Interview: Javier Dunn talks his debut album, Trails

Javier Dunn

Javier Dunn

For over 8 years, he played guitar in front of sold out crowds all over the world. As an official member of Sara Bareilles’ touring band, Javier Dunn was able to achieve the dreams of most musicians. But this week, Dunn is emerging from the shadows and heading centerstage with the release of his superb debut solo album, Trails (available today on iTunes).

I caught up with Dunn about the evolution of his sound, his future tour plans, his influences, the Fresh Prince, and more.

For a while, your music had a primarily acoustic singer/songwriter feel to it. What made you decide to want to experiment with the more electronic-influenced sound of Trails?

I’ve actually been programming and making hip hop beats and electronic stuff for about 10 years, but it was music I never really shared with people other than close friends. I was trained in guitar playing, and obviously loved it, and felt like the guitar-based singer songwriter sound was what i was supposed to go for, and i guess i thought it was the most plausible genre for me to fit in to. So for the most part, I honed my public sound to just be that one thing: the acoustic guitar singer songwriter type. But all the while, I made beats and experimented with stuff on my own. It was the advent of better sounds and better technology, as well as me finally starting to share my “other” songs, that led me to this album. I finally felt like the sounds I could achieve on computers were close enough to the sounds I could hear in my brain. The quality of digital sounds got way better, and I got better at making them. And as you get older, you get to be less self-conscious, and hopefully closer to your true self. That’s what this music is. It’s always been in me, but people are just now starting to hear it. And they dig it so that’s been incredibly affirming. It’s amazing what happens when you stop censoring your creativity. Everything grows.

Where does the album’s title, Trails, come from?

It’s a very long, meandering, random train of thought that got me there, but it all made sense in the present tense. And I try not to “explain” things like album titles and song titles too much because it demystifies things a little. But basically, I like to use the Google definition, “a mark or a series of signs or objects left behind by the passage of someone or something.” I think that’s a cool way of thinking about an album. It’s my sonic trail of what I’ve been through the last few years. That’s the simplest, broadest way of putting it.

Will you be hitting the road in support of Trails?

I hope so. I’m in a tough little donut hole of my artist career where I’m lucky enough to have fans spread out all over the country (and the world for that matter), but getting to all of them can sometimes be financially un-doable. I’ve spent most of the last 8 years touring around the world with Sara Bareilles, and I absolutely love it on all levels. So yeah – emotionally and mentally and spiritually, I DEFINITELY want to tour to support this album. But i’m still trying to put together some pieces to make all that happen. So fans: call your radio station! Tell your friends! And bring me to your town! Please and thank you.

How has your evolution of sound impacted your live show? Is it more challenging to perform these songs as their multi-layered final products than it was when it was just you and your guitar?

The new sound has definitely been a trick to realize live. At first, I was reluctant to make this record because i thought about that hurdle. But then I thought, “screw that – make the best album you can. Cross the live bridge when you come to it.” And now i’m at the bridge. I’ve been doing the album solo lately, using a laptop and some foot pedals to trigger tracks, while playing electric guitar and singing. That’s actually worked out really well. And of course I can do the acoustic thing too. I think any good song needs to stand on its own as an acoustic song, so I’m lucky I have that discipline down as well. In a perfect world, I would have a full band playing everything live. The laptop works for now but nothing can match human connectivity through music. So when this album blows up, I’ll have a full band and we will melt your face.

You’ve been Sara Bareilles’ touring guitarist for quite some time now. What inspired you to want to branch out and put out music as a solo musician?

I was a solo musician before meeting Sara, during my time with Sara, and I will continue to be for the rest of my life after Sara. I made a conscious decision to back-burner my solo career for the opportunity of being Sara’s guitar player. Sara always knew I had made that sacrifice, and always fostered my solo career the best she could. But my job was to be the best guitar player for her that I could possibly be. So that was my identity. I kept all the solo stuff to myself. Except of course when Sara would have me as an opener. But yeah – I’ve always been a solo musician. Sara blessed me with a chance to live the dream, and I took it. i’m forever thankful for that.

