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Interview: Julie Dawson (NewDad)

5 March 2024

Photo by Alice Backham

Formed in the fires of a secondary school assignment just a few short years ago, this Irish four-piece have quickly carved a sonic niche, weaving dreamlike shoegaze textures with relatable lyrics that capture the rollercoaster of your early 20s. Their sound? Think My Bloody Valentine meets Pixies with a dash of Just Mustard, all produced by the tastemaker Chris Ryan and mixed by the legendary Alan Moulder (Nine Inch Nails, Wet Leg). Recorded at the historic Rockfield Studios (Black Sabbath, Queen) in the United Kingdom, NewDad’s stunning debut full-length Madra promises a shimmering journey that transcends generations.

Singer/guitarist Julie Dawson joined me on a Zoom call from across the pond for a deep dive into NewDad’s short, yet highlight-filled, journey. We discussed their ambitions of taking their music global, the undeniable influence early ’90s alternative music has on their sound, and Julie’s passion for crafting songs with raw emotion that resonate with listeners of all ages.

The album’s been out a few weeks now. You’re on a major label, you’ve recorded at a famous studio, you’ve had a recognizable name mix the album, you’ve gotten great reviews so far and you’ve got an upcoming sold-out tour. What’s next on the checklist?

JULIE: We want everyone to love our music and to be able to tour. We didn’t get to do much of that last year because we were so focused on the album so we’re just really excited to get out there and play for people.

Is the dream to tour the world or are you trying to focus on specific places right now?

JULIE: Yeah, totally Touring the world would be amazing. We played at South by Southwest last year and we’re doing it again this year. I’m really excited to go back.

What’s the biggest audience you’ve played in front of?

JULIE: Probably when we played Malahide Castle opening for Paolo Nutini. I think there were maybe 7,000 people there. That was big. That was one where we looked out into the crowd and were like, “What the hell?”

Do you prepare for something like that differently than you prepare for playing at a club in front of 20 of your friends?

JULIE: No. We’ll do a little bit of breathing before we go on. Funny enough, it’s less daunting when there’s way more people because it’s just a sea of people and I’m not looking somebody in the eye. I always get way more nervous when we’re doing smaller venues.

Having never played in the U.S. before, South by Southwest isn’t exactly the norm. What was your experience like?

JULIE: It’s very frantic. There’s such a buzz around the city when it’s happening. We had a good 10 days in Austin and then I was like, “My time here is done. I’m ready to go home.” But it was so fun. We got to see so many cool artists and just experienced things we hadn’t gotten to experience before. We tried to time it out to see bands we wanted to see but it was never successful. We always ended up staying in the same bar and watching the fans roll over.

Do you plan on seeing your friends’ bands or are you trying to see bands that you’ve never seen before?

JULIE: I think we got to see a lot of our friends last time we played because we were doing a lot of the Irish showcases and stuff like that. Then the rest of it was stuff that we never would have gotten to see. I got to see fanclubwallet and I love her music. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t been in the U.S.

Outside of SXSW, do you have “must see” list for 2024?

JULIE: I’ve still never seen Big Thief and I’m a massive fan so I really want to get to one of their gigs this year. I’m hoping they’ll be on some festival thing that we’re doing, but who knows?

I typically stay away from asking about band names but I was a new dad once. Did you just pick something at random and start to build your identity or were you thinking that a new band and a new dad share things in common – you’re excited but nervous; you get no sleep, you’re awake all the time; things like that?

JULIE: We definitely have leaned into it. It’s so funny the way it gets interpreted by people. I remember someone said, as a new dad, “You wake up exhausted, covered in vomit.” And I was like, “That’s the most rock and roll thing ever.” But, no, the name came from the fact that we reference a lot of older stuff, like, a lot of dad rock. And, I like the idea that this is new dad rock in a way.

When I interviewed Folly Group, they were telling me about the “Radio 6 Dad,” someone who loves Radio 6 and listens to great music and also has the money to go out and buy merch at shows.

