Taylor Goldsmith Reflects on 10 Years of Dawes as Band Heads Back to ‘North Hills’

In a Q&A, the singer describes "embracing the spirit of rock 'n' roll" after that 2009 debut, and previews a Dave Cobb-produced seventh album.

Dawes Looks Back on 10 Years With a 'North Hills' Anniversary Reissue
Chris Willman / Variety

Dawes is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the band’s debut with a deluxe vinyl re-release of their first album, “North Hills.” Faced with that milestone, fans might think: only 10 years? With Taylor Goldsmith clocking in as one of rock’s most prolific as well as just simply best songwriters, Dawes has managed to produce an impressive six full-length studio albums during that mere decade, with a seventh, produced by Dave Cobb, already completed (with an eye toward an early 2020 release). It’s a quality + quantity combo that makes the group’s tenure seem much longer than it is, and makes Goldsmith seem much older than the 33-year-old wisened veteran he is.

The “North Hills” re-release that came out this month isn’t necessarily “super”-deluxe; Dawes just tagged two additional tracks onto the original 2009 track list. But it’s an auspicious introduction worth revisiting, even if its location work did saddle the group with a “Laurel Canyon” tag they may never outrun. Variety caught up with Goldsmith to discuss the path from that debut album through next year’s presumably lucky seventh.

Most of your fans have come on board gradually over the years, but there are no doubt people who still have “North Hills” as their favorite record. People love debut albums, and they tend to cling to them if they were in on an artist from the beginning.

That’s a funny thing, as time goes on. I remember when we put out “Stories Don’t End” [the third Dawes album]; people were like, “Ooh, this is weird. I don’t like it.” At least that’s how it felt from some directions. And then as time goes on, I meet a lot of folks who say, “That’s the first record I heard of yours; that’s by far my favorite.” It seems like every time I find someone that doesn’t like something, they like the exact opposite — like their favorite record is “We’re All Gonna Die” and they don’t really like “North Hills,” or the exact opposite. I love that. I think it’d be really unfortunate if that weren’t the case — if they all were like, “Yeah, we like ‘em all.” I feel like that would mean something that I don’t want.

When you performed “North Hills” in its entirely at Newport, you changed the order of the songs, so that the set could climax with “When My Time Comes.” That makes sense, since it’s the only song from the first album that has really stayed as a staple of your live show.

“When My Time Comes” gets played every night, but “That Western Skyline” gets played a lot. And then other ones are in and out. We play “My Girl to Me” regularly. We play “Love is All I Am” fairly regularly. And then the rest kind of just make an appearance once in a while — “Peace in the Valley” probably more than others, and “If You Let Me Be Your Anchor,” songs that just come in and out and they’re not staples. But when you’re six records deep, every record has one or two songs that need to be in every set, so you’re already looking at 12 songs that you know you’re going to play. And if you have a new record, then you know that there’s going to be at least four to five from that one. So it just fills up quick.

I’ve always loved it as a fan, when you go see Radiohead or Wilco and you hear the new material but then they go all the way back to the beginning as well, and as a fan that helps you connect the material. So we’ve always wanted to structure our sets that way, where we’re making sure that we’re repping “North Hills” every night, even if that just means “When My Time Comes.” But often it means at least one other song. That’s how we’re always going to feel, I think, to try to keep every record at least somewhat represented every night.

When you listen back to the debut now, do you feel like the band was already pretty developed, or were you still trying out who you were as a band?

Oh, it definitely feels real exploratory. We had no idea what we were doing. All the solos on the record had to be composed, because I didn’t really know how to think on my feet as a guitar player. I was learning guitar as the band was beginning, at least in terms of being a lead guitar player. I could write songs, but I couldn’t really play solos. And we were just discovering things that would eventually mean so much to us. When we made “North Hills,” I had never heard Warren Zevon, and I never heard the Grateful Dead. I had never heard of Jackson Browne. It’s also that period of time where, because you’ve never done it before, some of the simplest approaches feel like the most you could do. Now, if we do something real simple, it’s intentional. Whereas back then, it was like, no, these are our limits! And some of the songs feel a little bit sophomoric to me now. But I think that that’s essential to being an artist at all. I think I feel that way frankly about every record, if you give me enough time away from it. And I want that to always be the case.

How old were you then?

I was like 22… 23? Yeah, 23 when we printed up our first few copies without a label or anything.

Not to say this as any kind of pejorative, but you definitely became more of a “rock band” after this album.

