Featured Artist Fall 2009: Maxi Dunn

When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Ever hear that American saying before? In October, I sampled some of the finest lemonade I’d ever gotten my hands on. What makes good lemonade? A touch of sour. An overall sweetness. And finally, a great, memorable aftertaste. In this case, the lemonade is the brand new Welcome to Soonville album by Maxi Dunn, the Twirl Radio Featured Artist for Fall, 2009! I interviewed her on Twirl Radio on Saturday, October 24th, 2009.

Maxi is a singer-songwriter from Liverpool, UK. I first met her on Facebook. She was a friend of several of my other friends. I enjoyed chatting with her–she always had something witty, pertinent, or charming to say. Finally, I heard her music on some other radio shows (so no, I don’t get credit for “discovering” her), and asked her if she’d send me some tracks for airplay. Thus began a six month odyssey, one in which she’d occasionally email me another new track for airplay consideration. By default, I pretty much got to watch the making of Welcome to Soonville, real time! With characteristic modesty, she would often preface her emails with disclaimers like “I’m not sure if this’ll fit your show, but I hope you like it”. And then it would turn out to be a magnificently performed and produced song, which indeed wound up in my playlist. She repeated this procedure several times, and before long, I became familiar with much of the album before the October 12th release.

So what does Maxi sound like? She’s got a very versatile voice–I think she sings alto and soprano parts equally well, and uses each range to good effect, depending on what the song or phrase calls for. A lot of her songs have a bouncy, early 1980’s sound–something like you might have heard from early Madonna or Sheena Easton–but with much more depth of songwriting than you would ever hear from either of those two legendary songstresses. But no–not all her songs are upbeat and fun. Soonville has a range of emotions to explore, and some truths to uncover, and that is reflected in the sound and range of songs. Maxi may have grown up in the 1980’s, but she’s living in the here and now.

Maxi has been a musician for the last twenty years, and had been in a few bands. So what moved her to release this fine debut album in 2009? Well, a traumatic year, in which a long term relationship ended bitterly, was the motivating factor.

One doesn’t even have to know the exact circumstances. The songs say it all. And they divide up into two groups–those written back in the 1990’s with her old band CS Drift, and the ones written this past year. The older ones have a wistful tone–they’re generally about sad relationships. They’re very good. But the ones written this year–these are the focused words of a survivor. These autobiograhical vignettes tell you everything that happened to Maxi. In the course of about a year, she walked through fire, and came out alive on the other side. A little scorched, and wiser for it all. But here to tell us about it.

The songs also break up into two groups soundwise, as well. Songs such as How Was I To Know, Don’t Look Back, Always Be My Friend, Seattle In The Sun, and the epic title track Welcome To Soonville were produced by Pete Hackett from Cult Of Wedge, who supplied the sterling guitar work as well. Paul Wright added some keyboard and saxophone work too. Some of my favorite songs from 2009 emerged from this batch. To my ears, these are the more driving, and in some cases, rocking songs on the album. Most of the newer songs are in this group. Interestingly enough–Mr. Hackett and Ms. Dunn have not yet met in person as of this writing. They live a couple of hours apart. That fascinates me, because the artist-producer relationship is perhaps the most important in music, and it speaks volumes that they could produce such fine songs via long distance–there’s a certain empathy and intuition going on here.

And there are four important songs on the album produced by the production team of Coke Belda and Roque Esteban, otherwise known as Cokeroque. High As A Kite, Waiting To Go Round, Pull You Down, and I Mean That were also created as a result of a virtual collaboration, as Cokeroque are located in Spain. Coke played guitars and Roque, keyboards, on these tracks. These guys generally have a lighter, poppier, almost 1980’s sound, fitting Maxi’s voice very nicely.

So if I had to pick a few tracks to focus on from this great batch of songs, I’d start with the leadoff How Was I To Know. This song sets the tone for the entire album. The great lyrics tell the story of the aforementioned relationship. Some great Pete Hackett guitars. A big sound, very dramatic indeed. And there is a lot of drama on this album. Don’t Look Back follows and continues the theme of lies and contradictions. And then–after all this heaviness comes the happiest song on the album, Always Be My Friend, written for Adam Waltemire’s Pop Garden Radio 4th anniversary show. Entirely different tone from most of the album, but in a way, it fits well. Despite the heaviness of the last year, this is a reminder that Maxi has some good supportive friends out there.

Other memorable songs include Waiting To Go Round from the Cokeroque batch, a tune written back in the 1990’s, which remarkably foreshadows the trauma of the relationship. Pull You Down has Cokeroque stepping out of their mellow sound–it rocks as hard as any of the Pete Hackett-produced tracks. And finally, the title track of Welcome To Soonville. What can I say? It’s got a sweeping, mysterious, James Bond theme kind of sound. Determined vocals. You’ve got to hear this one to believe it. You’ve never heard this song before, but it will instantly feel familiar to you. Destined to become a classic. This is Maxi the survivor. She comes out on top after a harrowing sequence of events. It’s a magnificent song that perfectly closes the album. I’ll often play this one at the end of a set of songs on my radio shows.

It was truly a pleasure to chat with Maxi on my show, and so interesting to find out how this great album was produced. I am pleased to have had her as the Artist of the Month for Fall, 2009, and am looking forward to what 2010 brings for Maxi!

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