Dawn Oberg’s writing covers a range simultaneously comedic and biting, sad and sardonic. Her music finds a new way to twist the knife in, or maybe deliver an earnest compliment, while never allowing a listener to pin her down. When I listen, I imagine a particularly diverse lounge or club, with punks and hipsters uneasily nudging into people who, for whatever reason, are wearing their grandparents’ finest evening dress. It’s a strange image, but it works.
The songs on her newest album, Rye, are jazzy and accessible, hitting classic rock and country targets with ease. Her lyrics can be witty but sincere, honest but sarcastic. They are also frequently hilarious, drawing on unique images and turns of phrase that recall John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. It’s an album that, in Dawn’s words, will “give you head and do your taxes.” Sounds about right to me.
On the phone from San Francisco, she talked to the Rumpus about moving from a red state, having people laugh at painful songs, and seeing old friends while on tour.
The Rumpus: How long have you been playing piano?
Dawn Oberg: Since I was seven. I guess 39 years. Except that I didn’t play for all but a few years in my 20s. For some reason, I was just playing guitar.
Rumpus: This is something I realized, given that I’ve played guitar for a really long time and only recently started to learn piano, but piano seems like more of a songwriter’s instrument, in the sense that it’s very malleable. Would you agree with that?
Oberg: Yeah, I would now, but it’s weird: when I started, my first songs that I wrote were on guitar. When you’re starting out, it might be even easier to do it on guitar. I don’t know, maybe my path was just weird.
Rumpus: Comparing a lot of guitar-based songwriters with piano-based ones, they seem to have a grasp of a wider range of styles, because just speaking of the instrument, it’s easier just to look at the keyboard and modify certain notes.
Oberg: Well, I feel like it’s physically easier to have more harmonic possibilities on the piano, so there’s that. I have kind of a crazy chord vocabulary. I couldn’t play the songs I’m doing now on guitar to save my life. I’ve had really good guitar players complain about it.
Rumpus: What kind of music did you start playing when you were younger?
Oberg: I took piano lessons, so I played beginner classical stuff, and whatever they had—school songs, church songs. I played in church a little bit. And then I started doing more poppy stuff, when I was maybe 11 or 12. I would get sheet music for pop songs and stuff.
Rumpus: You said during your 20s you were mostly playing guitar. Was the style of music you were playing significantly different from what you’re playing now?
Oberg: Yeah, the stuff I wrote was really twisted drinking songs, folk and country. I ended up having this band for a little bit called Honky Tonk Happy Hour. We put out a whole record of that stuff called You Drank My Backwash.
Rumpus: When you write, do you have the larger arrangements in mind?
Oberg: Not really. Sometimes, depending on the town or what’s available, it just sounds out like something I wouldn’t have thought of. That was especially true with my last record, where the producer brought in different people, and maybe it wouldn’t have been something I’d have thought of, but they were great. This record, I would have probably had more similar arrangements to the last record, but in San Francisco the studio talent just wasn’t as good as it was in Nashville. I brought in a couple people who didn’t give me anything I could use. So I didn’t plan on having any guitar on this record, but I ended up having like six tracks of guitar, and what I ended up with was really great. Roger Rocha was fantastic, and Chris Von Sneidern did a great job on the first track. I like how it ended up, it just wasn’t what I planned, you know?
Rumpus: Can you describe what your process is like for coming up with a song?
Oberg: Usually it’s a concept, and I try to do the best job I can to articulate that concept, and what happens is I’ll scribble or type for six pages. This is never ever in one sitting—it usually takes me a few months to finish anything. I’ll have a whole bunch of psychic vomit on a page or Word document or whatever, and of course I have to do a lot of editing, but pretty soon, maybe a form emerges. I get some kind of meter and form happening, and a structure, maybe a verse and a chorus. And by then, I’m usually hearing the music in my head when that happens. And then it’s a matter of working it out. I’m totally Zen about melody. I assume it already exists in the words, but chords are a matter of working things out.
Rumpus: If and when you have writer’s block, do you have any specific tools to break it?
Oberg: Yeah, you just write down all your bad ideas. Because the thing is, you have—well, I have anyway—tons of bad ideas, and if you don’t have any good ideas, the bad ideas are there, and you just have to get them out of your head and onto the page. It’s important to actually just write them out, to clear the way for good ideas.
Rumpus: I saw in the press release that you’re involved in the literary scene in San Francisco. What have you done there?
Oberg: My own involvement is mostly as a listener, and I’ll go to a lot of events, but I also am asked to play at some of the events. They’ll have a musical guest. I’ve played in a couple Rumpus events—those are a lot of fun, I like those a lot.
Rumpus: Do you think that being involved in that sort of thing impacts how you write or how you think about writing?
Oberg: Not really. I think I kind of had a solid sense of my voice before getting involved in that, before moving back to San Francisco. I think I’ve found a good audience for it that maybe I didn’t have before, so it’s a good match, I think.
Rumpus: This seems obvious, but things are pretty different in San Francisco than they are in Nashville, in that regard?
Oberg: Oh yeah.
Rumpus: How long did you live in Nashville?
Oberg: Fifteen years.
Rumpus: Oh, okay, so a while. This is a very vague question, but what was that like?
