By Brian Tucker
Walking across a bridge back into the United States after a trip to Juarez, Mexico, singer-songwriter David Dondero saw a large group of people behind chain link fence. Men stood in one area, women and children in another. He stopped to take photos, pushing a camera lens through the fence. An officer dressed in black approached, thrusting a gun barrel into the lens.
“The people they were lording over posed no threat. Nor did I with my camera,” Dondero said. “Returning to America felt like stepping into a fascist police state. It didn’t seem very free to me at all.”
The experience inspired “The New Berlin Wall,” a song off Dondero’s new album This Guitar, recorded to sound like a German polka in Mexican Tejano style. Like much of Dondero’s work, the album is filled with personal songs but he says This Guitar may be his saddest.
It was inspired by time living out west over the last decade, be it a harsh winter or entering his mid-40s (“Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis on tape”). His self-described transient personality led to living in “beautiful wide open spaces” back and forth between Oregon and California. Made under different means than his prior releases, This Guitar was funded via Kickstarter. The album’s immediate and spare quality was recorded as “loose and live as possible” and for the first time he wasn’t spending a record label’s money.
“It was the fan’s money. They prepaid for albums so I felt a bit more pressure and responsibility,” Dondero said of the influence. “That’s a great thing because it lit a fire to really get it done. It was cool to have direct communication with people. It’s nice to find out who your true fans are. It really matters to them and put some wind into my sails to follow through.
I started thinking like nobody cared for what I did. I found out that some people do which was a pleasant surprise and helped me to gain some self confidence. I appreciate all of their help and I worked really hard to make a good one for them.”
It also led to a striking lament in the album’s title track song about his instrument, played out like a tortured love affair. Detailing what the guitar takes and gives. It also illustrates a life playing music instead of taking life’s normal pathways.
Recorded stripped down – vocals and piano only, that version is stark and bittersweet. But two versions exist, the other with Dondero and a guitar. The result is two personalities for a song on an album filled with them, colorful and direct like Edward Hopper paintings.
“I wanted to punish that dirty guitar by leaving the bastard in its case,” Dondero said of his initial thinking. On it he sings, “This guitar took me around the world/Got me money and it got me loose women/And it left me empty handed at the end of the line/Stranded alone, broken out of my mind…I sit back and let it wind till it’s through/Just to play, Till I slip away.”
This Guitar is populated with places and people, scarred and beautiful. Dondero’s golden voice seems to only get better with time. “Roses and Rain” is a harrowed gem about a turbulent relationship whose backdrop is dreary Portland, Oregon weather (“Sometimes the bleakness gives way to the most intense beauty,” he says). “Alcohol” can be deceptive, a lively barroom tune but about the crushing realities of drinking. The charm and heartbreak of “Samantha’s got a Bag of Coal” came from Dondero’s want of bringing attention to real stories.
It’s about Sam Dorsett, co-founder of Plan-It-X Records who changed gender and later died in 2009, it recounts an act of civil disobedience about someone with a “mighty soul” devoid of ego. One Christmas she went around Bloomington, Indiana handing out chunks of coal to naughty adults – bankers, insurance brokers, etc. Dorsett later moved to Oakland, California where she was pushed from a highway bridge and nearly died.
“I wanted “Samantha’s Got a bag of Coal” to sound crystal pure, like the day after a snowstorm,” Dondero said. “A victim of a hate crime, she never quite recovered and eventually took her own life. “Samantha’s got a Bag of Coal” is her song.”
Additional Q&A with Dondero
For the recent greatest hits album, did you seek to revisit songs resonating with fans or interested in putting a fresh paint on them?
Dondero: Both. I pulled songs from early records that have gotten requested the most. The reason I did them with just voice and guitar is because that’s normally how I play live. I wanted something that is a true representation of the songs. They’re simple songs that are lyrically based – stories and poems. Many people have asked me why I don’t have the solo versions on record. Why the full production? So I did them bare bones. I also pulled a few that I think are still poignant to what’s happening now like “The Pity Party” originally written after the Columbine school shootings. Nothing’s really changed so I wanted to update a verse.
