After more than 20 years in the industry and more hit records than most individual DJs or producers will ever see, Dawn Tallman has finally made an album.
“It’s my first!” she says with a laugh. “I feel so ashamed but it’s true!”
Josh Milan had gotten in touch with our office a few days before this. He warned me: Hey, this is a record that you don’t want to miss. And he was right. Dawn Tallman’s For Me – and for the record, it is indeed her debut album, after her dance music debut nearly a quarter century ago – has made it to the top of a bunch of lists as one of the best soul albums of the year. On the first listen it was also on mine.
“About five years we started talking about making an album,” Dawn says. “And I really wanted to express myself as an artist. Everybody knows me as the gospel house singer – big vocals, you know. I wanted people to know there was more to Dawn Tallman than being the screaming diva!
“I do so much more than house music. I do jazz, funk and gospel, of course. That’s where I started. I wanted people to hear these different sides of me.”
Dawn is on a train as we’re speaking – all the way to Grand Central, as I keep hearing in the background. It’s a pretty obvious reference point that I’m trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid. Two decades into it and Dawn Tallman’s voice is still a powerhouse – but also able to seduce the listener and lure them in with the asides and adlibs that have always given her records so much character. It’s not just a performance, though. What you hear on record is Dawn Tallman’s true character shining through.
Photo and make-up by Julian Lazaro
If you’re not a Dawn Tallman fan already – and I have difficulty accepting that – you will be after you sit down with her. A session of talking about music with Dawn Tallman quickly becomes a session of talking about life with Dawn Tallman. About life experiences, sadness, adversity and how that’s transformed into music that has – it’s not wrong to say this – transformed her. A prolific songwriter, Dawn Tallman’s songs are not just fiery tracks for the dancefloor. I mean they are that, but they’re so much more. They’re songs of survival.
“I’m not new to writing,” she says. “I wrote my first song when I was nine years old. I was that child that loved to write down my feelings. I didn’t know there was a name for it like ‘journaling’ but I was writing my feelings down and they turned into songs. I wasn’t trying to sing them, but they became songs.”
The acceptance in dance music is awesome to me. They really embraced who I am as a person and as an artist. ‘We just love your voice, honey girl – go ahead!’
She remembers lacking confidence when she began working in the industry. “I was that singer, you know what I mean? I thought, ‘I’m just going to sing and they can write everything…’
“And then I got smart!” she says with a laugh. “Wait a minute now! I need to make some money!
“I don’t think I was influenced by anyone but I had my peers nudging me and saying, ‘Dawn, don’t be scared, just go out and express yourself.’ I was worried my songs might be bad or corny but then I said to myself: Look, this is your truth, and you have to love it first. When I gained that confidence, I just looked to the influences of real life situations, whether it was my own – things that I knew – or something I saw. Or in Gospel House, talking about God and faith – you can write a whole book about that.”
“Gospel Energy” is what her label calls it, and Dawn Tallman is the queen. She was so dubbed by Glenn Thornton of Slaag Records for her profound ability to breathe life into any song or lyric with power and passion.
“Gospel energy is just there wherever I am, wherever I sing, whatever platform I’m on,” she says. “I’m always going to give you the foundation of gospel. If I’m singing rock, you know the gospel is going to fly out at some point! Country, a ballad – it’s there. It’s bringing gospel to whatever I’m doing. It’s my energy. Now I didn’t want to box myself into saying ‘I’m just a gospel house artist’ because I am more than that. But I bring energy everywhere I go and my foundation is gospel, so that’s what it means.”
Even aside from several hundred dance music recordings, Dawn’s resume would still be particularly impressive, from her work on albums for Chante Moore, Maysa, Phil Perry, Gerald Albright and Chris Davis. But it was dance music that captured her heart.
“I’ve been doing house music for 24 years,” she says, “but I began singing R&B and everything when I was 15, 16 years old. And of course, back then, it was really about ‘image.’ The voice was cool, but image was always first.
“I got a lot of Nos. ‘She can sing but her image?’ It scarred me a little bit. I knew this is what I wanted to do but I didn’t know if I would ever get to where I am now.
“And that’s what I love about house music and dance music. They really embraced who I am as a person, as an artist. ‘We just love your voice, honey girl, go ahead!’ The acceptance in dance music is awesome to me. People love you for who you are. They don’t care if you’re a billion pounds – ‘Honey just give her the mic!’ It’s about what you’re saying, the feeling, the message.
“I love being me, if you don’t like me, look the other way! I’m gonna be me and I’m gonna love me while doing it.”
