A tattooed former metal head with a poet’s soul, Devin Dawson is not your typical country artist. His look is dark and bold. His sound is sleek and raw. And his songs speak the language of a new generation – fans with no use for genre labels.
Poised as the next bolt of lightning to hit country’s family tree, Dawson is an edgy study in contrast who can literally hear colors. But make no mistake; he’s more than a curiosity. With a knack for razor sharp stories that cut straight to the heart, full of detail and clever turns of phrase, he is establishing a reputation in Nashville as one of the most exciting modern singer-songwriters around.
Signed to Atlantic Records / Warner Music Nashville, Dawson’s approach to country is not different on purpose, it’s different with purpose. It won’t be for everyone, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t like falling in the center,” he admits, dressed head to toe in black with a faded Def Leppard t-shirt and a leather jacket.
Twenty-eight years old and from Orangevale, California, Dawson grew up just outside the gates of Folsom Prison. He heard the sirens at night, and sang along to Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Just out of high school he played bass in a touring death metal band (Shadow of the Colossus). But in the midst of a breakup, he discovered the need to express himself through songwriting that metal didn’t fully facilitate.
“I’m such a lyric guy,” he explains, “and with the element of storytelling that’s what really drives country music. I needed that. It’s a completely different feeling being vulnerable onstage singing a song about your heart instead of head banging with your friends.”
Translating his hardcore roots into stories that stirred his soul, Dawson traded furious guitars and pounding drums for intense emotion and clever wordplay. Each song is unique, partly because Dawson has a medical condition called Synesthesia – meaning sounds often register as colors. It works based on the relationship between two notes, and Dawson uses it to create country tunes so vivid you can almost see them come to life.
Arriving in Nashville in 2012, he put his unique skills to use authoring songs for other artists. Now teamed with an equally daring producer in Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), Dawson’s first batch of tunes sound like a dangerous mix of organic roots and high-voltage power pop, full of romance and delivered with a distinctive sawtoothed vocal.
“I like to describe it as a new Nashville sound,” he says. “There’s country in the way I let you in. There’s soul in my melodies and voice. And there’s a lot of rock in the energy – I’m not afraid to get heavy. I was like ‘[Jay], let’s do whatever we want. Let’s make it dark, let's make it sexy. Let’s say things that people aren’t saying right now.’”
Taking that idea to heart, Dawson co-wrote every song on his debut project. Nothing was off limits, from themes to sounds and even the words he chose.
“Dip,” for instance, plays off the newcomer’s everyday slang. A lusty dance-floor invitation to ditch the party for something more intimate, Dawson co-wrote the swaggering track with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. “To me it’s a normal thing,” he says. “Like ‘Alright let’s ‘dip,’ I’m about to get out of here.’”
The song’s experimental sound was inspired by a dream. Bringing an old upright piano into the studio, Dawson and Joyce cut the front off with a chainsaw, laid it down on the ground and built their drum set on top, giving each kick off the bass a huge, jangling thump.
“Prison” is something else entirely, a country song trapped behind a wall of hard rock guitars. “Can’t Trust Myself” feels wrapped up in temptation, “On Me” provides a sunny groove for dark times, and “Symptoms” diagnoses a breakup with no cure.
Meanwhile, “War Paint” howls with revenge, “Secondhand Hurt” turns the tables on a broken heart, and “Placebo” warns that there’s no substitute for true love. The sounds are all over the map – from hip hop and rock to modern country – and for this tireless songwriter, it’s only a clue of what’s yet to come.
In 2017 will join breakout star Maren Morris’ Hero Tour. The storm clouds are gathering over country music, soon we’ll see if the lightning finds its mark – and whether or not the format will ever be the same.
“This is it,” Dawson says. “I ain’t turning back.”