Universally beloved, garage-rock leaning San Francisco musician Brigid Dawson and I are chit-chatting at 11 o'clock in the morning my time. She's on the other side of the Western Hemisphere, in a town near the southeast coast of England, so her day has lasted far longer than mine. To wit, my day has been starting very slowly, to the point where I'm sipping cold brew out of a red Solo cup. I tell Dawson what it is loaded with – Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey and Cinnamon Toast Crunch-flavored creamer – and she laughs heartily.
"That may be the most American thing I've heard all year," she says while still chuckling.
Dawson is chatting with me on Zoom from Southeast England because she relocated there to take care of her mother in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. She plans to eventually return to San Francisco, as it has been her home for over a decade now. As with nearly every musician on Earth, the worldwide spread of COVID halted plans for Dawson to tour behind her gorgeous and epic solo debut, Ballet of Apes. It's a record I've been listening to for most of the year; from driving to Greenlake in pressing heat to folding blankets as the chill of mid-autumn seeps through the corners of my windows like a ghost.
I felt the cold the morning/evening Dawson and I spoke; there was also an anxiety in the air because we spoke two days after the 2020 United States election and the votes were still being counted. We were nervous but it turned out okay.
That "times are tough but we're gonna be okay" feeling is peppered throughout Ballet of Apes, but the times are steeped in loss and heartbreak. "The Fool," having already appeared on OCS's Memory of a Cut Off Head, serves as a languid soul ballad in contrast to 2017's orchestral, psychedelic version while still retaining the heartsick feeling coursing through it. A haunting dream follows Dawson on the climactic "Heartbreak Jazz." The undercurrent through these excellent, imaginative songs is the looming specter of change, whether they're tackling the pain of loss or the hope of a new frontier.
Assisted by a host of musicians between American coasts and Southeastern Australia, Ballet of Apes is not beholden to genre; it connects woozy psychedelia to blooming folk to the "Be My Baby" beat seamlessly to Dawson's vision.The album is arresting, thoughtful, resigned, hopeful, and adventurous, oftentimes all at once.
As my heavily treated coffee kicked into my bloodstream, Dawson and I dove headlong into our conversation about her somewhat nomadic upbringing, the special chemistry of Thee Oh Sees while she was in the band, the beauty of her outstanding new album, and where the influence of Damo Suzuki crops up on it.
Brigid Dawson: Yeah, it's a real funny feeling to be away from home right now; even weirdly sharing the experience of the pandemic with friends. That's strange, too. Right?
I mean, this will be such a momentous part of your life, of my life. It's like, where were you when COVID [happened]...
…[and] you had to stay home for a year, yeah! I totally understand. So you moved back to England to take care of your mom, you said?
Yes, I've been here since the end of February. So before lockdown, I had been hearing all these rumors. And at the final moment, I thought, “You know what, my mom is really sick. I'd better quarantine in London with my friends for a few days after the plane” – just thinking that before we even knew anything about this, really. So I did that and then I came down here, down on the south coast of England; a town called St Leonards-on-Sea, which is right by Hastings, which is where the Battle of 1066 happened, and William the Conqueror killed King Harold. Those fields were filled with blood, apparently. English history, you know. But yeah, I've been here since then. And I thought I would maybe be here for a couple of months and then my brothers would come, because I had gigs, actually, and all that stuff.
And now, there haven't been gigs for a while, and we [still] don't even know when people will be able to start performing and touring again. Yeah, it's real bad situation.
Yeah, it's a good time to write. It's a good time to know that everyone's probably having this moment of solitude and monkshood or manhood or being a hermit. It's a good time to write, I think. But you need your people, as well. That's what I'm feeling like. You need people to spur you on a little bit.
Yeah, for sure. It's good to be able to still have some means of contact with the people you care about.
Friends have been a lifeline, saving me through this experience. I only know one person in this town.
So, is this where you grew up, or did your mom move somewhere else after you came to America?
