You are a songwriter. Again, this isn’t something anyone out there could have told me, just something I wish I had known. I didn’t figure it out until my early 30’s, after lots of flailing around. Maybe I would tell others, don’t squander your 20’s. Especially if you want to play music.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dawn Oberg.
Dawn Oberg is a San Francisco-based songwriter and recording artist. She writes amusing, 21st-century yacht rock for the piano.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in rural Minnesota, among lots of cornfields. Darwin, MN was the home of the world’s largest ball of twine. I went to high school in Litchfield, a town of 5,000-some people. This was before the internet. One could say it was remote.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have two career paths: the first goal was music. I guess I picked that because I loved music and didn’t want to do anything else. There isn’t any real dramatic story behind that. As for my library career, my first full-time job after getting out of music school was working in a library, and I enjoyed it so kept doing it. I now work full-time as a librarian.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m a performer, with performance anxiety, an anxiety disorder and Complex PTSD. Right before recording my 2nd album, ‘Rye,’ I underwent Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for stage fright and it really helped. I still think that wouldn’t have been enough without just performing a lot.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Funniest mistake? Hmmm… I know I’ve made many hilarious mistakes, but I was probably too busy feeling humiliated to laugh. I do have funny stories! The most memorable, twisted story I can think of is when I was playing a monthly gig at a San Francisco venue, which I will not name here, lucky for them. The venue had just sprayed for roaches, and apparently, the roaches took refuge in the piano. When I started playing, they emerged from inside the piano and crawled on the surface of the piano so that I could see them. One of them crawled up on the music stand part of the piano, and just kind of stayed there, poised as if it were looking at me. I just kind of gave up and thought, okay, I will sing to you. So I did, and after a bit, the cockroach started crawling down the stand piece of the piano toward the keys. I couldn’t take it anymore and ended the song in haste and took the opportunity to take a break. It was kind of like an early David Lynch film.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am writing songs for my next record. I also recently wrote and recorded a song as part of a tribute record to Liverpool poet Ian D. Hall.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented music? How can that potentially affect our culture?
It’s really obvious in the arts that some of the most interesting, innovative and exciting music happens when two or more cultures intersect. That’s how rock happened. Soul was a combination of gospel and blues and pop. And science shows that in research settings and corporate settings the teams with the most diversity get the best results. It is impossible to have a relevant culture without diversity.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Get help now. Before you go to college or do anything else. Work in a factory or whatever and do what it takes to get lots of help. This doesn’t really apply to other people, it’s just something I wish I could tell the 18-year-old me because I had cognitive and emotional issues.
- You are a songwriter. Again, this isn’t something anyone out there could have told me, just something I wish I had known. I didn’t figure it out until my early 30’s, after lots of flailing around. Maybe I would tell others, don’t squander your 20’s. Especially if you want to play music.
- You may never make money. Be happy with doing your best work, and build the best catalog you can.
- If you have “writer’s block,” the best way to get rid of it is to write down your bad ideas. You needn’t show them to anyone.
- Don’t internalize capitalism or take commercial failure personally.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Get lots of sleep. If you feel yourself burning out, give yourself a week where you don’t have to write or produce anything, just do the minimum that your obligations require. Everyone’s situation is different, I know there are people who don’t have that luxury.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I assure you, my influence is not enormous. But if it were? I would replace the Democratic party with a Socialist Party of Science. Where decisions were made for the highest good and the most people, and science would be the determining factor. I would NOT want to start a third party. I would just want to transform the Democrats into that. With leaders who know what is at stake and act on it without regard to the potential impact on their careers. I would want to push through voters’ rights legislation because all rights depend on voters’ rights. Yes, even if it means killing the filibuster. The planet is on fire. A party of science would acknowledge that and take action accordingly. A socialist party of science and climate justice would also recognize that communities of color and the elderly and disenfranchised and the un-housed and poor are already being disproportionately impacted and even killed by that. The recent northwest heatwave killed hundreds of people. And for some reason, the Florida condo collapse was given all the headlines during that period and for the next two weeks. So that is not just a government issue, but a media issue. Do the people killed in Washington and Oregon somehow matter less because they were elderly or un-housed? In a capitalistic society and system, the answer is obviously yes. As a society, we need to evolve in our priorities regarding who and what is important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s true, none of us gets anywhere alone. So I hate to have to pick just one, but for me, it would have to be my dad. He paid for the lessons, put me through music school (Berklee, before tuition, was 80K dollars/year), gave me a chunk of money that bankrolled two records and also helped me a lot financially when my library career went through a long phase of bad luck. I am happily employed now, but he was there for me when I wasn’t. Because of my neurodivergent issues, I have failed at a lot of normal things. Like being a food and beverage server (in my defense I have driven forklifts, de-tasseled corn, delivered cannabis and much more). And this kind of parental support almost never happens with artists! The American musician narrative is, you are supposed to rise up out of poverty. I am ridiculously lucky because of him. I’ve said many times if it weren’t for him I would be the un-housed person screaming at themselves at the bus stop.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Frank Zappa: “If at first, you don’t succeed, keep on sucking ’til you do.”
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Stephen Colbert? I guess because he is kind of like a spiritual beacon to me. I aspire to be like him, making people laugh, talking about important things but also being completely silly. I also love that he is a practicing Catholic. I am an Episcopalian church lady, which is like Catholicism without pedophilia and homophobia. And we can obviously assume he is a Catholic apologist on those issues.
How can our readers follow you online?
Dawnoberg.com, Dawn Oberg on Facebook, @husserella on Instagram. I don’t use Instagram or Twitter very much.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!