Jolene Dixon is a singer-songwriter born and raised in Franklin, Tennessee. The daughter of celebrated country songwriter and recording engineer Donivan Cowart, Jolene grew up in a truly musical environment and began singing and harmonizing with her sisters and musician parents from a very tender age. Now, she’s not only got her debut single “Dreamer” out, but she’s also putting the final touches on her debut LP with producer Kyle Krone at the helm.
I got the chance to talk to both Jolene and Kyle (who wrote “Dreamer”) about what she learned about the music industry from her dad, what inspired “Dreamer”, the goals she’s aiming to reach in the next couple of years and more! Keep reading to see what they both had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making and performing music.
To be honest, there was never a time in my life without music. I was born a studio baby, and it was such an innate gift, that I am eternally grateful for, that I can’t even think of when I started “doing” music. My parents recently moved and found a cassette tape of me singing a song I was writing on the spot to sing to my brand new baby sister, April, and I wasn’t even 3. And of course, Dad got me in the vocal booth to record my first ever creation. And I still have that tape sitting in my music room at home, just to remind me of the process and the journey that music has been for me. It’s been a long one. Music and I have had a couple bad breakups where I didn’t write for a while or I didn’t feel good enough to even consider myself an artist, but even those moments I can now meet with love and gratitude because I know it’s all been part of this adventure of pursuing my betrothed love – my music.
Your dad is reputable country/folk songwriter & producer Donivan Cowart and I know you spent a lot of time with him in the studio as a kid. What did you learn about the industry and the kind of artist you might want to be one day from spending time with your dad?
It’s so funny because it wasn’t until I moved to California that I realized what a kinda big deal my Dad is. He’s insanely humble, probably to a fault, and so these unreal projects that he had worked on, like The Last Waltz, I didn’t find out until WAY later in life when a friend of mine mentioned it in passing as if it were something I knew already. “Dad did WHAT??!!”
And in typical Donivan fashion, instead of taking any credit for his artistry, he instead told me a joke that Levon Helm told him while working on The Last Waltz about a toothbrush salesman who tricks people into eating shit, just to sell more toothbrushes. That’s Dad’s MO. Deflect any attention, preferably with humor, if and when available.
So Dad was never overtly teaching me along the way with words or lessons on the industry, but much, much more valuable, he taught me with his actions. He and my Mom, Barbara Cowart, an excellent songwriter in her own right, both taught me with their LIVES the sacrifice, heartbreak, ups and downs, and struggle that comes with dedicating your life to your art. And that it is worth every single minute you don’t sleep because you’re catching a red eye to the next show. Worth every single penny you never see. The recitals you miss. The months you have to borrow money from the in-laws. Because a life lived without music wouldn’t make up for any of that. A life not knowing that you are living from your soul, not your head, just wouldn’t suit my parents. And I am so grateful for that dedication. A rare gift to us, their five kids, to never lose sight of their dreams.
And possibly the MOST valuable of all the lessons I learned, by simply being in the presence of such amazingly prolific songwriters as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, was integrity as an artist. Which is the hardest thing to do, especially as we evolve and grow into different versions of ourselves along the way. You have to be willing to roll with the ocean waves, but stay connected to your core. And artists like Roseanne Cash never lost who she is as an artist. She makes music that speaks directly from her soul and that is what connects us to her. Her vulnerability.
My upcoming debut record, Quiet Thunder, has a couple of extremely vulnerable songs, dealing with topics like death and sobriety (or lack thereof) and it was digging deep into some of that uncomfortable subject matter for me where I found what that kind of naked truth looks like in songwriting and how crucially important it is to be open to the spirit of the song that is coming to you, as opposed to just writing another pop song, just because you can.
You have to find your integrity, as an artist AND as a human, and hold on to it for dear life because it’s so easy to fall prey to what the world wants from you instead of what is true to your soul.
I’m always genuinely curious about what artists want to convey with their music. Your current sound would generally be classified as Americana/country-pop, but if you had to describe it without using genre names, how would you describe it?
Combination of authentic Nashville songwriting and modern electronic sounds with melody driven lyrics and harmonic structure that drives the story arc. Stories with soul to soul connection, based on life’s experiences with relatable, yet complex subject matter.
Going off of that, who are some of your musical influences?
Growing up, most of the music I listened to were demos and studio sessions that Dad would be mixing up in the loft studio of our log cabin. So there’s a lot of Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, and Lee Ann Womack influences that I probably don’t even recognize how much these unbelievable talents fed that baby songwriter in waiting.
But once venturing out on my own at age 10 when my Mom let me pick out a few CDs from her Columbia House, get 12 for 1¢ deal, I went straight for everything I dreamed to be someday. Amy Grant, Reba McEntire, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Sara Bareilles, Brandi Carlile – all these just badass women that were brilliant at their craft.