When I was a little kid we lived in Cambridge, which is one of the two big university cities of England. And then we moved to the Appalachian Mountains for a year, and then we drove across the country and camped, and we went to California. We were there for a long time. And when I was around 18 or 19, my parents moved back to England. We all moved back to England. I came back to America a few days afterward and then went back to England. I ended up spending all my 20s in London, and then came back to the States. I have pretty much been back and forth my whole life.
And this little town, they moved down here maybe like 15 years ago. But I've visited here a lot over the years, I've had Christmases here.
Since we're talking about you growing up and all of the places you've been, let's talk about your path as a musician. Do you remember a specific moment when you knew you wanted to play music or that you were obsessed with music?
I always was obsessed with music, my mom tells me this. And I remember the singers in my life. I remember a woman who worked for us when I was very, very little called Mrs. Brown, in North Carolina. I remember her voice. I grew up with her daughters. And I remember when I first heard Mahalia Jackson I was like, "Why did I fal– why am I in love with this?" It's almost like sensory memory. And I think I've kind of done my research because I've been asking a lot of questions about Mrs. Brown. She was a grandmother, so I grew up with her grandchildren. She was a very religious lady. And I think the songs that she was singing were probably Mahalia Jackson [songs], and Mahalia Jackson was like the superstar of gospel music.
So I'm thinking that there's that connection. But at the same time, my mom sang. My mom has the most beautiful voice. She sang with her sister's family a lot, and we sang as kids, too, just like in the car; harmonies, you know, stuff like that. And mind you, I don't think I'm a great singer, but I was lucky enough to grow up with it in my family. I actually never thought I would be a singer; I was a pretty shy person. But, I don't know, different things happened. Like someone lets you fool around with a microphone when you're 12, and that sinks in. And there was a woman that my dad worked with who had these beautiful long, red fingernails. She was a singer, my dad's a jazz pianist. And she brought me over five of her Billie Holiday records. So she must have known, even my dad asked her, she must have known that I was singing all the time. But when you're a kid, you're pretty unconscious about it. You just do it.
Yeah. You just kind of do what you do, and then people pick up on it.
Yeah. So I've just been lucky with that. And like I said, I didn't actually ever think that I would be in a band. I couldn't visualize that, but I loved singing. I always loved singing and I always loved music.
First time I sang in public was with my dad in New Orleans. We had driven across the country to move back to England in this old 1973 Ford LTD, this is how my parents roll. It was leaking carbon monoxide in the back. They bought it for 200 bucks and they were going to leave it in New York. That's what they did; they left on the street in New York and we flew to England. But we were in New Orleans on that part of the trip, and my dad has a friend there who has a jazz club and a restaurant. And so he said, "Brig, do you want to get up and sing with the band?" And I did, I wanted to! I was so fucking shy.
So I got up and I sang with these guys the two jazz songs I knew well enough to sing. They were old, proper, jazz guys, good guys. And I was just hoping that I could come in after everyone took their solo. I mean, that's a hard enough thing to know how to do if you haven't been educated in music, like where do you come in? You're just watching everyone's face. And when I looked up, everyone was dancing in the restaurant and it felt so good. It's like nothing's better than that, you know, that people are having a good time and you get to sing to part of their good time. There's nothing better than that.
Did you find yourself trying to chase that feeling? Is that what started you to perform music in bands?
I think maybe having had that first experience, at least told me I could do it again. It didn't matter if you might always be shy in your life, but somehow you can flip the switch and put away your fear of being on [the] show, and sing. Those two things don't always have to be connected. And then I actually thought I can probably do this. And I went through several bands moving around, in Santa Cruz and in London. By the time I had decided to move back to San Francisco when I was in my late 20s, I thought the bands I had been in had been [full of] great people, in general; people were lovely or they were great learning experiences, but they weren't musically... I'd never had that point where, musically, this is it; I've joined the band that I was meant to join. And so I just thought I'm probably going to find that in San Francisco. It's one of the good choices in my life. And I did, but it's all happenstance and randomness.