JULIE: That’s a thing! The people who’ve listened to us and come to our shows are mostly Radio 6 Dads.

I think I’m one of those types of people. You remind me of a lot of stuff I listened to when I was in college in the early ‘90s.

JULIE: That’s a really nice stamp of approval because when people say that, it’s usually referring to a band that we love and were a big inspiration to us. It feels nice that it reminds people of something they used to listen to.

The internet gives you access to every song ever recorded so it’s probably easier for you to discover older bands than it was for me when I was growing up. Did you discover artists like The Cure and the Pixies on your own or did your parents play that kind of stuff around the house?

JULIE: We used to listen to so much Cure in the house and the Cranberries and a lot of Oasis and stuff like that. The Pixies was an early teens discovery for me, when you think you’re really cool and you start listening to bands like that. But, The Cure opened up a lot of that music for me, like ‘80s guitar bands and stuff.

My daughter hates when I introduce her to a band that is in her age range. She’s like, “You can’t like them. They are my age. I like them.” Do you and your parents ever go back and forth like that?

JULIE: Not really. With me being in a band and listening to stuff that they would be hearing on Radio 6, they’ve discovered so much new stuff. They’ve also discovered stuff because of festival lineups or gigs we’ve done with other bands. They’re always hearing about new stuff, which is quite nice that I’m the reason that they’re hearing music because they were that for me.

It’s funny you say that about your daughter because, honestly, whenever there’s younger people at our shows, and it’s happened so many times, they’re like, “My dad showed me your music.” It’s never the other way around. It’s always the dad showing their kids the music.

How did you pay for your earliest recordings? Did your parents help out? Were you playing live gigs and then using whatever money you made? Did you have a job?

JULIE: I left college after three weeks. I started working full time because I realized music was the only thing that I really enjoyed doing. I started buying recording equipment with that money and paying Chris Ryan. I’m like, “Would you do it for 250?” That was very much how we started off.

Do you have a parent or a sibling or a friend who has either financially helped you or is always offering to do things like sell merch, load and unload gear, that kind of thing?

JULIE: When we were starting off, it was, I mean, (drummer) Fiachra [Parslow]’s dad drove us around our Irish tour in his car. We were all shoved in. They were always giving us lifts to gigs and practice and all that stuff. And then, our manager, Dan, who came in really early, he’s been with us since the start. He was a massive help financially. We knew nothing and we learned so much from him. We were very lucky.

NewDad’s earliest recording is the song “How” which came out in early 2020 but you formed in 2018. When you formed the band, did you already have an idea of what you wanted to sound like or did it take those two years to feel it out and work with the other members to come up with the NewDad sound?

JULIE: It took us ages. For the first two years we were playing, we only had one guitar and we had a synth instead. And that was just crazy. It wasn’t right. When we got the second guitar, it made a lot more sense to us. I’d written so many songs but I was just learning how to write. Most of them got pinned and will never see the light of day. When we wrote “How,” we were like, “This is an acceptable first single.” It’s probably my favorite NewDad song. I really love it.

It really did take us a lot of time to understand or know what we wanted to be. It didn’t just happen. We had to do a lot of bad gigs and write a lot of band songs before we knew we had something.

Is there anything that’s completely outside of the NewDad sound that you either have played around with or recorded? Like, is there a NewDad punk song in the catalog that stands out from what’s on the album and therefore was left behind?

JULIE: We do have one that has two Irish whistles in it. It’s kind of an indie trad song. I’m sure we’ll get it out there some day. Fiachra grew up playing traditional Irish music and we listen to it all the time. There’s definitely elements of that. But, we know it wouldn’t be just a full on trad song.

In terms of aesthetic, the videos for “Let Go” and “Nightmares” visually represent the way you sound. I grew up watching MTV and 120 Minutes and your videos feel very familiar to me, like I should have seen them 30 years ago. I’m assuming that was a conscious decision to have that look and feel.

