Holiday Dream: Dawn Landes Paints a Pretty Picture Using Her Voice, Music

Creating lyrics with a poetic touch while blending lovely sounds with angelic harmonies, Brooklyn, New York-based singer-songwriter Dawn Landes naturally thinks like a true artist.

Her musical landscape is a thing of beauty, and she controls the palette and paintbrush.

"I think that it's really satisfying for me to weave something together from different ... if each voice is a color, each instrument is a color, put them all on a canvas and see what happens," Landes said over the phone on Dec. 7.

So it's no wonder that the elegant musician with a well-rounded list of extra credits and collaborations not mentioned on her straightforward website concludes her quite enchanting bio with: "What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present."

As serious and accomplished a performer as Landes is, though, it's refreshing to discover that this worldly wonder who has performed with London's Aurora Orchestra, released a French-speaking EP (2012's Mal Habillee), recorded a song in Portuguese and worked with composer Nico Muhly at the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center is as down to earth as they come.

The projects also keep coming for the multifaceted Landes, who in late November played a couple of New York shows with the Hounds, her occasional band of mates that includes drummer Ray Rizzo and guitarist Josh Kaufman.

An easygoing conversationalist who punctuates many sentences with bursts of laughter, Landes was happy to announce that she found a quiet place in her Brooklyn residence to conduct an interview on a phone she was sure wouldn't die.

It was two days after celebrating her 35th birthday, capping a week that included performances with the Bandana Splits, the girl-group act that just wants to have fun. The trio released their first album in 2011 (Mr. Sam Presents), but 'tis the season to sing Christmas carols and other holiday tunes. In the grand tradition of the Ronettes and the Crystals on A Christmas Gift For You, the 1963 release produced by Phil Spector that remains a holiday joy to the world, the Splits are sugar, spice and everything nice.

Bandana appeal
After forming the group with co-vocalists (and Brooklyn neighbors) Lauren Balthrop and Annie Nero, both of whom are in what Landes "a theatrical kind of collective" called Balthrop, Alabama, the Splits have been asked each of the past four years to sing at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"So we had to learn all this Christmas music," Landes said. "And it's such a beautiful ceremony and we sing in the halls of the Rodin sculptures and it's such an amazing ... the reverb is three seconds long. It just feels like a really ethereal, beautiful experience. And we just loved it. We had to learn all this music and put a show together. So we thought, 'Oh, we should put a Christmas album out because we've got all this stuff.' "

The result is another holiday classic that will fit comfortably alongside your parents' (or grandparents') stacks of wax. Happy Holidays from the Bandana Splits is an adorable throwback album of 10 songs that includes three original tunes co-written by the Splits ("All the Bells," "Christmas with You" and "It's a Lonely Night for Mrs. Claus") that just feel right among reverential traditionals such as "Silent Night" (with a verse sung in German by Landes) and "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

With Landes (guitar, piano, handbells and "whatever's needed") and Balthrop (ukulele and guitar) sharing lead vocal duties, and Nero (bass) "holding down the fort" with her lower register on the album co-produced by Paul Loren (aka Mr. Leisurely on keyboards and vocals on the too-cute "Christmas with You"), the Splits could pass for direct descendants of the Andrews Sisters while delivering nostalgic three-part harmonies. It's guaranteed to put you in the Christmas spirit, even knowing they recorded it in the summertime.

After a tour with Balthrop, Alabama, Landes knew their voices belonged together.

"I think it's a familial thing or a familiarity thing in that we're not related but we spend a lot of time together," she said with a laugh. "And you know how people's traits rub off on each other, pick up people's mannerisms? I think that that's true of voices as well. I think that's why brother-sister family bands .... I mean, obviously there is some genetic thing going on but it's not just that. I think it's a shared experience. And over time, just spending time with people, you get to know them better and I think you can sing with them better and play music with them better, too."

Chuckling about my idea that a new Bandana Splits album of holiday tunes should become a yearly Christmas tradition, Landes, joking that they could sing each one in different languages, wouldn't commit to that but left the door open for another possible project.

