Roots, Americana and blues producer Steve Dawson logged countless hours in Vancouver studios while he was on the rise. He co-produced instrumental records for his collaboration Zubot and Dawson, which were well received, won some Juno Awards and sounded a call to other artists who sought his services. He segued into production full-time in 2002, relocated to Nashville in 2013 and has since produced, engineered and mixed for artists such as Kelly Joe Phelps, Jim Byrnes and others. He ran a slick home studio where he did most of his work but following a recent move, he built a new one from scratch.
To coax the best out of artists, Dawson works to set a supportive studio tone. “Some people are so good at what they do that it’s really just about making them comfortable,” he observes. “I don’t have to work that hard on the performance side of it. It’s like being an NHL coach: I don’t need to tell [artists] how to do what they do. I just need to organize and get them functioning in a space. I learned a lot from Lee Townsend, who’s produced many records with Bill Frisell. He’s old-school and doesn’t really touch any equipment, because he’s there to produce. Bill taught me how to push the best out of people in the least amount of time.”
Among his most-valued experiences is the time he spent with famed Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn. “I got a call out of the blue one day,” the producer recollects. “He’d read something about me in a local paper and was looking for a guitar teacher for his son Scott. He started to invite me to sessions and I got to see the care and craft that went into making records with bands like the Scorpions, Yes and the Cranberries. The coolest thing was watching guitar chords being recorded one note at a time. [Engineer] Mike Plotnikoff would work all night summing them, we’d come back in the morning and he’d have the chord sitting on one track.” Interestingly, Scott went on to contribute to records by bands including Aerosmith, the Scorpions and Bon Jovi.
In 2016 Dawson launched his podcast “Music Makers and Soul Shakers” in answer to the shortcomings he heard in similar shows. But like so much that is undertaken out of necessity, it has grown beyond its original intention. “The podcasts that featured musicians disappointed me because they didn’t go into as much detail as I would have liked,” he recalls. “So, I decided to do one myself. It’s an in-depth discussion with musicians about making records and all that nerdy information that doesn’t get touched on enough. We also talk about songwriting, inspiration, how they got certain sounds and so forth.”
During the pandemic, Dawson started his “Henhouse Express” service, which enabled him and some friends to record remotely. Once it began to gain traction, it was opened to the greater public and blossomed into a viable business. Recently he completed mixing an album for big band artist Matt Anderson as well as production with Vancouver band the Matinee. He also works frequently with Allison Russell, lately of Birds of Chicago. His record Gone, Long Gone dropped earlier this year and he’s on tour currently in support of it.