The first CD that Desirée Dawson ever got as a gift was an album by the similarly named British crooner Des'ree. As a youngster growing up in White Rock, she also listened to a lot of R&B-inflected pop by the likes of Destiny's Child, Tracy Chapman, and Diana Ross & the Supremes. But when it came time to step out on her own as a singer-songwriter, she didn't take the normal route and grab an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. As Dawson explains from her current Mount Pleasant home, she went for its less popular four-string cousin, the ukulele.
"I got into ukulele when I went to visit my really close friend who was in Maui at the time," she recalls. "She was just healing through something, and I was watching how easily she picked up the ukelele, and how much joy it brought her, and how fun it was for us to be singing along to it. I just kind of fell in love with it."
When she got back to Vancouver Dawson bought herself a baritone ukulele because she wanted a deeper sound--"For me it was the perfect in-between of the ukulele and guitar."--and she set about to create soulful music that is all about connecting.
"I create my music so that people can find peace and can find rest and can really reconnect with themselves," explains Dawson. "My whole energy when I create goes into me connecting with myself in hopes that it will inspire others to do the same.'"
It didn't take long for Dawson's original material to get noticed by the movers and shakers in the Canadian music biz. In 2016 her song "Hide" won the CBC Music Searchlight talent competition, earning her a grand prize valued at $50,000, including $20,000 worth of musical equipment.
"That was such an amazing time," she says. "Yamaha gifted me a bunch of gear, so the keyboard I use is from that, and I got some speakers. And there were other little gifts like music books that were really helpful."
Dawson's prize-winning ways have led up to the release of Meet You at the Light, the seven-track EP she coproduced along with Francis Arevalo and Olivia Quan. The disc sees Dawson on ukulele and vocals, along with pianist Arevalo, violinist Sejal Narsey, vocalist Janelle Reid, and singer-guitarist Matt Storm. Its Arevalo-shot cover photo shows Dawson, who also teaches yoga, sitting in a Buddha-like pose while the sun's glorious rays pour over a mountain in Squamish.
"I was definitely having a very yogic moment," she says, "just very present and grounded. The whole Meet You at the Light inspiration was being outside and being with the mountains and being with the trees, and so it was very cool that Francis and I actually went up there to take photos."
Dawson points out that there was also a deeper meaning to the idea of "meeting at the light" than just a reflection on the beauty of nature.
"It was also inspired by my grandpa passing away," she reveals, "and it was kind of my way of honouring my family, because I couldn't be with them in South Carolina on the day of his funeral. But also I found a video of my grandpa, and that's what I wrote the song about. He was outside in the trees and there was all of this light from the sun shining through. So it's definitely about being out and in nature, but it's also about meeting someone in the light of the afterlife. It's whatever you want it to be."
Meet You at the Light has been nominated for a 2022 Juno in the Adult Contemporary Album of the Year category. There's some tough competition for the trophy, including from Toronto's popular Serena Ryder, who's also been nominated along with Luca Fogale, Mathew V, and Tafari Anthony.
"Everyone who's nominated is amazing," declares Dawson, "so I feel like we all have a chance."
Dawson will be attending the awards along with her "team", and is performing at JunoFest in Toronto while she's there. But before that she's got a gig at the Cultch on April 24 as part of the Vancouver Poetry House's Verses Festival of Words. The event, titled Sounds Like Fire, features Dawson sharing the stage with a selection of local poets and musicians that include the previously mentioned Arevalo, Kimmortal, and Hari Alluri.
"This event will be equal parts tenderness and fire, water and righteous rage," reads the event description on the Vancouver Poetry House website. "Each featured artist brings big love and social consciousness to the stage, while displaying lyrical craft that encompasses hip hop, the poetic page, folk, and experimental music in between."
"Myself, Kim, Hari, and Francis, we'll all be kind of solo but also kind of supporting each other onstage," says Dawson. "We're all lyricists, like poets kind of, by nature, I guess. Francis and Kim and I are also musicians, and Hari is more poetry focused, but the cool thing is that we all do that. We're kind of weaving in music and then spoken word and poetry, so it's gonna be really beautiful."
Desirée Dawson performs at Sounds Like Fire as part of the Verses Festival of Words at the Cultch on April 24.