by Randy Fox
On her new album, Rye, singer and songwriter Dawn Oberg sings the line, “It’s not the life one dreams of, but it must be what I chose.” In the context of the song, “The Girl Who Sleeps With Books,” it’s a reflection on past relationships, but it could just as easily apply to path her music career has followed. In an era when Nashville has become the mecca for songwriters and musicians, regardless of genre, Oberg has the distinction of being an artist who chose to leave the Music City, and in the process found her true voice.
A native of Minneapolis, and a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Oberg headed south to Nashville in the mid-'90s. “After school, I stopped playing piano and starting writing these really fucked-up drinking songs on guitar and getting into country and folk,” Oberg says. “I was all about Bob Dylan and Hank Williams.”
She soon found herself hooked into the tiny but vibrant and eclectic Nashville indie-rock scene of the late '90s that became centered around the Springwater. Working with guitrarist Dave Lunn and other musicians, the band Honky-Tonk Happy Hour provided Oberg with an outlet for her half-serious, half-satiric tales of blotto despair like “D-U-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “Pitcher’s Worth a Thousand Words.” But after the release of the group’s first album, You Drank My Backwash, Oberg found her attention drifting in a different direction.
Forming a cabaret-style duo, Blossom Theory, as a side project with Alan Lowry, Oberg returned to her first instrument, the piano, and a more classic style of American jazz-influenced pop. “My own writing voice was emerging and I had to focus,” she says. “I wanted to do some type of beautiful pop, but I didn’t really know what that sounded like exactly. I didn’t deliberately reject anything, the other stuff just kind of fell away.”
Oberg's explorations of the great American songbook style led to her 2008 solo album Horticulture Wars, but shortly after its release she found a calling to relocate more than her musical style. “I visited San Francisco on vacation in March 2009 and loved it. When I got back, I lost my job on Friday and on Sunday an old roommate posted on Facebook that he wanted to sublet a room in San Francisco. A couple of weeks later, my house was sold, and I was on my way.”
New to the Bay area, Oberg soon found a home for her music through the Hotel Utah, San Francisco’s center for the singer-songwriter scene. She also found another scene that welcomed her.
“Novelists are as ubiquitous here as songwriters in Nashville,” Oberg says. “I got really involved in the literary community. I often get asked to play at literary events.” It’s a crossover that makes perfect sense in light of the wry, literate songs that appear on her new album, Rye, a collection that amply demonstrates the maturation of her songwriting voice and piano-based, whiskey-soaked dive-bar balladry style through songs that cast a sardonic eye on love and loss.
“People say [that my songs are literary], but it almost makes me feel like a fraud,” Oberg says. “I’ve read a lot of books, but I don’t consider myself to be ‘well-read.’ I don’t really try to be literary. I’m pretty zen about the whole thing. I just write what I write and try to be articulate about whatever concept or sentiment I’m trying to convey to the best of my ability.”
Currently on her first cross-country tour, Oberg will be bringing her music back to her old stomping grounds with two shows in Nashville — at The Rutledge on Monday, April 22 and at 12th & Porter on Tuesday the 23rd with her close friend, Nashville songstress Gwen Holt, opening for her. It’s a return she’s looking forward to eagerly.
“If you had told me five years ago that I would be more excited about playing in Nashville than in New York, I would have laughed in your face and asked you what you were smoking,” Oberg says. “It’s going to be great seeing old friends again. I just hope I can find a designated driver.”