Sara is also featured as a guest vocalist on a couple of the tracks on your album. What’s the best piece of advice she gave you as a seasoned performer when you were putting your record together?

She actually didn’t give me any advice whilst making the record. We usually leave each others’ creative processes alone. Obviously if i go to her with questions, she’ll oblige. But we kinda stay out of the actual creating. I guess she gave me encouragement more than anything, once she heard it. She knows me closer than most and knew I had those sounds in my brain and the capacity to make that music, but she was still really enthusiastic and complimentary when she heard it and I knew that meant I was doing something right.

Tell me a little bit about your creative process. Do you tend to write music and/or lyrics first?

I’m a musician first. Music always seems to come first. It’s funny – I feel like I’m a decent prose writer, and I was an English major in college, but sometimes lyrics are really, really hard for me. Music pours out of me and the song ideas come for days. But then I have to really sit down and focus when it comes to lyrics. Occasionally lyrics will come easily, or even first without any music (just as poetry sort of), but almost always it’s music first, then words. And the music could come from a drum beat, a synth sound, a guitar chord, a bass tone … anything sonic.

Did you write lead single “Couple of Drinks” out of experience or out of observation?

Well everyone has had that experience at some point, including me, but the experience that led to writing the song was observational. But again, it was from a personal place. The lyrics are so specific and locational because basically the whole song came to my brain while I was at a party (that was an example of lyrics and melody coming to me first – very quickly too). I was floating on a pool floatie watching the party around me and the whole chorus came to my brain. I just repeated it a bunch of times to myself to memorize it, and then wrote the music around it the next day. It’s a pretty simple song. Poor guy …

There have been a quite few remixes of that song popping up online lately. Are there any in particular that you’re a big fan of?

There are a TON of cool remixes out there. The Jacob Grant remix is tight. I think one guy named Zeier? Dubstep version. Super dope. A japanese producer named Charlot did probably the most beautiful elegant remix I’ve heard. Just insanely cool stuff out there. I was humbled, to say the least.

On Trails, you reinterpreted some of your previous acousting recordings by adding some of those new production elements we discussed earlier. What made you decide to revisit these songs and inject them with this new flavor?

I was kind of looking at this album as a debut of sorts, given that it’s my first with a label and a “new sound” and whatnot. I felt like I had some really strong songs on my last EP that just never saw the ears they deserved because I didn’t have the marketing/label support/whatever. So when Jim Roach (the head of Red Parade Music) and I talked about making the record, we both agreed that bringing back 3 or 4 of my best songs from the earlier catalog might be a good idea. It would be a “first listen” for a lot of fans, so I thought it was a good idea. And the songs are all re-recorded, re-performed, re-produced, and honestly better. The best they could be. So i’m glad i did it.

One of the aspects of Trails that I really love is how richly diverse the songs sound. When listening to them, I hear traces of everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to The Weeknd to Damien Rice to Robin Thicke. Who were some of your biggest musical influences when recording the album?

Um, you kinda just nailed it with those, actually. And thank you. I’m flattered at those comparisons. But yeah, influencing this record were the recent records by Gotye, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Mumford and Sons, Death Cab, Miike Snow, Bon Iver … tons of stuff. That’s me, ya know? I like a lot of different kinds of music. I always have. And they get filtered out into my own records.

When putting out a debut album, the pressure must be really high to make sure the songs you’ve selected and the order you’re presenting them in are the truest representations of your artistry. Does Trails satisfy the musical introduction you always envisioned for yourself?

Beyond my expectations. I was unsure about signing with a label because I didn’t know if my musical visions would be compromised or skewed or whatever. But honestly, I believe in every second of every note on this album. Hell, just about every second of every note came out of my brain and these two hands. And no one compromised that. Instead, the label and Jim specifically helped me REALIZE that. So yeah, I think this is the best album I’ve ever made, and the music of which I am currently most proud and feel most identified with.

What’s on your fast track to become your favorite song of the summer?

“Summertime” by Fresh Prince. I’m bringin that one back. OH WAIT IT NEVER WENT AWAY. “Here it is – a groove slightly transformed…”

Javier Dunn

Javier Dunn’s debut album, Trails, is now available on iTunes.

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.