While serving an internship as a sound engineer at Philip Glass’ studio in New York, Dawn Landes got an up-close-and-personal look at how the likes of David Bowie, Joseph Arthur, and Glass himself brought their compositions to life. She kept mum about her own aspirations to do the same someday.
“I would never tell anyone I wrote songs,” says Landes, a southerner who now lives in Brooklyn. “I felt if they knew I was a songwriter, they would think the only reason I was there was to take advantage of the situation. That wasn’t the case, at all. I really wanted to learn about recording.”
Landes’ combined love of recording and writing took hold at an early age. Fortified by a smattering of piano lessons, she began making tapes of original material while still in grammar school. By the time she reached middle school, she and her family had relocated to Branson, Missouri, where Landes found herself babysitting for Tony Orlando’s kids and, at age 13, performing as a dancer in the Andy Williams Christmas Show.
She describes the whole Branson experience as “insane,” and indeed, her homespun, understated music is the very antithesis of that town’s hokey celebrity glitz. Still, she feels Branson’s ties to country music legends had a subtle impact.
“I’ve been reading Loretta Lynn’s autobiography, and I just realized she was living there while I was there,” Landes says. “I never actually went to her show, but I did go to a lot of the other shows. I was young and into my own thing, but in a subliminal way I’m sure people like her influenced me. I’m certainly interested in her now.”
Far more integral to Landes’ development as an artist was the crowd she fell in with after moving to New York. While attending New York University, she discovered the storied Greenwich Village “Fast Folk” songwriting community, and began attending its weekly sessions. Semi-regular participant Suzanne Vega helped Landes secure the internship at Glass’ studio and subsequently invited her to open some shows. Landes dropped out of school, threw herself into her engineering work, and continued to write songs on the side.
“I never stopped writing,” she says. “I made an album in 2001, recording it late at night in one of the studios I was working at. That album was released on a tiny French label. Then I did an EP that was released in the U.K., but not here. This new album is the first one I’ve done that’s being released on both sides of the pond.”
Fireproof, released March 4 on Cooking Vinyl, has more in common with artists such as Cat Power and Laura Veirs than with Loretta Lynn. Spectral, languid, and arranged with a light touch, the songs are filled with after-midnight ruminations couched in a dreamy ambiance and centered on Landes’ beguiling, ethereal voice. Tracks such as “Tired Of This Life” and “Twilight” are essentially beautiful, laconic folk lullabies.
“Private Little Hell” and “Picture Show”, on the other hand, reveal Landes’ fascination with tape loops and exotic sounds, even as she maintains the overarching candlelit vibe. “‘Picture Show’ came together really quickly,” she says. “I was working at a music store at the time, and one afternoon I sampled an optigan. I had a show that night, and on the way I listened to the sample on headphones. I wrote the lyrics right there, in about five minutes.”
Other high points include the homesick blues ballad “Dig Me A Hole” (written while in the throes of longing for her southern roots), and the opening track, “Bodyguard”, a haunting, bad-dream soundscape spiked with plucked banjo and slap echo.
Landes describes her writing process as mysterious. “I really don’t know what style it is,” she says. “I love country music and I love folk songs, but I also love crazy sounds and funny production.” As would be expected given her studio background, her grasp of the recording process is firm.
“I did all the basic tracking acoustically, in one day,” she says, when asked how the new album was recorded. “The guy who owns the studio — which is actually an old fire station — left town, and while he was gone I basically camped out there for a week. I had my friends come over and play things, and did overdubs and rough mixes, and tinkered with all kinds of things. There was a fire pole there and everything. It was a great environment.”
In addition to her solo albums, Landes has served as a touring member of Brooklyn folk-pop band Hem, has worked on film scores, and made a video of her bluegrassy take on Peter Bjorn & John’s “Young Folks” (backed, ironically, by Austin senior-citizens outfit the WST Bluegrass Band) that drew high viewership on YouTube. Even as she broadens her artistic palette, however, she has no plans to stop being a sound engineer.
“Recently I built a recording studio, with some friends of mine,” she says. “But I’ve been touring so much during the past year, I haven’t had much time to spend in it. But I enjoy touring, I enjoy working on other people’s records, and I enjoy scoring films. However things work out, I’m happy.”