Dawn Richardson: Keeping Busy

Dawn Richardson once edited a special women's issue of DRUM!. So we wanted to talk to her for this special week of women drummers at drummagazine.com. Since we last interviewed her, the San Francisco based-player and teacher has been all over the world of drumming, most recently on a tour with Tracy Chapman. We interviewed her last week.

Artist: Dawn Richardson
Age: 45
Band(s): Tracy Chapman; Dolorata; Shana Morrison
Previous bands: 4 Non Blondes; The Loud Family; Penelope Houston; Angel Corpus Christi.
Drums: Pacific
Cymbals: Zildjian
Sticks: Vic Firth
Heads: Evans/Remo
Hardware: PDP/ DW

You've just come off the road with Tracy Chapman. What was that like?
It was a great experience. Tracy is an extremely talented songwriter and musician and I appreciate her giving me this opportunity. She is a creative and consistent performer that is unafraid to express even her most well known songs in new and different ways. She keeps her repertoire fresh by keeping the arrangements open and spontaneous on stage and changing up the set list daily. She makes creative use of dynamics live and all of these elements combined made it quite musically varied and interesting for me as a drummer. Our shows were usually an hour and a half to two hours on stage each night and I felt we did pretty well as a band in helping Tracy express her music.

The other band members are such amazing talents and I was humbled to be on stage with the three of them. Joe Gore is the most interesting and talented guitar player I know. He plays guitar with a very unique style and interesting technique - you’ve never seen anyone do it like him! He has played with some other greats as well, like Tom Waits and PJ Harvey. There was no bass player on the tour, so he did a lot of tunes on baritone guitar and was able to cover most of the bass parts in addition to many of the important guitar parts simultaneously.

Patrick Warren is also a wonder on keys and another Tom Waits alumnus who has also done a lot of touring and recording with Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. He plays beautifully and makes everything seem simple and easy, no matter how difficult. In addition to playing guitar and singing, Tracy also plays percussion and we did some fun arrangements of various songs with some cool rhythmic interplay with her on cajon mid-set most nights. She also played mini-congas on “America”, which was another pretty heavy drum/percussion song. I really enjoyed the shows and was excited to be playing in some big venues again.

Touring Europe with a big name act sounds like it must have been high-class living. How was it compared other tours? Compared to the cram in the van and stay at Days Inn tours – pretty amazing! But seriously, I have toured all sorts of ways over the years, and this was probably my favorite tour to date. We stayed in very nice hotels and played in interesting venues in great cities all across Europe and the US. I got to see a lot of new places and revisit some places that I had been to before. I played daily with great musicians that were also nice people to be on the road with – because you are around everyone A LOT, okay! We had some really great times exploring cities and just hanging out on the bus after shows together.

Ah yes, and my other favorite element of the bigger budget tour– the Drum Tech. It’s nice to not lug all my own gear for a change! I got a little break from that this summer. It was nice to just show up and have everything ready to go – it felt quite luxurious – like a bubble bath for drummers. So thanks, Linda B. – great tech and fellow drummer! 3. How do you approach the musical challenge of backing someone whose songs are already well known. Do you try to play like the records?

My starting point for learning the songs was indeed the recordings. That was really all I had as a reference. I wanted to be as well prepared as I could be going into rehearsals, so I studied the parts and arrangements and had charts for all of the songs to practice with on my own. We had a list of around 35 songs from Tracy to start with. We also ended up adding more songs along the way. Another self-imposed challenge for the band on this tour was to learn a new cover song for every show. We did end up repeating ourselves a few times, but it was exciting to try!

This tour was in support of Tracy’s most recent album, Our Bright Future – and I learned that album in its entirety along with her hits and various catalog favorites. I tried to bear in mind that recordings often have a lot of overdubs and effects and I was trying to capture the main essence of the songs. I listened for what parts were most important in both the drum kit and percussion parts and I tried to keep things interesting and stay creative by using percussion and adding textures that I felt were elemental and helped to best express each song. I also listened for the overall dynamic arc of the song and thought about how to best accomplish that. I was able to incorporate sticks; mallets; brushes; blah-sticks; tambourines; woodblocks; shakers; cowbells; sleigh bells; conga top (practice conga); polar fleece bits as mufflers…all sorts of fun stuff. I justified many an odd purchase by getting this gig!

Tracy has a quite a large catalog of music and has worked with various drummers and producers on her recordings that cover a twenty year span. As a drummer, you have to listen and try and discern the most important elements of the parts you are hearing and draw your part from that – and then also be flexible enough so that when you get into rehearsals, you can change anything or everything. My concept didn’t always match hers, and in that case, of course you adjust the part. It was a process. So I basically did as much as I could on my own to prepare and had many of the songs close to memorized by the time rehearsals started.