Yeah, totally. For our band, the show showed us what kind of band we want to be. There’s so many artists that I love that don’t like touring, and you listen to their records and they get quieter and quieter. And I love that about those records, and it’s not a criticism. But it just seems like by existing in the studio, they’re getting their rocks off in a different way. Whereas I think it’s not a coincidence that after touring “North Hills” for a year and then going into make a record, we had songs like “Fire Away” or “Time Spent in Los Angeles,” where it’s like, “Let’s f—ing get people on their feet, because when we do that with ‘When My Time Comes,’ it’s really fun” — and that was kind of the only song that had that. So embracing the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll beyond what “North Hills” was became a big part of our band. I mean, we’re still a bunch of folksters to a certain extent — there’s a lot of words, and some of our songs are a little too long, or a little too slow. But we did realize: “Oh, filling a stage is fun.” It’s not something we talked about or thought about; it just became part of who we are.

As someone who kind of came aboard with Dawes on the next album, I would think, “Why are people so hung up on this ‘Laurel Canyon’ thing?” And then after going back and finally listening to “North Hills,” I could see why that became an identity for the band for a while.

Yeah. It doesn’t seem like we’ll ever shake that. And I guess in a way, who cares? It’s fine. I mean, I don’t feel like it’s accurate at this point. But “North Hills” actually wasmade in Laurel Canyon. Our producer was living there at the time, but after that he moved right away, and we were never there (again). The traffic’s way too bad, and no one lives there. But as time goes on… I remember hearing that even into like “Californication” and “By the Way,” people were still referring to the Red Hot Chili Peppers as this frat-rock band, and Flea was like, “I don’t know why you say this.” But sometimes you get these tags and they stick. Laurel Canyon and Dawes have become linked in a way that I think is misguided, frankly, to tell a new fan what we sound like. But at one point maybe it wasn’t. Also, I think any sound bite, any pull quote, of how to describe how a band sounds is going to be unsatisfying for that artist, or for someone that loves the band. If you say, “Oh man, the Stones are this really cool guitar rock band,” you’re just going to get it wrong. If you were to try to say, “Nirvana is the epitome of grunge,” I’m sure that Cobain, when he was around, didn’t like being called that. Bands are living things in this sense — no one likes to be summed up in a few sentences. And maybe it’s a little bit hoity-toity for bands to give too much of a shit about how people talk about ‘em, because that’s just the name of the game. It’s best not to care. But when we are engaged, like “what do you think you sound like?,” it’s like, “Well, it’s not that and not that — why don’t you come to the show?”

When you look back on the album, do you have a favorite song?

“That Western Skyline” was the first song we recorded, and the take that you hear is the first take we did. We were grinning from ear to ear, and we listened back and said, “That sounds amazing.” Jonathan (Wilson, the producer) was like, “Cool, let’s do one more to be safe.” It wasn’t as good. So the first day, the first take, and it’s the first song on the record — that’s always meant a lot to us. And I still like that song. I would still be stoked if I wrote it now. I don’t feel that way about a lot of the tunes on there. Another song I feel that way about is “My Girl to Me.” I remember when we finished it, and I was like, “Is this too funky or something? Is it silly that we’re doing this approach to this song that was originally this guy on an acoustic guitar way, the way I wrote it?” I was really nervous, and as time has gone on, that’s all gone away, and now I’m just so grateful for that song. So they definitely shift around.

And other songs I don’t really find myself being drawn to. I just have to remind myself that these aren’t meant to represent me at 33. They’re meant to represent me at 23, and they did, and they do. So for that reason, I’m glad they’re different. If I sat here being like “I love those songs,” I wonder what that would say about me. I’m proud of those songs, but there’s a difference.

It’s funny to hear you say that you were just learning to play lead guitar, because as a songwriter, at least, you arrived pretty fully formed. You say some of the songs seem sophomoric to you now, though…

I mean, it’s really just lazy couplets. I like the tunes. It’s just sometimes like, “Oh, what does that mean? ‘Let the winter pay all my dues’? What?” Maybe it meant a lot then and I just forget. But you know, we were coming out of this band Simon Dawes where we had this masterful lead guitar player, Blake Mills, who still is that, and he’s an incredible, top-shelf songwriter. By being in a band with him, I was the singer/rhythm guitar guy. So when we split up, the first thing we did, as me and Griffin (Goldsmith) and Wylie (Gelber), was: “We need to find a lead guitar player.” And what we ended up finding was a keyboard player. And as time went on, we were like: This idea of a lead guitar player isn’t really happening. I guess I need to just step it up. And that’s what happened. So that’s why I was much more comfortable as a songwriter and a singer, because my teenage years were with Blake, who had all that under control.

