Montreal-based (bilingual) blues singer/songwriter Dawn Tyler Watson’s latest album Mad Love recently earned her a 2020 JUNO Award nomination in the Blues Album of the Year category. Most may not realize the captivating singer actually has roots in London.
We spoke with the singer before COVID-19 broke out and before the Juno Awards were cancelled.
What was it like growing up in London?
Boring, I couldn’t wait to get out. Now when I go back to visit London, it’s kind of a nice vibe, not like before with a Colgate Kmart feel, which you probably are too young to know what that is. I can describe it as a Giant Tiger mentality, there was a store called Kmart and it was very white blue collar place with a lot of white people and I just never felt like I fit in there. Even when I went back to visit London, I heard somebody told me once it had more millionaires per capita than any city in Canada at one point I’m like, where were they when I was growing up?
Could have found me one of them. I got out pretty quickly and now when I go back, I’m thinking, what a beautiful city. It’s got some lovely homes and a multicultural kind of scene. Good music comes out of there, I still have some family in the area too. It wasn’t the same when I grew up. In London, I was in an all white community. Seriously, we’d see another black family on the street and wave. It was hey, look with me. It was seriously like that. And now it’s really quite epic.
Did living in London inspire you to be singing the Blues?
Well, no, not in so many ways except that I was groomed. My parents sent my brother and myself to a music school called St. Peter’s in elementary school and we were competitive. We played at the Kiwanis Music Festival and there was a choir. I learned violin. I think my brother played viola and we were nurtured in the music that we had in us. My parents were not particularly musical, but they saw that we had that and so they sent us there and we also sang in the church choir. So it was a good, basic foundation for me to build upon.
I always remember as a kid just singing all the time, I must have drove my folks nuts singing around the house all the time. I wasn’t singing the blues during that time, I was singing whatever was on the top 40 radio charts and just repeating the song over and over and mimicking everyone because that’s what I did. Right? That’s what you do as a young singer. You mimic your artists, your heroes, but I would mimic everybody from Anne Murray to Barbra Streisand, the Eagles, Michael Jackson, whatever was on the radio at that point. It gave me a good foundation for music and wasn’t until I moved away and had a crazy teen hood.
In young adulthood, I started working in bars and restaurants and drinking and drugging too much and I came full circle. When I came to Montreal to study and I got accepted into the jazz program at Concordia University. So that was the beginning of really any formal training and performance. I had a couple bands before that, but nothing really ever took. And that’s more or less in Concordia where I started in networking. And I started a career, I did some acting and I had a band. So when I was Montreal and that started me in jazz. I learned more about jazz and the family of blues.
Of course, jazz comes out of the blue. So I’m the history and more of some of the early forerunners. And then when I graduated, I started gigging. I was also doing some acting, and I was approached by a record label here in Montreal, she put a couple tunes on a compilation, that was the record label was called Preservation Music. They put together the preservation blues review, and there were people on there like Rob Lutes and some pretty well known people at the time. It was a compilation record and it did really well. And the next thing when it came out, we did a couple of showcases.
I was on the blues stage in Montreal at the Montreal Jazz bash, which is 8,000 to 10,000 screaming blues fans. And I was like, Oh my god, I guess I’m a blues singer now, it was literally a moment that I remember very clearly, where I go Oh Shit, they’ll think I’m a blues singer, I better do this thing and it took off from there.
So I always say, Blues chose me, I didn’t really go out and say I’m going to be a blues singer, I just wanted to sing. I’m still very influenced by all kinds of styles I’m likely to put on jazz as quickly as I’ll put on blues or I’ll put on songwriter, singer songwriter stuff and Adult Contemporary. I’ll put up with hip hop or soul, R&B, old school, I love all of it.
Anytime someone gets a Juno nomination, it’s always exciting. So what are your feelings about yours?
Excited, extremely excited. I was floored. It’s actually funny because Steve Strongmen, who is a wonderful Juno Award winner and has been nominated in this category three times, one of which one in the same category. We were putting together a little tour we had right after the Maple Blues Awards, that beginning of February, and talking on the phone.
We hung up and within about 15/20 minutes later, he called me back saying asking if I was watching the nominations live, because online they do the nominations. And I said, No, I’m not, he goes, well, you’ve been nominated for a Juno. I screamed literally, in his ear. I was so excited as you can tell, I’m still really, really excited about this. Super, super thrilled and surprised actually. I didn’t expect that. I guess you put yourself into these things that I know it’s always an amazing feeling to get nominated in something you’ve never been nominated in.
What do you think makes Mad Love the album that got you nominated?
Good question. All I can say is it’s a real album. A lot of heart went into it. A lot of pain went into that record to the writing of the songs into the performances. After having heart surgery, I hadn’t even realized that it had been affecting my voice. So it was very strange. It wasn’t like I was getting winded walking upstairs. That was just the symptoms of it. It was very subtle, and I found out about two weeks after the operation when I picked up my guitar and started just gently singing that there were nuances in my voice that returned. And I actually started crying because I was so grateful.
