Finding solace in opening new windows and classic music: John Dwyer talks with Brigid Dawson

OSEES’ (or Thee Oh Sees, OCS, Oh Sees, Orinoka Crash Suite, etc.) front person John Dwyer is one of the curators of this year’s Le Guess Who? festival. His stirring program includes Brigid Dawson, whom he played with for years. Dawson released the debut record of her The Mother’s Network project last year via Castleface Records and will be taking the festival stagel with Sunwatchers.

Dwyer and Dawson got together to talk about their songwriting methods, memories of touring, finding solace in classic music, good birthday presents and much more. Please dive in. 

“My year during the pandemic was in some ways as if the pandemic never happened. Completely focused on just caring about my mom and helping my dad care for her.” -Brigid Dawson

John Dwyer: So, this past year. With all the pandemic and the shutdown. Tell me what you want to tell me about your past year. 

Brigid Dawson: That’s a heavy question. Few weeks before everything shutdown in the States and in the UK, my mom got really sick. So I flew back to England, thinking probably that I would be there for few months. Then the world realized that there’s a serious pandemic and the borders shutdown. Also care for people who were ill became really hard to get because someone’s at risk you can’t just have anyone near her. Especially then, when we didn’t know what was going on.

J.D.: So you couldn’t go to the hospital necessarily easily?

B.D.: No, the hospitals are crowded in England. My folks were really scared because they’re older and my mom’s at risk. Just didn’t know how to manage it. I have an amazing picture of both of them going to an appointment in hospital. My parents are dominators and they shielded up. It’s one of the funniest pictures I’ve seen they have. Rubber gloves on, hazmat suites, face shields but they’re grinning and acting like total idiots. It’s a good example of how we didn’t know how to manage this. I ended up staying for a year and two months. My year during the pandemic was in some ways as if the pandemic never happened. Completely focused on just caring about my mom and helping my dad care for her.

J.D.: And how were things in the UK? You weren’t out that very much right?

B.D.: Well, that’s the thing. I was in this tiny little seaside town called St Leonards-on-Sea. It’s not really crowded. In England you didn’t have to wear mask outside. I went for walks on the beach everyday.

J.D.: Walking became really popular this year!

B.D.: It was so beautiful and a life saver. I just saw my parents. I made one friend who thankfully I had met at a gig a year before.

J.D.: So somebody common with your music?

B.D.: Yeah, another musician. We would figure out ways to go, bring tea in thermoses, sit down at the beach, a bottle of wine… That was it! My world was incredibly small.

“Writing lyrics is one of the hardest part of song writing sometimes. If you have that to start, that’s a good place to start.” -John Dwyer

J.D.: Were you able to make any music?

B.D.: At first. Before my mom got needed more care. I wrote ton of lyrics. Every time I would walk, I would sing. And I was singing for fun, like a complete idiot. But ton of ideas… As the year progress, I didn’t have time to kind of flesh those ideas out. So I guess I’ll be doing that now.

J.D.: So you have a bunch of young demos on the slate?

B.D.: There are ideas, yeah. I had my childhood recorder which I learned how to play recorder. I brought the Mellotron with me. I bought all these weird percussion instruments, right before the lockdown. Thought I might need some stuff to write with. I got a djembe and another weird instrument that creates the thunder sound.

J.D.: You can’t use that enough. The whole record should be you singing over that!

B.D.: Yeah, it was amazing. I was like “oh, this sound so ridiculous”. And then another one that was just a single string in between kind of bending pieces of wood with a drum at the bottom. So you pluck the string and bend the pieces of wood then it changes the pitch of the string.

J.D.: Kind of a talking drum?

B.D.: Yeah, I guess so. And I had my tambourine and awesome ankle bells.

J.D.: So this is the material you’re going to be working coming up as things are opening again?

B.D.: Yeah it is. I kind of fleshed it out. And I did write a lot of lyrics.

J.D.: Writing lyrics is one of the hardest part of song writing sometimes. If you have that to start, that’s a good place to start.

