Whenever fans watch Dawn Tyler Watson, they are consistently impressed with the seemingly effortless power of her voice, her great control, beautiful tone, and wonderful stage presence. This winner of the 2017 International Blues Challenge also earned multiple Maple Blues Awards in Toronto, won a Blues Blast Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year, was nominated for a Blues Music Award for Vocal Instrumentalist of the Year and her most recent album, Mad Love, won the Juno Award (Canada’s equivalent of a Grammy) for Blues Album of the Year. But Montreal’s ‘Queen of the Blues’ actually began her career as a jazz singer. That fact appears to lend credence to BB King’s well-known observation about jazz musicians. He stated that when jazz musicians choose to play the blues, they perform better than the blues musicians because they know the chord progressions better than other musicians. Blues Blast Magazine had a chance to catch up with Dawn at this year’s International Blues Challenge, (where she served as a judge), and asked her about her thoughts regarding his observation.
“I think jazz musicians definitely have an extended harmonic vocabulary. They tend to use more chord extensions, but they also really listen to each other. They are very aware of what everyone else on stage is doing. They’re listening for inspiration, especially while improvising. It’s a different approach to the Blues but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better one. For me, I try to have ‘big ears’ on stage, picking up what others are putting down as they say, and using it to motivate what I’m doing. It keeps things fresh.”
Dawn described how she was adopted, raised in a nearly all-white neighborhood, and had some surprising early musical influences growing up.
“My folks were playing all kinds of stuff, from Dean Martin to Barry White in the house. When I was thirteen, my brother taught me to play a few things on his acoustic guitar. He was into rock at the time, but I could only manage a couple of country chords. You can play literally hundreds of songs with G, C and D. At the time I learned some John Denver, Anne Murray, and Kenny Rogers tunes. Later I would write songs where I could hear that country influence. Actually, I still sound pretty country when I play guitar.”
Dawn was also singing in church from a young age but noted that it was not like the experience of many blues singers who grew up singing in church.
“It was not like the music you might hear in a Baptist Church—it was the Catholic folk mass! I would also listen a lot to the top-40 radio station, mimicking all the vocal styles I heard. When my folks bought me my first portable record player, I would play a record over and over parents singing along, and driving my crazy! I was trying to sound just like they did on the records. My musical tastes were whatever was playing, and I knew all the hits. But I was beginning to discover vocalists like Gladys Knight, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin.”
Dawn’s path into music was not a linear one. She described experiencing a very troubled period in her teens during which she ran away, and survived experiences that could have easily led to her death.
“At the age of thirteen, much to my parent’s dismay, I started running away from home and getting into trouble. I’d get caught, they’d bring me back home, and I’d run away again. I had started drinking and drugging, and from thirteen until about twenty-one that’s all I lived for. One day, just after my twenty-first birthday, I remember being surprised that I wasn’t dead yet. It’s sad to think of it now, but that was my reality. On that day, I decided to do something about it. By this time, I was drinking and using some pretty hard-core drugs on a daily basis, and I had no direction, no job, and no fixed address. I made the decision that I would try to get my life together and move back to my hometown. With the help of my folks, I got an apartment and a job in a restaurant. But it actually took another five years of trying to control the party before something clicked and, in a moment of total desperate surrender, I asked for help.”
During that time, Dawn got the chance to audition for the Concordia University Music Program in Montreal.
“This was all very serendipitous actually. A dear friend had moved there first and had finagled me the audition. Though both my brother and I had formal musical training from grades 5-8, I had forgotten everything, but the audition and the screening went well, and I got accepted in the jazz program as a mature student. Much to my surprise, I graduated in ’94 with BFA in Jazz Studies and a minor in Theatre. I was finally on the right track. Making music full-time and the incredible support I felt from my teachers had helped me to put the party behind me once and for all. I had found an agent who was getting me some little acting jobs, some print ads, small film roles, and commercials. I had also joined my first real band by then. We were called ‘Two-Thirds Scotch’ and played everything from Aretha to ZZ Top, from Stevie Ray to Stevie Wonder.”
At one point, Dawn nearly got diverted back into acting. She was approached to play the lead role in a film, co-starring with Roy Dupuis. (Dupuis was described by her as Quebec’s version of Brad Pitt, although Americans probably know him best as the sexy mentor Michael, from the TV series La Femme Nikita.)
“Jack Paradise- Les Nuits des Montreal is the name of the film, and it is mostly in French. It loosely based on the true story of the director’s father, a white pianist during the early jazz scene in Montreal who fell in love with a black singer, but given the pressure of the times, ended up marrying a white woman instead. It was released in Quebec &
France, and it was an awesome experience for me. That was my voyage into acting, but my singing career had already started. I was approached by a small record label and asked if I’d like to contribute to a Blues compilation they were putting together, the Preservation Blues Revue. I ended up contributing three songs, and the very next year after its release, I was asked to perform on the blues stage at the Montreal Jazz Festival. There were about ten thousand people in the audience, and I just remember looking out from that stage and thinking ‘well I guess I’m a Blues singer now.’ Jazz had been my thing. It wasn’t like I set out to be a blues singer, but I really feel like the blues chose me, and I’m grateful for that.”