Oberg: First of all, there’s a sick amount of talent there. There’s a reason people like to record there, and I hope that for my next record I can go there for overdubs. I really liked doing my basic tracks at Hyde Street, and I definitely would like to work with Roger Rocha again, but for instruments like pedal steel and cello, stuff like that, I definitely want to go to Nashville. But what was it like? It was weird. I feel like I didn’t fit in anywhere, like I didn’t fit into the songwriter scene there, or the country scene. I hung out with the punks until I got too old to stay up ’til 2 in the morning and go to work the next day. Sometimes with my country band I would open up punk shows, but after that, I didn’t have any community, so that sort of made that isolating for me.
Rumpus: I remember in a video of one of the Rumpus events you played you said that you were happy you were in San Francisco after living in a red state for so long. Did that have to do with helping to feel out of place?
Oberg: Yeah, maybe, it’s definitely politically liberating to move back to SF, to not feel like I could be discriminated against for having an anti-war stance, for example. Nashville, the city itself is blue, like Memphis is blue, but you have to have your reality impacted by these people with a really Republican mindset. Maybe not all Republicans are assholes, but they’re out there, and sometimes you’re subject to their bullshit. I don’t know how else to say it.
Rumpus: Why did you decide to move back to San Francisco?
Oberg: Oh, it was just because I could. It was the most amazing thing: I went there for a vacation in March 2009 with my partner at the time, and we were just smitten with it. And when we got back, that Wednesday I was accepted to an online grad school program. I had lost my job, I got laid off, and I was working at the First Amendment center, and then that Sunday, my old roommate from the first time I lived in SF mentioned on Facebook that he was subletting a room. I mentioned this to my partner and he was like, “Ask him when and how much,” and from there it snowballed into this thing where it was like, “Yeah, let’s move.” So I sold my house in the worst market in history, and my house sold in two weeks.
Rumpus: Have you seen any long-term trends in your work, or have you majorly changed your work ethic or your focus over time?
Oberg: In the last 10 years or so, not very much has changed. I feel like I’ve kind of been lazy the last couple years, and I need to fix that so I can write my next record.
Rumpus: About Rye: over how long were most of the songs written?
Oberg: Oh, two of the songs were outtakes from my last record, but other than that I’d say there were all written during the last three or four years.
Rumpus: In terms of lyrics, do you have any particular touchstones that you think really influence you?
Oberg: I think I was kind of influenced by Cole Porter. God, it sounds so pretentious to say that, but I mean, I learned the guy’s songs, like off of records and stuff, and learning other people’s songs by ear on a chordal instrument will influence you. I know that Bob Dylan influenced me because my writing changed after going through a Bob Dylan phase in my 20s. It was almost like a cruel joke on the part of my muse where I would start alliterating to an obnoxious extent, without even trying. That’s just the shit that would come into my mind. For better or worse, it influenced me. I can’t even blame Bob, because he was never that obnoxious about it. [laughs] It’s just what my brain did to it, you know.
Rumpus: I guess it’s just how you processed what you were listening to.
Rumpus: When you’re writing, do you try and have your lyrics cover a lot of ground? I noticed that a lot of the songs on the album are pretty funny, in a pretty wide variety of ways. The first time I listened to the song “To That Extent,” I laughed. Do you try and have them cover, like I said, that amount of ground, or different kinds of emotional reactions?
Oberg: No. It’s funny—when I recorded the vocals for “To that Extent,” I was pouring my heart out in that little isolation booth, and I saw the engineer just like laughing, shaking. And holy shit, here I am, singing this sad song, and he’s laughing. But I’m glad, because it makes people laugh, but I don’t try and be anything, I just be. [laughs]
Rumpus: Does that happen a lot, where what you’re putting into it is not how other people are seeing it?
Oberg: Well, it’s weird. People do bring their own interpretations to things. Someone compared the song “To That Extent” to “The End of the Continent.” I was writing about a really cruel person, and I was writing about myself, you know? And “Gentleman and a Scholar,” I wrote that as a birthday present to someone I really admired, and a journalist said I was skewering a pretentious kind of person. And I didn’t mean that at all—it was a very sincere compliment.
Rumpus: When you’re planning a tour, are there certain kinds of venues, or certain cities you aim to be at?
Oberg: You know, I would have liked to include more cities on this tour. I had a booking person do it for me, and he wasn’t able to get venues for every city. Definitely one day I’d like to play in New Orleans, and that’s not on this tour at all. For me, the most fun, exciting things are places where I get to see old friends or people I haven’t seen in a long time, so like Minneapolis and Nashville are great that way. I’m excited about playing in New York, never done that before. But I might know like one or two people at the show, and Boston I think I have one friend coming, so maybe I’ll see people I know. Chicago, one journalist came to see me, and it was nice to talk to him, but no one was there to see me, and that’s what it’s been like, except when relatives and friends show up.
Rumpus: It seems like you’re playing a pretty broad cross-section of venues; I saw you wereplaying a couple bars and cafés and things like that.
Oberg: Yeah, most of them are bars. Minneapolis, I just played at this café, and I asked my booking guy to move it to a club, like a real club, because I had people coming, and he was unable to get another place. And I tried myself to book it in a real venue too, and I wasn’t able to get it. I guess Minneapolis is hard or we didn’t do it far enough in advance.
Rumpus: If you could have a listener hear the record in an ideal situation or circumstance, what would that be?
Oberg: The first thing that comes to my mind is in my car, because I do all my important listening in the car. If they don’t have a car, and they’re a green-friendly pedestrian or public-transport-taker, I would gladly have them hear it on headphones or earbuds.