This was like the platinum, diamond studded lining to this whole thing that I got my voice back. In my voice, I had to shift my technique over the last year or so, in fact I have allergists looking into it. I had my ENT looking into it, gone for tests and they were all trying to figure out why I was having this issue with my voice. So that was a real gift getting that back to me and getting my voice back. When we went into record this one, my performance and my voice was stronger when we went into record Mad Love.
So I think it’s coming from a stronger place and then Jawbreaker was with the same producers. It’s self produced, and it’s the same team that did the last album Jawbreaker, but with more heart in it. There’s a lot of heartbreak that went into writing the song. It’s basically a breakup album that spawned a lot of the music from some very painful stuff and a very short, short lived abruptly ended marriage. As I say, every time I perform these songs, I heal a little bit more. And I think that the album is really coming from a really strong, emotional place and that’s possibly what people are sensing energetically to the music
Are emotional songs harder to write and sing?
No, I find them easier. I think easier in that usually those emotional songs are written themselves. They usually come through me, while some of the other songs can be less intense, but still good. A lot of my songs have humor in them, but the ones that are more painful and deal with more painful topics are the ones that are closest and dearest to me.
There was a time as a songwriter where the more personal the subject was, the more I would try to hide it from people, I would think they wouldn’t be interested in hearing that. I was like, oh no, that’s way too personal, they’re not gonna relate to that or they’re not going to get it for the longest time. And I’ve learned that in songwriting as in any art, the, the impression and what you feel from observing that piece of art either listening to it as a piece of music or looking at it as a painting, the person who was viewing or experiencing the art is going to have their own experience of it no matter what. And that is the beauty of art.
If we all felt the same way about it would be a very dull world. I don’t think it’s any more difficult to write, I think it’s all very healing. I’m so blessed I feel to do what I love for a living to be able to have a place and a medium of which to process my feelings and to have a channel for my feelings. I work with a lot of young kids now, I’m teaching voice at high schools and coaching kids as well as working with at-risk youth. I’m always telling them to write in their journals, do poetry, photography, draw, sing and find an outlet for dance. It’s so important.
How did you approach the album when you went to make it?
Differently than the first one, as this was planned out. You have to take my hand and lead me through the process. I’m not the kind of person who loves to go into the studio. Not yet. I’m starting to enjoy it because of the last two experiences with these last two albums Jawbreaker and Mad Love.
Kudos and huge gratitude to my producer Frankie Thiffault because he took my hand literally and walked me through the process. He’s the one that gave me the confidence that we can do this. Dawn, it’s not as complicated as you think. Just do this, here is what we’re going to do and he had a way of making it look achievable and for me. It was overwhelming and I also can’t stand going over and over stuff under the microscope of getting it perfect. I’m alive, but I love audiences, I need the energy of the listener. And I need to connect and have that energy going between us. It’s a loop, it’s like a high that I get from giving to the audience and they give it back to me and I need to connect.
So in the studio, when you’re alone, and you’re singing into a microphone with the earphones on and there’s somebody behind glass, I find it so much harder to find that energy, but on the other hand, I’m starting to enjoy that it’s more personal and it’s a different experience. You have to find that energy and find the performance somewhere else within you. So it’s not an easy process for me, thank God I have the team around me, Ben Racine band, and Francois Thiffault, because of them is the why we have this album, this album is really because these guys, these are angels that the universe put in my path to, guide me through this process. And the result is we’ve got this album that everybody seems to love and be really happy with.
How did the Ben Racine Band enter your life?
Well, when Paul Deloria and I started, we did an album in 2013 and we were touring 2013 -2014 and starting to drift apart. It was still fun, but we felt that we were both looking for other different musical things. And we’ve been touring 14 years at this point together and it was really great with acoustic shows just Paul’s guitar, myself and his voice so it was like a trio because the three pieces were really important.
It wasn’t an awesome show that was so well received though and so he started to do a little bit more of his band, he had the Paul Deloria band, and I started doing a little bit more jazz and so we just kind of drifted apart. And my agent Brian Flex said to me at the time, I got some of these blue shows for you but you have to put a band together. I’ve got this band for you, and he introduced me to Ben’s music. And when I heard it it was so refreshing.
He’s such an amazing songwriter and these guys are just truly professional and committed musicians. I wanted to meet them first so I listened to the album and I loved it. And then I went to go meet them and listen to them live. I got on stage and I jammed with them and kind of started from there.
We felt the energy and they were just so eager and gung ho to, to back me up. Yeah, that was it and that was about six years ago now. I love these guys and they’ve taken my music to a whole other level.
They were already a unit and because Frankie is such a good producer. You could take the songs that I wrote, first of all, it was just from doing Jawbreaker it was just so affirming. I never felt that my songs weren’t any good. I always felt they would take my songs and he would, just automatically affirm me in my songwriting.
And that worth is gold to me and truly so important for my fragile ego when it comes to putting my stuff out there and I really appreciate that. The band has been nothing but supportive since and we’ve toured, and done a lot of stuff together.