With her cowboy boots, Kentuckian background and an album titled Sweet Heart Rodeo, Dawn Landes looks like the rising queen of country music. Except, she isnít very country at all, and after having lived in both Brooklyn and Paris for longer periods of times, she doesnít really know what she is. Saddle up as we speak to Dawn Landes about cowboys, horses and, of course, French hair saloonsÖ
Interview by Soren McGuire
What was on your mind when you wrote the songs for Sweet Heart Rodeo?
A million things. There was definitely a lot of rodeo imagery popping up in my head when I wrote the lyrics, and I just took it and went with it. Itís funny, because I wrote a lot of these songs when I was living in Paris, and thatís about as far as you can get from the Midwest, isnít it? I guess it was just a rush of nostalgia or something!
But why the rodeo?
Well, itís weird. Before I moved to France, I was living in Brooklyn and I hadnít actually been back to Kentucky for a long time. But the reason all this rodeo imagery suddenly came to me might have something to do with, like I said, being in a foreign country surrounded by strangers. It gave me this idea of a home that might not even exist, like something over the rainbow. The title song, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, is a true story about my grandmother. My mother and her both lived in Arizona, so I spent a lot of time down there, and they definitely have a lot of rodeos out there. My great grandfather joined the rodeo, and he was always a very mysterious character. My mother had tried to track him down, but she never really knew where he was or if he had changed his name or something, but that meant that I have always thought a lot about the rodeo. It was all very intriguing to me. My great grandfather, I had never met the guy, but I was intrigued by it, the escapist thing.
That must have felt strange, writing about cowboys and rodeo riders while living in Paris?
Thereís actually a strange fascination with cowboys in France. I know, itís totally weird, but I love it! Iíve walked past several hair saloons in France that would have names like Cowboy Hair Saloon. I donít understand it, but I love it!
Well, thatís the French for you. Cheese and cowboy haircuts. But
As far as the metaphors go, I donít live in a world of cowboys. In my mind, a cowboy is more of an attitude than a lifestyle. Dennis Hopper was a cowboy even though he rarely rode horses. I actually donít know if the guy ever wrangled a horse, but he had that aesthetic about him, that look on his face. I write about stuff I see and read about.
Apparently John Wayne hated horses. He wouldnít go anywhere near the damn things if he wasnít making a film!
Yeah, I heard that too. Thatís amazing. I heard Sam Shepard tell a story about one of the movies he did, the one where he takes his wife across the desert on a horse Ė well, I donít remember the name of the movie Ė and he wanted to use his own horse. They let him do that, but the problem is, the stuntman lost his ear because it was a really bad horse! But in my mind, Sam Shepherd is also a cowboy.
Youíre from Kentucky, but as you say, you lived in Brooklyn for a long time. Did moving to the big city affect the way you approached bluegrass and country music?
Iíve been singing since I was six years old, for fun you know. Iíve never really considdered myself a country singer, but I lived in Branson, Missouri for a while, which is this weird little capitol of country. I just didnít considder myself to be any sort of authority on country music until I came to Brooklyn and everyone assumed I was! My mom would listen to stuff like Linda Ronstadt, the Pointer Sisters and The Beatles, but I didnít start listening to proper country music like Woody Guthrie and Loretta Lynn until I moved to New York. So I didnít get my education in Kentucky music before I actually left the place!
Even though youíve been living in New York and Paris, do you feel thereís still a certain Kentuckian influence in your music?
I love Kentucky. But Iím not sure. I go there to play shows every now and then, Iím not sure I could ever live there again though. But musically, I donít really know where I am or where Iím going at the moment. I try not to think about where my music comes from too much, I just let it happen. I wrote a couple of songs in French when I was in Paris, and they didnít sound very country. Sometimes when I sing, I just like to see what happens.
How do you usually write songs?
I have a background in studio engineering and I have my own studio, so some of my songs come from me sitting down with a guitar and some come from playing around with the studio gear.
You built it yourself?
Yeah, it was me and a few friends of mine, both producers. I had worked with them earlier, and they helped me build it.
It sounds like a great place
You can actually go see it on the internet. Itís called Saltlands. Itís growing all the time, but in the beginning all my furniture in there, but now all the gear seems to be taking up all the space.
Do you know how everything works in the studio?
Yup. And Iím really happy that we have a tape machine now. I love working with tape, itís such a beautiful sound.
Straight Lines was a rather big Americana hit, the cover of Young Folks pretty much blew up YouTube and both Fireproof and Dawnís Music recieved great reviews. If I look at your career, it can seem like it all happened very fast, canít it?
It sounds fast when you talk about it, but to me it feels like itís something Iíve been doing forever. I doesnít feel like any of it happened fast. The Young Folks thing was something I did for fun, and it was really great doing it with the WST Band, but it really surprised me how huge it got. But you know, Iíve been playing my music for ten years, dragging all my stuff around. Iím very happy with my band now. We sound great. Iíd go hear us!
Do you have plans for the near future?
I think I might do a French album. Like I said, I started writing a couple of songs, and Iím feeling the pull to go back to France. Itís weird, itís like some sort of magnet pulling me in. Oh, and I started a girlband as well, called The BandanasplitsÖ
No, the Bandanasplits. Bandana. Itís a girlgroup, like the Ronettes. But Iíve been branching out, doing different things lately, and weíve been on the road a lot.
Are you surprised at how people always seem to link you to country music? It might be the boots, but in most places, you get described as a country artist.
I understand that, and in a way, Iím kind of feeding it, with the covers of my records and so on. I guess I gravitate towards it. I donít know why. I feel more comfortable in cowboy boots than heels.
Finally, hereís the question I promised myself I wouldnít ask you, but how many of my colleagues have asked you about whether or not the title of the new album is a nod to The Byrds and their famous country record?
I have to tell you, not as many as you would expect. I thought everyone would be asking me about it, but Iím surprised that very few have actually done so. Itís strange Ė donít the journalists know the Byrds record? Because that would definitely scare me!
Dawn Landesí Sweet Heart Rodeo is out now on Cooking Vinyl and Dawn will be touring the UK alongside husband Josh Ritter in September. More info at Dawnlandes.com