She is hailed as “Montreal’s Queen of the Blues” but – as anyone who has heard her belt out Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien will attest – Dawn Tyler Watson, BFA 94, can sing anything, from chanson to country.
With a career spanning more than two decades, four continents, five albums and countless national and international awards – including winning the prestigious International Blues Challenge in 2017 – Watson is a force of nature.
She is a sensation in Moscow where she was mobbed post-concert by fans at the National Centre for the Arts; shared a stage with Roberta Flack and Sister Sledge in Doha, Qatar; and was called onstage by Cyndi Lauper at the Montreal International Jazz Festival to sing Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
The warm and upbeat Watson recently sat down for a candid Q&A about her sterling career.
Concordia: You sing everything from jazz to Piaf. But you are best-known for the blues. What is like being called Montreal’s Queen of the Blues?
Dawn Tyler Watson: It’s an honour but considering I learnt all my blues riffs from (singer) Angel Forrest, I think she’s the queen. So that would make me the princess. (Laughs)
In 2017 with your backing band The Ben Racine Band, you won the 33rd International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis. You competed against over 200 other artists from around the world! What was that like?
DTW: It was thrilling! To represent the Montreal Blues Society (MBS) – which promotes the blues in Quebec – as their delegate was an honour. But getting to Memphis was hard work: In November 2016, a month after I was chosen to represent the MBS, I ended up in emergency and had triple-bypass surgery, less than three months before the IBC finals. The doctors told me I needed three to six months’ recovery time, and all I could think about was I had to be in Memphis in less than three months! It was personal victory for me to get down there. Then to be representing not just Quebec, but Canada, at the IBC was such a proud moment for me. It was one of the greatest things I have achieved in my career.
Sometimes I wonder if I would have won had I not had that operation. Prior to that, my voice had shifted that past year. I was unable to sustain notes as long at a lower volume, though I could still belt these big long notes. But to sing quietly? I had lost something. I went to see doctors, lung specialists, allergists. But two weeks after the bypass surgery, in rehab, someone brought me my guitar. I started singing Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, as I was learning it at the time, and my voice was back. I get goosebumps just talking about it.
In 2007 you shared the stage at the Tremblant International Blues Festival with Chicago’s iconic Queen of the Blues, Koko Taylor.
That was amazing! We opened for her and she called me up during Wang Dang Doodle to sing with her. I was so grateful to meet her, hear her and sing with her. Truly a great, great honour.
Koko died two years later. You might say that that Tremblant moment was like a passing of the torch.
In a poetic world.
You performed on the February 2018 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise in the Caribbean with, among others, Buddy Guy. You’re back on the 2019 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise on the Mexican Riviera with other headliners, such as Taj Mahal. What is that cruise experience like?
It’s like being on a floating festival! You’re on board with all your fans. You get on the elevator, there are fans. You go to dinner, there are fans. You cannot be the kind of artist who doesn’t want to talk to people. You have to be social. It’s like a family. The same fans come back year after year. There is a real sense of community. We did four shows, all well-attended and received. Being on board with 100 other different artists means you’re joining others onstage, you’re networking constantly, and you’re up till four or five in the morning jamming with people at the piano bar. What’s really cool is that they’ve invited us back this time, because the fans get to vote back the new band that they liked best!
Your new album Mad Love is getting rave reviews.
It’s a quintessential break-up album, written after a very brief and stormy marriage that deteriorated suddenly. It has been a real healing for me, and it’s getting great reviews and a lot of airplay. I just got radio tracking lists from Poland and Australia! It’s very validating to know people are listening to your music around the world.
You also teach young people to sing.
I was a vocal coach at Heritage Regional High School (in St-Hubert, QC) the past three years. I’d tell my students not to limit themselves to one style. They’ll say, “I love Arianne Grande!” And they can mimic her to a T. When I was young, I could imitate my favourites too. But what I teach is finding your authentic voice. How you are going to sing this particular song.
Also, not to limit yourself to singing only one style of music. Get out of your comfort zone. It will help you find out who you truly are. If you go into the music business as a career, if you want to find work as a professional singer, you will have a better chance if you’re able to sing varying styles.
How did your time and studies at Concordia University help shape you and your career?
One of my closest friends and mentors, Sheila Veerkamp, was accepted in the music-composition program at Concordia. She encouraged me to come and audition. Being a high school dropout I was sure they wouldn’t take me. But she helped me to prepare for the written exam, I auditioned and was accepted as a mature student! It took me six years to do a four-year degree. I kinda took my time and I am glad I did. I got busy jamming, singing, working, forming bands, practicing for concerts, I sang in a gospel choir there as well. Concordia gave me a really good foundation and the confidence to follow my dream – and now I am doing the thing I love most in the world for a living, which is to sing. I feel very blessed.