New album This Guitar has an an in-the-room quality. Was it recorded live, done in few takes?
Dondero: Yes, some of the songs were recorded in one to two takes like “Roses and Rain” and “Alcohol.” They were unintentional keepers. We were trying out my friend Doug Walseth’s studio in Austin, Texas. It was a late night whim to record a few songs and we managed to get three songs that night. “Roses and Rain,” “Alcohol” and “Take a Left Turn in Boise.” I thought they sounded pretty good even though we were half in the bag. That was the start of a new record. So it went from there and we got a couple more.
I like to keep it loose and live as possible. Most of the album is that way with the exception of title track “This Guitar” and “The New Berlin Wall.” Those were both recorded in pieces in different locations. “Aleuitious and the Typewriter Keys” was done in Car Hole Studio in an afternoon. It was done with a stabbing-in-the-wind technique. We just move forward, mistakes or not, get the structure and add things on top with one take. Highlight the mistakes and tweak them with sound effects. And it was super fun recording that song with my buddy Kullen Fuchs in the Car Hole Studio.
Making a new album, is it that you have tunes ready to go or is it primal?
Dondero: It takes a period of living I suppose but I don’t go to the studio with the songs until I’ve sung them on stages and tried them out. It happens naturally as the time goes by. I like to see what works in front of an audience and what doesn’t. I hadn’t planned on doing another album. It kind of came along that way. All of a sudden I had enough songs to make a full record.
Initially going into This Guitar I was going to just do a few songs because I happened to be hanging around with some friends who had some nice recording gear. We were messing around and it sounded good so decided to go back and do more. Only problem was the looseness of the initial session could never be recreated so I had to move on to something else, another place the next time. Trying to get it back was too contrived like pulling teeth. You can’t force it.
Luckily I found other places to get the feelings out I needed to, specifically Bill Corsello’s home studio down in Austin and Mike Vasquez’s studio in the Columbia River Gorge (in the Pacific Northwest). It’s the first time I’ve worked in several places like that. Normally I’ve done the whole project in one location but the Kickstarter money gave me some flexibility to move around.
This album feels internal. Is it the most personal you’ve made?
Dondero: I’m not sure if it’s the most personal because they are all that way. It might be the saddest one. An Oregon winter can send you into yourself pretty deep, I suppose. And as I’ve landed in my mid-40s I’ve definitely gotten a bit more introspective.
“Boxer’s Fracture” seems to hold a mirror up close. Has making music been a fight for you?
Dondero: Making music is not a fight at all. It’s easy. The music business is somewhat of a fight and I’m not sure it’s a worthy fight. A subtle jab here and there, then a sledgehammer pounds you into the ground and an icy cold door slams shut in your face. It’s more like that. I like to make music and sing songs for people, especially when people want to hear them and a connection is made. That’s not a fight at all. That’s why I do it.
A fight is picking up the paper in the morning and reading things that are going to mess with my brain, tweak my emotions. I broke my hand by punching a wooden beam in anger, anger over children dying in random gun violence and feeling helpless over that. I literally broke my hand in Annapolis, Maryland at a show the day after the theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado. I listened to naval cadets making fun and talking about buying more guns. They’re sticking up for their guns and not for human life.
I think it’s so crazy and so sad. I’m not even a boxer, yet I got a boxer’s fracture over this frustration. This insanity, this horror show. They’ve created a culture of fear. I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid and I’ll never own a gun. That’s what “Boxer’s Fracture” is about – “The hanging trees” (the gun nuts) “are always mocking the weeping willows” (the parents and the people who mourn over the people who have died).
This Guitar was really different versus making one for a label like Team Love or Ghostmeat.
Dondero: Yes, because I had to deal with things I haven’t done in the past. It’s more hands-on regarding the business side of manufacturing the actual product. Paying the studio and musicians and laying out the album. I’ve always had my hands in all of those things but never where I did all the work. I still have had some help from my friend Tate at Unrequited Records. We’ve become partners regarding the release of the vinyl versions.