I ended up working in a cafe. John [Dwyer] from my old band lived around the corner. Petey [Dammit!, longtime Oh Sees bassist] lived around the corner; served him coffee for a couple of years and then he asked me if I wanted to be in a band. And then that, I knew, was (that). I remember bringing a CD home because he had given me something to listen to, to see if I wanted to do it, and bringing that home to my boyfriend who was living in London. And we listened to it together. We kind of looked at each other like, “Oh, my God. This is it. This is the one. This is the band like this is.” I don't know, I felt like I was joining Velvet Underground or something, in my imagination. Of course not. But that's how I thought of it, you know.
When people think about Thee Oh Sees, for this time, they're a pretty legendary band; I don't think I'm alone in saying that. I think John possesses this sort of genius that's hard for a lot of people to fathom, let alone reach. But at the same time, Thee Oh Sees in that area, a big part of it was you and Petey and Mike backing him. Is there any way to explain that sort of chemistry that the four of you had?
That incarnation of the band was certainly chemistry built on friendship; doing it for love and building it from, literally, tours. As John would say, “eating the shit sandwich;” living on floors, punk rock houses, and crazy Motel 6s with needles under the beds. And that was up a big step from sleeping, like, “Hey, does anyone want to take the band home?” And doing that, you know, we didn't have this great trajectory. We did that for a while. That's my memory. And then coming home, going straight back to work and eating a lot of potatoes and rice for a while... I think there's big magic in building that together, that's what I think. I think there's something truly very beautiful. I'm super glad to have been in the band during that 10 years that that happened.
Why did the band ultimately go on hiatus? Can you speak to that?
I think... that's a hard one to speak about; mostly, John was moving to Los Angeles. It's hard to speak about. I guess maybe it was time for a change. I'm sorry that I'm giving you the kind of BS answer.
Oh no, I totally understand.
So there were lots of good reasons and lots of bad reasons. I think more than anything, it was probably just time for a change. I think I was in the band [for] like nine-and-a-half years. That's a long time to be touring with such... Those last two years were the only two years of my life that I've ever made a living off of music. Sometimes that can be a little bit heartbreaking, too, because it's a lot to do; tour and go immediately back to work.
So what was the genesis of creating Ballet of Apes?
The last year that I was in Thee Oh Sees, I just started collecting gear. And even earlier, John had given me a Vox Jaguar, a really beautiful old Farfisa keyboard, and I got it fixed up back here. I got an enChord, I got a ridiculous drum machine called a Time Tuner. I got all this stuff, and then I'm proceeding, thinking I'm going to learn how to do this.
And I also, in 2010, had gotten a computer that had a thing called GarageBand on it. So the first songs that I was like, “I'm going to learn how to use this...” It has never been my aim, I would record to tapes. So now I was doing that. But to demo songs as a notebook, it's amazing! And all the first songs I did were completely a cappella. In fact, a bunch of them were like old favorite gospel songs or songs from my childhood like, “Standing in the Safety Zone.” So fun, where you are trying to figure out the whole rhythmic four-part backup section, and then the lead vocal line over it. That's because I don't play an instrument incredibly well, and that was how I could figure out how to do it. And then I just started writing and writing and writing. And, you know, writing makes it sound so serious. But I would just wake up and have an idea and sing it into my phone or come home and write it down, work it out on the keyboard. And that's it.
It took a long time to do because I was doing it after work, like two hours here and three hours here, which is maybe not how I should ever record again, although I find myself doing that now. But, you know. And I didn't play anything that I had written, to anybody, for a really long time because... you remember the San Francisco garage band scene. There were not a whole lot of women on the road, and I certainly didn't think anyone I knew would like what I was doing. You know, it wasn't [surfy, blown-out, psychedelic garage-rock,] that kind of music. Anyway, I did my friends a disservice because, actually, they have real open minds. And when I did finally play it for some people, everyone was really encouraging and great. But it's always that first hump, right? I'm sure you've experienced when you're writing.
You have to show it to somebody for the first time. I'm sure it's personal, you know. And once you've sent it on its way then you're like, I mean, I hope people like it; if they don't it's understandable, not everyone likes everything.
That's exactly how the process goes for me. I ruminate on it and I stress over it, and I have these weird mini-anxiety attacks. Once it's finally published it's like, “Ah fuck it, whatever.”
It's in the world now.
