Behind the Scenes at Black Hen - An interview with Steve Dawson part 1

By Douglas Heselgrave

Without intending to, Vancouver musician, producer, and label owner has carved out a roots music empire for himself.

I recently caught up with Steve Dawson at his home studio in East Vancouver during a rare moment of calm between recording, producing and live gigs. An unintentional workaholic, Dawson never lets any grass grow under his feet as even on a ‘day off’, he’s agreed to meet me before helping a friend remix a few songs in the afternoon. Dawson has operated his own Black Hen Record label since 1995, and has since released over thirty albums under its imprint. Since its inception, Black Hen artists have won over 20 music awards including 5 Junos (Canada’s Grammy) in various categories. Black Hen recently released ‘Things About Comin’ My Way’ a tribute to the seminal depression era blues band, The Mississippi Sheiks. The roster of international artists - such as Bruce Cockburn, Bill Frisell, John Hammond, The North Mississippi Allstars and Van Dyke Parks - who contributed tracks have made this the highest profile CD in the label’s history. As I got together with Steve, he was busy planning a live celebration of the Mississippi Sheiks tribute with many of the artists from the album scheduled to meet and perform during the upcoming 2010 cultural Olympiad. As I sat down with Dawson, he seemed collected and unfazed in the centre of all the mayhem.

DH: As if you weren’t busy enough, the Olympics are coming and the government has organized a cultural Olympiad to complement all of the athletic events. Are you very involved with this?

SD: I have fifteen Olympics gigs, but I thought I would be playing every day in February. So, I won’t be as busy as I thought. I’ll be playing a few of my own gigs, a few with the Sojourners and a couple with Jim Byrnes.

DH: And, that’s not busy!

SD: I like to play. I guess my main focus is the upcoming Mississippi Sheiks show at Capilano University. The Vancouver Olympic Committee is footing the bill for it and that’s great. There’s no way we could do a show like that otherwise. They looked at my album and kept saying ‘book that guy’ and I’d book them. They kept coming back saying ‘do it, do it, do it’ So, I guess they have a huge budget and they want to make it happen.

DH: So, you’re bringing a lot of the artists who played on the album?

SD: Yes, quite a few of them are coming. But we have had to go outside of the roster that’s on the record mostly for scheduling reasons. So, we’ve got Alvin Youngblood Hart and Dave Alvin coming who aren’t on the record. They’re kindred spirits and should fit in. Dave Alvin was going to be in the area and he’s a real fan of Bo Carter – one of the original Sheiks. He’s not going to be filling in covering someone else’s performance on the CD. It’s up to him to play whatever he wants, so I think he’ll do a few Bo Carter songs. Other artists like Bruce Cockburn probably could’ve come, but we didn’t have enough money to bring him all the way here to perform just a couple of tunes. We’ll only have time for a day of rehearsals, so who knows what’ll come up. It’s going to be fun.

DH: So, of your thirty or so recordings, is this the one that’s garnered the most attention?

SD: Yeah, I would say this is my biggest project. It’s largely due to the caliber of artists on it, many of whom are internationally known. That’s helped the cause for sure.

DH: Are there any other tributes to the Sheiks out there, or are you the first to put one together?

SD: I’m not aware of any other Sheiks tributes. Rory Gallagher recorded a song called the Mississippi Sheiks in the seventies, and that was sort of a tribute in one regard. But, that’s the only thing I know about as far as an actual nod to those guys.

DH: How did you first come into contact with their music? Did you hear the Sheiks first or say Bob Dylan doing the Sheiks?

SD: I heard Bob Dylan singing doing the Sheiks first on that ‘World Gone Wrong’ record. He does ‘Blood in Your Eyes for you’ and ‘World Gone.’ Wrong. It was the liner notes on that album that were so interesting. The songs were great and his versions are really interesting. They’re definitely not knock off versions of those tunes, so he was obviously getting inside those songs. He writes about them in a very interesting way in the liner notes. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it wasn’t historical in terms of who they were. It was more impressionistic - sort of like his radio show. It was cryptic enough to pique my curiosity and I looked them up. I collect 78’s so I was on the lookout and came across some recordings of theirs. I had the original records - which is actually a great way to listen to their music. It really changes how you hear them. That era of recording - when you listen to the original 78s, there’s a physical sense of the music that you get that you don’t get when you hear an MP3 or a CD. It’s hard to describe, but you really get inside the music and feel how the group must have sounded.

Steve Dawson mixing ‘Honey Babe’ with Bruce Cockburn

DH: You just mentioned something that I wanted to ask you about. The sound you create on your recordings is really unique. To my ears, it hearkens back to the nineteen forties or fifties where you can feel the depth and placement of where each instrument is within a recording. It goes back to a Chess Records kind of sonic vibe where they’re recording live with all the musicians in the room. I think T Bone Burnett tries to do it, but to me he still sounds a little synthetic or artificial at a subtle level. It’s that real physicality you find that I don’t hear anywhere else. Can you say a little bit about your recording process and how you go about getting that sound – if it’s something at all conscious?