“Roses and Rain” is spare and elegant. Could you share the backdrop of the song?
Dondero: Portland, Oregon, a turbulent relationship. You’ve got to get through the dreary rain to get to the beautiful rose. The roses love rain. My rose loves rain. She’s tender and gentle, like the song. Sometimes the bleakness gives way to the most intense beauty.
Were songs for This Guitar written in the same timeframe? Did you go in with specific music like gentle piano playing or the accordion?
Dondero: Yes, I intended to use piano and accordion as key instruments on the album. The songs were written mostly over the past three years although “No Tomorrow in This Song” was written close to ten years ago. I’ve always wanted to do an album with no guitar, just voice and piano. I approached this record with that in mind for the title track “This Guitar.”
I thought it would be funny to do that one with only voice and piano. I initially did it live with voice and guitar for a scratch that Eddy Hobizal could play off of. He improvised three versions on piano over the initial tracks. We used the middle one and I ditched the scratch track and re-sang the vocal over the piano. I was in Washington at the time and he was in Austin. We sent the tracks through the internet and recorded it in both places.
However later on I did a guitar and voice version which comes at the end of the digital release. Working with Kullen Fuchs and Adoniram Lipton down in Austin made it a natural flow to incorporate the piano and accordion. Kullen is a really good piano player but a great horn player as well. So we worked out the songs with his horn arrangements and Adoniram improvised on piano for the initial three tracks recorded which spawned the rest of the album.
“The New Berlin Wall,” are you sharing stories or is it about bringing attention to something?
Dondero: “The New Berlin Wall” was inspired by a trip I took to Mexico. I went down to Juarez for a visit and when I walked back across the bridge to America I saw a bunch of people sitting in a retention area beyond the chain link fence. There were dozens of men in one area and women and children in the other. They were Mexican men and women that were being held and put onto government buses.
I tried to take photographs through the fence but a cop in a black swat outfit stuck the barrel of a gun into my camera lens. A little bit over the top if you ask me. They were like Nazi’s in commando outfits intimidating everybody around them. It seemed they had a license to do whatever they wanted. It was their job to be mindless thugs with guns. The people they were lording over were innocent men, women and children who posed no threat. Nor did I with my camera.
Returning to America felt like stepping into a fascist police state. It didn’t seem very free to me at all. It made me sad and it inspired the song “The New Berlin Wall.” In this case it’s mostly a fence and an idea. Has the drug war created this? Why is there a drug war at all? Can you win a war against drugs? Will a fence or a wall solve anything? I personally dream of no borders.
“Alcohol” has a parlor feel, an interesting mix of careful melody and bar-band grit. Playing it live, how have people responded? Historically songs like that get misconstrued.
Dondero: I wanted it to have a live barroom feel, loose and almost falling apart. I think we managed to capture that feeling. People seem to get a laugh out of it when I play it at the shows even though it’s a pretty serious song about my dealings with alcohol, my attempts at AA and rehab. I want to stress that I’m not saying alcohol is a completely bad thing, I’ve gotten years of enjoyment out of it. But I’ve also had tremendous misery and it’s caused me to say and do things which have hurt my career, my relationships with family and friends. It’s messed me up, or I should say, I messed myself up.
But I still love to drink. I wish it didn’t turn as sour as life goes on. That’s why I generally lay off the stuff nowadays. I can’t get anything out of it anymore, other than depression, self-loathing and lashing out at others for no reason. Plus it’s pretty expensive to drink all the time. I’ve resorted to shrimp cocktails and soda water.
Looking back over the last decade, would you characterize albums as slices of your life or snapshots of the world around you?
Dondero: I’ve spent most of the time in the past ten years in the West, bouncing back and fourth between Oregon and California, the beautiful wide open spaces. I love it. But I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Wilmington and Asheville, North Carolina as well. New York for about a year in between. Chicago for brief stints. I’ve got a taste for the big city. I’m a transient type of person and I get restless so easily. The albums are slices of life and reflection of the world around me combined. Sometimes I slip into the world of fantasy for my own sanity.