CMA Awards 2018

Former YouTube Phenom Devin Dawson Puts It 'All' on the Line in Debut Single

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Devin Dawson performs during the National Music Publishers' Association Annual Meeting at Marriott Marquis Times Square on June 8, 2016 in New York City. 

It’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving. On Dec. 23, 2014, Belmont University student Louisa Wendorff posted a video to YouTube with classmate Devin Dawson that mashed up the Taylor Swift songs “Blank Space” and “Style.” Swift brought extra attention to it when she praised the video on social media, and to date, it has racked up nearly 34 million views.

Dawson had originally planned to pursue songwriting, rather than artistry, when he moved to Nashville. But he subsequently wrote his name over the blank space on an Atlantic recording contract, and it’s just one of the -professional changes he has witnessed as a direct result of that YouTube post.

“Not only did it help me get into the eye of the labels and all that, but it helped me get a publishing deal, it helped me get a manager, it helped me get an agent, it helped me get all of these things,” says Dawson. “It really helped everything. If that hadn’t happened, I would still be here doing what I do, but it just might have taken longer.”

Now everything’s happening at lightning speed. Warner Music Nashville shipped his debut single, “All on Me,” to radio via PlayMPE on April 10. Dawson shot the video on May 3, sang it on Late Night With Seth Meyers in his national TV debut on May 4 and performed it again during his Grand Ole Opry debut on May 5.

“My life is full of firsts right now,” says Dawson.

If “All on Me” should become his first hit, he’ll be able to trace the song’s roots back to Nov. 3, 2015. That’s when Dawson co-wrote it at the home of his guitarist Austin Taylor Smith, who rents a place in Nashville’s Antioch neighborhood. At the time, Dawson was roughly six months into a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell and Neon Cross Music, a contract that came directly from the YouTube video. He was writing five to seven songs a week, but in the midst of that creative flurry, he had no specific song agendas as they set up shop in Smith’s six-walled basement studio. So Dawson pulled up his smartphone, where he found the prospective title, “All On Me.”

“We kind of did a little Russian roulette on all my ideas,” says Dawson, “and that thing just kind of caught my eye that morning.”

They focused strictly on the words to start, treating it much like a crossword, or the Jumble puzzle, straight out of the newspaper.

“I literally just started listing all these things for the idea of ‘put it all on me’ -- you know, the burden, the weight, everything,” recalls Dawson. “We went all the way down through the chorus and kind of just listed things: ‘When it don’t add up you can count on me,’ ‘When you’re mad you can put the fall on me,’ ‘Call on me’ -- all these things that are ‘on me,’ right? We just really wanted to explain what that ‘all’ was. We kind of, for lack of a better term, just kind of word-vomited it out.”

With that collection of ideas in place, they turned their attention to the musical elements, searching for the right sound to match the sentiment.

“We went through at least three or four different grooves,” recalls Smith. “It took longer than usual before we landed on the one that we did. But honestly, from there, the chorus wrote itself, really. We had already typed out everything that we wanted in it.”

The chorus is mostly smooth and gurgling, riding atop a pair of chords — a 1 and a 2-minor — that take a soulful detour from the typical country -progression. The end of the chorus presented a minor road block. It needed to come to a halt, and they accomplished that by shifting from the breezy texture into a staccato mode — “Put. It. All. On. Me.” — that’s the sonic equivalent of pumping the brakes.

As cheery and reassuring as the chorus might be, the verses took on a darker tone. Fears, troubles, the “weight of the world,” all set up the kind of burdensome personal struggle that makes people want to pair up in the first place.
“It kind of needed to go there,” says Smith of that darker thread. “I think it would’ve been too happy [without it].”

They made an iPhone work tape, which Dawson subsequently played for his brother, Jacob Durrett, who was keen on producing a full-fledged demo. Dawson came up with an acoustic guitar riff for the intro during that session, and Durrett built a loop and a bass part into the demo, which lifted the song to another level. It was enough of an improvement that Dawson volunteered to give Durrett a 10 percent cut on the songwriting royalties, essentially reducing his own share to 40 percent.

“That’s how he is with everything in life,” says Smith. “He’s a very genuine person.”

“All On Me” was a key song -- maybe the song, says Dawson -- that got him signed. He cut it with producer/Neon Cross owner Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), who used Dawson’s band — all Belmont alumni: guitarist Nick Dimaria, drummer Kip Allen, Smith and bass player Sam Rodberg. They leaned toward acoustic and classic sounds, set up at the outset with two guitars meshing atop Joyce’s Hammond B-3, which is almost indiscernible underneath.

“That’s Jay messing with your ears,” says Smith. “He likes to do that.”

The track was recorded almost entirely live at the East Nashville studio, including Dawson’s reedy vocals, similar in tone to Eliot Sloan of the ’90s pop band Blessid Union of Souls.

“There’s like little loose parts of it. Some parts aren’t exactly on time,” says Dawson of his performance. “That one literally is the most live one on the record.”

The most prominent overdubs — maybe the only overdubs — are Smith’s three harmony parts, some of which tested his upper range.

“The hardest thing about it was singing all the choruses an octave above Devin, way up high,” says Smith. “I’m sure it sounded hilarious without headphones on.”

“All On Me” was the frontrunner as a single almost immediately, holding on to that status despite a late surge from another track, the brooding “Dark Horse.”

“I’d consider it somewhat of a flagship song,” says Dawson of “All On Me.” “This is what I want to sound like, this is what I want to say, this is the groove I want to dance to, these are the melodies I want to sing.”

Whether or not “All On Me” becomes the defining song for a new hit artist could take months, maybe years, to know for certain. But even then, it will bear some sort of debt to the Swift mashup, a happenstance creative effort that became a surprise pop-culture moment.

“There’s a direct correlation to that and everything that goes on in my life,” says Dawson. “That really helped kind of take me into the eye a little bit, and honestly, it kind of gave me this extra confidence to be an artist.”