With honest and organic original music, the singer/songwriter known as City and Colour finds success on his own terms.
Artists will occasionally take a stylistic left turn at some point in their careers. Dallas Green may look like he drove off the road. He was part of the melodic post-hardcore group Alexisonfire, and midway through 10 years of albums and world tours, he began his acoustic-oriented solo work under the recording alias of City and Colour.
While it may seem like an odd mix of genres, it all evolved naturally as Green grew as a songwriter and incorporated his many influences from music he had listened to his whole life. “I think that I’m just a fan of music. I always enjoyed loud, aggressive music, but I also always enjoyed melody and playing quieter. When I first started writing songs, I just wrote them on an acoustic guitar because it was all I had. But then I always wanted to be in a band. I just happened to start a band that sounded like Alexisonfire. I would say I was just sort of an open-minded music listener – if you’re a songwriter, then that usually will lend you to be an open-minded songwriter.” He continues, “I wasn’t trying to distance myself from heavy music. I still listen to it. I still play my guitar really loud a lot of the time in my basement. But creatively, at this point in my life, this is just where I feel I need to be songwriting-wise.”
Although Alexisonfire was quite a heavy-sounding band, it was their fan base that got Green back to his acoustic roots. “They’re kind of the reason, I guess I would say the main reason, why I put out the first City and Colour record. I first started writing songs—they were just me and an acoustic guitar. I played around my hometown and made basement demos and things like that, sold them at shows. As Alexisonfire started gaining a little bit of momentum, these old songs started finding their way onto the Internet. We kind of came into our own right around the same time file sharing became such a huge thing. So, kids would ask me about these old solo songs that I had. I would be a little dumbfounded not knowing how they’d heard those songs.”
As the Juno Award-winning band gathered a larger fan base outside of Canada, a greater number of people were exposed to the early work of Dallas Green. “More and more people would ask me about making a record. I thought if there was some, at least a little bit, of interest from fans of my band I might as well. I’ve got all these songs—I might as well go make a record. That was really it. But then it honestly became a little bit bigger than that.”
While the initial response was from fans of his established band, the next wave of interest came based solely on the music itself. “Basically, with City and Colour, there was a more accessible vibe.” Green explains how he connected with a larger audience. “Obviously, screaming and hardcore music isn’t necessarily for everybody, but a guy with an acoustic guitar singing, it’s kind of always been something that’s been in and around music. I started to develop a fan base of people who had never otherwise heard, or didn’t even realize, I was in another band.”
A somewhat reluctant front man, Dallas Green looked to get his music out to the world, but the glory that came along with it held little interest for him. “When I started thinking about putting out records on my own, I thought about someone picking up a CD or a record that said ‘Dallas Green’ on it. I thought about people walking around wearing Dallas Green T-shirts. That made me sick to my stomach. So, I thought of this thing where Dallas is a city and green is a color. City and Colour is kind of like using my own name but with a little bit of a twist.”
He goes into further detail on his thoughts about his recording alias, “I just don’t have the self-confidence or faith in myself that egotistical people do [laughter]. My dreams were never to be a famous person or to be known because of who I am. It was to sing for people and hopefully for people to enjoy the music I wrote. That was it. The whole other side of it never really came into my mind and I think that by not calling it ‘Dallas Green,’ it was something that I could hide behind. The thing, too, was it didn’t have to be ‘Dallas Green and his band’—it could just be whatever I wanted it to be.”
It was the crafting of the songs themselves that garnered attention, as well as the surprising diversity of the elements Dallas Green brought into them. “I became a teenager right during the grunge explosion. The first records that really had an impact were Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, and things like that, because it just sort of coincided perfectly with that impressionable age. I don’t know what it was—maybe it was that contrast of aggressive, sort of loud guitars, but with really nice, really good sense of melody.” As a young guitarist, the music made quite an impression on him. “I had been playing guitar for a few years, so I was able to sort of listen along and figure how to play the songs. So that really had, I think, an impact on when I first started trying to write my own songs.”
