Dolly Varden – Love will keep us together
“The time away made us realize how valuable it is to have people who you can play with on this level, where you don’t really talk about it and discuss how songs are going to go. You just start playing and things happen.”
— Steve Dawson
It’s fitting that Dolly Varden should release its first album in five years in mid-February, because a Valentine’s story lies at the heart of the band. It’s the sort of romantic fable you might find in a Cameron Crowe or Nora Ephron flick, a Nick Hornby novel, maybe even a Captain & Tennille hit.
Let’s flash back to the end of 1987, when Steve Dawson moved to Chicago specifically to further his musical ambitions. He’d been studying jazz guitar at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, until discovering that he was really a singer-songwriter at heart. A Boston friend had relocated to Chicago and was getting gigs at a couple hundred bucks a night (better than the going rate back east). He suggested that Dawson join him.
The two shared an apartment in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, then dicier but more affordable than it is today. Their flat was the first floor of a house owned by Diane Christiansen, who lived upstairs. She had been something of a classical voice prodigy, studying opera in high school at Michigan’s highly regarded Interlochen Arts Academy, though she’d hated the competitive pressures and suffered from debilitating stage fright. Christiansen had all but given up music and was pursuing dual graduate degrees in social work at Loyola and visual art at the School of the Art Institute.
“We didn’t speak for a long time; I think she wanted to keep a landlord-tenant distance,” remembers Dawson. “But she’d hear us singing downstairs. I started singing country songs, and she knew them all. And she has a great ear and can just snap into harmony with anyone.”
“I was really young at the time, and it was a weird position to be in, so I tried to keep aloof relationships with any guys who lived in the building,” says Christiansen. “I wouldn’t have socialized with him normally, but somebody asked us both to sing on a demo, because they’d heard me sing and knew him as a musician. So I got to know him during that project and totally fell in love with the way he interpreted this music.”
Soon she fell in love with him as well. And the more they harmonized together, the deeper in love they fell.
“It’s an incredible experience singing with him,” says Christiansen, who has since raised her profile as a visual artist and continues to work as a marriage and couples counselor. “I think of it as more of a connective high than sex, really.”
Married in 1990, they’ve since spawned a daughter, Eva, now 15, as well as two Chicago bands — first Stump The Host, then Dolly Varden — that have attracted considerable hometown acclaim. Though their music often has been linked with roots-rock or alt-country, largely because of the husband-wife harmonies, The Panic Bell is Dolly Varden’s least rootsy and twangy effort to date.
Instead, it seems to channel the 1960s classicism of the Beatles (Dawson’s foremost influence), the Rolling Stones (on “Triumph Mine, Idaho”), even a hint of the Beach Boys (on “Sad Panda Clown’s Lament”). The pop buoyancy of both “Everything” and “You Never Will” offers rapturous testament to marital bliss, while the much darker “Your Last Mistake” is a song Elvis Costello would be proud to call his own.
Though the band’s name suggests a euphonious connection to a certain country singer, it also denotes a species of trout, named after a character from Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Neither Parton nor Dickens (nor trout, for that matter) figure prominently in the band’s lineage of musical inspiration.
“The Beatles and Van Morrison are the two that most shaped my musical personality,” says Dawson, who was born in San Diego and spent his teenage years in Idaho. “And through listening to Van, I got into soul music” — a strain Dawson mined on his 2005 solo disc Sweet Is the Anchor — “and through listening to the Beatles I got into all sorts of other guitar, pop-based stuff.
“I put songwriting on the back burner when I went to Berklee, hoping to become a jazz guitar player,” he continues. “But I had a revelation in the practice room when I was supposed to be playing jazz and studying composition: Man, I hate this stuff. I just wanted to write songs. And it was like, oh, here’s a way that I can use some of that harmonic knowledge I’d been learning at Berklee. So the songs I was writing were probably overcomplicated, using jazz chords to write pop songs.”
As for country music, “We do love country, and Diane and I sing country duets a lot,” says Dawson, who heard little but country on the radio during his eight years in Idaho. “I’m a huge Merle Haggard fan, and I love Hank Williams. I love Lucinda Williams. But all of our albums have been more pop-rock, in my opinion.”
While Dawson’s melodic sense and lyrical command are more sophisticated than much pop music, the hooks and harmonies are irresistible. His music falls into that categorical conundrum which Robert Christgau has dubbed “semi-popular music” — songcraft that has the elements of great pop, but not mass popularity. Beyond the idealism and the refusal to compromise that Dawson, Christiansen and band bring to Dolly Varden, and to the small labels for which they’ve recorded, there isn’t anything “indie” about their music.
“To me it sounds very listener-friendly — there’s nothing about it that’s super-weird, and people who hear it tend to really like it,” he continues. “But part of it could be that in order to have a lot of pop success, I think you have to want it so badly. And maybe I don’t crave it to the extent that is necessary in the modern world. In my mind, we’re moderately successful, in that the small audience we do have is a valuable one, and it makes me really happy that people buy the records and enjoy the songs.”