He sneaked the song onto a playlist at an industry event attended by Warner Music management. Afterward, they were the ones telling Dawson that “Dark Horse” had to be on the album

By Nancy Kruh
January 19, 2018 06:15 PM

The record label had declared Devin Dawson’s debut album finished and headed for release — but Dawson still felt something was missing. So he did what any self-respecting singer-songwriter would do. He kept writing.

“I got into the room with a couple of my [songwriting] friends who are my best friends,” the 28-year-old artist recalls. Though the album was already packed with love songs, this time around, he says, “I wanted to write something about me … that people could hear and be like” — Dawson snaps his fingers — “I know who he is.”

What emerged was a melodic calling card: a soul-baring ballad that describes an artist whose “heart bleeds for country music” yet is determined to blaze his own path.

Devin Dawson
Jimmy Fontaine

But how to get it on the album?

Abiding by his own lyrics, Dawson took a long shot: He sneaked the song onto a playlist at an industry event attended by Warner Music management. Afterward, they were the ones telling Dawson that “Dark Horse” had to be on the album.

Now the song not only anchors the final slot, but it also has given its name to the album, which debuts Friday. And though it’s unlike any of the other songs, “Dark Horse” explains why the rest of the album is true to country’s roots even as it stretches beyond them.

Dawson describes himself as “51 percent songwriter, 49 percent artist,” and it shows in his lyrics — the skillful storytelling, rhymes and wordplay that echo the songs of George Strait, Alan Jackson and Johnny Cash that he grew up with in small-town Northern California. But those lyrics have all been set to a cool, sexy and soulful sound that borrows from sources outside the genre: Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Joe Cocker, among others. Throw into the mix Dawson’s lengthy stint — starting at age 12 — as a heavy metal artist, and something different was bound to emerge.

“I have so many influences from what I grew up listening to that I’m just pulling and taking things along the way and putting it inside here and pushing it out,” Dawson — who made PEOPLE’s 2017 Ones to Watch list — says.

Clearly his sweet spot is the love song, epitomized by the album’s first single, “All On Me,” a breezy, smile-inducing tune now in nationwide airplay. Other notables that traverse the romantic landscape include “I Don’t Care Who Sees,” a tribute to the abandon of love; “Second to Last,” a lament to love’s impermanence; and “Asking for a Friend,” which captures the timid first moments of attraction.

“I love writing love songs,” says Dawson, who co-wrote every song on the album. “That’s why I started writing in the first place, because I got my heart broken and I needed to communicate that … When it comes to love, I am the worst about talking about it … The way that I’ve learned how to communicate is hiding behind a song or hiding behind a guitar. I feel I can say whatever I want that way.”

Dawson was unattached when he worked on the album: “I was writing about where I wanted to be, not necessarily where I was at the time.” His current relationship with Leah Sykes (“I am in love,” he declares) has turned him into a believer that “you put it into the universe and it’ll come back to you.”

Dawson is set to take his new music out on the road this year on Brett Eldredge’s The Long Way Tour — and, of course, you can count on him to keep writing.

“I write every day if I can,” he says. “That’s my addiction, so I continued to write regardless of if I’m writing for me or somebody else or my next project or my third record or whatever. I just always write.”

Luckily, he doesn’t have to go far to find one of his most valued collaborators: Jacob Durrett, his housemate and 13-minutes-younger fraternal twin brother. (The artist uses his middle name for his last name.) Durrett, who is also a producer, shares two co-writes on Dark Horse, including “All On Me.”

Devin Dawson

“He’s my secret weapon,” Dawson says. “He’s the guy who knows what I like, knows what I want. I can trust him — and when you’re in the creative thing and trying to tell people who you are, to trust somebody is a huge thing.”

One day, Dawson says, he hopes his brother will also be his album producer, but a bigger dream is to join him in producing other artists. “You could have one-stop shopping,” Dawson says. “You come in, we’ll write a song with you, and we’ll produce it. I’d like to find artists and develop artists as a team, because that’s what we love to do.”