By Alison Copeland
Spreading her love and light wherever she goes, CBC Searchlight winner Desirée Dawson has a knack for melting hearts. The Vancouver-born, White Rock, B.C.-raised ukulele playing singer-songwriter beat out 2,000 hopefuls to become the best undiscovered voice in Canada earlier this year. And it’s not difficult to see why.
While Desirée’s winning entry “Hide” was not her first choice for the competition, it ironically earned her the grand prize: equipment from Yamaha Canada, studio time, mentorship and a debut EP. In other words, it was an opportunity to finally come out of hiding.
CBC Music caught up with B.C.'s hidden secret to discuss her debut release, Wild Heart, due out Feb. 24, and why it’s okay to feel scared, even when you’re stronger than you think.
Accidental discoveries are good for the soul
"I had some of my friends to come out from Vancouver to actually be a part of the album and we’re all in there kind of playing different instruments as percussion, like at one point, we’re using my vitamins as a shaker, we’re using my friend Johan, who came out to play guitar. We’re using his head as percussion. So he was playing his head like a drum kind of, well not really a drum, it’s not hollow. But we just put it to the mic, and we just layered it. And it sounds so cool. And we were just sitting there … and the whole album unfolded that way. I was a little nervous, because I really didn’t have much planned, necessarily. I knew the songs that I wanted to do, but I hadn’t really had a chance to sit down with the guitar player, the bass player and the producer and really work through the songs, so everything really unfolded at the studio, nothing was really pre-planned. And yes, I guess I think you can feel that through the album. It’s very rootsy."
When the heart speaks, listen
"I wrote a song called 'Hey Brother.' So, my family … lives in South Carolina, and slowly, like the area that my family lives in, is getting really violent. And more and more shootings, more and more young people dying. I mean it’s really tragic to me, this kind of system that they’re stuck in. And my little brother, he lives there, and he’s 17. And so I hear his stories, and I just realize this kind of place that these young, especially where these young black boys have been really stuck in, and their only options, they feel, are to be like a drug dealer or to be in some sort of gang, and their values are just like, they’re all lovely when you speak to them, and you see this beautiful light in them, but they’re not really being nurtured in that way to shine that light. It’s more like, oh hide that! Take this gun, and if you don’t you’re whatever, whatever, whatever. … So basically, that’s what it stems from, but really it’s also just about, like this, us and empowering the brothers to listen to when their heart’s speak. To be open with their emotion, to feel when they need to feel, and to how much this will change society when people are OK with feeling what they’re feeling and knowing that they can be more."
Home is where they understand you
"I think that growing up in a place that’s not very diverse is difficult. My dad is from South Carolina, and they’re all there. And I grew up with my mom, and she’s white, so it was kind of like, I felt my whole life like I was trying to kind of fit into this box that I never quite fit into, but it was what everyone else was doing around me. And dealing with lots of racism in a way that I wasn’t really allowed or I thought I wasn’t really allowed to question or tell people, 'hey, when you say this, it actually really offends me,' and so kind of growing up with that just put a lot of weight on me, making me feel like, oh, this place is supposed to be my home, but it feels more like I’m here for some reason that I don’t really understand, and it doesn’t feel comforting. ... So [getting to travel to] Ghana was mind blowing, it was so amazing and when I got there, it was very welcoming, like people would just genuinely be like 'welcome home' and things like that. It was very special, even though I felt like I did not fit in, I still had a feeling of being home, and when I went to Jamaica, it was the same thing. I went there initially with not knowing anyone and then slowly built up a really core group of friends and musicians and healers and just the land itself became so special, so homey."
Always trust your gut
"I have an obsession with learning about the digestion system (laughs). It’s something that I really love, and right now, actually, just before you called, I was reading this book called Gut that explains in a way that anyone can understand, just the cool happenings of the world’s most underrated organ. So, I actually love that. I just love learning about nutrition and the body. So, I’m always doing my extra little studying on that. I’d like to go to school for nutrition.
Sometimes you just have to let it all out
"Right now ... there’s one specific song that I like to belt out. And it’s called 'Higher' and it’s off Rihanna’s newest album. It’s very powerful. My sister and I, whenever we’re having any kind of bad day, actually good days too, but usually if it’s been heartbreaking….we’ll just sit in the living room and just blast that song and sing it together at the top of our lungs. I also do that as I’m walking down the streets, too, with my headphones on and people are like, 'oh my God, what is she doing?'"
Desirée Dawson’s debut album, Wild Heart, will be released Feb. 24. Check back soon to hear the first single, “Hey Brother.”
For more on the 2017 Searchlight competition, go to cbcmusic.ca/searchlight.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @AlisonCopy