"Actually, it's funny because we've been performing a couple of shows around the holidays (while wearing matching outfits) and inevitably there will be like a little crowd of children after we play that want to come up," Landes said. "And they want to ask us our names (in character as Dawn Split, Lauren Split and Annie Split), and they want us to sing a Taylor Swift song for them. They think we're a little jukebox. And it's great. And in a way we are, I guess. So who knows? Maybe there's a children's record in there somewhere."

Don't put in past Landes. Willing to tackle most musical forms of expression that will challenge her creatively while continuing a solo career that has included five full-length albums (including 2014's Bluebird), she has worked and/or sung with a variety of artists. Among them are Sufjan Stevens, Jim James, Norah Jones, Will Oldham, Justin Townes Earle and ex-husband Josh Ritter.

Dawn Landes was a featured performer when Sufjan Stevens
and his band played at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in August.

Her part in Stevens' band this summer was so delightful that the pensive songwriter dedicated "This Dress Looks Nice on You" to her at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado.

"That's been a real joy playing with him," said Landes, who is planning to be a member of Stevens' act again when they play Australia in February. "I learned a lot from him."

French dressing
Heading directly into the New Year, though, add British songwriter Piers Faccini as Landes' latest collaborator with the Jan. 15 release of Desert Songs (Six Degrees Records). On a project that takes a U-turn from the Bandana Splits, they wrote, played, recorded and produced a mellifluous, meditative five-song EP in the Cevennes region in France.

That's where, Landes pointed out, "ex-pats" like cartoonist R. Crumb (living in the southern France village of Sauve) is among "all these creative types" who go there "to be alone and make their art. But I really like that place."

Invited by Faccini to play their own songs in an acoustic concert at La Route de la Voix in that mountainous area on June 5, 2014, Landes said, "I got there a couple days early because I had some time to kill before the show, and we ended up writing the (album-opening) song 'Heaven's Gate' together. And it was just so easy. I don't write with other people very often. ... And it was really fun and kind of effortless.

"So we thought, 'Well, let's try this again.' I happened to be in France again because I play in Europe a lot, and I decided to go down there."

Embracing French songs and "the whole ye-ye movement" popularized by artists such as Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg ("All that stuff is so playful and fun," Landes said), she listened to albums Faccini made like 2013's Between Dogs and Wolves, along with artists he produced (Brazilian cellist Dom La Nena, for instance), and liked what she heard.

Piers Faccini (left) and Dawn Landes play music
from Desert Songs, their new EP. (Photo by Dimitri Djuric)

Despite a busy schedule that includes writing songs for her next solo album, Landes was eager to return to France and get into Faccini's studio.

"He's got a really cool arsenal of neat-sounding instruments," Landes said of the "really skilled" musician's exotic collection that includes a Malian kora, a 1930s National resonator guitar, an Indian dulcimer and a tanpura that she compared to a sitar that "sits in your lap."

Later overdubbing some drum parts in her Brooklyn studio, Landes stuck primarily to playing guitar, including electric. They wrote the lyrics to four of the five tracks together, the exception being "Book of Dreams," his poem that she suggested he turn into a song.

Since they both speak English and French, nothing was lost in translation, but Landes found writing with a man who is proficient in three languages (he's married to an Italian) and has a "wide-open" vocabulary to be an interesting experience. Particularly on a song like "Crying Out Loud," with a sweet voice taking a casual American expression of frustration down to its rotten core in this passage:

The curtain falls and now it's true
I've turned my cheek and back on you
The stage is bare, we've lost the crowd
Take a bow for crying out loud

After writing heavy-handed material like that, Landes obviously appreciates performing more lighthearted fare with the Bandana Splits during the holidays.

Yet she doesn't consider one collaboration or event more rewarding than the other, just whatever is "happening in the now."

"Both of these projects are about the voices," Landes added. "I like the blend of Piers and I singing together. ... And then when Lauren and Annie and I sing together, there's something magical about that blend. I think when that happens, it's just really fun for me to make a sound that's bigger." (Hear songs from both albums at the end of this article.)

Another undertaking at the top of her list that she's checking at least twice is called Row, a musical commissioned by Joe's Pub and the Public Theater with a book written by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by the ambitious Landes.

