Quietly and without much fanfare, the southern California folk-rock band Dawes has amassed a consistently strong catalog in the past decade. Starting with 2009’s North Hills, the quartet has been distinguished by strong, understated ensemble playing and Taylor Goldsmith’s earnest, narrative songwriting, which evokes the tenderness of Jackson Browne and the evocative storytelling of Warren Zevon. But the group has arguably built much of its reputation on the road, where it is now a headliner of large theaters. Even rock legends are paying attention — Dawes will be opener for this summer’s arena tour by Electric Light Orchestra, the band’s first in more than 35 years.
Dawes’ latest album, Passwords, is the band’s quietest, most austere effort, a marked contrast with 2016’s adventurous and overstuffed (mostly in a good way), We’re All Gonna Die. Reunited with producer Jonathan Wilson, who oversaw the first two Dawes albums before he went on to work with Father John Misty, much of Passwords is composed of shellshocked soft-rock tunes about the state of the world, accented with mournful pianos and sparkling synths. At the heart of the record are Goldsmith’s stories, like “Telescope,” one of his very best songs, which plays out like a movie over the course of six minutes: A deadbeat dad abandons his son, the kid grows up hooked on methadone, and the sense that one of these characters will do something very bad after the song ends lingers.
I recently talked with Goldsmith about songwriting as well as the interesting place that his band has in contemporary rock — not quite mainstream, not quite indie. We also talked about what it’s like to be engaged to the star of one of TV’s most popular shows (pretty cool!), and whether it’s ever awkward to work in the same business as your fiancee’s ex-husband (sometimes but not really!).