Dawn began work on For Me after prodding by Josh Milan, who has turned his post-Blaze imprint Honeycomb Music into a pioneering artist-first enterprise worthy of emulation in the world of soulful house. They’ve known each other for 16 or 17 years, since first meeting as part of the Underground Dance Artists United For Life project released on King Street as a 12″ record called “Keep Hope Alive.”
“It was like ‘We Are the World’ but with house artists,” Dawn says. “We connected then personally but not musically. I didn’t know much about Josh then, but later on I learned and became a freakin’ fan! What! You didn’t tell me you were all of this!
“But he was a fan of mine, too! We connected musically and he really became my musical mentor and really one of my best friends. He really is. We’ve been working together, solid, probably for a good 10 years.”
Josh played a crucial role on the title track of For Me. “While we were doing this album, I was really in a dark space. I was going through a divorce. It was not a good time emotionally. ‘For Me’ came from a place of being really down and depressed. And Josh Milan was the voice when I couldn’t speak. He wrote this song and the song talked about making the choice. And choosing happiness.
“My voice is shaking when I talk about it, because it really was a life changer. ‘You mean, I don’t have to stay depressed?’ I mean I know this is easier said than done, but I realized that I don’t have to stay angry. I can push through it and be happy.
“This song has really touched so many lives. People have called me and said they went through chemo listening to this song every day. They went through a divorce or something in their life, and this song is their anthem and they play it every day.”
I can’t even imagine how that would feel. I think I said that out loud.
“It really blesses me,” she says. “We all want things in our life. We have dreams to be singers and the center of ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ But this is what it’s about for me. Sure I love to be a singer and travel and all of that, but when someone says they were blessed by what I said, that’s it for me. I can sit down! I’d rather hear that than, ‘Oh girl, you tore that song up!’ Thanks for the compliment but were you blessed by what I said? Did it change your life? I love that!”
When she’s telling me this story, I think I get for the first time what “the Queen of Gospel Energy” means. There’s just a trace of gospel house in the song “For Me,” or on the album For Me, for that matter. But you can sense this music having the same effect, playing the same role that spiritual music traditionally has on a crowd and on the individual person.
I was bullied as a young child but I had this gift. People say that music saved their life, but music really did save mine.
“I’m not that girl that sings let’s go shake your butt and cursing and all,” Dawn says. “My thing has always been inspirational. My ministry is not in the four walls of the church. I want to reach the masses. I want people to be inspired, be empowered, be lifted up. If we’re talking about Jesus, Jesus walked among the people. He didn’t stay inside of a building or a church. He went where other people didn’t dare to go. I want to do the same thing. I feel like people are being touched and this is where real ministry begins, out here with the people.
“When I was younger, it was different. You had your parents and your grandparents and the ‘churchfolk’ as we call them. They would be like ‘You can’t have one foot in the world and one in the church!’ They didn’t believe in singing out here and then going in there.
“You want to know a funny story, though? I did a show at the Limelight in the early 1990s. And I was so scared!” she laughs. “I did not want to be singing there! Around that time I was still a little conflicted about it. I wasn’t singing anything crazy but I looked behind me and they still had the big stained glass image of Jesus on it and I’m like ‘Oh, God! Please don’t strike me!'”
* * *
More than strength, I tell her, the songs on For Me have a consistent message of confidence – with Dawn Tallman as a gentle but insistent life coach urging you on and telling you not to be afraid and, above all, to love yourself.
“That’s exactly it,” she says. “You got it! That’s about to make me cry! But happy tears! You got it. That’s exactly what I wanted people to learn. But it had to touch me first. Me, Dawn Tallman. As a young girl growing up I was bullied and called all kinds of names. But I had this gift, you know?
“I told someone this story: Someone said to me one time, ‘You’re ugly but you can sing.’ I was bullied as a young child but I had this gift. People say that music saved their life, but music really did save my life. When I was by myself because I was being bullied and things like that, God had given me this gift, and I was in this world by myself with just me and music.
“This album talks about that. It talks about having low self-esteem from being abused to saying, ‘I’m beautiful.’ That’s the message of ‘True Colors’ and ‘Speak Life,’ which means to speak positive. Someone can speak negative but you can ‘speak life’ over yourself. I wanted people to know they’re not alone. I’ve been through it, too.
“It’s like being a caterpillar and going into a cocoon state and bursting out as a butterfly. For me it was about going into this cocoon state and figuring out who I was as a woman, as a person, even as an artist. And then I could break out of that cocoon. And now I’m telling everyone that they can love themselves. You can go from being hurt. You can choose to be happy and you can be beautiful.”
For Me is out now from Honeycomb Music.