THE ARCHETYPE OF NOMADIC FOLK SINGER has been a persistent one since at least the Great Depression. The romantic notion of Woody Guthrie riding the rails, finding day work where he could get it, and singing songs for the underdog has been ingrained in the American psyche ever since. But for all the supposed “folk” resurgence of the last decade, few modern singer-songwriters can claim to live anything resembling this lifestyle like David Dondero can.
Restlessly travelling from city to city, often sleeping in his car, Dondero seems to be the heir apparent to this tradition. He certainly doesn’t shy away from inviting the comparison, performing a version of Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” on A Pre-existing Condition, his most recent release. Dondero’s own songs weave plain-spoken imagery and unpretentious arrangements into ruminations on different facets of American life, spanning topics from economic inequality to personal relationships and heartbreak. He was kind enough to pull his car over to the side of the highway recently so that we could have a conversation about politics, the current state of the music industry, and the definition of touring.
David Dondero is playing at BAR in New Haven, Connecticut on Wednesday, July 18. BAR is located at 254 Crowne Street. The show is free, 21+, and starts at 9pm. For more info visit manicproductions.org.
For more information on Dondero, visit his website at davedondero.com.
The Mercurial: How long have you been on this tour?
David Dondero: You know, you say ‘tour,’ and it’s not… it’s like a life process, it’s a never ending tour, you know? Not like a start and finish like, ‘how long have we been on tour?’ - it’s kind of what I do nowadays - I’ll do it for a couple weeks and then I’ll stop, and then I’ll do it for a couple more, so it’s not an ending ‘tour,’ it’s an ongoing lifestyle.
Not the sort of thing you just take a break from..
It’s not like, ‘hey everybody, I’m going on tour!’ It’s not like that. I’m just doing my thing, you know?
So, to be able to do that – does that necessitate a lot of booking on the fly?
On occasion. Yeah. Sometimes I’ll end up booking on the fly some last minute shows, if I run out of money. But then I’ll end up going and doing a carpentry job somewhere. But that’s part of the ‘tour’ too. If you want to call it a ‘tour’ – ‘hey I’m on tour, look, I’m doing a carpentry job today. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a show.’ That’s kind of how the ‘tour’ goes, if you want to call it a ‘tour.’ I’d do like, a carpentry job in Seaview, Washington and then go down to San Francisco and help my friend do a solar installation and then that night maybe do a show, you know? So that’s part of the ‘tour’ – life’s process of living, you know?
Do you have a home base – someplace you call home?
No. Well, you know, I live in the United States. I live part of the time in Portland, Oregon, sometimes in San Francisco, sometimes in Austin, sometimes in Wilmington… Asheville, North Carolina is a home base. Duluth, Minnesota is a home base, Chicago is another home base. New Orleans is a home base. Omaha is another friendly home base to me. There’s a lot of homes – more to come around the country, so, yeah I do have a home base – all those places.
Is Omaha where you’re from originally? I know that you’ve spent some time in that scene –
No. No, if you’re gonna get into my history I have nothing to do with Omaha, other than having – I was born in Minnesota, in Duluth, and I started going to Omaha back in 1993 to play shows and that’s my only connection to Omaha is – and I’ll tell ya, this is all I’ll say about Omaha – a good friend of mine, Ted Stevens, from the band – now he’s in Cursive, he used to be in a band called Polecat – he was initially the one who brought us to Omaha and he remains a very good friend of mine to this day. And he’s a great guitarist. That’s my connection to Omaha, was Ted.
It’s a never ending tour, you know? Not like a start and finish like, ‘how long have we been on tour?’ - it’s kind of what I do nowadays - I’ll do it for a couple weeks and then I’ll stop, and then I’ll do it for a couple more, so it’s not an ending ‘tour,’ it’s an ongoing lifestyle.
I don’t know if that’s a common misconception, but the reason I ask is that Conor Oberst –
I don’t want to – don’t even bring that -
– often lists you as an influence –
Don’t bring that up, I don’t want to talk about that.
Okay. Fair enough.
Don’t bring that up. I don’t want to talk about that in the interview. I don’t want to talk about him, this isn’t about his band – strike that from the record.
Let’s talk about your music. You’re fairly prolific, I think it’s fair to say – you’ve got several albums out just over the course of the past few years. How long does it usually take you to write a song?
I couldn’t tell you, man, I don’t know. That’s a question I can’t answer. I don’t know.
As far as the recording process – do you tend to go into the studio with a song more or less fully formed, or do you write in the studio?
Sometimes. You know, I’ll do a song in the studio if I don’t have enough stuff or if I’ve already gone through everything I have, then I’ll maybe write a song in the studio. Sometimes it happens like that.
Have advances in recording technology changed your approach to recording, or to songwriting?
