Dawn Riding

In San Francisco’s Mission District, there’s a Victorian house with a garden full of towering tobacco flowers and rose vines so thick they’re pulling down the fence. Every Sunday, for a great span of 2021, songwriter Sarah Rose Janko (Dawn Riding) would join producer & engineer Alicia Vanden Heuvel (Aislers Set, Magic Trick) there, to play guitar, sing harmonies, and hum lines for other instruments, before retreating to Alicia’s basement recording studio (Speakeasy Studios SF), to roll tape on her Otari half-inch 8-track.  

This is how, week by week, Dawn Riding’s new record You’re Still Here, was chipped out of the ethereal and into an expansive album of meticulously crafted and deeply captivating songs.  It’s an album steeped in intimacy and warmth, each song built with a level of restraint that leaves room for Sarah Rose’s quietly fierce vocals and her powerful songwriting to sit front and center. Nothing is rushed and each song is presented almost as a vignette: some with so much stillness you can feel the relationships, some that build from the heart’s interior solitude into swells of emotional catharsis. Above all, the album drives and breathes with storytelling. 

“I love music that talks to you and keeps you company,” attests Janko. Heavily influenced by Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt – two songwriters who weave poetry and truth – the essential element in Janko’s songwriting is character. Throughout You’re Still Here we rencounter the figures with which most great American literature and folk music are fascinated: the sex worker, the fugitive, the heartsick, the lover who may take you down with them.  On “I Want To Run” Janko personifies an unnamed danger singing “it’s a place of luck run out, a cigarette glowing in a shadow’s mouth.” On “The Difference,” she employs the confrontational style of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” to look at the character of white people in response to the rise of the BLM movement, asking “How can you wear your great grandmother’s pearls and you tell me the past is gone?” 

You’re Still Here marks Dawn Riding’s third full-length album, dropping this November as a co-release between The Long Road Society and Speakeasy Studios SF, two women-owned Bay Area record labels, a fitting arrangement considering that the album’s creation was deeply collaborative. The credits reveal a wealth of Bay Area musicians lending their talents, with multi-instrumentalist Vanden Heuvel acting as producer and musical arranger. In addition to long-time Dawn Riding drummer Jasmyn Wong’s familiar shuffle on “All The Time,” Keenah Silver Fassett brings a rockier edge to two of the heavier numbers on the record. Hall McCann, Dawn Riding’s long-time lead guitar player and backup vocalist pushes her harmonies to the apparitional on “Scales Fall From My Eyes” while her guitar lines on “The Difference” are dirty and raw, invoking CSNY’s “Ohio.”  Alicia steps away from the mixing desk to play bass, organ, and even drums (on “Nine Lives”). Jacob Aranda (Tarnation) plays pedal steel and violin on a number of songs, including a haunting steel track on “Scales Fall From My Eyes.” Anna Hillburg adds trumpet, and Jessie Leigh Smith, who often performs live with Dawn Riding, plays soulful harmonica, lending a comforting down-home vibe to the journey. 

The instrumentation only draws the listener further in, holding us in the comfort or dissonance of the arrangements, and deepening the imagery of Janko’s potent songwriting. A San Francisco peep show flickers with visions of a church as the lightest hammond organ fades in.  The feedback of an electric guitar illustrates a car skidding across the pavement. On “Change In Tide,” written for Brittney Boyd, Janko’s friend who passed away during Covid lock down, the arrangement paints the allusion of a New Orleans funeral with harmonizing trumpet. 

The musical landscape carries the listener away, into a deeply familiar, yet deeply folkloric space, where Janko thrives. I admire people who write about their life in straightforward terms,” Janko says. “Honesty in art is the most impactful in my opinion. The goal is always to create a new world, of course, but really talking about life in this one is a good start too.” You’re Still Here is a songwriter’s album and Sarah Rose Janko, in the tradition of great American folk musicians, is laying most of her cards on the table – endearing you to her portraits of American life, and leaving you thirsty for the stories that haven’t yet been told. 


IMAGES: To download, click above. Images by Annie Flanagan.

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