Published in the Lake Champlain Weekly
September 25, 2019
By Joshua Miner
Photos by Laura Carbone
Dawn Tyler Watson’s life would be forever changed when she knocked on death’s door just two short years ago. As she laid there in her hospital bed, she had one goal in the forefront of her mind: winning the International Blues Challenge in Memphis just a few short months away.
Watson’s energy had been waning for some time during those previous months. Along with the increased fatigue, she realized something was wrong with the confident and sultry voice she had been known for in the Canadian blues world. Watson knew something was seriously wrong when she started to feel winded during everyday tasks.
X-rays and visits to allergists failed to shed any clues as to why her throat would be causing these problems, leaving her with no choice but to embrace her new life as an aging musician. A trip to the emergency room a few months later revealed the unlikely source of her troubles: heart disease.
Watson never imagined the real culprit behind her failing spirit would be her heart – now broken in more ways than one after her painful divorce the previous year. With three months to go before the biggest music competition of her career, doctors were forced to perform open heart surgery in order to have a fighting chance to save her life.
In the following days she would start to put the pieces back together, recovering her physical and mental strength in droves.
“It didn’t even occur to me to drop out of the competition,” she admits.
Watson’s quadruple-bypass did little to slow her down. On the contrary, she seemed more motivated than ever to share her light with the world. Her doctors explained the recovery would take three to six months. ‘Three months’ were the only words Watson heard. There was just enough time to keep her dream alive.
With a laser focus on her recovery, she soon found her voice returning to its former glory. A month later she had her guitar brought to the hospital and she began to make music once more. Meanwhile, the local Montreal blues community had raised funds allowing the band to stay on schedule for their trip to Tennessee.
Watson’s backing band, The Ben Racine Band, was taking time off of work and making other sacrifices to keep the flame of hope burning brightly on the horizon for everyone. Watson was determined not to become one of 260 bands to play a forgetful set only to return home empty-handed. Mustering every ounce of her newfound strength, she made up her mind they were going to win the competition – telling her bandmates they were about to take the blues world by storm.
“Exactly three months to the day we won the competition,” Watson recalls. “I still beam when I think about it, because I feel so proud, not just of myself but really more my guys.”
Not only did Watson’s band win the 2017 International Blues challenge, but the British-born Canadian would also be the first ever international winner of the competition, and the first female in 33 years. Her guitarist, Ben Racine, was also recognized with the Albert King prize for his own playing, winning a beautiful Gibson guitar in the process.
If she ever doubted her path over these last two decades, the thoughts are a distant memory by now. After changing her style for nearly two years to accommodate the growing struggle with her voice, she was now free to sing to her heart’s content.
“It was a big, emotional moment for me when I realized that the surgery had healed whatever was going on with my voice” she says. “I was charged with all this gratitude and energy and purpose.”
The year prior to her surgery, Watson saw her marriage crumble – as heartbreak foreshadowed what was to come. Her new record, Mad Love, details the fallout from this time as Watson saw her husband’s mental illness exact its toll on the couple.
“It was broke beyond repair.”
With the wound still fresh enough to inspire a dozen new songs, producer Francois Thiffault and Watson set out to record the most cohesive album in her discography. But while pinpointing her own unique style, the separate influences of rock, jazz, soul and even a little country still make themselves known.
After 14 years of playing acoustic shows with fellow Canadian blues-rocker Paul DesLauriers, Watson says her and the Ben Racine Band really started to hit their stride as they recorded this second album together. The bigger band and newly added horns section provide even more layers of texture and depth, she says.
The band is made up of Kaven Jalbert on the tenor sax, Mat “Moose” Mousseau on baritone sax, Francois Dube on bass, Nicky Estor on drums and Charles Trudel on keys.
The upbeat and fun Alligator get the album started with a bang and immediately gets the blood pumping. A song about life on the road, the refrain “See ya later alligator, I’m gone” is a story all too familiar with artists on tour. With cracks that grew in her own marriage, Watson like many before her recognize just how difficult juggling a career and a romantic life can be.