Not only absorbing the new music released at that time, Green also began to discover the work of the musicians who inspired those artists and took an interest in the songs they created. “I went and saw Neil Young, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden play Toronto when I was 13 years old. It was sort of a big deal. Not only did I get to see the bands I loved, but I got to see someone play who the bands that I loved, loved.” Green continues, “Because of that, I got into Neil Young. Being Canadian, it was sort of a no-brainer.”
Starting from his days with Alexisonfire, Dallas Green has been a relentless live performer. Currently, his acoustic guitar of choice is a Martin. “I had a Fender acoustic guitar that was given to me when I was a kid. That was my first acoustic. I played that for a long time and then, over the years, I played a couple of different things. I think the goal was always to get the Martin somehow. About six years ago, I bought my 000-17 and ever since then I’ve been playing them.” He added a second Martin to his setup and later, a custom-made model. “I have a D-28 and Martin just built me a custom acoustic guitar that is sort of a culmination of a couple of different models. It’s my pride and joy at the moment. I’m really happy to be actually, kind of, a part of the Martin family now.” Green prefers his acoustic guitar signal to go into the board without an amp on stage. “I use just an L.R. Baggs M1Active pickup through the L.R. Baggs DI and then into the board.” Additionally, he will sometimes use some effects from his electric guitar rig on his acoustic. “I have a switcher that allows me to use my electric guitar effects on my acoustic if I want to, so occasionally I’ll use some reverb or some delay, sometimes some trem on certain songs, just because it’s fun to sometimes make a guitar not sound like one.”
Offering some insight into his songwriting process, Green discusses how the material that would become the City and Colour albums came to be. “I would say 90 percent of the time it’s music first. I’m not much of a bulk writer. I don’t have a journal packed with words that I just pick from. I’m not constantly writing, but I am constantly playing guitar and singing, so I’m sort of always searching for melodies, things like that—chord progressions. And then, hopefully, the words will present themselves at some point.“ He continues, “That’s sort of the way I’ve always looked at it, I think, mostly, because lyrically I write from a very personal point of view. I’m not an everyday writer. I’m [more] waiting for things to present themselves that I feel strongly enough to write about. So, as much as it is my job to write songs, I don’t look at it that way. Maybe with Alexisonfire we took time to say, ‘Okay, now let’s go write,’ and the five of us will get together and try and write songs. Whereas, being that I’m the sole songwriter in this position, I just kind of … I wait. I don’t say to myself, ‘Now I have to write an album.’”Doing things on his own terms, as always, he waits until he has the songs before thinking about putting together an album. Sometimes it just happens that they come quicker. “I didn’t think that I would have been in this position—to have a record so soon after my last one—but the songs were just there, so I made one.”
For pre-production, Green starts out very much like many songwriters of lesser stature, with a single mic and a laptop. “I write my words in a notebook, but if I come up with an idea late at night or on the road or something, I’ll say it into my phone to keep it there, because I’m pretty forgetful when it comes to things like that. I use GarageBand to demo my music. I have a basement sort of setup with a lot of different instruments, but as far as my home recording goes, it’s GarageBand and the old trusty Yeti Blue podcast microphone.”
When it comes down to it, most songwriters will say it’s all about the songs. Dallas Green would agree, even in this era where social media brought him to prominence. Offering some insight to other musicians who may be coming up through the ranks, “I would say concentrate—I mean, this might not speak to the generation that’s coming now—but I would say concentrate on being good before worrying about how many times you tweet or how many Facebook friends you have. I think, worry about your social media profile after you learn how to write a song.” True to his word, he has created an impressive selection of songs to showcase his talent, and with a group of well-regarded musicians assembled in his backing band, he continues on with his seemingly endless touring schedule. The latest Dallas Green release under the moniker of City and Colour, The Hurry and the Harm, remains on target to his original vision of creating good, honest compositions and offers a collection of sincere moments caught in the studio.