We had two weeks of rehearsal in San Francisco before the start of the tour. That helped me to hone in on my parts and helped us learn to play together as a band. We flew to Cork, Ireland and had a day of pre-production before the first show. That was to check the lights and sound and all – make sure that everything was working properly and we were all together as a team – lights/sound/techs, etc. I don’t think we actually made it through the set until the first show, the following day – which was sold-out. I got my first taste of some loyal fans! They were very enthusiastic and I could see this was going to be a pretty great summer.

I wondered when I was practicing what it was going to feel like to launch into her popular songs with the audience, and it was a pretty big rush, for sure. It’s really rewarding to play when the audience knows the music and is giving back so much energy – very exciting to be a part of. There’s one song called “Baby Can I Hold You Tonight” that has a 1 beat fill into the intro (yeah, I played it just like the record!) and often they would be clapping by the downbeat, because they knew and loved the song. You have played and recorded heavy music and children’s music and many things in between. Discuss the benefit of that as a musician?

Mixing it up keeps it all interesting for me. It wouldn’t be much of a challenge do the same thing over and over, would it? That doesn’t mean I don’t still play beats that I learned the first year I played the drums - I do, for sure. Drumming is about repetition. But the intent behind the pattern is different and as you mature as a musician and find your own voice. I think it becomes easier to express all of the techniques and skills we’ve collected by studying in a more musical way, the longer you play and create music. At this point in my life I am much more interested in creating musical sounds and textures and playing with passion and musicality. Connecting with other musicians and really allowing music to happen, rather than playing something that requires so much technique I would have to practice it a bazillion times to execute it properly. There is a certain beauty in simplicity. Much of drumming is expressing songs and you will most likely find yourself playing the same patterns again and again. The rewards come from a new place once the pattern is mastered and the challenge comes more from the “how” of the expression it seems to me. It’s true that it’s often not what you say, but how you say it, that matters.

What are your current projects?
Currently I am playing in a rock band called Dolorata and with singer/songwriter Shana Morrison.

What do you like better, recording or performing?
Apples and oranges – I like them both for different reasons, but I can’t say either is more favored. I enjoy that performance demands focus and gives you immediate gratification. I like the challenge of staying focused and creating music with your fellow players to the best of your ability live on stage. And usually people clap, which is nice. While studio playing requires extreme focus as well, often I am playing with a click track and/or also trying to really connect with the other musicians involved, and you usually get another chance, if you like…or the producer likes! You can have another take to try again. And it’s a bit more permanent of a record of what you’ve done, with nice tones and serious mics and all that. Much of my playing is with singer/songwriters and both scenarios offer a chance to be creative and help express someone’s music with your own bit of input on the drums.

You once edited a special issue for us on female drummers. Now as a veteran, how has your view of life as a female drummer changed?
Not much really. I think it’s been about 9 years since that issue and I don’t see any huge shift. I think there might be more women in the drum publications than there were before, and that’s good. But they are certainly still dominated by men, as are most aspects of the music business. Female drummers are still the minority – but a growing and visible minority. I do see more female drummers of all ages than I did when I started and I hope that more girls today will have more women to identify with than I did when I started playing the drums.

Is there a difference in the young girl drummers today as opposed to when you were starting?
I hope that they aren’t thinking things like “I’m not supposed to be doing this because I’m a girl”. I see more women in music playing all sorts of styles of music and in all colors, shapes and sizes, which is really cool. I also teach drums and have a pretty good mix of boys and girls and women and men, which I think is great – everyone should play the drums, right?!? I don’t think playing the drums for girls now is as rare or taboo as it once was. I love to see my young students playing in school bands and rock bands and not thinking a thing of it – they just love the instrument. I hope that in every aspect of life, young girls will have more freedom and opportunity than in previous generations. I hope that for the good of all of us, gender roles become less restrictive.

What are you excited about? What's next for you musically?
I am getting ready to start work on a most likely to be duo project, possibly with special guests (uh, we’re not exactly sure what it is going to be, actually, which is also exciting!) with guitarist extraordinaire Joe Gore. I am also creating some music/percussion oriented group workshops with Carrie Baum Love at her new Mission based studio called SoundSpace. We are excited about getting more people enjoying making music together – no matter what playing level they may or may not possess – music participation for the masses, so to speak.

I have a couple more projects soon to be published by Mel Bay that I’m excited about as well. The first is a Beginning Rock Drum Chart that I hope will help bridge the gap between reading drum tab and notation for a lot of folks and I also have a Kid’s Drum Book that is coming out after that. I try and stay busy…