Interview with Juno Award winner Dawn Tyler Watson

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Dawn Taylor Watson‘s latest album “Mad Love”  features a fresh and vibrant mix of jazz, blues, soul, gospel and even Motown.  Dawn can sing the hell out of anything, no matter what style.  She brings passion, determination and joy to all her performances and is definitely a force to be reckoned with. Her stage presence is legendary and her voice is truly a gift.  It’s about damn time she gets the attention she deserves.

We had the pleasure of speaking with the Queen of Blues about her recent Juno award, her new album and open-heart surgery.

Congratulations on your Juno win.

Thank you it feels great. It’s a nice silver lining after what’s been going on lately in the world.

I listened to the album (Mad Love) a few times and really enjoyed it. Did you write all the lyrics to all the songs?

All except three.  Two were written by friends and one is a cover.  A very obscure tune by Lee Dowell.

Which one was the cover? I couldn’t figure it out.

“Don’t Make Me Mad”

Do you not have a copy of the album? 

Actually, I have it on Spotify.

Oh, I prefer the old-school albums with the artwork and they list the personnel and information. 

So do I, I still keep my vinyl but Spotify is great for the car and when you’re on the move.  “Don’t Make Me Mad”  sounds like you wrote it and really fits with the tone and mood of the album.  It kind of makes me want to break up with somebody.  It’s the perfect album for that. A lot of the tracks are very empowering and you sound really pissed off.

*She laughs

Yeah. I’ve never had an interview with you guys before.  Do you usually stick with rock and pop?

Perhaps more so in the past but since I’ve been on board I’m trying to focus on more female artists and I’m a big fan of blues and gospel. I got to see Mavis Staples last year and she was incredible.  I know that you are nominated for an award and she is in the same category as you. That must be pretty thrilling

That was super super exciting yes.  I lost but I lost to Mavis Staples.  So that was totally cool. I shouldn’t say I lost because I don’t really consider it that way.  She’s an idol and one of my influences for sure.  The last time I saw her we opened for her in France.

Wow, she just turned 80 And she’s still touring. I try to interview more female artists because I feel that they don’t get enough coverage.   

I’ve noticed your album has a lot of different elements in it which is really cool.  Obviously it’s a blues album but there was even a track that had a Motown feel to it  “Away Too Fast”

Yes! That was a cowrite with my guitarist Ben Racine.  He’s a fabulous artist in his own right.

I don’t have to tell you because you already know but your band is crazy good.

They are amazing. You should check them out.  I am blessed to have them.

I guess you found each other at the right time It all clicked. Right? Timing is everything.

I think so. I really do.  I worked for 14 years with Paul Deslaurier.  We toured the world together.    He wanted to do things with his band and so it just ran its course.  We are still dear friends til this day.  My agent introduced me to Ben’s music, I checked it out, I loved the writing.  I thought it was really fun.  The brass sounded good and the arrangements were very fresh.  So I went to see them in the West Island, got up on stage and jammed with them And the rest is history as they say.

It was a good fit. These guys are young and eager and totally professional. It’s a really beautiful relationship. So it’s five years now that we’re touring together.

You can’t fake that. What do you think is the formula for a good band?

I think a lot of it has to do with chemistry.  The joy that you find working with people.  I immediately felt supported.  The guys were so proud and happy and excited to be working with me. So there was a lot of respect and love.  And I felt that and it was great.

So we started playing together and then we put an album together.  I was terrified of the studio, I didn’t like it.  I love touring and I love playing live. I love having that rapport with the audience and that instant energy buzz. I love that. I miss that engaging of your spirit.

Yes!  The last live show that I saw was March 11th ironically at the Corona Theatre.  

On March 12 I was at the airport on my way to Saskatoon to the JUNOs.  I had a show booked for the Juno fest on Friday.  I should’ve got on the plane at 8:30 AM but I got a call at 7:30 from my PR people warning me that there was a rumour that the JUNOs were going to be cancelled.  So I waited for the next flight which was at 12:00 and before boarding they called me to tell me that the JUNOs were cancelled.

That’s rough.

People were so excited for me to go and I was excited.  I was gonna walk the red carpet.   I had all these appointments for hair and makeup. I had an outfit made by a friend of mine, we picked out the fabric and put so much work into it. And then to have everything cancelled was disappointing.  It’s still so cool to be awarded for blues album of the year.  I’m floored and super excited.

