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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: February 16, 2010 08:34 AM

Dawn Landes's Secret Sauce has Nothing to do With Josh Ritter

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Somewhere out there is a writer who can fill a screen about a friend's wife as if he and she were sole proprietors who just happen to share an apartment.

Not this writer.

And it didn't matter who Josh Ritter married. This guy is so incredibly nice that my wife and I couldn't avoid putting his bride under the microscope -- as if, from this distance, we could actually figure out if she's worthy of him.

(Yes, I know: We didn't flip the question and decide if he was worthy of her. That's a job for her friends.)

Dawn Landes made my job easy -- eight months into the marriage, she released a CD, Sweet Heart Rodeo, giving me a chance to assess her talents and then, under the guise of journalism, ask her every impertinent question I could think of.

If childhood holds the key to adult careers, Dawn Landes is textbook. She was raised in Branson, Missouri, which is a countrified Vegas, and Lexington, Kentucky. Her mother worked for non-profits -- the ballet, Planned Parenthood -- so it's not surprising to learn that Dawn was the kid passing out Planned Parenthood condoms in the high school parking lot.

Not that she was any kind of rebel. "I was a rule breaker who didn't party," she says. "My ambition was to be a genetic research scientist/performer." A tomboy, she played soccer and ran track. And she learned unlikely skills: "I can weld, I can solder, I'm a gearhead."

Yes, but what about music? "I played some open mikes in my last year in high school," she recalls. "But mostly, I'd play for 300 Governor's Scholars every week in the summer. You know --- nerd camp ."

College only meant New York for her, so she did two years studying psychology and literature at New York University. "I didn't drop out," she explains, "The economy forced me out." She had always been a control freak about her music, so working in a recording studio was a natural. Suzanne Vega helped her get an internship, and she was off.

Studios showed her how hard the business is. She continued to write and perform, but she also learned how to engineer and produce. Visitors took her for the secretary -- or the artist. She kept her head down and worked. And then, as the female singer/songwriter Bible dictates, she went to Paris. Where, according to that same Bible, she got her first contract and made her first CD. On her return, she smartly hedged her bet; with some friends, she launched Saltlands, a recording studio in Brooklyn.

Josh Ritter and Dawn Landes met when she produced a Hank Williams song for him. They met again at a music festival. It says something about Josh Ritter that he was then too focused on his own career to pay much attention to romance. And it says something about Dawn Landes that when she ran into Josh Ritter half a decade later she was the one who was too busy with her career to be diverted.

The catalytic moment? "At a festival in the United Kingdom, on a beautiful day with peacocks running around, I sang a traditional tune 'I Don't Need No Man,'" she says. "That seemed to get Josh's attention."

So would the songs on her new CD. They're hard to categorize -- some are pure country, some actually rock -- and, on first listening, you could be forgiven for concluding that Dawn Landes is one of a great many talented women who are much more than competent and a shade less than genius. And that's a shame, for all of them, because they are deserving -- and almost all of them will go unheard and unappreciated.

The precise difference between Dawn Landes and her talented sisters eludes me, but there is a difference. And I know it because songs I dismissed as merely pleasant had an odd way of insinuating themselves into my day. And not just one. Three or four. There's something she does that involves a secret sauce...



I went to see Dawn Landes at a downtown club the other week, hoping to learn if my reaction to her CD was colored by the fact of her marriage. She came out in a dress and cowboy boots, a red electric guitar over her shoulders. Naturally, her band has an ironic name: the Hounds. Unsurprisingly, Ray Rizzo (drums) and Josh Kaufman (guitar) are strong enough to support any singer you can name. Together, they put on a seriously fine show --- her voice goes wherever she directs, and her taste runs from Patsy Cline to the Bangles. And the telling clue: When she went quiet, so did the beer-soaked audience.

She no longer needs to hedge her bet.

I can never see what another man sees in a woman -- what made Josh Ritter, for example, so willing to drive the van for his wife's band that night -- but I know what I see in Dawn Landes. Ambition. Focus. Sweetness. Goofiness. An ability to go from fun to serious in one twang of her guitar. And one extra spoonful of talent that makes all the difference.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com ]