interview: thee oh sees
Speaking to Brigid Dawson of Thee Oh Sees is one of the oddest, and yet most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done. It kind of feels like being on a first date, where you’re interested in what they’re saying, and they’re polite and informative, but it’s not until you hit on that magic question that brings about a certain enthusiasm and joy in their voice that you really start to delight in the conversation. In this instance, it’s asking her how she would categorise Thee Oh Sees’s music, given that descriptions of psychedelic music tend to be rather convoluted and vague. Dawson doesn’t quite answer the question the way that I would expect her to, but she touches instead on something far more interesting: the reason we love music is because of how it makes us feel.
‘When we play, it makes me feel like when I would go see gigs when I was like 15 years old, the energy, dancing around with a bunch of people you barely know just because the songs are so great, and I suppose I feel like that when we play shows, hopefully other people do too.’
Of course, music isn’t a career path that’s particularly conducive to a settled, conventional lifestyle, and Dawson highlights the sacrifices she’s had to make, as well as how lucky she feels in being able to play music for a living.
‘You make a lot of sacrifices, I know that sounds soppy but you do, you give up a lot of things, your home time is rare and I’m a total homebody so I miss that. But there’s a complete satisfaction in the fact that I’m playing music, which was my dream, or is my dream, and I get to play it every night while I’m on tour and that makes a lot of it worthwhile. So it’s kind of a weird grown up satisfaction that I get, that I’ve achieved this thing.’
Spending an extended period of time in London, as well as her native US (where she is now based, in San Francisco), has resulted in a sweet hybrid accent and Dawson’s in depth knowledge of differences between two big cities, both of which are well known for their arts and culture.
‘London’s such a huge city and, like, I met everyone in my band from making coffees for them because I worked in the café down the street from them here in San Francisco. That would never have happened in London. I remember I went through auditions a couple of times there to be able to play music with people, it’s just so strange. It’s such a big city that you have to do that, you know.
‘I feel like almost everybody I know here [in San Francisco] makes either good art or great music. I’m lucky. I never lived in a place like that before.’
Although Dawson recalls listening to singers such as Jimmy Reid, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald when she was younger, she never thought she would eventually be the one getting up on stage.
‘I always thought I’d be too shy to actually play in front of people when I was younger, but it was something that I really did want to do, and I finally made myself do it.
‘I don’t even think I ever totally got over it [the shyness], but if you want to play music badly enough, you just get over it. The first gig I ever played in front of people, I drank half a bottle of Southern Comfort and that was how I did it the first time. And the first few years, there was a lot of whiskey involved. It sounds so sad, I was probably 18 … I suppose there was a lot of Dutch courage involved.’
Dawson is quick to point out that she no longer drinks alcohol to feel better equipped to perform, and that her abilities have improved since, but when she shares stories of sexism in the music industry, particularly when she started out, it’s not such a surprise that she was nervous to go on stage.
‘Definitely, it [sexism] still exists. It’s much better than it was when I was 18, where you really were expected in many ways to look pretty if you can, shake your ass, you know. I mean like one time I literally had a guy say to me, hey you’re a back up singer, just get up there and shake your ass, it doesn’t matter what you sound like,’ she recalls. ‘It’s insulting. I don’t know if anyone would say that to a guy, maybe, but probably not.’
So what advice would Dawson give to young women wanting to be musicians?
‘I would say be totally fearless, and don’t bow down to whatever it is that the world and men are expecting of young women today, which has probably changed a lot since I was young and it’s probably a lot better. But one of the things that I love about Australia is that I’ve met so many young women who are in bands, and they are totally fearless and they kind of seem pretty uncompromising, I love that. They’re not using their sexuality first and foremost, they don’t have to is what it seems like, that’s amazing to me.’
Thee Oh Sees are currently playing a string of dates around Australia and New Zealand – be sure not to miss them! Check their website for event details and ticket information.