And today my biggest influence is indie-pop music. That is ultimately the sound I’m trying to combine with all the aspects of the singer/songwriter genre. I love what Betty Who, Haim, and Maggie Rogers are doing – electronic poppy elements with brilliantly written songs! I love when a song can be stripped of all the flair and still retain it’s high level of integrity. That’s my goal, always. The acoustic version should still be just as compelling, if not more, than the produced record.
Let’s talk about your newest single, “Dreamer”. What inspired that song?
This first single was written by my producer and collaborator Kyle Krone, so I’ll let him take over!
Kyle Krone: Usually when I write a song, it’s sort of a subconscious expression and I start there and I begin to discover what its about as I am writing it or in a way the song kind of tells me what it wants to be about. It was a multitude of feelings, attitudes and ideas that inspired “Dreamer”. This idea that even though you may feel like you’re in the minority as someone who lives a bit different then the masses or makes art for a living and followed a road less traveled kind of life path, there are actually many out there who feel the same way and live life with a more free spirited spontaneous or creative less traditional approach. It’s really an anthem for the dreamers, the artists, the bohemians. the writers, the lovers, etc. Anyone who sort of cuts against the grain with their own unique approach and philosophies on life and how to live it.
What was the songwriting process like for this song specifically?
Krone: I can remember I did most of this one in bed with a little piano a guitar and a drum machine. It was one of those good ones that happened fairly quickly and naturally just sort of wrote itself. I was living with my friends Dennis Finger and Tyler Mimm at the time and we had been playing a lot of music together and it was the only thing I was doing at the time, just writing every single day. I wanted to write something I thought was really cool and timeless but could be done by perhaps a more universally appealing artist. I wasn’t the right singer for this song so when Jolene came along I was hopeful that she would connect with it and fortunately she did because she sings it fucking wonderfully.
Something I’ve always been curious with songwriting is how topics come to mind. Did you know you wanted to write about going into the song session that birthed “Dreamer” or did it just come about organically?
Krone: Totally naturally at home alone one morning laying in bed in the Spring of 2017 this one came along. I remember it all started with that drum beat I made and then the piano and main chorus melody and the rest of the melodies were sort of free styled and a lot of those subconscious words I sang on the first demo actually stuck and made sense. In my experience the natural approach is the most fruitful and valuable. Songwriting for me is some mysterious dark art of getting out of your own way and letting it come to you.
Was there any major changes to “Dreamer“ that happened once you got into the recording studio, whether it be in the lyrics or something sonically?
Krone: I had all the music ready to go by the time Jolene came in to sing. I like doing it this way in a lot of cases because then an artist like Jolene who is such a gifted singer can really just be free to get into the zone and not have to “think” about it but just feel it. What changed was that as soon as Jolene began singing, it brought a whole new level of life and color to the song, more dynamic, emotive and sophisticated.
The thing about Jolene is she is really an incredible singer, not only technically (she often nails 3 and 4 part harmonies in one take), but she is wonderfully expressive and has a very beautiful natural delivery that is powerful but also vulnerable and very human, she makes it look and sound easy. So I am there in front of the controls listening to this happen live and basically freaking out about how insanely good it sounds.
After the relatively easy time I had writing it, when I went to record the actual parts that would be the final recording I labored over it pretty intensively, we tried it in multiple keys and scrapped entire versions and started over from scratch a couple times because of that. I can recall doing a million different bass takes to get the groove I really wanted for this one and experimenting with a lot of little guitar symphonies I put together for the track. With Jolene and I there is always some magic thing that happens on the spot in a bridge or an outro and I feel like we just want to always push the song a little further if for nothing else than to amuse ourselves.
You’re still relatively new to the music game. What are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks that you’re aiming to reach in the next couple of years?
My main goal now is just to get this music out there and just keep writing and collaborating with amazing people, like Kyle Krone.
I do a lot of daydreaming about what it’ll be like when I get to play the Ryman, or what hearing my name on my favorite radio station at home will be like. Playing festivals like Americana Fest or SXSW have always been big dreams of mine. And collaborating with some of my favorite artists and songwriters, like Allan Shamblin or Ian Fitchuk someday will be magical.
But truly, as long as I get to make music my life, I am living a dream come true already.
Last question — we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
The moon! I’ve been really digging into the different moon phases and the energies that coincide with each one and how to harness that energy.
A good friend of mine, and self proclaimed fellow nerd, has been teaching me about space and really interesting stuff like the ecliptic plane, and the way the moon and planets all work, and I’ve been totally geeking out over it.
That and the show Fleabag I’m obsessed.