WILMINGTON — David Dixon has been reprioritizing his musical output. It’s not just a ramification of Covid-19, which shuttered his livelihood as a performer. The shakeup was intentional: two years of fulfilling an inner desire to be more thoughtful with his craft.
The results can be heard on his latest EP, “The Game.”
Best known for his rock-blues hooks and soulful guitar playing, Dixon’s latest five-track EP is getting a pop-infused punch. Memorable lines, catchy hooks, earworms — “you know, stuff that people really get attached to,” Dixon described to Port City Daily last month.
It began last year when the musician made a conscious choice to immerse himself further into the process of music-making — leaning into the finesse of creating, recording, and refining ideas that would inevitably level up his skillset.
“The more I got into it, the more I realized how time-consuming hard work is in order to really excel,” Dixon said.
The musician already is impressively deft. Dixon took up violin at age 2 — first learning to play by ear from his mother, a violin teacher. He moved into playing bass and guitar, and studied jazz at East Carolina University in high school, before packing up to head to Berklee School of Music for college.
Dixon landed in Wilmington a little more than a decade ago and released his first EP in 2010. A followup self-titled LP came out in 2014. Today, he said, when he listens back to old songs, he often tells himself, “Oh, man, I had some good ideas, but a lot of it — well, I have come a long way.”
Making ‘The Game’
While the majority of tunes from “The Game” were done over the course of 2020, Dixon actually had a first batch completed ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic. As with previous recordings, he sent them to his college roommate from Berklee for feedback.
“I count on him to be brutally honest — constructive criticism,” Dixon said. “And every time I work with him on something, it usually ends up drastically improving the song.”
Dixon said his pal didn’t give his stamp of approval on hardly any of the tracks. So Dixon scratched all the songs, except the title track. He revised the arrangement of “The Game” in its entirety.
“The chorus is the only part that remains from the previous version,” he described. “I worked on it in all its incarnations for about two years. It never felt right until I arrived at the version on the record.”
Now, Dixon’s music library makes up 80 versions of “The Game.” With every take, he evolved the song, guided by inspiration from what he was listening to: Lizzo, Justin Timberlake, Shawn Mendes.
Dixon also worked harder to upgrade his lyrical content and strengthen his storytelling by tuning in more to John Prine and Jason Isbell. Melodies, cadence, and rhythm, Dixon said, always piqued his interests first and foremost during the creation process; words seemed secondary building blocks.
“My brain would always be, like, how is this melody fitting over the harmony of the song — the chord progression? And why do I like the sound of this? Why do I like this mood?” Dixon said.
He wanted to ensure his lyrics would resonate more with listeners. So he turned toward one seemingly foolproof topic: love. All songs on “The Game” deal with relationships — “whether it’s love at first sight, relationship turmoil or a breakup, the early stages of infatuation, and there’s one good old-fashioned love song,” Dixon detailed. “I think the songs are relatable since most of us have experienced all of those sides to a connection with someone else.”
“Better With You By My Side” was written for his wife over a two-day span, a timeline that surprised the musician: “It’s rare for me to finish the crux of a song that quickly.”
Mounting frustration, he said, often would arise over choosing the right words to convey a mood or idea, but when it clicked, the payoff was worth it. One day, he explained, he returned from hiking Zion National Park when a boost of creativity struck.
“Memories fade/All our best ones, baby/feel so far away/All this time/and the view was never worth the climb” he penned.
“For me, I was thinking of the metaphor of putting all this effort into hiking up a mountain to see this beautiful view, and then getting up there and finding it’s not impressive,” Dixon explained. “That’s the kind of songwriting victory that keeps you going.”
It became the basis for “All I Can Give,” which also includes Argentinian session drummer Tomás Shannon. Dixon reached out on a whim. He had been listening a lot to Kacey Musgraves’ “Slow Burn” at the time and hoped to evoke similar ‘70s pop grooves in “All I Can Give.”
“I went to Tomás’ YouTube page and found a video of him performing that song,” Dixon explained. “His drums sounded exactly like what I was envisioning; it felt like it was meant to be.”
Self-recorded in Dixon’s home studio, “The Game” was mixed by engineer and co-producer Carl Bahner in Pennsylvania. The two would share demos and voice memos virtually to complete the product with shutdowns and in place during a pandemic.
Bahner also connected Dixon to talent he may not otherwise have had access to, such as Korey Riker, sax player for John Legend. Riker played on “Better With You By My Side,” and also was able to contract a trumpet player to give the song the sound of a full horn section.
“Korey is a beast of a woodwinds player,” Bahner said, “so as soon as David proposed the idea of having live horns on the track, getting Korey involved was a no-brainer.”
Bahner played drums on “Better With You By My Side,” and programmed percussion on three other songs. “He’s kind of like a jack of all trades,” Dixon said.
All other instruments, keyboards and synthesizers, acoustic, bass and electric guitars, and the vocal parts came down to Dixon’s expertise. He credits the luxury of time as the real crown jewel. Even though Dixon wasn’t performing as much, and had to depend on livestreams to make up for lost revenue, not “being distracted with 20 gigs a month and every night” or being tired from the grueling schedule provided energy he needed to complete “The Game.”
“This was unexpected time off that allowed me to dive in,” he said.
He pored over every note carefully and would even geek out, sometimes for hours at a time, even if over one tone. “I would literally spend sometimes, you know, from breakfast till bedtime, trying out different sounds on a synthesizer, looking for the right one that would work with the vibe of the song I was working on,” he said.
Only one song on the album was tracked away from Dixon’s home. He did some guitar parts for “Across the Room” at Trent Harrison’s Hourglass Studios and music venue Live at Teds. The musician wrapped “The Game” in March 2021; master engineer Nic Di Lorenzo from Melbourne, Australia, helped with its final touches.
Dixon already recorded a video for the single “Across the Room,” put together with footage from a show he did at Brooklyn Art Center pre-pandemic days, as well as images of Dixon in the recording studio. It has been the most popular song yet from “The Game” and has received almost 50,000 streams on Spotify. The full EP can now be streamed on all platforms.
“The Game” officially debuted Friday, Aug. 13, but Dixon is celebrating its release with an official party on Thursday, 6:30 p.m., at Dram + Morsel in downtown Wilmington. Admission includes more than just a live performance: The $15 entry comes with a hard copy of “The Game,” a free drink provided by WineWater, and a $2 donation that will go to NourishNC — Wilmington’s nonprofit that ensures hungry students stay fed.
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