Dawson Gray considers himself a songwriter first and foremost.
But the 22-year-old Peninsula-born-and-raised singer-guitarist has an ingratiating sound and look that bodes well for a future in country music.
Which is good, because this September, COVID-19 permitting, he plans to take the plunge and head to Nashville, traditional mecca of the country music industry, to see whether he can make an impact and stir up some interest there.
“I want to attract multiple audiences,” Gray said.
As his small but growing catalog of videos demonstrates, he has the advantage of being able to turn on a dime from intense heart-on-the-sleeve ballads (Runnin’ Back Home, The Dawn) to commercial, upbeat anthems aimed at the college-age crowd.
His new single Drinkin’ Alone – slickly-produced by Nick Gilmer and scheduled to drop on all streaming music services, including AppleMusic and Spotify, on Feb. 11 – is firmly in the latter category; essentially a barroom pick-up line set to music.
With typically wry humour, Gray’s lyrics even break the fourth wall of the musical narrative: “by the end of this song we won’t be drinkin’ alone…”
Hearing the assurance of his writing and performing style, one might never guess that Gray endured a cruel, life-altering setback in his Grade 12 year at Earl Marriott Secondary.
A gifted baseball player, he had been a member of the White Rock Tritons and the Langley Blades, and was looking forward to taking up a scholarship to play ball in Kansas City.
One week before he was to leave, he said, he was diagnosed with keratoconus – a degenerative eye disease – that essentially spelled the end of his sports career.
Training and practising had pretty much taken up the majority of my life,” he said. “Up to Grade 12, my identity was baseball. I had to figure out what my interests were; who I was as a person.”
It took him a year or two to come to terms with it, he acknowledged – but a couple of things helped him gain an even keel.
One was enrolling at UBC’s Okanagan campus (his elder sister Sophia attended there to get her nursing degree) as a business major.
Just shy of getting his degree, he acknowledges the training has been “incredibly helpful in organizing gigs and doing marketing.”
“I discovered I had quite a love for schooling, which is surprising, because when I was in high school and doing sports I didn’t much take to it,” he said.
The other key element in getting his life back on track has been music itself.
In developing his own performing and writing, he cites the encouragement, technical advice and mentorship of his friend and fellow Marriott alumnus, Ben Dunnill – himself an emerging recording artist on the pop scene.
Although their styles differ widely, he admits – Dunnill’s pop is informed by jazz and other influences, while Gray is in the classic country troubadour mould – they are mutually supportive in their musical careers.
“At this point, we’re pretty much a unit – the success of one of us is the success of both of us,” he said.
Taking up the guitar almost defensively in his high school years (“I found I was the only one in my group of friends who didn’t do music,” he said) he found it took him beyond the rock and rap he had been listening to, to other guitar-friendly styles such as country.
“I was also hearing country music a lot at ball parks whenever I was playing down in the U.S.,” he noted.
“I love the storytelling in it, the ability to bring out things that people can relate to,” he said.
“Life isn’t perfect – it can sometimes be pretty hard, and people resonate with that.”
It was while honing his singing and guitar playing, he discovered, about a year and a half ago, that he also had a facility for writing country songs.
“That’s when I became serious about it – songwriting is really what I want to do,” he said.
Part of the strength of his writing is the quality of being able to step back and observe the strengths and flaws of the characters who tell the songs’ narratives, and he admits he takes some artistic licence here and there to heighten the drama.
“When I write I’m inspired by real life,” he said.
“I can’t write a song if it isn’t based in truth. My songs are about 80 per cent based in reality, about something that really happened to me, but I always change them a little bit. It’s not always actually how I really felt.”
Gray, who divides his time right now between the Peninsula and the Okanagan, calculates that has some 50 original songs in his portfolio.
He performs live whenever he can – usually two times a month, under the limitations of the pandemic (he recently played at the Galaxie Brew Pub in White Rock and has another gig coming up in Kelowna).
It was while busking on the street in Kelowna that he met Gilmer, whose previous experience had been more in pop projects.
“He suggested we could collaborate on something sometime. Drinkin’ Alone came together in the last few months, and I think it really turned out well for both of us.”
And no matter how his trip to Nashville turns out, it’s clear that Gray has the resilience and positive attitude to stay the road for the long term.
“I’ve had a pretty blessed life, in spite of its trials and tribulations,” he reflected.
For more information visit dawsongraymusic.com
To pre-save Drinkin’ Alone on Spotify, the link is https://show.co/LSdKTr0