SD: It’s totally something I’m trying to get. Chess records are a great example of the kind of space I’m trying to create sonically. I’m not saying you can’t make great music other ways, but you can’t make anything that sounds better than those records. For so many reasons. Aside from the fact that there were great artists working for Chess, there’s just something magical about those records. Whether it was the studio or the technique, they had a sound that was amazing. The other record that I really hold in the highest regard that way is Mingus Au Um by Charles Mingus. I don’t even know what year that was recorded – either the early sixties or late fifties. To me, that’s the ultimate record in terms of where you can picture the band playing. Everything has this placement that was done very carefully, yet it still sounds very crazed and improvised.

DH. If I close my eyes listening to these records, I can picture where each musician is standing in the room.

SD: Those records definitely influenced the way I record and I strive for that kind of sound – sometimes. At other times, a completely different approach is needed.

DH: So, not to get too technical, but how do you get that sound?

SD: It’s a number of things. I tend to usually work out of the same room that I know very well and with the same engineer. He knows what I like and it’s a big room. It used to be the B room of Little Mountain Sound that Bon Jovi and Motley Crue used in the eighties. So, I tend to do a lot of the main tracking of the records I do there. It has huge ceilings and the size of the room really lets you play with space. I set up mikes all around the room so that things are getting captured that display the depth of the space we’re playing in.

DH: So do you put a microphone in unconventional places?

SD: Yeah, I don’t have a set way of doing it. I have preferences, but time is always an issue because I have always worked with budgets that are tight. I’ve never had the luxury of working with a big budget where you could set up everything differently for each song. I just kind of set something up in general for the entire project, and it doesn’t change much from there. But, within that setup there’s a lot of variety. For example, the miking of drums, I do it pretty minimally, but within my setup I’ve got three different configurations in mind. So, for one song, I’ll do a two mike setup and for another I might want a more standard four mike setup. They’re all there and I just have to shift it around and give myself options at the time of setup. That’s out of necessity It’s just to accommodate the time. Another big part of my sound is that the studio has great old vintage gear. I tend to use ribbon microphones

DH: What do you get out of them that’s so appealing?

SD: Ribbon mics are a different concept and they tend to be very realistic. They tend to be a little darker than modern condenser microphones. Condensers are very accurate and close sounding, but they sound hyper modern. I use them mostly on vocals. For instruments - almost all of the guitars I use ribbon mikes. What happens with them is that when you point them, a ribbon picks up as much from the back as it does from the front. It’s bi-directional, so with that in mind you can set one mike up facing against a wall to capture bouncing sounds and resonating ambience. I love what I get out of that. It’s a good way to separate the sound and not pick up the drums. But, overall the setups I do are pretty minimal. I like to keep things fairly simple. The room’s size encourages a big part of the way I work. It accommodates people being in that room and playing together. The drummer, the bass player and me are always in there at the same time. It creates a certain chemistry. Depending on what artist I’m working with at the time, sometimes the artist is in there with us. Sometimes, they’re not

DH: Is that a question of their preference?

SD: It has to be a comfort thing for them. It can be intimidating. Most people are used to working in an environment where you can go back and fix things and tweak them if it’s not happening. But, my approach this takes that out. If we’re playing a song and the artist is in the room, his or her vocals and guitars are going to be in our mikes as well. You can’t go back. That’s it! That’s the way records were made originally. That’s not a huge leap or anything. In fact, it’s going back a few steps.

DH: Yeah, I was just reading about Elvis doing more than fifty takes of ‘Hound Dog’ to get it right. They always had to go back and start from the beginning.

SD: Yeah, well it depends on if the artist is in the room or not. Sometimes we put them in a different room so we can isolate them and work on getting a great live band track. And, then I can work with the artist to get his or her own stuff separately. It’s actually a nice thing to be able to do - although when it really works and the artist is in the room you can’t beat that. You have to learn to live with mistakes and squeaky bits and weird chords.

DH: How do artists feel about the squeaky bits?

SD: It depends on who I’m working with. Generally when they buy into that concept it works really well.

DH: For me, the project I can hear that represents your highest point with this type of sound is the new Sojourners record. It sounds totally live and like the band is really ripping into some high end jamming. You just can’t get that any other way!

SD: That was done with all of the band live playing in the same room. The finished vocals were all overdubs. There were no live vocals. With the Sojourners, you don’t have to worry about getting one great vocal take, you have to work on getting three great vocal takes at once.

DH: That’s a lot of variables.

SD: We had so little time for that album, so I just said, ‘screw it, let’s not worry about the vocals.’ Let’s worry about them at my place and do the vocals there. I’ve got good mikes at my home studio and you can make that gospel sound work in a small studio. Drums get a little sketchy here, but vocals are fine. So, that’s what we did with the most recent Sojourners album. We had them sitting in a studio and had them sing softly through, just so we could keep track of where we were. It worked beautifully for that kind of project. And I think the results speak for themselves.

The Sojourners 2010 - serious old school Gospel on Black Hen

The second part of ND's interview with Steve Dawson will run very soon.

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Tags: Black, Dawson, Hen, Heselgrave, Mississippi, Sheiks, Sojourners

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.