Did you have to record a speech?

I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  It’s kind of a challenge this whole zoom thing and not having a live audience in front of you. I’m a very energy based person and I feel energy and vibration. I want to feel people,  so talking into my cell phone is like my idea of hell.

Yeah I’ve done a few Zoom interviews and it’s really not the same.  

I know what you mean but it’s the new normal. I don’t know when we’re going to come out of this but I will be ready when we do because I am trying to get together with my band.  We did record together a few weeks ago for the West Island blues fest which will be virtual this year.  It was a lot of fun, we had five cameras and stage lighting. It was really great to play with the guys again it had been exactly 4 months since we played together. It felt wonderful to be with them again and be on stage. We had no live audience except for the sound guys and the camera guys but it felt great.   There’s nothing like getting on stage in front of a live audience.  Last year I was on the Rio Tinto stage for about 100,000 people at the Montreal Jazz Festival. And the energy that I felt from playing my hometown and of course 5 million people watching from around the world is what I love to do.  I love being on stage and connecting with people and making them laugh and making them dance and sing, clap their hands and forget things for a while.  And making them feel and making them cry.  I like to pull out a tune that’s gonna make somebody cry.  I think it’s important to have that spectrum.

There’s a song on my album called “Lost” which deals with mental illness and being in love with someone who’s fuckin nuts.

That was actually one of my favourite tracks on the album. I found it so dramatic with the ominous humming in the beginning.  As do most of your songs, it has that performative quality.   People really need to hear these types of songs right now. Everybody’s losing it. We’re all losing touch and your songs are so emotional and powerful.  People have been shut inside and people have been repressing emotions.  There’s nothing like a great blues album to help you release whatever burdens you.  “Mad Love” is a break-up album so it must be very cathartic and satisfying after going through a difficult period to not only create a fantastic record but also win a Juno. 

Yes, that’s exactly what art does.  You create it from your perspective, your experience and your pain and all your emotions.   And then once it’s created, it’s out there for everyone else to experience it through their own pain, their own emotions.  Yeah, it was a very cathartic process for me.  It is a total break up album, my marriage fell apart very suddenly and very dramatically.  It broke my heart literally because less than a year later I had a surprise visit to the emergency room and had open-heart surgery.

What?!

And that was exactly 3 months to the day we were supposed to go to the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis to represent Montreal.  And nothing was going to take that away from me.  We won first place out of 260 acts from around the world, after open-heart surgery. I didn’t even think about backing out. The doctor told me 3 to 6 months to get back in shape so all I had on my mind was three months, three months three, months.    

Winning the IBC really helped my career take off in 2017. We booked a lot of blues festivals in the States.  So that’s how I got the nominated for Blues Music Awards Vocalist of the year.  For a Canadian artist, it’s quite rare.

It seems like you get a lot more recognition in the US than you do in Canada. Is that because the blues are considered more of an American genre?

That is an interesting point because The blues is an American art form.  

It’s also a very male-dominated art form.  When you think of the blues you think of people like BB King, John Lee Hooker Stevie Ray Vaughan.   Mostly men and guitar players.

Yeah but that’s changing.  I’m on a Zoom meeting once a week with Shamika Copeland, Patti Austin, Terri Odabi, huge blues singers and people in the industry who are all women, black women, very strong women. Who are all known south of the border.  It’s an amazing thing because we talk about this stuff, how often it is a white male-dominated situation.  I was at the Thunder Bay Blues Festival last year or the year before, big ass international blues festival, not one black person.  

People were complaining. How can you have a blues festival without any Black people in it?

That’s bullshit. 

I was the only one representing. I’m half Irish half Trinidadian, raised in a white community but  I’m a  visible minority.  

Wow, I could talk to you all day but I feel as though I’ve taken too much of your time. I will wrap it up with a question that I love to ask musicians.

Is there a song that you wish you had written?

So I do music with seniors. I’ve been doing this for 25 years.  And the situation with COVID is very dear to me. It’s just so tragic because I’ve been working in these places for so many years. I go to senior buildings and I sing. And I do a version of Hallelujah which is from their generation and they always love it and they clap.  And I always say gosh I wish I had written that song but if I had then I wouldn’t be here singing it for you guys.

Annette Aghazarian

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