B.D.: I never think about lyrics first, usually. I think about the sound.

J.D.: Yeah, me too.

B.D.: The lyrics are like secondary but they’re also so fun.

J.D.: It starts out without a song, as just poetry. You can write a journal or whatever.

B.D.: Yeah it’s true. And then you have wealth of stuff that you can go back to.I’ve been transcribing that all into one notebook.

J.D.: Are you looking forward to play the shows again?

B.D.: I am. I feel a little bit nervous and really under rehearsed. But that will come.

J.D.: Who are you going to be playing with in Le Guess Who? Do you know what the band will be?

B.D.: It’s the Sunwatchers. I tried to setup a tour that we’ll do the double bill every night. But that’s really hard to book right now. I think what’s going to happen is Sunwatchers will be my band but it’ll be The Mother’s Network basically.

J.D.: What’s the instrumentation?

B.D.: Jeff Tobias will play horn and keyboards. I think I’m going to play some keyboards, percussion. Jim McHugh is on guitar. We’re not sure about bass quite yet. And Jason Robira on drums.

“I hadn’t envision that I would do a lot of small gigs to get much better at the whole thing. Organizing band is not an easy task.” -Brigid Dawson

J.D.: Why don’t you tell me about the initial shows that you played before the pandemic and before your mother got sick? The first Mother’s Network shows. How were they?

B.D.: We did four shows and it was different lineup each time. I was trying to find the right people. So the first show was my dream lineup: Randy Lee Sutherland and Doug Katelus from Solo Organ.

J.D.: You’ve picked a very noisy band!

B.D.: Yeah, because they’re super free and experimental. The problem with taking that and draining into the songs is kind of a hard thing. 

J.D.: Were they very loud?

B.D.: Yeah. They were awesome but it was unhinged. There were times where I felt like “beautiful and just what I wanted but also totally out of control”.

J.D.: Tough to sing over I guess when it’s out of control. You really have to become an improvisational vocalist yourself. They’d be the perfect ensemble to push you in that way.

B.D.: Yeah, I’d like to become better at that actually. You have to let the song go where it’s going to go.

J.D.: Probably different every night.

B.D.: Exactly. I hadn’t envision that I would do a lot of small gigs to get much better at the whole thing. Organizing band is not an easy task.

J.D.: Small shows are the perfect opportunity to flex what you’re working on.

B.D.: Even learning to sing lead. It’s a whole different kettle of fish. Now I’m just going to straight into tour. To hell with it! 

J.D.: Do you have some other shows booked other than Le Guess Who?

B.D.: There are shows in Germany and France. Starting the tour in England. I think we might be opening up for you. All of this is a subject to change. We’ll see. 

“Some of the best decisions in my life had to do with quitting things. Like a window will open when you close a door.” -John Dwyer

J.D.: Walk me through your process of getting from point A to the finish product, let’s say with the Sunwatchers. Like starting with the lyrics you’ve been transcribing from the phone recordings of you singing an idea. How would you get that to a finished product?

B.D.: Ikind of want to do it a little different this time. I would like to have the arrangement more or less nailed down. Although what was wonderful with the Sunwatchers is that they were the least arranged songs. And they were completely live. We just took two takes of each.

J.D.: Those guys are really great at grabbing an idea as well.

B.D.: Yes. And I realized that I want it mostly to be live this next album. That’s how we do it really. It has a liveliness to it. You think you need to be really really good.  Like you do with the OSEES recordings. Base is always live but all that stuff you overdubbed on top of it…

J.D.: Usually with us, it’s all scratched tracks are live. First guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and maybe scratched vocals. These days I tend to do over my vocals because they sound shit in the live room. Maybe add an extra guitar, shakers and stuff. But most of it is live, we’re all standing in the same room. 

B.D.: It changes it, doesn’t it?

