It takes a lot of guts to uproot your life and move across the globe, particularly if, like Mia Dyson, you happen to be an artist that has built up a considerable national profile in your own country. However that’s exactly what the Victorian singer, songwriter and guitarist did when moving to the US seven years ago, a change she describes as difficult yet liberating. “I loved that everything was new and no one knew my music, and then also the hard reality of not making any money was there too, so it was really challenging,” says Dyson.
“In Australia I got put in the blues and roots thing, and even though I’m proud to have that influence, I never really saw myself that way. I just wanted to be a songwriter who plays guitar, and I guess be more under the umbrella of rock’n’roll.”
Dyson’s version of rock’n’roll has always been heavily influenced by the main variants that helped to form the genre in the first place, namely country, gospel, blues and soul. To record her latest offering, If I Said Only So Far I Take It Back, Dyson travelled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the small town that developed a distinctive sound and reputation thanks to a string of R&B and soul hits out of Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in the early ‘60s.
“I certainly didn’t go into the recording to make a throwback soul record, but I was fascinated by the place,” asserts Dyson. “I met John Paul White, of The Civil Wars, and he happens to live in Muscle Shoals and invited me down there. It’s not a big city, and it’s even a little bit depressed like a lot of small towns in America are, but there’s this vibrancy because of music that brings people together. So I wasn’t looking to make a Muscle Shoals record but I jumped at the chance to make a record with Muscle Shoals people in Muscle Shoals and see how it influenced the record.”
This included bassist David Hood, the same session player whose work can be heard on classics by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and The Staple Singers. “I just loved the way he played, it’s a big part of the sound and adds so much fatness to the record,” says Dyson.
“So I went there with open mind and ears about how I was going to let it influence the record, whereas the previous couple of records I had everything worked out ahead of time. And having Ben Tanner of The Alabama Shakes co-produce and play keys, he just had this fantastic perspective on the songs.”
Another collaboration that informed the direction of the album came from an unexpected source. Although unknown to her when they were first married, Dyson discovered that her husband, Karl Linder, was actually a talented poet, and the two set about combining both of their skills. “When I first met him he wasn’t writing so I didn’t know, and then he started up again and literally left stuff lying around that I found and tried to put to music for my own amusement,” she says.
“The way that some of his poems would cause me to write melodies was very different to what I’d written before because the form was different. So I started doing that, just these little bits of songs, and then we tried writing outright together. We just found we have this thing; I tried writing with other people but I never enjoyed it, it always seemed like it dulled down our best qualities because we’re trying to compromise to find something. It’s been this beautiful discovery and all the songs on this record we wrote together.”
Linder’s poetic touch had a direct bearing over the feeling of If I Said Only So Far I Take It Back, most noticeably in Dyson’s vocal performance, which has never sounded as natural or confident in its abilities as on these new songs. “For the first years of my career my voice felt like the strongest element that I had, and so I was more focused on the sound that I was making rather than the actual words,” she says.
“I think I was trying to be something, and now it feels like it’s just a natural expression and I’m not afraid of some of the more vulnerable sounding parts of my voice or what I want to say. Especially being a young woman in the industry, I wanted to protect myself by being ‘I have a big voice and people won’t fuck with me’. It’s strange to be a young woman surrounded by wall-to-wall dudes when you’re 21 and not see other women to look up to.
“I remember someone telling me ‘Oh you should just put down the guitar and sing’. But I was never put off by that, guitar is just so much fun to play. Voice came easy, but guitar was, and still is, riskier. Like I could try something outside of my comfort zone and if I land it it’s the most fun thing ever, and if I don’t it’s terrifying.”
If I Said Only So Far I Take It Back is out on Friday March 9 through Cooking Vinyl/Single Lock. Mia Dyson is touring Australia in late March with tickets available from miadyson.com. Originally published in Mixdown Magazine.