May 12, 2010

No Bull

With a new album, a herd of syncs, and a contagious love of the musician's life, DAWN LANDES is riding high

By James Rickman

Dawn Landes

Dawn Landes

Sweet Heart Rodeo, the new album by Louisville, KY native and Brooklyn transplant Dawn Landes, clocks in at just thirty-two minutes. Released earlier this year on Cooking Vinyl, it's a dreamy, scruffy set of alt-country and folk songs that stick around just long enough to brand themselves on your brain. Her voice ranges effortlessly from a whisper to a howl, with the moxie to pull off a drawled monologue in "Wandering Eye." By the time the album ends, with the instrumental "All Dressed in White," you're mesmerized - and a little sad that it's over so soon.

"Yeah, we kept it kind of short," Landes says. "Often, when I'm listening to a record, after the tenth song my mind starts to wander." But Sweet Heart Rodeo's brevity is about more than attention span; it's part of a giddy energy that crackles through everything Landes does, from songwriting to production to performance. And with one listen, it's clear that her energy flows from a pure love of music and a fearless drive to make as much of it as she can.

Landes recorded Sweet Heart Rodeo at Saltlands, a studio she co-founded a few years back (where the likes of Wilco, The Soft Pack, and Robbers on High Street have recently logged hours). She took on much of the production, engineering, and playing herself, even laying down some drums on the Margot Guryan cover "Love." Asked if she ever felt overwhelmed, Landes doesn't miss a beat. "I felt total freedom. It just felt so good to be able to do it with this little world that I created. My couch was there!"

Singer-songwriter, producer, and studio partner, Landes is bearing down on her biggest year yet with both reins firmly in hand. It leaves you wondering how she got here.

Remarkably, much of Landes' success can be traced back to a single encounter. As an NYU underclassman a decade ago, she met Jack Hardy, father of the "Fast Folk" movement. Hardy invited her to join the songwriting workshop that he's hosted for over thirty years. In accordance with Fast Folk tradition, Landes started banging out new songs every week, weathering some tough feedback from the group, and connecting with other songwriters.

One of those writers was Suzanne Vega, the music industry survivor who hit big in the eighties with "Tom's Diner" and "Luka." Vega helped Landes secure an internship at Philip Glass's studio - and so began her love affair with the craft of recording. Over the next five years, Landes worked her way up to assistant engineer jobs around town, and even snuck in some after-hours sessions for her own music. "I was just so enchanted … I wanted to spend all my time in the studio," she recalls.

But Landes picked up more than recording chops from her Fast Folk days. "Straight Lines," a song she wrote mere hours before a workshop, found its way into an Axe Deodorant ad in the UK. The song's knife-edge balance of innocence and world-weariness continued to resonate: back in the US, it was used by Chrysler and the Showtime series The United States of Tara. Without warning, "Straight Lines" became the song that introduced Dawn Landes to the world. "Funny how that just, kind of, took over," she says with a laugh.

In 2006, a French label released Landes' LP Fireproof. A stampede of tours followed - not to mention two film scoring credits and a handful of engineering gigs - and along the way she collaborated with indie heavyweights like Justin Townes Earle, Alexi Murdoch, and Josh Ritter.

"I've toured with all those people. Every time I tour with a band, I fall in love with them, that's just how it happens." Literally, in some cases - she and Ritter got hitched last year.

With Sweet Heart Rodeo out of the gate, Landes hopes to squeeze in more producing and composing between tours - she recently signed with ASCAP largely because of its film scoring department. Oh, and she's starting a girl group: The Bandana Splits. "We'll see what happens," Landes says. "We have dance moves and matching costumes and stuff."

At a recent New York show, Landes and bandmates Josh Kaufman and Ray Rizzo (who somehow pounds the drums, plays keyboard, and sings backup all at once) burned through old and new material, rockers and ballads, with unwavering joy. Her love of performance, like her assurance as a writer and producer, was beyond question.

"I love playing music with my band," Landes says. "When I'm not doing that, I'm in the studio all that time. I just want to work on stuff."