Yeah, exactly. It's not mine anymore. I wrote it, but it's not mine.
Yeah, actually that's a great way to think about it. That's a great way to think about it.
How did you end up recording the album in San Francisco, Australia, and Brooklyn? You were still living in San Francisco at the time, right?
Yeah, I was still living in San Francisco. I'm imagining I'll go back to San Francisco, too. This has just been a strange year but yeah, I was living in San Francisco.
I played the stuff to Mike Donovan from Sic Alps, initially. And he was so great and so encouraging, and he had this recording studio – "Come on, Brig, let's give it a shot; I'll help you." And so I would go over there after work or on weekends or something. It was very strung out, but we built something together. Sometimes I'd come over and he'd be like, "Hey, Shayde [Sartin, journeyman musician probably best known for his work with the Fresh & Onlys] layed down this bass line. It would be like the bass line of your dreams." Wow, these songs would take shape. So that's how that happened.
But then, it went on a long time. It's hard when you do stuff piecemeal like that. I think you lose your steam. I lose mine, anyway. Now I know this. Far better to go into a studio for three days [and have] 20-hour days [while you’re there]. I can do that. But it's hard when you're doing it piecemeal. So Mike had to go on tour and do all his own recording stuff, get back to his stuff. So I was a little bit at a loss. So John said, "You got to finish this! I'll help you." So we both kind of thought about it for a bit. And I knew I wanted to work with [Australian musician and producer] Mikey Young. I really knew I wanted to work with the Sunwatchers. And that's ended up being how I ended up going to Australia and then going to New York.
And both of those experiences were amazing in their completely different ways; with Mikey Young, it was fully tracked and we did everything from scratch. [The process with the] Sunwatchers was completely live, which is a great way to record. But it was weird. I got those tracks back. We only did two takes of each, “Heartbreak Jazz,” “Ballet of Apes,” “When My Day of the Crone Comes;” those three tracks. And they're filled with singing flaws, like no-nos. But it's live, everything bleeds through. So you have to choose, Take 1 or Take 2. Like, what do you want? It was good. It was a good experience. So then I had to be like, “OK, this is never going to be a perfect record, ever, because I'm not a perfect singer.”
Fuck it, maybe we need more non-perfect singers in the world. Perhaps, you know. There's a lot of pitch adjusting happening.
I definitely agree with that. I think the imperfections give it a more human quality. It gives a lot of music a more human quality. I like the flubs; when somebody fucks up on guitar and you can hear. I don't know, I've really been into that very human approach to recording music and making art, in general.
Yeah, I've always loved that, always been... You're probably kind of born with the music that you love, like secretly attracted to; I don't know, Jimmy Reed and Mary Reed singing together. It's so weird. She's so out, but they're so together with each other, it's beautiful. When I was 15 I was like, that's the shit. Which is strange that I would end up being in a band which has like a weirdly out male, female vocal thing happening, too. These things make sense in the arc of our lives, I think.
Everything always comes together, I feel.
Yeah, I think so. I really think so.
A lot of this album is about loss. I hear a few songs with goodbye in the lyrics and people being left behind as time moves on. There is a dedication in the liner notes. What inspired you to write about loss on this album?
[Part of it was] not being in a band anymore, I think; that was probably a big thing. It certainly wasn't conscious. I don't think I'm a good enough writer to be like, “I'm going to write about loss.” It's just what comes out of you. There had been another really sad family thing that had happened with my brother. I had to make some big adjustments, which [included] loss. Certainly loss of purpose, because I realize not being on the road and not being in the band and being with these people I'd spent big chunks of 24 hours every day together.... Maybe I'm being a big softy, but it was hard not to have that anymore, even though it was also a bit of a relief. It was probably the right thing to have happened, for sure. And your sense of purpose, as well, which a band certainly provides.
Oh yeah, of course. So, “The Fool” is a beautiful reimagination of a song you wrote for [OCS’s 2017 album] Memory of a Cut Off Head. I was wondering how this song fit thematically with what you wanted to put on Ballet of Apes, if it had a thematic purpose at all.
