Review Fix chats with singer/songwriter and playwright Katie Dahl, who discusses her new album, Wildwood, as well as her work as a playwright.
Review Fix: How did you get involved in music?
Katie Dahl: As a kid, I got involved as a volunteer with Northern Sky Theater, a theater that was kind of a hybrid theater/folk music venue. They used to do revue-style concert shows of music by The Weavers, John Prine, Paul Simon, plus created original musicals with folky scores. That’s where I found out I really had a passion for folk music. I also used to play oboe–but then my freshman year of college I broke my wrist slipping on the ice, and I couldn’t play in the orchestra for a while. So I took the extra time I had to teach myself guitar, strumming with my cast and making chord shapes with my left hand.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Dahl: What I’m working on creatively really changes from season to season. I write in big spurts leading up to an album usually, and I really have to force myself to write. Writing with intention isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I also am working on writing my second musical, and I tend to be very deadline-motivated in that writing. I find that walks and showers are really helpful for jump-starting me if I feel stuck–anything to get my brain from thinking too much!
Review Fix: What inspires you?
Dahl: Lots of things. Poetry, the news, my friends. I tend to feel inspired at other people’s concerts, which isn’t usually the most practical place to jump into writing a song. But sometimes I’ll scribble down some ideas and come back to them later. I got the idea for “Braver than Me,” a song on the new record, at a Freddy & Francine show, for example–I snuck into the back room and wrote down some lyrics and came back to them the next day.
Review Fix: How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?
Dahl: I’d say I write folk-inspired songs that are fairly literate and grounded in a strong sense of place.
Review Fix: Tell us a little about Door County, Wisconsin, where your family has lived for 6 generations…
Dahl: Door County is a long, skinny peninsula that sticks out into Lake Michigan from the northeast corner of Wisconsin. It’s a real working and thriving agricultural and artists’ community (my ancestors were mainly fisherpeople and cherry farmers). But our main business these days is tourism. So there’s a real seasonality to life here–super busy in the summer, very quiet in the winter–that I love. And it’s beautiful, lots of bluffs and beaches and trees and water. And of course, we are very close to Green Bay, so we’re in strong Packers fan territory.
Review Fix: You’re about to release Wildwood, your 5th album. Being a studio veteran, did you go about the process any differently this time? Were any songs written on the spot that ended up making the record?
Dahl: Yes! I’ve recorded all my other albums close to home in Door County, and this is the first time I recorded somewhere else–namely, at Henhouse Studio in Nashville. And we tracked everything live as a band–in the past, I’ve recorded everything piecemeal. I loved this new (actually, old, just new to me) way of recording, partly because it sounds so warm and organic, but also partly because it prevented me from getting too precious and neurotic about everything–what I played is what I got! I couldn’t re-cut my vocal part over and over hoping for perfection.
Review Fix: What inspired your latest single, Oh Minnesota?
Dahl: I live in Wisconsin now, but I grew up in Minnesota, and I’m always struck by how different the two states are. You wouldn’t think so, since they’re right next to each other, but their cultures are really different–and somehow I always feel more comfortable when I go back to Minnesota, like I’m slipping into my old skin. It’s a nice feeling. That’s what the song is about. Also, “Wildwood” as a whole has a lot of themes of immigration and exile, and I think “Oh Minnesota” is exploring those themes on a micro-, state-by-state level.
Review Fix: What was it like to work with JT Nero and Allison Russell?
Dahl: It was great! I’m a huge admirer of their work, have been for a long time, so I was thrilled to get to work with JT as a producer and hear Alli’s voice on my songs. Also, JT has roots since childhood in Door County, so that’s part of why I chose him as a producer–he really gets where this album is coming from.
Review Fix: How are your live shows different from your studio work?
Dahl: Well, usually when I play live I’m playing solo or as a duo with my husband, Rich Higdon, who plays upright bass. So on this album in particular, we had a full band, and the whole vibe is really lush. I love seeing my favorite artists solo–I think there’s such a vulnerability in that kind of live concert experience–but it’s also really fun on an album to dip into what a bunch of super-talented musicians can bring to a song.
Review Fix: You’re also an accomplished playwright. Tell us a little bit about “Victory Farm” and “The Fisherman’s Daughters.”
Dahl: “Victory Farm” is a musical I co-wrote with my friends Emilie Coulson and James Valcq. It premiered at Northern Sky Theater (the same theater where I first learned to love folk music) in 2012 and has since been produced twice more by them. It’s inspired by the true story of German prisoners of war who came to pick cherries in Door County during World War II (German POWs actually performed agricultural labor all over the U.S. during that time). “The Fisherman’s Daughters” (that’s a working title; the name may change) is about two sisters whose home is threatened by eminent domain during the creation of a state park in Door County. I’m writing the whole thing by myself–lyrics, book, and music.
Review Fix: What are your goals for the rest of 2019?
Dahl: I’m touring a lot behind “Wildwood,” and there will be a workshop/reading of “The Fisherman’s Daughters” later this month. Other goals include having some down time and spending a lot of time with my son, who’s three!
9/13 – Madison, WI @ Crescendo (Album release show)
9/14 – Milwaukee, WI @ The Unitarian (Mequon) [Album release show]
9/15 – Evanston, IL @ SPACE (Album release show)
9/22 – Cambridge, MA @ Club Passim (w/ Joe Crookston)
9/28 – Sturgeon Bay, WI @ Miller Art Center
10/18 – Minneapolis, MN @ The Hook and Ladder Theater
10/24 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Crowne Plaza (FARM Conference)
11/06 – Chelsea, MI @ On The Tracks (w/ Mark Dvorak)
11/07 – Ardmore, PA @ The Living Room at 35 East
11/08 – Stamford, CT @ Crowne Plaza (NERFA Conference)
11/30 – Fish Creek, WI @ Door Community Auditorium (w/ Capitol Sun Rays)