When the Los Angeles band Dawes hit the road for their first headlining tour, they got accustomed to a certain response along the way, from truckers at diners to kids at shows. “Oh, you're from L.A.? That's too bad.”
“I think they associate L.A. with Beverly Hills and this rich and snotty community they see in all the tabloids,” explains 24-year-old frontman Taylor Goldsmith, who grew up in Malibu. “It's definitely not the case. If you want to get to the good parts of L.A., you can find them, but people who have never been there just assume that it's something you'd find on The Hills.”
Dawes, a foursome that includes Goldsmith's younger brother Griffin, hails from a more bohemian Los Angeles, a place of sun-dappled canyons and cliffs perched above the cobalt sea, where artists and their muses have lived and loved for decades. For Goldsmith, there's still something alluring about L.A., even if the Heidis and Spencers tend to hog the spotlight.
“Whenever I'm in Topanga Canyon, I definitely feel like it's magical,” he says. “Even in Malibu. Even in Laurel Canyon. There are a lot of special, untapped places.”
In the '60s, Laurel Canyon was a bastion of counterculture and home base to The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell. It's pretty gentrified now—more Hollywood than hippie—but producer Jonathan Wilson has revitalized the “canyon folk” scene in recent years at his Laurel Canyon studio. He offered to record Dawes' debut album, North Hills, before he'd even heard their music.
“We met him through friends,” Goldsmith says. “Other people had told him we were up his alley.”
That alley is dusty California folk-rock, a lot like that of the '60s canyon dwellers. The twangy, mid-tempo North Hills sounds like you're curled up on a sofa at one of Wilson's legendary Wednesday-night jam sessions, where Goldsmith says he rubbed shoulders with everyone from Benmont Tench, a founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to younger L.A. guns such as Jenny Lewis and Conor Oberst. (“Some of the best nights ever,” Goldsmith sighs.) The living-room vibe is exactly what Dawes wanted.
“We recorded everything live,” Goldsmith says. “So much of our playing is in response to what the other guy is doing. We know when to give a little and when to pull back a little, depending on what everyone else is playing. There's a bigger ebb and flow to the performance that's dictated by all four of us.”
The band's comfort with performing live might have to do with a lucky break. Not long after Goldsmith formed Dawes in 2008, former San Diegans Delta Spirit invited them on the road.
“They didn't have a lot of money to kick our way, just 'cause it was their first headlining tour, from what I understand. We were willing to go and lose money if we had to—we didn't have a label, we didn't have a manager, we didn't have anything, really. We figured that we had to do it. That tour was what set everything up for us. Only good things came from it.”
Before Dawes, Goldsmith briefly fronted the post-punk band Simon Dawes. The Dawes moniker comes from his grandfather, a feisty fiddlin' Okie named Dawes Lafayette Goldsmith. The Goldsmith brothers basically were born to play. Their father is a former lead singer for the funk band Tower of Power.
“He raised us on funk and R&B, and I listened to that for a long time because of him. He also introduced us to all the Beatles records, but he never got into folk music or country music.”
Goldsmith says he only started exploring new musical territory a few years ago. Has his developing taste influenced his brother's? “I like to think so, but he definitely influences mine, too. It's a lot of back and forth.”
As for his own songwriting, Goldsmith says he turned not to his favorite lyricists, who tend to be skilled storytellers, but to his own life.
“I can't write without it being autobiographical,” he says. “I don't know if I have enough experience or have enough of a handle on other situations. I feel a little phony whenever I [try to do otherwise].”
Perhaps the most telling lines come from the track “When My Time Comes”:
“And now the only piece of advice that continues to help: / Is anyone that's making anything new only breaks something else.”
“I meant that with music or whatever someone chooses to do with their life, they're constantly trying to break the mold, or reset the standard for how to do something,” Goldsmith says.
A big goal for such a young guy. But, then again, he's wanted to be a musician his whole life.
“Since I was a kid, nothing else ever crossed my mind,” Goldsmith laughs. “It was too late!”
Dawes plays with Jason Boesel and Cory Chisel & The Wandering Sons on Wednesday, March 10, at The Loft. www.myspace.com/dawestheband.