J.D.: I think it gives it a live excitement. There’s something to be said for tracking where you do one thing at a time. It gives you much more focused base to work from. Just record drums alone in a room, you have much more room to work with on drum sound, if there’s nothing else going on in the room. But what I like about the method you’re talking about is that something that goes over to the record is in fact going to be something close to what people will see live. You can manipulate to make it different live but the idea of the song is going to remain the same root of what you do in the studio because it’s live in both.

B.D.: That’s what’s been hard to reproduce. You know I sing lots of harmonies with myself. Then you need to find someone to sing harmonies with you.

J.D.: Good luck with that!

B.D.: It’s hard. It’s hard doing it live as we know.

J.D.: Now that things are supposedly slowly opening up again, what do you want for you? For the rest of this year?

B.D.: For this year to keep it simple. Because it was a hell of a year last year. Play well. Have a good tour. Enjoy being out the road again. As far as life goes, seize the moment. Because life is very very short. There are certain things that I cared a lot before that I can’t even muster up carrying anymore. Things like your day job. That’s really unusual for me.

J.D.: I think a lot of people realize this year that they don’t like their job, to begin with. I have a lot friends who don’t want to go back to what they’re doing. I’m like “What you’re going to do?” and they say “I have no fucking idea”. But that’s ok. Like you said life is short. Grabbing onto the moment is a wonderful way of looking at things because you never know. Some of the best decisions in my life had to do with quitting things. Like a window will open when you close a door. Getting fired from a job and being devastating, having somebody yell “Dwyer you’re fired!” and being like “Oh no!” and then a week later “Thank fucking god!”, you know. Not realizing how much I didn’t like it until I had gotten some separation. I’m really excited about the prospect of you doing this tour in Europe. I think you’ll have a really nice time. You’ll finally get the much deserved time for you on the road to soak up the world. And not have me or the other clowns, you have these nice New York boys this time. Any stories you can think of from back in the day that we used to tour together that you think funny?

B.D.: Oh god! My favorite moments are when we were out of our minds. All I could do was hanging on your belt lupe as you ran through a festival! My brother was looking up a video of us trying to put up a tent. I’m the older sister, so normally I’m not like out of my mind. He was like “Brigid, are you ok?”

J.D.: “I have a big concern watching you put up a tent upside down!” Yeah, that’s true. Some of my favorite memories of you are when we were playing at SF Eagle, The Leather Daddy Bar, they would give you a pint of wine. A pint of glass full of shitty red wine! And you would drink a bunch of it when we were waiting to play. Right before we play I’d see you and your hair would be totally unhinged. You were like “John, I’m totally wasted!” and your teeth would be all grey from drinking wine. I had to talk you down like “You’re going to be alright”. 

B.D.: All these years passed, I remember no hard feelings, I remember total comradery. The wonderfulness of being part of something that you really really care about. The sense of purpose that gives you. We were so lucky.

J.D.: Yeah, we had a really good time. I have totally tragic memories as well. Like standing out in the rain, looking for the van key. But these are funny stories now.

B.D.: We emptied that entire van and the keys were underneath the last final thing.

J.D.: Oh, that was actually different night! That was a fucking miracle. How about this, who are you excited to see at Le Guess Who?

B.D.: This is going to sound pretty dorky but I’m actually really excited to see Bent Arcana and what do you with that.

J.D.: I mean besides somebody that you know. I appreciate that, that will be fun I think. The band that I have with that is very much like the thing that you’re doing. Do you know that Faust is playing?

B.D.: I didn’t!

J.D.: You haven’t looked at the schedule at all, have you?

B.D.: I did look at the schedule but didn’t know Faust is on there.

J.D.: They’ll play Faust IV, I think with a string section. What music kept you psychically whole this year?

B.D.: Actually I listened to ton of classical music. My dad had this Time Life Great Men of Music record.

J.D.: I have that! The big box sets? I found them in the trash.

B.D.: Yeah, he bought them for 20 bucks in Santa Cruz.

J.D.: Debussy, Beethoven…

B.D.: I kind of worked my way through that. I mean, I started. 

