Since 1999, when he first made waves with the piano-driven pop of the Gabe Dixon Band, the Nashville-based songwriter has become increasingly committed to the sheer craft of songwriting—and the unrelenting work it entails. The fruits of Dixon’s labor are evident on his latest release, Turns to Gold. The album’s stripped-down arrangements and spare, naturalistic production keep the focus on Dixon’s ever-evolving songcraft.
“When I had the band, I was only writing songs when I felt like it,” says Dixon, who now performs and records as a solo artist. “I didn’t have as large of a pool to draw from when putting together an album. But for this album, I’ve written dozens and dozens of songs over the last couple of years. I just had more to draw from because I’ve become more of a professional songwriter.”
Dixon is deeply steeped in Nashville’s songwriting culture, where collaborations are the order of the day, and writers get to work every morning over strong coffee regardless of whether or not they feel “inspired.”
“Co-writing forces me to write,” says Dixon. “Like a lot of songwriters, I don’t look forward to sitting down to write, because it’s not easy! It can be mentally exhausting to put together that puzzle. But knowing that someone’s coming over for that 11 a.m. appointment makes me write even when I haven’t yet come up with an idea. The day we wrote ‘Holding Her Freedom,’ I couldn’t think of anything until ten minutes before my co-writer, Marty Dodson, was due to arrive. I finally came up with a little groove and the start of a verse melody. I thought, ‘Well, at least that’s something.’” That germ of an idea would become the opening track on Turns to Gold.
“THESE PIANOS CAN BE DELICATE, BEAUTIFUL, AND EXPRESSIVE INSTRUMENTS, BUT THEY ARE ALSO WORKHORSES.”
Born and raised in Nashville, Dixon studied piano from age seven at Blair School of Music, part of Vanderbilt University. “When I was about 11, I just fell in love with the music in my parents’ record collection,” he remembers.“JerryLewis. Elton John. The Beatles.” Little did Gabe realize he would one day sing and play keyboards on Paul McCartney’s 2001 release Driving Rain and perform with McCartney in concert. He landed the gig via Driving Rain producer David Kahne, who also oversaw the Gabe Dixon Band’s 2002 release, On a Rolling Ball.
“I started playing out in bands when I was a teenager while keeping up my classical lessons,” says Gabe. “I was leading a double life.” He’d practice Bach, Debussy, and Beethoven during the day and play club gigs at night.
Dixon’s pianistic skill took center stage on his early albums, but the instrument assumes a subtler role on Turns to Gold.
“The piano still drives the music rhythmically, but I’m not as flashy as I’ve been on past albums,” notes Gabe. “It’s part of my desire to make this album more rootsy-sounding. There aren’t as many piano solos as on the other albums. It’s more about the songs.” Pursuing an earthier sound, Dixon avoided slick production techniques. Everything was tracked live to analog tape with no sequencers or click tracks.
He also changed instruments. “On every other album I’ve used a grand piano,” Gabe says. “But for a more rootsy sound, I decided to use an upright piano. To me, the upright has—now, this is going to sound stupid—a less grand sound. I wanted a folksy, church-basement quality, and I think I’ve achieved that.”
Dixon writes on an upright at home: a Yamaha U1 Disklavier. “I’ve always loved the sound and feel of Yamaha pianos,” he says. “Their concert grand pianos are second to none. I like the fact that Yamaha pianos can be delicate, beautiful, and expressive instruments, but they are also workhorses. They’re just really solid pieces of technology.”
What’s next for Dixon? Well, probably a lot more songwriting. “The exercise of writing most days has made me better at it,” he says. “I often have no idea at the end of the day whether the song we just wrote is any good because I’m so inside of it. I just sleep on it and listen the next day. Sometimes it’s not as good as I thought. But my favorite days are the ones where I’m so excited about the song, it feels undeniable that it’s great—and then when I listen back the next day, it’s even better than I thought. That doesn’t happen very often!”