While she did not continue with an acting career, Dawn’s acting abilities are evident in her dynamic stage performances, and she appears to have instant chemistry with other musicians on stage, and easily connects with the audience. Her first album, Ten Dollar Dresswas very eclectic in song choice, yet was nominated for blues album of the year at the Maple Blues Awards (which is similar to the Blues Music Awards in Memphis).
“Getting nominated was a big confirmation for me. I had this imposter syndrome as a blues singer. I was so insecure and felt like I was faking the Blues. Then I did a song on a TV show that was watched by a million people, and I started getting stopped on the street because of that. My career started going well in 2003 or 2004.”
Dawn worked with celebrated Canadian guitarist Paul DesLauriers for a while as a duo. Although they both kept their respective bands on the side, they toured together for 14 years and recorded 2 albums. After the album Southland came out in 2013, they both started craving something new, so Dawn got together with her current formation, the Ben Racine Band, and has been performing with them ever since. She described the series of stressful events that occurred right before they competed at the 2017 IBCs.
“I had gotten married in 2013, and in October 2015 my marriage fell apart. Then three months prior to our competition at the IBCs I went to the ER with heart palpitations and found out I needed emergency triple bypass surgery. Since I was adopted, I didn’t know anything about my family medical history, so this was a shock. We couldn’t do a fundraiser because I was recovering from the surgery, but the blues community in Canada really came together for me, (particularly Angel Forrest and Paul DesLauriers), and did a benefit show to raise money to help send us to the IBCs. Otherwise, we couldn’t have gone. The love and support I received was overwhelming. The recovery from surgery was supposed to be three to six months, but we ended up competing three months to the day after my surgery. We kicked ass—did our best and were shocked to hear our name as having won first place. I still get goose bumps thinking about that.”
Dawn’s phenomenal performance at the challenge included a bit of a jazz influence, despite being warned by people that she would not have a chance at unless she kept to a blue winnings format.
“I had competed in 2012 with Paul, and I think that we may have lost points on blues content. When I went down in 2017, I was cautioned not to scat, to keep it blues-centric, but of course I did scat a little, and we won! It was huge for me. Even though it’s five years ago now, I am still feeling the ripple effects of having won. People still walk up to me and say they remember that moment at the Orpheum, and it’s great to feel all that love and support. After seeing familiar faces and passionate fans at festivals, and on the blues cruise, I totally get what people say about what’s known as the ‘blues family’. It’s fabulous to see familiar faces–musicians and fans alike, getting together. The energy is so tangible. It’s nurturing and electrifying, and it urges me to continue doing what I’m doing.”
Like all musicians, Dawn lost many gigs during the pandemic. And, like many, she found it difficult to use the time to be productive and creative.
“I think I was in shock for the first year. It also felt a bit like a snow day. I was at the airport, about to board the flight to perform at the Juno Awards since the album was nominated, but it got canceled. I didn’t get to walk down the red carpet, and my whole world screeched to a halt. I did eventually do a couple of online concerts and started teaching more, but basically, I had stopped and regrouped and slowly came back. I only recently started writing again. We are working on a new album, and I know great things will come from performing at the Bender. I’m especially looking forward to the women’s show at the Bender. One of the beautiful things about the pandemic was that Shakura S’Aida sent out an email to some female performers. It was approximately ten of us at first, and we started meeting virtually one time a week, supporting each other. It has grown to over 45 women and three years later we are still doing it. We call it the ‘Sistah Girls’. The requirement to join is that you are a black woman who is a front artist, and who is able to leave her ego at the door and connect to the spirit. I feel really blessed to be part of this group. I’ve gotten to know these women intimately. You know, I could have been dead so many times over the years, putting those substances in my body. I had no idea what some of it was. That is why I need to remember to pray, meditate and be grateful and connect to other spiritual-minded people. It’s so important for me to stay connected, and I feel like I have been enlightened and educated by these women.”
Dawn was asked if there were any singers that she still hoped for the opportunity to join on stage. Initially, she could only think of how grateful she was for the opportunities she has already experienced.
“I’ve gotten to sing with some amazing artists: Koko Taylor, Cyndi Lauper, Sugaray Rayford, Kenny Neal, Curtis Salgado. I’m sure there are others, but I would love to have the chance to get on a stage with Mavis Staples, Dianne Reeves, and Dee Dee Bridgewater.”
Catch Dawn Tyler Watson at any of her shows and you will quickly see why Elmore Magazine calls her “dynamic and utterly captivating…her voice is a marvel!” You can find out more about Dawn’s upcoming album and her tour dates at www.dawntylerwatson.com.
Reviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.