I was introduced to the music of Dolph Chaney last year with the great Rebuilding Permit, and now he returns with This Is Dolph Cheney, well worth picking up. Also, his Woody Radio concerts are a lot of fun to watch.
My thanks to Dolph, who recently answered a few questions for me.
Andrea Weiss: How did you get your start in music?
Dolph Chaney: I grew up in a musical family – my mom and sister both sing too -- and I started on the family piano at age 8 and sang in choirs at school and church, then picked up guitar at 12 and started putting my own songs on tape at 13. I had great music teachers all along who really saw me for my particular abilities and interests, which makes me very lucky.
AW: Who are your influences?
DC: I connect with anything that has a committed, honest singer and a lyric with intent, and if there’s something playful going on in the background, then all the better. I’d say this landed hardest on me with the 1966-68 Beatles and Who, XTC, Elvis Costello, Bob Mould, Guided By Voices, and Robyn Hitchcock.
AW: I'm hearing the New Pornographers and Game Theory in the music, which is great. Did you draw on them?
DC: Both tremendous artists with great songs – that’s high praise! I got my start before I heard either, but I think we draw from several of the same sources.
AW: How was it working with a producer after recording and playing everything yourself?
DC: It was a thrill and a relief and a joy. The album before last (Shenanigans, 2013) was all done by me, and it was absolutely as far as I could go on my own. Having co-produced Rebuilding Permit last year, I knew that decision to "let the right one in" was a great direction to go in. I'd also done the "Be My Old Fart" single with Michael Simmons producing, arranging, and playing, and I loved how that came out. So when Nick Bertling came in and offered to produce, I knew it would lead to great things. His versatility is limitless, he works hard, his instincts and insights do not fail, and he plays absolute hell out of the drums along with any other instrument you've got around.
AW: It was great to hear you on Woody Radio. How did that come about?
DC: As with so many great things, the Woody connection started through my connection to Big Stir Records. Mike Lidskin was first at the station to pick it up, and gradually it spread to many of the other Djs. In April, 2020 Gidget Bates approached me to join their Quarantinarama live stream series, and I jumped at it! She has worked hard supporting me on that, and so has Boris Boden ("The Secret Weapon") who has done cool graphics for each show. We now call the series Woody Remote, and I'm on 2-3 times a month to bring what I hope is a fun show with a lot of heart.
AW: Your lyrics are really unpretentious, and have a lot of possible meanings to them. Do they come about spontaneously, or do you approach things more methodically?
DC: Thank you, that's kind of you to say! Usually, my lyric writing comes in bursts – not much for a long while, then clusters of ideas in rapid succession. Most often I start with either one line (usually some terrible pun) or one guitar riff, let them percolate until an idea forms around it. So, what happens with the best of them is that I start with a joke and then the truth sneaks its way out the more I write. I have to trick myself into spilling the goods.
AW: “Worship Song” is a really cool take on religion and spirituality. What did you have in mind when you wrote it?
DC: Thank you! I was almost afraid of that song as I wrote it. My father was a Southern Baptist preacher, and so I grew up steeped in the church. I remember sometimes feeling a pressure to worship as fervently (or more) as the person in the next pew over – like if I didn't, God would notice and be unhappy. And then in the 2000s there was this trend in churches to abandon the old hymns and replace them with very simple, U2-inspired, repetitive choruses that people could sing over and over again for long stretches. At some point it started to feel like more of that competitive show-off dynamic of who REALLY MEANT IT the most, a little bit like Linus and the most sincere pumpkin patch. So I imagined a guy beating himself up so hard that finally Jesus answers and tells him (in plain and impolite language) to knock it off already. I'm not a church person anymore, but I still like the idea that the spirit is willing to meet us wherever we are if we seek it with an open honest heart.
AW: What would you tell someone just starting out in music?
DC: Do it for the love of it and it'll never let you down. Write as much as you can as often as you can while you're finding your voice, then let it come to you. Learn the rules so you can figure out which ones are your favorites to break. Most of all, commit to the song when you sing and play it. That's what matters most and what makes people remember. And watch for your tribe;finding them is one of the all-time great joys.