For songs like Lost, and The River – Watson finds cathartic peace with herself in the wake of her painful divorce, purging her life’s demons with the help of her deeply personal lyrics and a gospel-like tone.
“It does feel like a prayer for me. What I’m talking about on the song is that my husband had a mental health crisis, he became a bit delusional and he left,” she says of Lost. “I was dealing with someone who lost his mind, and there was nothing I could do.”
Every time she sings the words on stage, she relives the heartbreak and trauma all over again. But as time goes on, she finds herself that much closer to finding peace with this past. While the pain is evident throughout the album, in the end it is overshadowed by her message of determination and hope during even the darkest times.
By riding herself of the toxic energy of her past and taking ownership of her experiences, she finds herself transcending the suffering of everyday life every time she gets in front of an audience. But while recording those songs for an album may have been a sometimes-painful process, her shows are anything but. Pouring every fiber of her soul into each song she performs; the love Watson experiences night after night is nothing short of spiritual for her.
“You get on stage [and] you feed your energy to the audience, and they feed theirs back to you. It’s sort of this beautiful loop of music and joy and connectedness,” Watson explains of her performances.
Much like a painting may be interpreted in vastly different ways depending upon on the observer, Watson says everyone adds their own unique perspective to the shared musical experience.
Because of the unpredictable nature of this shared energy, Watson says she avoids planning out her setlists ahead of time. Instead, she decides what to play based on the vibe – preferring spontaneity as she performs her songs in a fresh, new way each night. However, one thing that remains constant is her relentless pursuit of that bright, positive light in an oftentimes dark world.
While these shows lend themselves to a shared journey of spiritual fulfillment, Watson says people can also choose fulfillment in their day to day lives if they so choose.
“What you focus on is what you’re going to see,” she says.
For instance, she continues, if you watch tragedy unfold on the news non-stop, you will become fixated on only the negative – ignoring the countless causes for hope and good in the world. Beginning with those long days and nights confined to a hospital bed, Watson decided to focus on optimism – manifesting her own vision for a better life in the process.
This spiritual rebirth for Watson can be heard throughout Mad Love, as is the gratitude she has for a second shot in life, love and music. Instead of chasing happiness, the Catholic-raised Watson came to recognize a new truth.
“To me, God and love are synonymous. It’s not hard to find, you can find God,” she explains, saying the more you run around looking everywhere else but within, the harder it will be to find peace. “If you stand still, God is going to find you. Meditation is really important.”
In slowing down and looking within, Watson has tapped into a new fountain of inspiration for her music – and a key to her full potential as a person.
Unable to meditate prior to her heart surgery, she found herself effortlessly slipping into that Zen state in the years that followed. Now, she says daily meditation is an important aspect of her new life. As time went on, her mental scars began to slowly fade away much like her physical ones had.
The success she found just two short years ago is far from over, though. This past week, Watson was in Chicago for the Blues Blast Music Awards, where she was named Female Blues Artist of the year.
Watson says she has a special treat for those who want to see more when she visits the North Country next week – playing a stripped-down acoustic set with only keyboards, guitar and tenor sax at Bluseed Studios in Saranac Lake. Alongside Racine, Watson will be bringing her own guitar as well – something she seldom does with her full band.
Whether you see the rocking performance at Olive Ridley’s or the special set the following day, Watson will be bringing the light of positivity with her everywhere she goes – confident now of her place in the world.
“I’m on the right path doing the right thing at the right time.”
Dawn Tyler Watson will be performing 8 p.m. at Retro Live in Plattsburgh on Saturday, September 28 with her full band. Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door and can be purchased at plattsburghbluesandjazz.com.
The second show begins at 4 p.m. Sunday, September 29 at Bluseed Studios in Saranac Lake. Tickets are $17 for members and $20 for non-members. To purchase tickets or for more information go to bluseedstudios.org, call 518 – 891-3799 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.