Jean Dawson talks about ‘Pirate Radio’ and Randy Newman

In 2020 Bob Dylan released a song called “I Contain Multitudes.” It’s a bold self-statement, but Dylan has the receipts to prove it. Jean Dawson does too. Jean Dawson contains multitudes. His new album “CHAOS NOW*” should be used as evidence of completely getting rid of genre labels. He’s got a track with Earl Sweatshirt that sounds like it could be on a Fleet Foxes album. Then, in “Black Michael Jackson,” he sings about drinking lean with his homies on the block. Every time you think you know what to expect, Dawson gives something unexpected.

Making something unconventional might be a product of an unconventional childhood. Dawson’s father is from Long Beach, California and his mother is from Sinaloa, Mexico and he grew up in Tijuana. He took long rides over the Mexican/American boarder to San Diego, where he went to grade school and he’d listen to the wide variety of music that is present in his music today. I caught him on another one of these long drives, only this time near a different boarder and decades later. We talked about his mom and dad, his music, and above all else, Randy Newman.

Jean Dawson Photo credit: Nico Hernandez

Justin Barney: Where are you at right now?

Jean Dawson: Driving from Portland to Oakland, California.

JB: That is a long drive.

JD: It is a suuuuper long drive. I think we’re 5 hours into the drive right now. So we got four more to go.

JB: What have you been listening to?

JD: Funny enough, what have we been listening to? Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kishi Bashi, and Randy Newman. Lot of Randy Newman actually bringing us to tears in this van.

JB: Oh, my God.

JD: Just driving through Oregon, just like listening to Randy Newman. I don’t know what possessed us, but it’s a it’s quite a journey. It’s very somber. It’s a somber time.

JB: I am a Randy Newman fanatic. I love Randy Newman.

JD: Oh my God. So we’re going off. We’re listening to the “Sail Away” record over and over and over again. The one from ’72. It’s so sad and we’re just like going through the dialog from “Old Man” and we’re like, “Is this his dad? Oh, this is horrible. It is very sad, very sweet.”

It’s all the things, all of it.

It’s just like me and my bassist, Jesse Schuster. We’re like in the front seat, looking at each other, telling each other that we better not cry.  It’s a lovely moment.

JB: I love Randy Newman too and I’m always like, people are just thinking that Randy Newman is “You Got a Friend In Me.” Or like some hokey stuff but he is so much deeper than that. The man, like you said, he’s got everything.

JD: He’s funny first and people think, Oh, because he is funny, then he can’t have everything else or that it’s the whole thing’s a joke. No.

No. He has a heavy wit, but it takes a certain kind of spoon to feel it. Even that record, “Sail Away” there nothing funny about it. The last phrase that he says is “We all die.” And that’s how the song ends! And you’re like, “Wait, what?! You take me through this amazing journey of being this guy at the bedside of his dying father that has dementia, that doesn’t know that he’s dying. It is just telling him, “Don’t worry, you’re just dying.” And then it’s just like, “You taught me not to believe in God. God is not going to be there to hold you. But it’s okay. We all die. I’m just like you. And the thing is, we all die.” And it’s like, wait, what? It’s crazy. It’s not even up down of emotion. It’s just going downhill. Very sad. And it’s super beautiful.

JB: So we are playing your song “Pirate Radio. Pirate radio is not mentioned in the song. What is that an allusion to with the title.

JD: It’s my dad. My dad was a sailor. The song is a homage to my father. Him being the 17 year old from Long Beach, California, who was gang affiliated, was a gang banger and had two kids really early. And it’s an homage to somebody that was lost at sea quite literally, you know? And the idea of the song being called “Pirate Radio” is the idea of what pirate radio actually is. And I figured that it was akin to my father’s existence.

It’s like, “You know you don’t belong here. You know you’re not supposed to be doing this. But you’re doing it anyway. And you’re doing it for the sake of other people.”

And that’s why I father joined the military. It was to look after his children and kind of grow into a, quote unquote “man.” So a lot of that record is just like about him and my older brother, who also was my father figure as well since my father was a little bit absent in my life. My brother had just done a triathlon and a part of that was him learning how to swim long distances. I was thinking about that journey and how water is like a super important element in all of the lives of the men around me. And it became that.

The song kind of sounds like a sea chanty. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but I did want it to sound nautical in some respects, so we kind of had it do what it need to do in terms of instrumentality as well.

JB: Has your has your brother heard it?

JD: Yeah. He was he was the second person to hear it. I played it for my mom. My mom was over my house to Los Angeles and I was at the studio and I got home at like 2:30 in the morning and my mom, she’s a night owl like me. So she was just, like, up. And I was like, “I made this song. So, like, you want to hear it? And she was like “Yeah, sure.” So I put headphones on her and it was quite lovely seeing my mum being like, “I understand one of your songs.” My mom likes all the harder stuff because she was a rocker growing up. That’s how she describes it. So she has an affinity for all the heavy stuff, but this is the first song where she said she could hear what I was saying. And she said it was beautiful. Then I took the headphones off and we never talked about it again. Not because she’s dismissive at all, but it’s one of those things where it’s like… When your your kid draws pictures all the time. The pictures start to be like, “Yeah, this is really pretty. Here you go.”

But it’s funny because the first day of tour my mom came to that show in San Diego, California. And then the second day was Vegas, where my father lives. So I got to play live for them the first two days of tour. My goal was to make my dad cry for that song because he’s a man’s man. And I’m like, “I’m going to break that down. I’m going to find a way to creep in your little mind and make you cry.” And I was the one that ended up shedding one tear. And I was like, “Man, this is NOT what I wanted.” I did it to myself. I was like, “I’m going to make him cry. I’m going to cry tonight.” And I’m like, “Dad, this is for you.” And then after he heard it, “He was kind of like, “Yeah. That’s my son.” And I was like, Jesus Christ. And there was no tear to be shed.

JB: That is so funny. What quality of your dads do you have the most of?

JD: I have his analytical intelligence for sure. My dad’s a very, very and not to call myself very smart, but my dad’s a very, very intelligent man. I don’t know where he got so wise or how many books he read, but he’s one of the smartest people I know. And not just because he’s my dad and I know him. I know a lot of professors and a lot of them, but he just knows a lot about a lot of different things. But also his analytical intelligence and his practical intelligence or street smarts are equal. So he’s like a conundrum where you try to figure this dude out. He’ll tell me things about physics in the same wind he will tell me about rolling around in an old car with hydraulics and how they worked. I can’t decipher the guy. So I definitely have his analytical intelligence. I do have his stubbornness. I’m stubborn like him. And I also think that I have his paternal sense. I want to take care of people. And I have to balance that out with like my maternal sense, too, because I want to nurture as well. So it’s kind of hard, like I’m kind of the person. We’re like, Yeah, you know, I’m gonna pay the rent and do all the things. But I also like being the tender one to ask how you are feeling and if everything is okay. Like, “Let’s talk about what’s going on inside.” And I have to balance the two. So I have a lot of I have a lot more my mom in me than of my dad. But the part that I have that are my dad are very palpable.