On Dawes’s new album Good Luck With Whatever, Taylor Goldsmith wants to get back to the basics. For their past two albums in particular, 2016’s We’re All Gonna Die and 2018’s Passwords, his band Dawes has to a certain extent deviated from the folk-rock niche with which the group first made its name, occasionally opting to complement the simple acoustic guitars and CSN-style vocal harmonies for more layered, textured arrangements.
“I think with this batch of songs, with this producer, with where we were feeling as a band,” Goldsmith says, “We were just like, let’s make a record where you hear four guys, where it doesn’t seem like just this wall of sound where you’ve overdubbed keyboards and a million guitars, and really let our voices come through.”
Goldsmith is no less of a presence in a phone interview than he has been the two times I have been lucky enough to meet him after some of his shows. Even though we aren’t able to connect in person again quite yet, his infectious joy and generosity still manage to shine through. In conversation, the songwriter maintains a casual intimacy, as if talking to a near-stranger about the intricacies of his music were as natural as ordering a beer from his favorite pre-Covid bar.
The promotional materials for the new record contend, “If you don’t know Dawes by now, you will never never never know them…” When asked about the through line between each of his band’s soon-to-be seven albums, Goldsmith responds simply, “I don’t mean this as a cop-out, but I think it’s the songs.”
He takes a moment to clarify: “I’m not saying it’s like the “amazing songwriting”, but just the singularity of the songwriting, at least I hope, with my writer’s voice.”
Indeed, it’s Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting, particularly his lyrics, that have drawn the most consistent praise for Dawes since the release of their debut record North Hills in 2009. Rock and roll legend and favorite of middle-aged white men across the country Jackson Browne has contended that, “With Taylor’s songs, you’re rewarded for paying attention to the words in a spectacular way.” For seven albums, Goldsmith has touched on subjects as wide-ranging as heartbreak (“That Western Skyline”, “Now That It’s Too Late Maria”) to existential wondering (“When My Time Comes”, “For No Good Reason”) to the way technology influences and infiltrates modern life (“Living in the Future,” “Feed the Fire”).
Even, or perhaps especially, his sparsest songs instrumentally, Goldsmith mines seemingly overwrought subjects like breakups for hidden gems of profound wisdom or insight, as with one line from “Moon in the Water” : “She said, ‘If I’ve ever had love in my life then surely this is it’ / I said, ‘Anyone who talks like that doesn’t understand one bit’ / ‘Cause love is for the fighter, born to lose but never quit / Swinging for the moon in the water.”
Though Goldsmith writes all the songs on his own, they are hardly just his creations. He elaborates on the band’s process for turning one of Goldsmith’s tunes into a bona fide Dawes cut: “With our band, our recipe is always just me writing more or less just like a singer-songwriter, by myself with just a guitar or piano, and us then trying to bring the band aspect to it. We wanna sound like a band, we don’t want to sound like some of those singer-songwriter records that just happen to have four members, so we really try to bring that energy to it.”
Despite his position of leadership and power within the quarter as the group’s songwriter, lead singer, and primary guitarist (though he is joined by sideman Trevor Menear on tour), Goldsmith still places a premium on modesty, preferring to highlight a group dynamic rather than trying to steal the show. When asked about the comparative dearth of guitar solos since 2015’s All Your Favorite Band (the Dawes record Goldsmith calls the “jammiest” in terms of highlighting the electric guitar) the lead guitarist confesses, “It’s funny, it’s definitely not a conscious thing… but it ends up just not being appropriate to these songs.” Instead, Goldsmith and the rest of his band like to let the songs evolve organically.
“If it were up to me, we’d just rip a bunch of guitar every album,” he adds facetiously.
Since recording We’re All Gonna Die with producer, former bandmate, and guitar virtuoso Blake Mills, Goldsmith has reconsidered his relationship with his beloved instrument and its place in a band setting. “When there’d be a section in “One of Us” or something for a guitar moment,” Goldsmith remembers, “[Mills] starts looking at it like ‘how do we create a moment, a sound, a texture,’ whereas my impulse is just to start coming up with a melody or to start reacting to the band.” Goldsmith’s experience working with Mills has made him more open to new ways of using the guitar within a Dawes setting aside from just ripping a solo.
And from an even simpler standpoint, Goldsmith is level wary of repetition, not wanting to sound excessively same across Dawes’s discography: “It’s also just a fact that when you listen to guitar bands, and once you’re in that sixth album of like a lot of solos, it’s just like, it’s a lot.” He nonetheless wants to make more guitar heavy records with Dawes in the future, and is hopeful that the band’s fanbase would receive such a return with excitement instead of boredom.