J.D.: It’s piles of music, at least 10 records.

B.D.: Puccini… It’s curated really well. Leonthyne Price is basically one of my favorite opera singers ever. The childhood record of mine is Porgy and Bess. She’s on that recording, she’s singing the part of Bess obviously. Those songs like “My Man’s Gone Now”… Do you know that?

J.D.: No.

B.D.: Oh, John, it’s staggering. She sings on a lot of this Puccini records on that series. “O Mio Babbino Caro” which is kind of like an easy listening opera but it’s one of the arias that’s really beautiful. 

J.D.: I think that classical music is a very easy place to go to find solace. I was actually thinking the other day, while listening to an Art Tatum box set. 13 LPs of him just playing piano by himself called Solo Masterpieces. There’s a lot of little jaunts he does into the classical realm. I was thinking about it, I know nothing about contemporary composition outside of the stuff that I heard that certainly more experimental and strange to me that I haven’t heard anything that I’m sure must exist. That is cut from the same cloth as these Great Men of Music or whatever. There’s no contemporary composers making this giant -not Disney movie soundtracks but like heavy duty compositions that stand on their own and sound old school like those compositions. I’d like to hear some of that. 

B.D.: Probably my dad has a good answer for that.

J.D.: Yeah, I’m completely ignorant of this world.

B.D.: I had listened to classical music a lot at work. And it’d always be some silly YouTube mix, you know. I realized I knew nothing. I just accepted it as a face-value I was trying to learn. 

“Be very good to each other. I know that’s kind of a cheesy thing to say but that’s important.” -Brigid Dawson

J.D.: What about any jazz or anything else you were digging on this year? 

B.D.: I listened to almost every early Brian Eno record that I could get my hands on. Imagine walking in St Leonards-on-Sea in spring time, everything’s blooming. You’re waking up every morning with a dawn chorus of all the birds that going crazy. So Eno… Really falling in love hard. I’m kinda obsessed. 

J.D.: I can see a parallel with classical music. He comes from history of composition and exploration.

B.D.: Just the freedom. The freedom of the ideas. 

J.D.: I love it when Eno sings in his speaking voice. You know that people who played on those records are incredible musicians like Robert Fripp and all those guys. 

B.D.: For my birthday this year, a friend mine got one of the most amazing presents. There are few presents in my life that have happened as if magic and you didn’t expect it. This present was… I think you can get celebrities to wish you happy birthday. You just mentioned Robert Fripp. It was Robert Fripp’s wife, Toyah Willcox.

J.D.: The popstar! I do know her, she’s fantastic.

B.D.: When I was a kid in England, when I was 7, hers was the first album that I ever bought. But my brother defaced the album cover by the way. Carved her eyes out, colored them blue, gave her jagged teeth. 

J.D.: She wished you a happy birthday?

B.D.: Yes. It was beautiful. “Hello Brigid, this is Tyoah Willcox and your friend Karina has written to me and she said that when you were girl you moved to California, isn’t that fantastic!” Oh my god! So wonderful. 

J.D.: That’s a good present. A friend of mine, Dave Sitek, he and his bandmate cleverly paid Roger Stone, a republican right wing jackass with a Nixon tattoo on his back, who’s also friends with Trump. They got him to do a bunch of those for them. They put in words into his speech and edited it for themselves to make an ad for their record. It was really funny!

B.D.: I love that people are doing that. 

J.D.: Is there note that you want to leave?

B.D.: Be very good to each other. I know that’s kind of a cheesy thing to say but that’s important. 

J.D.: Yeah, don’t be a dick. A pleasure talking to you Brigid. See you soon at Holland y’all!

John Dwyer is one of the curators of Le Guess Who? festival’s 2021 edition, between 11-14 November. His curated program includes Brigid Dawson & Sunwatchers, Faust, Old Time Relijun, Bent Arcana and more.

This interview is originally published in Turkish in Bant Mag. No: 75.