JULIE: Zack [Arlo] and Oliver [Day] are the two guys who joined us to make all the visuals, it’s not our strong suit. We never know how we should look, we just know if we like something. They sent over the ideas for the videos, and we’re just like, “This is so cool.” And it really is reminiscent of kind of like early Cure videos, that dreamy, slushy look. That was all Zack and Oliver. They’re excellent. They really helped us put an image to the album because we were trying everything. We didn’t know what to do.

Funny that you mentioned The Cure. You did a cover of “Just Like Heaven” recently. Was that something you had been working on and playing out or did someone approach you and ask you specifically to cover that song?

JULIE: A few days before doing the session, we were told that they wanted a cover. We were either touring or doing something else so we could only do one practice before we went to do the session. We used to play “Just Like Heaven” all the time when we first started the band. We already knew it, it was just a case of locking it in. It was really the only choice we had because we didn’t know any other covers. I’m glad we did it.

I’m not naive enough to think that everything that you write is from personal experience. You might blend fact and fiction within the same song or even the same lyric. Would you say the majority of your lyrics are more fact or more fiction?

JULIE: That’s a good question. I would say maybe 80% of the time I’m writing from personal experience. Other times I’m inspired by a character or something. With the personal lyrics, it’s usually based on an experience but maybe it’s exaggerated a little bit. So, my lyrics are more fact, but I like to add a bit of drama.

And I imagine people your age will come up to you after a show and say, “I can really relate to your songs.”

JULIE: Yeah, we do. We also get a lot of messages. It’s really nice. When people say it in person, I sometimes am really taken aback, but that’s what you want to do. I think when you make music, you want it to help people in any way, because that’s what music does for so many of us. That’s what it did for me growing up. I don’t know where I’d be without some of my favorite bands. And it’s cool to think that we can help someone in even a little way.

As someone who is middle aged, I can promise you that some of the relationship stuff you go through when you’re young will all even out in the end. No matter how bad things might seem in the moment, you’ll look back some day and say, “Yeah, that was nothing.”

JULIE: That’s good to hear. When I look back on songs I wrote when I was 19, I’m like, “Wow, I’ve come a long way since then.” I know I’ll definitely look at these and be like, “Gosh, drama queen.”

Was it an intentional decision to put the songs “Dream of Me” and “Nightmares” back to back?

JULIE: I didn’t realize that. So said that recently and they were like, “That so clever” and I was like, “We didn’t realize that!” And then I was like, “Oh, that is actually quite clever.”

When it came to the sequencing, we had a lot of outside help because we did not know what to do. I think sequencing an album is so hard. It wasn’t the same as when we’d done it with the EPs. You have to really have that ebb and flow and make sure it gets mixed up enough so we had a lot of help with that. But, yeah, very clever on whoever made that call to put those songs back to back.

You released four or five singles before the album. That’s the way it’s done these days but by the time the album comes out, people have heard half of it.

JULIE: It’s to keep our music in the mind of people, keep our music in the playlists of people. I think it’s kind of nice to imagine that maybe we will hold some songs back and let people listen to the whole thing and be like, “Wow,” but releasing singles is just to keep the ball rolling. We tried to leave a few that would be a nice little surprise, but, to be fair, my two favorite ones on the record were released before it even came out.

Who decides what singles are released? Is that your decision? Your manager’s? The label’s? A combination?

JULIE: It’s a conversation with all of the above. We got to pick the ones that came out before the album. There were talks of other ones, but I think most importantly, it had to come from us. We’re always open to ideas as well, whatever makes sense. We really wanted to put out “Let Go” and I thought “White Ribbons” was such a nice different thing with a little bit of quiet just before all this noise. It felt right to have it out there. I kind of wanted to give the song its moment in the spotlight because it is one of my favorites.

Is there a song that you didn’t put out a single that’s one of your favorites?

JULIE: “Sickly Sweet.” We wanted that one to be a surprise. I want to write more songs like that. I feel like whatever headspace I was in when I wrote that, I wanted to be a little bit cheeky and a little bit sassy. It was a fun one to write.

 

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