It will require further work to get this "huge endeavor" eventually ready while searching for a committed theater, she said, but performing portions of this "really beautiful, moving story" about Louisville, Kentucky, native Tori Murden McClure's cause "that I'm championing" in concert or during a TED talk has already been satisfying.

"There were 10 other people singing onstage, so that was really exciting for me," added Landes, who also performs for charity with a women's choir during the Christmas season called Sirens of Brooklyn.

While having trouble naming her favorite singing partner (though her "dream duet" would be with Emmylou Harris), Landes said, "I really enjoy ... there's something about singing with women. I have so many female friends who have beautiful voices that I just love," citing Kristin Andreassen, Aoife O'Donovan and her fellow Splits.

Then there's Laura Cantrell, a like-minded singer-songwriter with the same exquisite taste whose career path has taken her to Nashville and New York. On a recent December night, they bumped into each other at Sid's Gold Request Room and sang live karaoke with a piano player, covering George Michael's "Careless Whisper" in front of a tiny audience.

"I had known about her music forever," Landes said. "I opened for Jason Isbell a couple of months ago and she was at that show. And we both ended up at this thing last night. ... I was really excited by that."

That's hard to top, but eating whoopie pies made by the Splits' Balthrop and hearing the audience sing "Happy Birthday" to you at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City comes close. With such memorable moments to cherish, it's easy to believe Landes when she says, "I'm into the non-fancy things these days."

True Christmas stories
Those remarkable remembrances belong in a Christmas tale reboot titled It's a Wonderful, Charmed Life. Though they didn't take place in fictional towns like Bedford Falls, New York, or Hohman, Indiana, Landes was able to share A Christmas Story of her own that's true.

Born and living in the southern Indiana town of Evansville until she was 11 before moving to Louisville, Kentucky, then attending school at New York University, the former psychology and literature student remembers going on Christmas vacations to see her extended Catholic family. Among them were an aunt and uncle who owned and operated a bowling alley on the ground floor of their festively decorated home near Valparaiso, Indiana, an hour's drive from Chicago.

Usually on Christmas Eve, Ray's Lanes was open after hours to the relatives. "That was so fun as a kid to be able to run around this giant space and have your pick -- whatever you wanted to do, you could do it," Landes said. "You could do the vending machines for free, you could play pool, you could bowl. ... And their Christmas decorations were just out of this world."

Back home, Landes remembers developing her love for music while participating in school and church choirs from the age of 10. During Christmastime, she would sing in the madrigal choir.

"That was really fun where we put on medieval outfits and had like a boar's head and a feast and sang madrigals, which are beautiful songs," Landes said. "And I think, I just love that tradition of gathering. It seemed like more often that not, people would go hear choral music on the holidays."

No longer a practicing Catholic, she still appreciates traditions like the Midnight Mass, even though they distribute collection plates instead of bowling balls during the ceremony.

"There's so many parts of so many religions that I just find really beautiful," Landes said. "I kind of flirt with many religions and subscribe to none. (laughs) But I am a spiritual person. And I do enjoy going to church. There are different churches in the city that I will go to just because I love the space and I love the community. But I can't quite wrap my head around the dogma."

This Christmas, there probably won't be any reunions with her immediate family at the bowling alley because Landes' father lives in Florence, Kentucky, her mother in Arizona and her brother, Wes Morehead, in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he is the director of the Gulfport High marching band.

But that former choir girl, all grown up and singing for a living, will get to return to Valparaiso to spend time with Aunt Pam, who sold the bowling alley a while back. Whether this Bluebird of Happiness will paint the town red while rolling a strike or quietly interpret "Silent Night," it undoubtedly will be done with style and grace.

The artist still known as Dawn Landes understands where to draw the line -- in vivid, living color, of course.

Dawn Landes publicity photo by Shervin Lainez. Dawn Landes concert photo by Michael Bialas.

Hear Dawn Landes sing lead vocals on "All the Bells," the opening song on Happy Holidays from the Bandana Splits:

Hear Dawn Landes and Piers Faccini perform "Heaven's Gate" from their five-song EP Desert Songs: