Clad in black leather and covered in tattoos, Devin Dawson looks like the next bad boy of country. But his raw, poetic lyrics and notoriously kind disposition prove otherwise.
“Sometimes to my fault, I like going vulnerable and letting people in,” Dawson said. “Sometimes it can be hard to say something to someone’s face, but I put a guitar in front of it and I can say whatever I want.”
This refreshingly honest writing, combined with a powerfully soulful voice and intense work ethic, helped Dawson garner quick success.
Since graduating from Belmont in 2015 as a songwriting major, he clinched a deal with Warner Music, toured with Maren Morris, made his television debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers and was featured in People Magazine, Rolling Stone and Elle — to name a few.
“It was great just getting an excuse to do music for four years. Waking up like a songwriter, going to bed like a songwriter and being with other songwriters that encourage you and push you.”
Dawson hadn’t intended on going to college, but he credits a lot of his growth as a songwriter to the community he found at Belmont.
“It can be a friendly competition thing,” said Dawson. “It’s like this womb of amazing talent that’s accumulated over the years, and it hopefully helps you find yourself. That’s what college is for, right?”
Dawson first claimed national attention in 2014 from a Taylor Swift mashup video with fellow former Belmont student Louisa Wendorff. The video quickly went viral with over 35 million views – even garnering a retweet from Swift herself.
Despite his sudden fame, Dawson still worked hard to finish out his degree, including working on one of his favorite Belmont experiences: the Pipeline Project.
“If you’re not completely crazy in your last year or semester — if you’re not feeling so overwhelmed with balance between work, job, career, friends and everything and don’t know how to balance it all, you’re probably not doing it right.”
All his work is paying off this week, with the release of his debut album, “Dark Horse.”
“Dark Horse” isn’t your average country album. It shows off Dawson’s acute skill for storytelling as well as his diverse musical palette.
“It’s kind of a culmination of things I grew up listening to in every corner of my musical heart,” said Dawson. “In the coolest way they all work together so well but all have their own moment.”
“No song steps on another’s toes.”
The album seamlessly weaves all these elements together. At times “Dark Horse” and Dawson’s voice is reminiscent of early Maroon 5 — at other moments he croons like Johnny Cash.
The title track, released as a single earlier last year, is painfully honest. In it, Dawson opens up about religion, relationship qualms and more. “Dark Horse” is a welcome declaration of Dawson’s identity and a look into his softer side.
To promote the album, Dawson traveled around the country for shows and an extensive radio tour. But one venue stood out as most unique: 3500 miles up in the air.
Dawson was one of the first artists to participate in the Southwest Live at 35 concert series, and performed a full set on a flight from Nashville to Philadelphia.
“I just thought it was a really cool, neat experience,” said Dawson. “I’m really drawn to changes of pace recently, whether it’s a radio tour or a tour, you’re doing the same thing every day. So any time I can change the pace of my day, I’m always about it.”
A video of the performance once again turned Dawson into an Internet sensation.
“It was the biggest post I’ve done in a long time and it was all super positive,” Dawson said. “People were saying ‘this is amazing,’ ‘wish I was there’ and ‘why can’t this happen on my flight.’”
As the video spread across the internet, Dawson inevitably got some negativity thrown his way. But as he always does, he took it with a sense of humor.
“You start getting Twitter hate from people that will hate anything – they would hate the cutest baby hugging the cutest puppy,” he said with a chuckle. “So it was kind of entertaining to see how people reacted. I was even talking to John Mayer on Twitter, which was weird. You never know what’s going to be the thing that people hold onto.”
A lot has happened since Dawson was in college. But he hasn’t outgrown some Belmont staples — after our interview he was headed for “tacos and tequila” at Bartaco.
“I guess that’s the dream – to keep shedding things until you get to do what you want 100 percent of the time,” Dawson said. “That’s the cool thing for me, slowly coming into this season of what I’ve been dreaming of doing forever.”
Be sure to check out Dawson’s convocation event at Belmont on Jan. 26 at 10 a.m..
Photo courtesy of Warner Music Nashville