An enthusiastic crowd was gathered at Salle Pauline-Julien to welcome Dawn Tyler Watson backed by Ben Racine and his band after their triumphant first-place win in the Band category at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Congratulations also go out to Ben Racine who won the 2017 IBC Albert King Guitar Player Award. I was privileged to sit down with Montreal’s Queen of the Blues, just moments before her show.
BD: Welcome back home and congratulations on winning first place at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis! What was going on in your mind when they announced that you had won?
DTW: I couldn’t believe it! I was surprised because here’s me, raised in southwestern Ontario, with 7 white Quebec boys playing our brand of Blues. I wasn’t sure we would succeed up against the Blues bands from the Delta, Mississippi, south-centric acts from the States where Blues music was born. During the competition, you’re given 20 minutes to play and 30 minutes during the semi-finals. We only had 10 minutes just to set up the band. I guess that’s where the word “challenge” comes in—hurry up and set up an eight-piece band in 10 minutes night after night!
BD: How did you begin in music, Dawn?
DTW: In 1988, I arrived in Montreal to study jazz at Concordia. In school, I began singing mostly R&B and Top 40 songs in a local bar band. Then in 1997 I was approached by a small record label to feature on a blues compilation they were putting together. I recorded 2 originals, “You Can’t Be True” and “Shoot the Devil”. From the success of that I always felt the Blues chose me, and in 2001, I released my first solo album.
BD: Since then, you’ve received accolades from the Maple Blues Awards among others, performed in all of the major blues and jazz festivals, toured Europe and Russia and won the IBC in Memphis where you competed with over 260 blues acts from around the world!
DTW: Yes it’s been quite a ride! I participated in the IBC in 2012 with Paul Deslauriers and we ranked in the top 5! It was good to know what to expect this time around.
BD: You had a health issue recently and I’m so glad you recovered in time to compete in the IBC!
DTW: Yes, I had open-heart surgery in November, but I’m doing great now, and feeling better than I have for a long while.
BD: It must have been quite a shock. We are so happy you’re well and stronger than ever! You’re quite a tough lady!
DTW: I’m a survivor. Things weren’t always easy for me. I had a difficult adolescence and got into a lot of trouble as a kid. Frankly, the rate I was going, I wasn’t sure I’d survive to 21.
BD: And survive you did!
DTW: When my 21st birthday came and went, I thought, “Well, I’m still here; guess now I gotta do something with my life.” A friend suggested I study music and so, I registered as a mature student at Concordia in 1988. Music gave me strength. It saved me. I found approval and validation. My life changed as I got more involved in music. My teacher, Jeri Brown, pushed me past my comfort zone, and I grew as a vocalist and as an artist.
BD: What do you do when you’re not singing?
DTW: I began teaching a few years ago actually, and started a small grassroots company with a friend, called Vocal Expression Montreal. We facilitate workshops for people who want explore their voice and deepen their understanding of singing. I also coach teens at high school a few hours a week.
BD: They are very lucky to have you!
DTW: It’s tough teaching kids, especially in secondary school with all the hormones acting up (laughs)! I also enjoy working with our elders. I’ve been doing music animation with seniors for over 20 years and I love it. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.
BD: What are your upcoming projects?
DTW: I will be pretty busy this summer performing. Along with my regular summer festival line- up, as the IBC winner, I will be performing at various American festivals as well, including the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. The Blues Foundation is very welcoming and supportive. They are great at creating a community among Blues performers, and I’m looking forward to implicating the US scene. I also plan to start working on another original album in the fall, and after that, my dream is to maybe do a jazz album as well.
BD: Thank you so much for speaking to me, Dawn. We’re all very proud of you. Wishing you much continued success!