No, I’ve always recorded on little handheld recorders, then I go to the studio and record ‘em the right way… or the wrong way. Not really. You know, it’s made it easier to cheat on records, make ‘em sound better and in time, quicker, using ProTools. I try not to do that too much. I do do it, though, sometimes. I’ll cheat. I’ll cheat just like all the other motherfuckers out there. Yeah, I use ProTools, and I cheat sometimes [laughs]. Just to get things in time, plumb things over. But that’s what engineers do – I don’t really, I’m no expert with ProTools.
On that same front, there have been these vast changes in the music industry over the past 15 years, not just in the recording process, but to the way music is distributed and the way money is made – it seems like selling recordings is no longer really a viable way of making money. What can you say about the prospect of making a living as a musician in the current climate?
Well, it never really has been a viable way of making money, selling the record, especially from my level of success. The model of the past was pretty much set up to screw the artist to the wall, and not pay them shit, and cook the books so they don’t get anything at the end of the deal. The new model – the digital revolution – allows control to go back into the artist’s hand. This is the first time I’ve actually made any money off my music, is through the digital revolution, and now that pieces are starting to fall into place, you can sell stuff at a price, or you can have people that like what you do donate – that’s what’s been helping me lately, doing it that way through the website. People have been pretty good to me – I’ve been putting out songs on my website and having them donate for downloads and that’s been working out pretty well. First time in my life I’ve made any money off the digital product.
You tell a lot of stories in your songs that seem to be drawn from personal experience – do you fictionalize elements of your songs? Or do you try to tell stories verbatim? How do you draw from your experiences to turn them into songs?
Depends on which song. Some the songs are completely true, some are partially true. The majority of it is truthful.
The new model – the digital revolution – allows control to go back into the artist’s hand. This is the first time I’ve actually made any money off my music, is through the digital revolution, and now that pieces are starting to fall into place.
Do you think songwriters have a responsibility to touch on greater social issues?
Oh absolutely, I think you should reflect the politics of the time, and talk about issues and bring up issues that are uncomfortable. I try to do that. I feel it’s important to be as socially conscious as possible. I think sometimes a song is more powerful than a vote – and if you don’t like my political viewpoint write your own song, write a song about what you think.
So you keep yourself informed on current events and politics?
I try to – I’m not an expert in any of that but I try to keep myself tuned in politically. I listen to a lot of radio, NPR, and read a lot of newspaper articles, I try to put a mixture of it all together with the BBC and Al Jazeera and American news sources – get a hodgepodge of ideas, talk to my friends, and create my own opinion.
Do you have an opinion on the current political climate – the presidential race for example?
Absolutely, I mean, I’m still with Obama a hundred percent, even though he hasn’t had a spine – I really believe he’s been kicking against a brick wall with the Republicans, and that they’re not gonna give him anything. But I think if he gets reelected he’s really gonna press the gas down, and stop trying to be friends with people that’ll never work with him. But I’m a hundred percent behind him. He gets my vote again, absolutely.
[some minutes later, phone rings:]
Hey, Patrick – Dondero.
Yeah, I feel like I ended on a bad note with you, man.
Oh no, not at all –
Okay, I just – I get a little weird about things. Like, I don’t want to talk about Conor Oberst, okay, that’s all I wanted to say. Everybody I ever interview with, they ask about him, and it pisses me off. It’s just been goin on for ten years now, and it’s like, ‘enough is enough, man,’ you know? I get a little agitated about it. I don’t mean to come off angrily, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I respect that. For what it’s worth I’ve been listening to your music for years – so I guess I’d consider myself a fan.
Well thank you. You should check out Lullaby For The Working Class.
When was that released?
That was like ten years ago. That was before Bright Eyes was even Bright Eyes, and then Bright Eyes kind of, in my opinion kind of hijacked Lullaby For The Working Class’ style, the sort of orchestrated… Just, yeah, Mogis was in the band and, he did that whole orchestral arrangement thing with Ted and then, then he did it with Conor and that version took off. But let’s not talk about it, just… Ted deserves a lot more credit than he gets. Let’s just leave it, I just wanted to make sure I didn’t leave you on a bad note. And I kind of just blurted out the thing on Obama. It’s like I do support him, you know? And I think he does good things, but I’m not all that happy with him lately. I’m happy he’s our president, you know?
I think a lot of people are. I personally feel this election is another sort of apathetic year for voters.
That’s what I worry about, I think a lot of people who supported Obama aren’t gonna get out there again. That’s what worries me. I think right-wingers are going nuts now, they really want to get him out of there. We’ve got to vote again, everybody’s got to vote again. Yeah, I think apathy is taking over again, you’re right. Hopefully not. Because that would be terrible if Romney gets in.
I guess that’s what songs are for, right?
Yep. Write a song about it. Anyway, I should get off the phone, I don’t know if I can talk on the phone in Maryland while driving.
Well thanks for the call, I appreciate it.
Yeah. Take care.