If you want to know how Devin Dawson made a name for himself as one of country music’s most promising young acts, his debut album Dark Horse holds the answer.
Writing every day for the past three years, Dawson has a catalogue that amasses 500 songs, boiling it down to 12 strong cuts that create Dark Horse. It’s a project that’s sonically engaging and tied together by Dawson’s gift as a wordsmith. Though love is a dominant topic of conversation in Dawson’s songwriting, it’s delivered in a fashion atypical from most love songs we’ve become accustomed to.
“It was really about just being inspired by certain ideas that made sense for me and telling them in a unique way that nobody had certainly said before,” Dawson tells Sounds Like Nashville about selecting songs for the project. “I like to try to just do it a little different, but maybe start from the same archetype or start from the same things that people are used to, but just said in a different way, from a different perspective.”
He turns to “Second Hand Hurt,” a track about breaking someone else’s heart while hurting your own in the process, as an example of expressing common ideas in a refreshing way. The same goes for “I Don’t Care Who Sees,” with Dawson making a point to proclaim his distaste for PDA during conversation, but using the song to express how he doesn’t care who sees the affection he has for the love of his life.
What particularly invigorates Dawson is songs that challenge him, like the fiery “Second to Last” that features a fast, intense beat that he describes as a challenge between him and the audience. Playing songs live was a unique and important component of the creation process for Dark Horse, with Dawson tailor picking songs that were successful both live and in the studio. “Playing to your capacity 100 percent of the time is something that I have loved and that song is a good kind of tip of the hat to like ‘here we go, let’s see what happens,’” he describes. “But that’s a good challenge to me…it’s then made me better because I rise to that occasion, hopefully.”
The inviting lead single “All On Me” sets the tone for the album. Dominating country radio with its sweet sentiment wrapped around clever wordplay, Dawson says the song started from a “vague” concept of carrying a loved one’s burden and turned into the “positive love song” that’s established him as a steadfast artist. “We kind of dove into what is ‘all,’ like all of the things that are wrong or all of the things that are hard in this world. Just put it all on me, I’ll shoulder the weight for you,” he explains. “It’s just a simple love song at the core.”
Though he wasn’t in love at the time the song was written, it almost foreshadows Dawson’s current relationship, as he explains how the lyrics were his way of putting his desires of love out into the world, hoping the universe would return them. “Looking back now, I realize that I wrote it about where I wanted to be rather than where I was,” he reflects. “I tended to kind of write love songs in that perspective on this record. It was more about putting it into the universe and wanting it to come back.”
But the album’s most striking number comes in the form of the title track. True to its name, the song stands alone amongst the strong-willed dozen, serving as a self-analysis of his strengths, weaknesses and how he views himself in the world. “The song is kind of like a mirror in a way where it’s like you see everything, like there’s no hiding from yourself,” he says of the song he co-wrote with friend Andy Albert. “I think I needed to have the pressure lifted of writing for something to write that, to have that song show itself, to have it kind of come to me.”
A haunting melody frames Dawson’s personal story as an outlier in society, identifying with those who feel different from the rest with lyrics that paint a distinct image of the singer’s convictions. “I had written so many love songs and I love that, but I also wanted to find one that people could hear it and know who I was in three and a half minutes and that was what that song served,” he says of “Dark Horse.” He details how he approached the song selfishly, wanting to offer listeners an introspective look at who he truly is. It’s since transformed into a relatable track that many fans see their own reflection in. “I didn’t know I wanted to do that starting out,” he admits. “I just wanted to write a song about who I was and it’s just kind of become this kind of force which is really, really cool.”
As fans dive into what makes Dawson such a dynamic artist, his hope is that they never stop digging, constantly finding new insight as they listen to the songs he’s crafted, always feeling a deeper sense of impact. “I hope people experience the emotion the first time through, but every single time, they hear something different or something new every time they go back to it,” he relays. “I hope they’re not overwhelmed the first time, but I want them to continue to dive into it like each single time and never hit the bottom.”
Dark Horse is available everywhere now.