Black Door Records / MGM
A couple of months ago, when informed Mia Dyson was about to release another record, her fifth, I thought to myself, ‘That was quick’, and so was quite surprised to go back and see that her stellar fourth release, The Moment, actually dropped in August 2012. Time flies when you’re enjoying a record, no doubt.
“[Time] really has flown by,” concurs Dyson, via email from Chicago where she’s on tour at time of writing. “I feel like I’ve barely come up for air. But it’s been an exciting time and the inspiration that was there to write and record was shorter than usual, so I took it.”
“I actually spent a month last year with the phone and email off and just dove into writing, something I’ve never done before, and low and behold, I wrote some songs,” she goes on, regarding the initial process of what’s turned out as record number five, Idyllwild. “I’m not a particularly prolific songwriter, so it was a real surprise to me to find at the end of that month I had enough songs to begin thinking about making another record. Just to be clear, not all were written in that month.”
Idyllwild is a very important album for Dyson, perhaps her most important. As she says, she was caught off guard at the reception The Moment got (“It felt like The Moment really touched people in a way that was so fulfilling me for, but not something I expected,” she says), and so there’d have been added pressure to really capitalise with this new one. On the flipside though, there’d also have been an abundance of inspiration, as Dyson mentioned.
“Yeah, I was inspired by the way The Moment seemed to have a life of its own, finding its listeners in new and different places and I took that inspiration into the writing of the next record,” she concurs again. “As you mentioned, I think The Moment achieved something I’d been trying to find in all my previous records and hence, I was able to move on from that and look at a new album with a totally open slate.
“The way I write, it’s more like being open to what comes through rather than setting a goal of writing a particular kind of song, so in many ways, I’m not in control of what kind of record I write. This one emerged with some new influences I think – my childhood growing up in the ‘80s with bands like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, and a new interest to explore sounds and depart a little from the traditional guitar and drum sounds I’d been working with on previous records.”
It’s interesting Dyson talks about departing from the guitar and drum sounds of records past, as Idyllwild is, to my mind, much more of a guitar record than anything she’s released since 2005’s ARIA-winning Parking Lots. The title track, which opens the record, begins with a quick up-and-down riff which exudes a clearer, sharper version of punk; ‘When We’re Older’ utilises crunchy rock riffage; ‘Any 3 Chords’ is simpler but no less effective, mainly her voice and a single strum, that very distinctive Dyson guitar tone, soon joined by Barney Tower, who lays down a tasty solo. So while I think Dyson has indeed stepped away from the simpler format she used on early records, Idyllwild is definitely very guitar-centric.
“I would say so, yes,” she muses. “My producers, Erin Sidney and Pat Cupples, have encouraged me so much over the past three years to push myself on guitar, especially in the studio. I have trouble playing in front of people unless I know exactly what I’m doing and they’ve helped me to let that go and explore and make plenty of mistakes and find the gold in there somewhere.”
There’s plenty of gold in there, make no mistake. The obvious place to start is Dyson’s voice – ever since her 2003 debut, Cold Water, that voice has drawn comparison to the likes of Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, you name it, soak it in whisky and enjoy – on Idyllwild, it soars. On ‘Made For The Same Clay’, it’s aching; ‘Mama Was’ has it sultry and graveled; closer, ‘Based On Your Eyes’, it shimmers, sounds like it’s about to crack, but then comes out stronger than ever, over some simple piano (and eventually some sweet guitar noodling), it’s magic.
Another golden aspect is the evolution exhibited in only a couple of years. Dyson says it’s “death to creativity to stay in the same world”, and so she’s set her course for other worlds, and it works fantastically. “This record explores ideas and sounds that I’ve never been willing to try before. And as small as that may seem, it was a big step for me,” she explains.
“I’ve been using the same amp and guitar for the first four records, and on this record I played a different guitar and amp combo on every song. And it was really fun and exciting to play with those sounds in the studio. Same with drum sounds and keys sounds, there was nothing that was out of bounds to try and we all contributed in the studio.”
Along with producers Sidney and Cupples, who also contribute drums (the former) and additional guitar and backing vocals (both), Dyson also enlisted Lee Pardini on bass, piano and glockenspiel, as well as Tower for ‘Any 3 Chords’. All bring a solid backing to these songs, all of which fall together with an easy cohesion on an album which isn’t blues, it’s not country, it’s not rock ‘n’ roll, it’s a Mia Dyson album.
“Ha! That’s really nice to hear,” she smiles. “I love all those genres, and I want to make records that just have great songs, regardless of what genre they fall into. I feel like I’m still a beginner and I hope I have a long life continuing to grow as a songwriter.”
I have no doubt she will, and while Idyllwild is a grower – it doesn’t hit first up with the intensity that The Moment did – it grows into something powerful and beautiful, jagged and raw, soft and sweet, all at the same time, which is no mean feat. I don’t think I’ve ever written a bad word about Mia Dyson, and she’s certainly not given me cause to begin now.
Samuel J. Fell