Nataly Dawn, 'How I Knew Her'
“Haunting.” That’s how Nataly Dawn describes her first full-length solo album, How I Knew Her, out Tuesday, Feb. 12. Some may recognize Dawn’s name and voice as one-half of the duo Pomplamoose or as part of My Terrible Friend. The quirky, fun platform of Pomplamoose is very different from Dawn’s solo work, however, and she acknowledges that. “I’ve been going through a darker period in my life and trying to process a lot of that. And I knew that Pomplamoose was not the right outlet for the lyrics I had written,” Dawn told NPR’s Jacki Lyden.
How I Knew Her is 12 tracks of admitted personal therapy, delving into much of Dawn’s past and present struggles, especially with faith and what it means to her. Growing up in a missionary family with a father who is a pastor and holds a Ph.D. in church history, as well as a very involved mother, Dawn has since walked away from her family’s established and traditional faith. But there still remains within her a struggle between what she was taught as a child and what she sees in today’s world—especially when it comes to the Bible and teachings on sexuality.
Yet Dawn holds a great appreciation for structure. “When you’ve been raised like that, it doesn’t matter how much you may disagree with it, there’s always a huge part of it that remains with you and a huge part of your heritage will always be that,” she says. And while Dawn may stray from the structure of the Church at large, she treasures structure in the craft of the song, saying, “Each moment of the song is pivotal and how it all flows together.”
This love of craft is evidenced in every aspect of Dawn’s work. Produced by her six-and-a-half-year boyfriend and Pomplamoose partner, Jack Conte, and mixed by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley, Elizabeth and the Catapault), Dawn is also joined by some powerhouse studio musicians. Drummer Matt Chamberlain (Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Jon Brion) makes his presence known from the opening snare roll of the album. Chamberlain is joined by Ryan Lerman (Ben Folds, A Fine Frenzy) on guitar and David Piltch (k.d. lang, Bill Frisell, Bonnie Raitt) on upright bass, as well as Louis Cole (Louis and Genevieve, Pomplamoose).
Although much of Dawn's music comes from a very personal place, that’s not to say it can’t reach a wider audience than her family and therapist. Dawn’s lyrics are thoughtful and intelligent, and the themes are relatable, though dark. The album ends with the track “I Just Wanted You to Get Old,” about the passing of a family member, which Dawn says was the most difficult track to write—a tender and stripped-down recording, almost as a postscript to the album, that contains an apology said too late and all the words we find ourselves afraid we won’t say in this lifetime. The title track, “How I Knew Her,” is the longest on the album and another letter-in-song addressed to someone who is gone. “I would have liked some answers,” Dawn states to this ghost of a memory.
“Why Did You Marry” is Dawn’s reflection on young marriages and belies a dissatisfaction with the Church’s message of marriage as an ultimate arrival point. The track asks Why did you marry? Did no one ever tell you to fly to the moon / To not get tied down too soon / To shop around? By the end, Dawn seems to answer her own question with a theory: It’s just like in the movies and novels and plays / where no one ever says ‘Thanks, Cary Grant, but I think I’ll just get my own place.’
“Long Running Joke” it birthed out of Dawn's frustration with Church teachings and statements, about which she says, “A lot of people who listen to the album will hear a very frustrated voice—someone who isn’t happy with the way things have been taught to them.”
Musically, this album is a different animal than Pomplamoose—trading the fun quips and upbeat melodies for a sound that is carefully crafted and thoughtfully laid out to a beautiful effect. Spiritually and emotionally, How I Knew Her is candid but certainly not uplifting. Yet as listeners relate to Dawn's struggles, perhaps that's exactly why they'll love it.