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Michael Scott Dawson:
A Portrait of Solitude and Ambient Sentimentality

The contemplative songwriter has composed an album that is literally for the birds — and his grandmother. 

by Stephan Boissonneault 

During the thick of the pandemic, Michael Scott Dawson (Library Voices, Peace Flag Ensemble) was grateful to get a call from his grandmother who was in lockdown at her care home. Their conversation was about the news, the weather, his childhood, and his grandmother’s anecdotes about the birds outside of her window. 

“I was always sort of cautious to say I was inspired by my grandma talking about birds because it sounds like this inaccurate picture of an eccentric old lady in a loud flower dress out in the yard with binoculars. Like she’s a character in a Christopher Guest movie,” Dawson says. “She’s actually this incredibly kind, observant, and contemplative 95-year-old woman who is always well put together.”

For Dawson’s entire life, his grandmother always mentioned what the birds were up to during their little chats, but for some reason, a reason he still doesn’t quite understand to this day, when she talked of the birds that day, it hit him differently. 

He began to feel homesick, somewhat washed in a wave of sentimentality about his childhood, and started diving into old bird field recordings he created around his hometown of Estevan, Saskatchewan. “After that call, they sounded and felt different to me in this renewed context. As I was listening, I just sort of picked up the guitar that was sitting next to me and started strumming along,” Dawson says.

Whether he knew it at that time or not, Dawson was making the ambient music he would one day release under the title Music For Listening, a 12-track album released on the We Are Busy Bodies label of found sounds, bird chirps, and balmy guitar warbles.

The album is deeply meditative, putting the listener in a sense of brief security and tranquility with tracks like “Two Solitudes” and “Everything in Modulation” for around 45 minutes. Little sounds, like a buzzing guitar line, make continuous appearances as the keys of an old piano echo and reverberate.

It’s quite different from his first solo LP released in 2020, Nowhere, Middle Of, but retains that same ambient soundscape texture. On his debut his primary instrument was the synthesizer, but on Music For Listening he has abandoned it, instead using subtle nuances of the guitar to get his point across. He did this for a number of reasons—spontaneity for one—but also to give himself a different, more restrictive sonic palette. 

“On the one hand, a synth has endless capabilities, but on the other I was starting to find all of these redundancies in how I would use them creatively,” he says. “I wanted to explore other things that a guitar could be; building little textures, deconstructing familiar sounds, treating things like fret buzz and string noise as musical elements.”

The field recordings are also pretty raw, featuring the buzzing of bees and other insects and sometimes a light wind or rattling of leaves. These elements could have been edited out, but keeping them gives Music For Listening a much more organic, DIY flavour.

“I’m constantly recording things,” Dawson says. “I’m always sort of listening out of the corner of my ear. Maybe it’s like how a photographer can shoot a bunch of different objects but when you put them all side by side, the body of work will somehow share a similar feel.”

Ultimately, Music For Listening and Dawson’s solo journey as an artist is one of deep reflection on some of the aspects he felt least inspiring as a kid; things like nature, the beauty of stillness, and moments of perpetual quietness. 

“I was such an angry kid,” he says. “Perhaps more accurately, I was such a sad kid but I didn’t know how to process or express those feelings and it usually manifested in anger. Being in nature was my worst nightmare. I just wanted a slab of concrete to skateboard and something in my headphones to scream along to. Through this project I’ve come to revisit so many memories with a newfound sense of fondness, compassion, and yes, sentimentality.” 

Music For Listening is out now via We Are Busy Bodies