STEVE DAWSON

1. Last Flight Out
last flight out
grounded where you stand
no benefiting from the doubt
no clinging to dry land
now the whole, cold truth is revealed
and there’s not one thing you can do

last flight out
contrails mark the sky
some of us scream and shout
some fall down to cry
but we can’t undo what has been done
god bless us, everyone

The way that Jason Roebke arranged the strings on this one makes me think of vines weaving around the song, constantly moving and winding in the background. This whole album feels like a series of dreams and with the strings and the vibraphone, it sounds like walking through dreams. The best songs just tend to arrive fully formed. This song title comes from an online songwriting group I was part of. You’d get a prompt email on a Monday and by the following Sunday you have to upload a demo or you’re off the list. The first prompt was the phrase, ‘last flight out.’ I sang the phrase and just let it go where it wanted to go, using a chromatic descending bass line to create a sense of groundlessness or uncertainty. It makes me think about impermanence and feeling stranded. Like it’s too late. But here we are in a world contending with climate change, hatred, racism and xenophobia. How do we continue to exist together? It’s a dreary thought, but I think it’s something on most people’s minds these days. It certainly is on my mind.

 2. Mastodons
It came from outer space, it seems
And dropped its seeds in the rows of your dreams
Then the vines set in to grow
In the place in your heart where you grieve

and with a blackness you cannot describe
the tendrils pull, the vessels collide
muscle memory sluggish and dull
no will left to sort or divide

and yet, the rush of gravity beams
the smell of the river after it rains
the feel of your feet touching the earth
the chance that love will someday return

out in the brambles, the tar and the weeds
visitors come, visitors leave
bracing for winter you harden your bones
mercury drops by degrees

and all you can hear is the rushing of blood
as it pushes past your ears up into your head
filling your dreams with snakes and drums
and mastodons stuck in the mud

but somehow moments still break through
despite the dying inside of you
and lift you up like the warmth of the sun
and radiate out toward everyone

and oh, the rush of gravity beams
the smell of the river after it rains
the feel of your feet touching the earth
the chance that love can someday return

“It’s a song that has gotten better over time as I’ve learned to take chances and trust myself more as a singer. I knew the strings would add more depth and beauty. The strings are dramatic and heartbreaking yet strangely uplifting to sing over. A long time ago [Chicago folk singer] Bucky Halker got a bunch of Woody Guthrie lyrics from Nora Guthrie and he put together a show. I wrote the music to one of Woody’s lyrics. I liked what I came up with a lot, and I was driving home one night my own lyrics popped out to the melody. I guess special thanks should go to Woody Guthrie. His song was about the lady of the ocean with seaweed in her hair, but Mastodons is dealing with a different kind of entanglement: depression and coming in and out of it.”

3. However Long It Takes
where are you calling from?
where are you calling from?
I recall your name
ah, but then again…

oh, I am turning
all this beauty is overwhelming me
I am surrendering, I am surrendering, oh

in the corner of my eye
in the corner of my eye
the sky is opening
I am a tiny thing

oh, I am turning
all this beauty is overwhelming me
I am surrendering, I am surrendering, oh

there is no time for that
I will be filled with love
however long it takes
to take in the scenery
we are the broken frame
we are the constant storm
however long it takes
to give back the wasted breath
cause there is no time for that
I will be filled with love
oh, I am turning
all this beauty is overwhelming me
is overwhelming me
I am surrendering, I am surrendering,
I am surrendering, I am
there is no time for that
I will be filled with love
filled with love
I will be filled with love 
love love love love love love
there is no time for that
no matter how long it takes
no matter how long it takes
remembering remembering
surrendering surrendering
love love love
I will be filled with love
I will be filled with love

Songs must be stewing in the subconscious because when you get an opening, they come pouring out. I was sitting with a guitar and the whole song popped out really quickly once I had the riff. The words and melody, everything. I tend to think the ones that show up fully formed are the best songs. It’s a transitional song, this whole idea of making a conscious decision to be positive and to try to see with loving kindness rather than being cynical. It feels like the emotional centerpiece of the album, to me, a turning point, a way forward. My wife, Diane Christiansen, made an art installation a few years ago called, ‘Birth, Death, Breath,’ an inflatable opera. The opera’s concepts of impermanence and being in the present moment show up in this song and I used the singers from ‘Birth, Death, Breath’ as the choir on the album.

4. The Monkey Mind Is On The Prowl
well the monkey mind is on the prowl now
for the cream of the cream of the cream
don’t you worry, little string bean
the traffic will allow
and don’t forget it’s all a dream

well the shit-mouth kids in the field house
with the splits in their sides from the laughter
don’t you listen, little pancake
your skin will grow hard
and you will learn to disregard disaster

your mama would have liked to see
the sunlight gathering at your feet

well the monkey mind is on the prowl now
through the wishes and the hours and the cruelty
don’t you worry, little angel
the locks have all been changed
and don’t forget to notice the beauty

don’t forget

This was written right after 9/11 when my kid was 10. I was trying to be reassuring. I always liked the song but didn’t think the recording that exists from that time does it justice. I wanted to give it another shot. Jason Roebke’s arrangement is, once again, stunning. The angular staccato bit at the end is one of my favorite parts of the whole record. I love it so much. Now that Angel is all grown, the song is more general. I could be singing to myself or anybody. ‘Don’t forget to notice the beauty’ – one of my favorite lines. Diane joins in at the end and we turn it into a chant.

5. While We Were Staring Into Our Palms

while we were staring into our palms
the safety was released
the snapping of the shelf
murder in the streets
so this is how we fall

with these final years can we at least
try to be kind
try to be kind
try

it might have all gone differently
but the chemistry failed
that tree just had to come down
blind rage prevailed
oh, say, can you see?

With these final hours
can we at least
try to be kind?
try to be kind
try

all my life I refused to believe the worst of anyone
that when faced with the truth
goodness would determine the right thing to be done
I was wrong

so with these final breaths
can we at least
try to be kind
try to be kind
try

It was the [2016] Philando Castile shooting – a black man murdered in his car by the police for no reason. I watched the video. It just devastated me. I could not stop thinking about it. I knew that this kind of thing had been going on forever, but to see it on video was shocking. This is the song that came out of it. And then things have only gotten worse since the Trump election with all the hateful rhetoric and violence and ignorance. So I thought, ‘okay, if we’re on a sinking ship can we at least be nice to each other?’ It’s a prayer.

 

6. It’s Not What You Think

there is no poker face for me
despite my best attempts
you read me, obviously
but it’s not what you think

travelers lost inside their cars
scream at their dashboards
while they roll away the hours
but it’s not what you think
no, it’s not what you think

I know I could explain away everything
if I had the heart or the time
I’m so close to it now
and it all seems so sure
but when I try to hold on it’s gone
like a dream

sometimes memory disappears
and I pound on the front door
with straight spine and shoulders
but it’s not what you think

and my jaw is fixed into a grin
as I stumble down the street
strangers smile with caution
but it’s not what you think
no, it’s not what you think

there is no poker face for me
despite my best attempts
you read me, obviously
but it’s not what you think

Jason Roebke said back in 2012 or so, ‘that song would sound great with an orchestra.’ He said ‘I’m not kidding I can hear strings – the whole thing.’ That’s where the idea for this album originated, along with having Roebke do the arrangements, so I thought it was important to include this one. It’s an existential country song. With the strings it reminds me of Roy Orbison

all songs by Stephen Dawson
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