Updated: Dec 12, 2021
After I moved back to Chicago following my post-college stint at the Boston Phoenix, I started covering local music for the Tribune. My Home Front/Local Heroes column debuted at the beginning of 1990, and I spent much time at Lounge Ax, Cabaret Metro, Elbo Room, Schubas, the Cubby Bear, the Avalon, Phyllis’ Musical Inn,Beat Kitchen and other clubs checking out such bands as Material Issue, Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, Eleventh Dream Day and Green.
But the band I saw the most was Stump the Host, led by husband-and-wife singer-songwriters Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen. I kept coming back for Steve’s singing and songwriting; his positive, funny energy with Diane, who also has a great voice and writes beautiful songs; and their effortless melding of rock, soul, country and folk influences. If I had friends visiting from out of town, I took them to see Stump the Host because who could possibly not like them?
Steve and Diane eventually dissolved Stump the Host and started Dolly Varden, which began with a more aggressive rock energy but soon found its groove as another simpatico setting for Steve’s and Diane's songwriting. That band, which has released six albums, has been going strong for more than 25 years. (The Dumbest Magnets, their outstanding third album, is a good place to start.)
Steve also has recorded solo albums, including this year’s acclaimed At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree, (for Chicago's Pravda Records) and albums with Funeral Bonsai Wedding, his jazzier combo that lets him stretch out with a Van Morrison-like fervor. Their 2020 release Last Flight Out, recorded with a string quartet, also is excellent.
In the meantime, Steve has teaching songwriting and guitar at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music for years, spurring a community of supportive songwriters and musicians around him. In his songwriting class, he comes up with creative prompts, which may have to do with music or lyrics, and a week later you come back with a finished song to perform for everyone.
I not only took his class and wrote a bunch of songs, but Steve and I also collaborated on the book Take It to the Bridge: Unlocking the Great Songs Inside You. It contains 16 of his most creative songwriting prompts plus an extended dialogue about songwriting between Steve and me.
My Caropop podcast episode with Steve is a continuation of this conversation. I love talking songwriting with Steve, because we just get going, and he has so much to say—and is so thoughtful about it. I ask Steve how his songwriting has changed over the years, whether he gives himself songwriting prompts and how he knows which song is meant for which band or project. We also discuss the tricky transition from Stump the Host to Dolly Varden and the times when marketplace expectations have interfered with his creativity; how he’s managed to stay married to and make music with the same person for 31 years; why some songwriters peak early while others keep evolving; and how a Stevie Wonder concert and the Beatles Get Back documentary have provided inspiration.
Steve likes to emphasize that anyone can write songs and be creative, so leave behind your inhibitions and get to it. Please listen, enjoy and get inspired.
(Steve Dawson & The Lucid Dreams play Dec. 19 at Space in Evanston. Tickets are available here. To hear and buy Steve's music, click here. Also, if you're looking for a nice gift for a songwriter in your life, you can order Take It to the Bridge here and other places where books are sold online.)