – the subtle moves and expressions?
DT.W: I listened a lot to Billie, Sarah, and Ella when I hit university. Again, I copied their approach, but around that time, I began to internalize it, and I think that's when I started to develop my sound. I wouldn't say that I studied their moves or expressions as much as their phrasing and dynamics. But to this day, when I hear something that pops out at me, I will pause, rewind, and play it again. Then I'll learn and try to copy it. I guess, as they say, mimicry is the highest form of compliment. Once I learn it, then I internalize it and transform it to make it my own.
B.K: Acting has played a considerable part in your stage confidence and awareness. What have you gained from that experience?
DT.W: Absolutely, the tools I learned in the theatre have helped my stage presence tremendously, in my confidence and spatial awareness, and working as a team on stage. We are all there to serve the music, not our egos. At some point, just after I graduated in '94, I, unfortunately, had to give up acting, as it became more demanding. My agent at the time wanted new headshots and a studio recording for voice overwork. I was just too focused on singing by that time. I had formed another band, and I was singing in an acapella gospel quartet. I was gigging more regularly, and I loved it. I did get a call to do a feature film some years after that, though, which I did, but the part wasn't too much of a stretch; I played a singer back in the heyday of Montreal's booming jazz scene. The film did well, as did the soundtrack I was featured on. For the most part, I made a decision back then to put my efforts into music instead of acting. I always felt I had more of a natural talent for singing anyway.
B.K: Are you a film freak? What would hold your attention?
DT.W: I love movies; I wish I had more time to watch them! When I do watch something these days, it must be sensational. Visually stimulating. Lots of special effects and stuff. Like Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, LOTR, I love flicks like that!
B.K: How did the transition to blues artist begin?
DT.W: Here, we go…it's an exciting story. I always say that "the blues" chose me. There I was doing my own thing, back in about '97, mostly soul at that time - funk and old school RnB, when a friend of mine brought someone down to the club to see my show. They had a small record label out in the West Island and were looking for another female singer to do a couple of tunes on a compilation they were putting together. I wrote two songs for the session, and to my surprise, they loved them. After its release, we did a few showcases.
The studio band on that session went on to become the Dawn Tyler Blues Project and the following summer we found ourselves at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on the Blues Stage in front of 10,000 screaming fans, and I said to myself "Well, I guess I'm a blues singer now." And that was it. Since then, I've never looked back. Although I still sing jazz and I even have a soul/funk band, the meat and potatoes of my career are the blues.
B.K: How did you find the reception?
DT.W: From that moment on, we started touring. I began being nominated for awards and started touring overseas. In 2001, I released Ten Dollar Dress. As eclectic as that album was and the fans loved it and nominated for Album & Producer of the Year that year at the MBAs, I got the message that my songs were not "blues" enough - I had to do an album that would establish me in the genre. All my influences were there - funk, rock, jazz, soul, even folk. People liked it and found it refreshing. Someone came up to me the other night at a gig and had the CD in her hand and asked me to sign it - saying that she still plays one of the tracks almost every day! That's cool.
B.K: How did you create a sound and dynamic personality and chart a course of action and build from there?
DTW: I started developing my stage presence by busking on the street and in the metros. I would use the fact that I had a big voice to direct the energy out to the people passing by. It was a game to me to try to get them to look up or better yet, to stop and listen (and, of course, to drop some money in my open guitar case!). The studio has always been a scary place for me. I love singing in front of real live people. I long to connect, to exchange energy, to "feel" something. In the studio, you pick everything apart and search for perfection.
On stage, I practice letting go, and radical surrender to the present moment. Whether I make a mistake, or I slay it, it's gone. I can't ever recapture that moment -it all melts into the experience and what I share with the audience and they with me.
B.K: How many tour dates do you plan each season?
DT.W: As many as possible! I have no ties at home, no man, no kids, just my fur baby, and my inner child, and I can bring both of those on the road with me! LOL! So yeah, I do tour as much as I can. It's the best way to travel and experience different cultures. Just in the last year, I've been to Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Sweden, France, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the usual Canadian and U.S. dates. I consider myself very blessed.
B.K: The awards have just begun – Maple Blues, Juno nominations, Blues Music Awards. Nothing comes easy, yet when your peers recognize the hard work - authenticity and artistry – there's a certain feeling of both gratitude and satisfaction. Do you sense a change in your life?
DT.W: Yes, for sure. I feel like the older I'm getting, the more authentic I'm becoming, and I am thrilled to bits that people are feeling it. I don't know about the beginning; it's been a crazy year for awards and nominations! But I feel that the universe is putting all the right elements in my path. Working with the Ben Racine Band has been the most significant part of that.
This group of talented young men came into my life in about 2014 after the acoustic shows I had been doing with Paul had begun to trickle down. Their talent and commitment were precisely what I needed. They were already a sturdy unit with their sound and an impeccable work ethic - not only professional but supportive, and under the direction of the then bandleader, Frankie Thiffault.
We produced two albums together. Frankie made me feel secure. He was able to take me by the hand and lead but mostly drag me through the studio process that I had hitherto been so reluctant about. He made it seem attainable and straightforward, and the proof is in the pudding! The studio experience was so much fun! My brain didn't turn to mush, and nothing terrible happened. My recording fears are squelched. Now I'm looking forward to the next record!
B.K: The history of working black women on the road is one of severe hardship, conflict, poor pay, and short-lived careers. You live in a different era, yet you must feel a kinship with the women behind you.
DT.W: I feel a huge debt of gratitude to the female forerunners of the Blues. They indeed suffered. And still to this day we deal with sexism and ageism in the industry. But I do believe that things are changing. Slowly, but surely - change is going to come.
B.K: If you could pick three women from the past to sit around a table, befriend and quiz – who would they be and what would you ask each of them?
DT.W: Josephine Baker, Whitney Huston & Maya Angelou…I am not sure what I'd ask, but I know it would be a hell of a conversation!
B.K: What's a great day?
DT.W: Any day that I wake up breathing is a good one! It's a gift to be alive. And any day that I get to sing, whether on a big festival stage to thousands of people or in a senior's residence to a handful, is the best kind of day. What can I say? I love my job.
B.K: What's playing in the background?
DT.W: Right now? I have a fire on, and its just peace here at home on a rare Saturday night off. During the day, I listen mostly to CBC Radio, but when it comes to music - I'll put on anyone from Dinah Washington to Missy Elliot, to Luther Vandross, Gregory Porter, and Kurt Elling to Etta James and beyond. Sometimes I'll listen to some contemporary gospel. And this afternoon, I put on an "old-school" Hip-Hop playlist and started dancing around my condo! I like to mix it up.
B.K: What's summer touring shaping up to be?
DT.W: I believe we have some great shows and runs planned - Gaspésie, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden. Plus, this year, we are going to play the Chicago Blues Festival, which is a real treat as well. Most times, I only know what's going on in the immediate future. I leave all the details up to Nicky Estor, our full-time drummer and part-time road manager, among other things. Just point me in the direction of the mic and let me sing. That's all I ever want to have to worry about.
B.K: Any thoughts on the Junos?
DT.W: I am just super excited to be there! No matter what happens! To be representing the band, and my producer Frankie Thiffault, as well as "ma belle Ville de Montréal" is a massive sense of pride for me. It's going to be a great week!