You’ve been so prolific in putting records out. You’re onto number 7 now in 10 years. Fans appreciate that about your outfit, because with your favorite artists, you want to just get as much of them as I can. Sometimes artists can seem stingy. We appreciate it when people are sort of… on schedule.

Yeah. I’ve always noticed that with our favorite music: that there’s a lot of it. And there are a lot of bands that’s not the case, too — Radiohead doesn’t have as many records as Dylan. The Band doesn’t have that many, right? It’s funny to think that Dawes now has as many records as Dire Straits, and to me Dire Straits is a universe, like an infinite treasure trove of music, and yet there’s only six albums. When I think of Dawes, I think like, well, we’re just getting started. We only have six records — soon to be seven. … I remember discovering Michael Hurley for the first time, and I heard a song and I thought, “That’s great, I’m gonna look him up.” Then I realized that there’s 25 records or something. And that was such a joy, to think that there’s just so much for me to get to know, and every record continued to kind of pound out the limits of a personality.

That’s why the Stones are the coolest. I mean, the fact that you’re listening to stuff into the ‘90s that is f—ing great, in my opinion, and beyond, all the way from the beginning — I’m watching a life.It’s s not just a bunch of good songs. It’s people living and sharing their experience through those songs. So I’ve always wanted to do our best to make this last as long as we can for that same reason, even if we’re never going to play the same venues.

When you saw the 10th anniversary of “North Hills” approaching, were you looking at the calendar thinking that it needed to be commemorated, whether it was with the LP release or the full-album performance you did at Newport? [At the Newport Folk Festival in late July, Dawes played the album in full with guest singers including Jason Isbell (see video below), Lake Street Dive, Yola and the album’s original producer, Jonathan Wilson.]

Yeah; I guess I’m a pretty nostalgic guy. And I’m a nerd, in that I like that stuff with the other artists I like, so I’m all for that sort of nonsense. We did think, well, should we go out and do like a run of shows where we play all of “North Hills”? But that might get a little tedious. So we thought maybe it would be cool to really drive it home at Newport and call in some favors and bother our buddies to come up and play with us.

So there are no plans to do a similar all-star commemorative show in L.A.?

Probably not. But one thing that we’ve been talking about doing is throwing it into some of our shows without telling anybody — play a show where the first set can just be all of “North Hills.” For all the fans who would want to hear other certain Dawes songs, or if they don’t know “North Hills,” maybe they’d be bummed, but I think it would be kind of cool.

You’re just re-releasing it now in vinyl form, not on CD, right?

Yeah. We’re releasing new material with it (on a bonus 7-inch single), and the liner notes are beefed up and the vinyl is red, but it’s not a remastered thing, and the songs have not yet been remixed. I’m sure someday that’ll be the case; right now it’s not. It felt like, let’s not go whole hog with it right now. But if we do make it sound even better, then maybe we will (do a CD and digital reissue).

What’s the unreleased material you included on the 7-inch?

One of the songs, “Wilderness,” ended up on “Middle Brother” (a 2011 side project with members of Deer Tick and Delta Spirit). This version is cool because it was done during the “North Hills” sessions and Jonathan Wilson is playing banjo on it. The other song is called “All My Failures,” which ended up on a thing we called “The Suitcase EP,” which was something that came out right before “Nothing is Wrong,” but I think five people heard it, so that one is relatively unheard. Also, the Counting Crows covered the song, weirdly enough. They heard it in our Daytrotter session and they included that on a covers record a few years ago, so maybe some Counting Crows fans will be familiar with that one.

You did your forthcoming album with Dave Cobb producing. I ran into someone from Brandi Carlile’s band who said, “Dave was raving about it, and he doesn’t rave about everything.”

About Dawes? Oh, that’s great to hear. Because Dave’s a great producer, and part of that is because he pushes. So sometimes I’d be like, “I hope Dave likes this, because he’s pushing me hard.” But when the dust all settles and the work gets done, you realize how sweet he is, and frankly just how great he is at his job.

Is there anything you say about the new album besides Dave’s involvement — the personality of it?

It’s real live. I sang all the songs live with the band. It feels like I’m on a stage, in a way that I’m excited about, because I’m really proud of the last two records we’ve made, but they don’t do that as much as like, say, “All Your Favorite Bands” does, whereas this gets back to that: What do we sound like when we’re having to think on our feet?