On a different instrumental level, Taylor is excited about the continued presence of keyboardist Lee Pardini, for whom Good Luck Whatever marks his third Dawes record. The replacement for Tay Straitharn, who parted ways with the band after recording All Your Favorite Bands, Pardini is a virtuosic pianist equally comfortable ripping a jazzy interlude on stage as he is layering textured keyboard tracks in the studio. According to Goldsmith, however, Pardini’s approach to the new record was very “meat and potatoes,” as he limited himself primarily to organ and piano.
“It’s not about what sounds he got or anything,” Goldsmith adds. “It’s really just him and an instrument, just on a technical level…that’s really just a big aspect of the signature of the album.”
“Anyone who’s ever been to a live Dawes show knows that Lee Pardini can really play,” I interject.
“Yeah,” says Goldsmith, exhaling in wonderment over his bandmate’s talent. “He can.”
For anyone who has seen the band live, as I have four times and counting, it’s well known that Dawes hits perhaps even better on stage than they do in the studio. In the midst of a global pandemic, however, Taylor expresses anxiety about the future of the live music industry, particularly for smaller bands.
Referring to Dawes’s own steadily building success, he says, “We would do well in certain markets, but in other markets it was really just these promoters investing in us. We were only worth four or five hundred tickets for a venue that fit a lot more, that promoter would take a loss on us because he or she felt we were gonna be worth it in the long term. But they can’t take those risks anymore, or at least not right now.”
To scratch the live music itch, Dawes filmed a concert sans audience on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles, streamable for the weekend of August 28 to 30, but Goldsmith has really no guesses as to what shape live music will end up taking for the time being.
“It’s gonna be some real serious re-adjustments for artists,” he says. “And even when we do get a vaccine and start turning the corner, I don’t know how long that goes on, how long the healing process goes on to where we feel like it’s actually a viable way of life again.”
In a kind of ironic counter-prediction of its future outside of its listeners’ headphones, Good Luck With Whatever sounds alive and vibrant, almost as though it were recorded on stage somewhere instead of at Nashville’s historic RCA Studios with producer Dave Cobb. In reference to a more stripped down sound, Goldsmith refers to “the way we recorded this [record as] sort of a celebration of the quartet—not just Dawes but the quartet as a concept, really trying to get enough out of four guys at a time in record-making where that isn’t really typical.”
This time around, the group wanted to create a marked contrast from their previous two records, in which they approached the music more as “sort of this architectural ‘how do we build something’ [attitude]… it wasn’t really as much about ‘how do you hear four guys at once’ and more like ‘let’s do something else.’” Just as he does with all their music, Goldsmith loves those records and the way they came out, but Good Luck With Whatever was a chance for the group in a sense to get back to the basics.
Goldsmith doesn’t think of this album merely as the latest iteration of his band’s constantly evolving approach to making music. Instead, he’s taken it as another chance to re-evaluate what kind of songwriter he wants to be, in both a micro and a macro sense. On the simplest level, he didn’t want his writing to get stale: “I didn’t want to be in my thirties and still writing break-up songs, especially since that’s not the life I live, I’m a married person.”
“You look at some people that get into their midlife, you know, mid-30s and early 40s, however, and you can sense where there’s a grace and you can also sense where there’s a clinging to these very typically eighteen year old attitudes,” he muses, “Where songwriters in their forties or fifties or whatever are still dressing like they’re eighteen years old, they’re still talking about, like, why did she break my heart and why am I so sad and why am I so scared of dying.”
Goldsmith doesn’t necessarily dislike that approach, but he realized that he wanted to do something more like the oeuvre of Randy Newman or Elvis Costello, “guys who really seemed to, as they got older, shift their perspective, it was no longer [only] this exploration of self … [but also] knowing how to occupy someone else’s emotional experience.”
In that very vein of stepping into someone else’s imagined consciousness, the album’s fifth track “St. Augustine at Night” acts as a kind of sonic centerpiece to Good Luck With Whatever. Accompanied only by a lone acoustic guitar and Lee Pardini’s tasteful piano, Goldsmith sings a quiet ballad about the life of a resident of St. Augustine, Florida with a narrative arc and emotional punch that together echo the best of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrical storytelling on his 1982 acoustic masterpiece Nebraska. In “St. Augustine at Night,” Goldsmith’s narrator, attempting to cope with his brother’s implied suicide, declares calmly at the song’s end, “And I’m not asking for anybody’s help/As I gaze out where the stars dance with the lights/If I’m not sure how I feel about myself/I still got St. Augustine at night.”
Goldsmith has not decided to eschew more introspective or autobiographical writing, however. Writing this new record, the thirty-five-year-old folk-rocker found himself confronting his age in a way he never had before. The opening track “Still Feel Like a Kid” and the album ender “Me Especially” bookend the record with jocular then more serious ruminations on the themes of getting older. In “Still Feel Like a Kid,” Goldsmith brings in his signature full-tilt belt: “I am a singer in a rock and roll band / ‘Cause I still feel like a kid,” whereas he croons in the closer, “Let’s act like we’ve got nowhere else to be / Like we’re just as young as we used to be.”