I don't think so. These were just songs, these were just the best ones out of what it was that I had made. Maybe the thing that ties it together is my singing, probably. And maybe the fact that it's a little bit stately, in general. The album is kind of slow-paced. [This version of] “The Fool” was the original version, and then I played that to John. It wasn't fully finished; I played it to John when we did Memory of a Cut Off Head. So his [version] is the reimagining of that song.
I think “Is the Season for New Incarnations” is a perfect opener. In thinking about the album and stewing on the loss that I felt while listening to it, I felt that the idea of this song and the need to build a new society, is perfect, perfect for an opener. When did you know that this song has to go first?
I think I always knew that song had to go first. I feel like that song is... that song is what it's about for me. I don't know how deep any of these songs are, truly, or anything like that. I don't even know if it's helpful to talk about music in that way. But for sure, if you can write a song that feels like you're going, “I want this world to be better... I want to bring some things crashing down.” There's no nice way to say that, but that is how I feel. So I always knew that song would be first.
I think the idea of destroying and rebuilding is very powerful. I think people are afraid of change. And so when someone is like, “Oh no, we need to tear this down and start again from scratch,” I think people feel very intimidated. But I definitely see a lot of power in that.
I certainly don't mean for anyone to go out and use any guns, god forbid. But I do think that we need to change things for so many, many people across the world, in fact, for our own very survival as a species. And I suspect that that will involve us, whether it's personally changing things from the ground up, (but hopefully). At least let's get rid of these robber barons, eh?
Yeah, seriously. Linking with that, I feel as though there's a hopeful streak that runs through the album and its themes of loss. “When My Day of the Crone Comes” is, in particular, very optimistic. Do you think of yourself as an optimistic person?
I don't know. I think of myself as a stoic person, probably. I always find myself being the calm in the center of the storm.
I can definitely see that. I feel that presence when I think about your performances with Thee Oh Sees. Especially the first time I saw you all, which was in Portland, opening for the Dodos. It blew my mind 'cause it seemed like y'all didn't have a setlist. It was very chaotic and you all are watching John to see where you all are going to go next. But I also felt like – and this is carried through like the 10, 11 times that I've seen Thee Oh Sees – you're always the cool, calm presence.
I try to be. I mean, I definitely needed to rely on John. I don't know, that's how I have felt. It's funny being also a woman in a band; see yourself being an observer which is, again, more of a calm position, right?
Man, without hope what do we have? So even if I don't feel like I'm always hopeful, I would say that I'm always trying, choosing to be hopeful. It's like choosing to act that way, even if I don't always...I mean, it's hard always to kind of drum that feeling up. But yeah, probably just swings and roundabouts; you have moments of great hope and moments of despair.
All right, last question: what do you consider to be the "Ballet of Apes" that you sing about?
On a very tiny, “my life” level, it's about being on the road all the time and observing this hierarchy of men. You know, alpha, beta, how they interact with each other. Sometimes they're bumping chests, sometimes they're rubbing each other's heads and being super affectionate. And watching that whole thing go down with great love – and I don't really know how to express that any better – with real love. Like, look at these men doing this beautiful dance and trying to work it out with each other and be friends, they can be enemies, they can fight...
It's kind of like being a fly on the wall, watching this intricate dance. And it was also having that experience, those 10 years of touring. It was realizing that that's how men operate; they're a kind of an ape in the best and the worst of it. Of course, women do, too, but I'm just speaking from this perspective. But that's how they operate; it's intricate and it's quite primal. The motivations are food, winning, sex, you know. Anyway, that's what that song is about. And also, I really wanted to try and write a song that was kind of like a Can song. [laughter]
Congratulations on that, I think you nailed it.
Ballet of Apes is out now via Castleface Records. Purchase here.
Listen to the former Thee Oh Sees member's debut solo album before it drops on May 23rd
KEXP is excited to present an intimate session with high-energy, psych-tinged garage-rockers Thee Oh Sees in the KEXP Gathering Space at 1 PM. The insanely prolific West Coast band are on tour in support of their latest LP, A Weird Exits, out now on Castle Face Records, and are playing an all-ages …