A Conversation with Michael Scott Dawson

photo by Emma Ruthnum

Michael Scott Dawson is a Canadian sound artist, multi-instrumentalist and community builder who explores ambient and electro-acoustic compositions through synthesis, field recordings, tape loops and manipulations. While much of his solo and collaborative work focuses on efforts to reconcile his relationship with music and technology, he is also a member of the free jazz collective Peace Flag Ensemble and produced their debut LP Noteland, which was described by Shindig! as “akin to getting stuck in a sensory deprivation tank with Keith Jarrett”. Dawson has also released collaborations with The Field Tapes and Jon Neher as well as contributing to the Thesis: Recurring project alongside such artists as Taylor Deupree, Rafael Anton Irisarri, and Pan American.

Many thanks to Michael for taking some time to discuss his beautiful new album Music For Listening which comprises twelve ambient works for guitar incorporating, tape loops, piano, and field recordings made during summer visits to his hometown which he was inspired to return to after after a phone call with his 95-year-old grandmother. Also, be sure not to miss the video premiere of the brand new single “Summerfallow” being published simultaneously with this interview.

First of all, congratulations on the new album. It is really beautiful to listen to. Maybe we could start by you telling us in your own words how Music For Listening came to be?  I understand that it is based around field recordings you collected from pastures and farmland on the outskirts of your childhood hometown

Thanks so much. That’s very kind of you. I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe the process and inspiration because I’m trying at all costs to avoid the words “pandemic” and “Covid”. I just didn’t want to create that association with the record and I’m not certain a decade or two from now folks will be eager to go back and revisit pandemic albums. Please don’t take that the wrong way, I certainly don’t intend to imply that I think I’ve created some sort of timeless masterpiece that will warrant revisiting through the ages. I think maybe it’s more that if some kid finds an old warped copy in the landfill twenty years from now, I hope whatever story is tethered to the album centers around childhood, home, and family. 

With this album I wanted each song to be more of a singular moment or mood – a place I enjoyed sitting for 3 or 4 minutes. If you’re listening closely or focused there’s little moments that sort of pull you along or redirect your attention but if it’s playing softly in the background it’s quite easy to feel like nothing is happening or to tune it out entirely.

What guided the process of adding the musical component of the record? Are there any particular aspects of the field recordings involved in that?

It truthfully came about very organically. While listening through the field recordings I just intuitively picked up a guitar and started tinkering along. I don’t mean that in some sort of overreaching, divine inspiration context, but more like how I would casually just pick up a guitar while watching television or having my morning coffee. It just grew out of that moment. There was a natural pacing and mood that informed my melodic fragments. I was trying to make tape loops and passages that didn’t feel invasive. Similarly, the details of the birdsong and insects definitely influenced the sounds I would choose when experimenting with different signal chains of granular effects or manipulating a tremolo pedal. With a lot of the textural elements I was responding directly the field recordings. 

The birdsong and insects are, of course, prominent in the recordings but there are a number of other very interesting sounds, some of them almost rhythmic and percussive. What are some these other elements that we are hearing? 

There’s all sorts of little things tucked away in there. Often it’s a combination of several sounds. Some are definitely more artful or romantic than others. Over the last few years I’ve really noticed how the way I listen out in the world has changed, particularly when I’m working on a record. I’m also strangely drawn to old machines that try to emulate nature. There’s a couple different recordings from old electric fireplaces I’ve come across in random hotels on the record. There’s also the rattle and hum from a faulty street lamp that I always notice in front of my in-laws house. Sometimes it’s the sound from a bad tape loop. Sometimes it’s little experiments with contact mics. Sometimes it’s just the noise from a crappy patch cable. 

On my first album there were a lot of bicycles. I had been hanging around Park Fiction in Hamburg and was so drawn the rattling sound of all of the bikes coasting along the cobblestone. I came across a couple of those recordings that I hadn’t used for whatever reason and it felt fitting to work them into Music For Listening as well. 

There is such an organic flow to the music, a sort of out of time quality feels very unstructured and free.  How did you end up arriving at what became the song structure of the album?

Your question reminds me of a time when I was still in school studying visual art.I had this fascinating professor who would often speak of the time he spent with swamis. For two semesters of drawing classes all we did was create line drawings of human bones to scale using calipers. Students would constantly grow eager to exercise their own creativity, either by straying from the guidelines of their drawings or begging to move on to other projects. The professor always held his ground, insistent that in order to successfully be expressive we had to first develop a core fundamental and foundational understanding of seeing and drawing. Despite my classmates grumbling I secretly loved the exercise and would zone out for hours with Low or Red House Painters in my headphones. For some reason that lesson always lingered with me and I’ve carried it forward into my music. After a lifetime of playing in bands I feel like I’ve developed enough of an understanding of traditional pop song structures that I can comfortably ignore them. Please don’t take that as some delusional claim that I think I can write a great pop song. Quite the opposite actually. But I do understand that they rely on varying levels of gratification. With this album I wanted each song to be more of a singular moment or mood – a place I enjoyed sitting for 3 or 4 minutes. If you’re listening closely or focused there’s little moments that sort of pull you along or redirect your attention but if it’s playing softly in the background it’s quite easy to feel like nothing is happening or to tune it out entirely – much like the sounds I’d captured around the pastures and farmland. For the most part the length of each song was dictated by the length of the original field recording.

Your debut album ‘Nowhere, Middle Of’ closes with a track entitled “The Imperfectionist” while “Music For Listening” closes with one called “The Sentimentalist” which suggests an interesting sort of rhyming pattern across the two records. Was that deliberate or is that just how things worked out?

It was intentional, although admittedly I didn’t really think anyone would notice. They are both a summation of each album and a reference to realizations about myself I was forced to admit while creating them. 

Obviously these recordings are deeply connected your own personal memories and sense of place.  What do you hope others might take away from their experience of listening to it?

I’m just grateful if folks spend some time with it.I found the process of creating it to be peaceful and therapeutic and I’m hopeful that will translate to listeners.

Finally, where do things go from here for your music?  Any new projects in the works related to the new album or further down the line?

In between my first album and Music For Listening I made an LP for Peace Flag Ensemble, which is an ambient free jazz collective my friend Jon and I put together with some other wonderful people and artists. We’re in the very early stages of putting together a second LP which will hopefully come out later this year. I’ve also been tinkering away on some new solo material. It’s splintered into a couple different directions and still uncertain what will come of it, if anything.

Links: Bandcamp (LP/digital) | Michael Scott Dawson

photo by Emma Ruthnum