photo by Alex Solmssen
While working as an intern at a New York recording studio years ago, Dawn Landes started committing her own songs to tape, out of curiosity more than anything else. She must’ve liked what she heard, because that tiny mustard seed has since flowered into three studio albums. On her most recent effort, Sweet Heart Rodeo, the Louisville native delivers a collection of acoustic pop gems, charged with the imagery of the open road. American Songwriter chatted with the Brooklyn-based artist about the new album, her upcoming tour and the studio she built with her own two hands.
You’ve got a tour coming up with Justin Townes Earle. How did the two of you get hooked up?
I’ve played a few festivals with Justin and seen him around a little. We’ve got the same booking agent in the States, so I’m pretty sure that’s how that happened, but I like his music so it’s gonna be a fun tour.
You recently built your own studio in Brooklyn called Saltlands. When did you get the idea to do that, and do you have your sights set on producing?
Well, I’ve been working in studios now for about nine years and it’s always been at the back of my mind to have my own space. Saltlands is a true collective though, with myself and some great producers and engineers like Gary Maurer (from Hem) and Steve Salett (King of France). We built the studio initially because Steve and I collaborated on a movie soundtrack together (Familiar Strangers– you can find it on Netflix) and I’ve produced a bunch of artists there in the last two years …. Andrew Vladeck from The Honey Brothers, Balthrop Alabama, The Bandana Splits, Poison Tree, mostly New York-based bands that I love.
You’ve been a part time member of the Brooklyn band Hem. How big a role did that experience play in your musical education?
Oh, huge! Not only was Gary Maurer a mentor in the engineering realm, but I learned so much from all the band, touring with them and getting to know them as crazy geniuses. Dan Messe turned me on to so much music –Burt Bacharach, Carole King. And Steve and Gary schooled me in the country department… Doc Watson and The Carter Family. I discovered so much music from these guys. Like Dylan and Dave Van Ronk, Vol 1.
You’ve had a number of songs placed in film and TV, most recently the song “Straight Lines” which was featured in a Chrysler commercial. Have you seen a sizeable spike in your fan base from the spots?
Hmm, I don’t know! I’m always amazed that anyone comes to my shows. It’s really a mystery to me how people find out about my stuff. I’d definitely say that a few people have requested songs that have been on TV more than other songs, if that’s what you mean.
Where did this rodeo motif come from for the new album? Were you a cowgirl in another life?
I wish I was a cowgirl in this life! No, I was always around country music, mostly in Branson, Missouri, and Louisville when I was growing up…but never a true cowgirl, no. I did go to at least a few rodeos though back then, and they always stuck with me. Also, the title song on this record “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is a true story about my great-grandfather who left my family to go join the rodeo. So there’s always been this mystique around the rodeo for me. A love-hate thing I guess.
When did you first start writing songs? And who are some of your songwriting heroes?
I started writing songs as soon as my dad taught me to press “REC” on his hand-held tape recorder when I was seven years old. I played music in school and always sang in the choir… played in bands in high school, all that stuff…. My real heroes are writers that pack a punch, give me images I can use for years at a time and a melody I can sing forever…. Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Carole King, Woody Guthrie, Wilco…. there are too many to name!
Do you ever write with husband Josh Ritter?
Not officially, no, although we have quite a repertoire of silly songs in the works, a la Really Rosie.