Goldsmith acknowledges this intentionality within his songwriting on the new album: “I’m trying to figure out if, you know, am I okay with my job being a perpetuation of a seventeen year old’s attitude towards life?”
“The answer is, absolutely!” he adds definitively. “But it took me a second to arrive at that. You know, I’m married and my life is changing and I’m taking stock, and I have to ask myself these questions, like, am I okay with the fact that I don’t know to cook [laughs] and I don’t know to fix things, fix a car, because I’ve just been in a bus my whole life playing guitar and singing about feelings. And that’s great! Again, I’m very lucky, and I’m very proud, and I’m very grateful, but it’s just questions I had to ask myself.”
Aging has not only forced Goldsmith to consider the shape of his life but has also led him to an honest appraisal of the way life’s problems don’t just end up resolving themselves. The album’s seventh track, a mid-tempo ballad called “Didn’t Fix Me,” follows a narrator wondering why their various efforts at self-improvement have yet to yield some kind of ultimate answer to life’s issues. Accompanied by an understated backing, Goldsmith sings about everything from visiting self-help gurus to getting married but doesn’t end up finding something that does indeed “fix” him. Goldsmith thinks the song’s lack of resolution is “trying to help me, or someone, come to the realization that you won’t be fixed. The closest we can get to feeling complete and whole and fixed is acknowledging the fact that we’re not going to.”
As to what kind of a conclusion the song the song might help him or a listener reach, Goldsmith hopes it will help overcome what he recognizes as a human “tendency … to outsource our problems,” admitting, “I’ve done that so many times in my life, where I’ve thought, ‘yeah things aren’t going so great with my bandmates and all these fights we’re having, that’s gonna go away, and this big change we’re looking forward to is gonna come along.’ I wasn’t willing to acknowledge that the problems were within us as human beings and not because we were in the wrong house.”
As for his own advice on coping with life’s turmoil, Goldsmith tries “to just not set the bar so high. Once you can understand that those waves never stop and that you can’t outsource your problems, then you can sort of do the real work of learning how to cope when the bad times come.”
You don’t write such dense philosophical and poetic lyrics without delving into some heady stuff. Among his more devoted fans, Taylor Goldsmith is well known as a connoisseur of great literature as well as a lover of music. Frequently, the writer will post on Instagram about the books that are currently keeping his attention. While writing the songs for Good Luck With Whatever, Goldsmith became enraptured by the work of the noted American postmodernist Thomas Pynchon, particularly his 1973 behemoth Gravity’s Rainbow. After finishing 2018’s Passwords, he found himself “falling in love deeply with Thomas Pynchon as a novelist and wanting to read all of his books as fast as possible. His way with language had an influence on me.” In particular, Goldsmith points to a section of the book called “Beyond the Zero,” whose title and content influenced the album’s third track “Between the Zero and the One.”
But even alongside the headiness and introspection, Goldsmith thinks his humorous side shines through on the new record more than ever before. When asked about the difference between the Taylor Goldsmith of 2009’s North Hills and the Taylor Goldsmith of now, he recounts an anecdote about his friendship with the musician Jonny Fritz, who used to wonder why all of Taylor’s songs were so much sadder than his usual life demeanor. Goldsmith wonders aloud whether such an approach is natural for many writers, who can often gravitate to the darker parts of their life for source material.
But now Goldsmith has turned a corner. “I don’t think there’s a single song on Good Luck with Whatever that doesn’t have some jokes,” opines the singer. “Whether or not they come off as ‘joke’ jokes or just moments giving the song a bit of levity… now every song has a sense of humor, and it seems like as time has gone on, I’ve done a better job at showing the full picture of myself as a human, instead of just the sad parts.”
But at the end of the day, all Taylor wants from this record is the band to sound like themselves. “I love the idea of us just being able to play two chords and have someone say, ‘That sounds like Dawes,’’ he says. “That’s the dream, just the band dynamic and the songwriting itself.”
Even with everything going on, Taylor wants to think of his musical future as wide open. “I’d love to do other things,” he says. “I’ve been enjoying co-writing, and I’d love to score stuff—I’ve dabbled that in that recently and that’s been really fun.”
In the end, though, Goldsmith puts Dawes before everything else, saying “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of writer you look back on and there’s just this mountain of material to show for it.” He admits that this approach “is not always the best PR model, ‘cause it’s hard to get people excited when you’re the same band making your fifteenth album, but that’s just the kind of artist I’ve always responded to, whether they’re writers or filmmakers or musicians. So that’s kind of who we want to be.”
Dawes’s seventh studio album Good Luck With Whatever will be released on October 2 with HUB Records.