Norman Music Festival preview: Oklahoma singer-songwriter Dylan Stewart brings songs out of the darkness with new album 'Scarecrow Sessions'
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Songs in the dark: Oklahoma singer-songwriter Dylan Stewart bringing new album 'The Scarecrow Sessions' to Norman Music Festival
Dylan Stewart does some of his best work in the depths of the night.
Or in the depths of unspeakable grief.
The Oklahoma singer-songwriter recorded his latest project, “The Scarecrow Sessions,” in both.
His fourth album was the last recorded in Ryan Houck’s North Broadway Studio in Hydro before the project’s co-producer, engineer and musician closed it and moved to Clinton.
“In was a moment in time when we made this record - and now it’s gone,” Stewart said. “People have their own ways … and I like to start at like 7 p.m. and work until the sun comes up. That’s just when I can cover the most ground creatively, and I get a lot done. We’d work through the night, so I could walk out of the studio and we’d be on Main Street of Hydro, which would be a complete ghost town. It was really cool.”
Downtown Norman definitely won’t be a ghost town when he plays one of the last sets on the schedule for Day 2 of the three-day Norman Music Festival. The Ringling native will perform songs from “The Scarecrow Sessions” at 1 a.m. April 27 at the Bluebonnet Bar.
“At the very end of the tunnel, that’s where you find me and my flock of scarecrows,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be there Saturday as well, hanging out.”
Free indie music
Stewart is one of about 300 acts on the lineup for the free, independent festival, set for Thursday through April 27 at several indoor and outdoor venues. The festival annually features an array of Oklahoma, regional and national acts, and this year’s headliners include Beach Fossils, Black Milk with Nat Turner, The Garden, Mega Ran, Soccer Mommy, Night Beats, Omar Apollo and Oklahoma expatriates Skating Polly, an “ugly pop” sibling trio originally from Edmond and now based in Tacoma, Washington.
Although he hasn’t always had an official slot, Stewart said he has played the event every year.
“Oklahoma’s got some really great festivals, and I love ‘em all. Norman Music Festival’s got its own thing … because you have the opportunity for no charge to explore all these bands over a couple of days for free right there in downtown Norman. For music discovery, it’s the festival for that. You’re gonna hear stuff you’ve never heard,” he said.
An emotionally raw album, Stewart penned the songs for “The Scarecrow Sessions” about three and a half years ago, around the time his father, Danny Wayne Stewart, died, just months after the death of his musical mentor Tom Skinner.
“It was songs from the hardest time of my life, really, emotionally, and I was dealing with it kind of on my own and self-destructively a little bit. And it really comes through with the music,” he said. “After that, I think I just started cutting ties to everything in my life.”
He broke up with his girlfriend, quit playing his with band The Eulogists and walked out on his day job. His cousin Sonny Stewart told him one day that he was sometimes a “scarecrow version” of himself, inadvertently providing the songsmith with inspiration for the album title and the swampy opening number “Scarecrowed.”
“It’s a hollowed-out version of yourself, it’s a version of yourself that is not in good shape and is struggling, but is almost like numbingly proud of it. … He was trying to say, ‘Hey man, are you OK? You don’t look so good.’ … but when he said it, a lightbulb goes ‘ding’ and I go, ‘wow,’ and then I wrote the song - completely disregarding what he was really trying to say, that the scarecrow version that would come walking in sometimes was kind of a scary sight to the people who love me,” he said.
“These songs are special to me because they really got me through. I remember sometimes when it would be just really dark. … And then all of the sudden, here comes a song. Just, bam, out of the sky. And that’s kind of how it went.”
He wrote the folksy ode “Jeremiah” the day after his dad was buried.
“This is how I heal, this is kind of how I kind of deal with what I’m going through in my life as a writer, and it helps me kind of put myself back together in hard times,” he said.
“I was really hoping for maybe a major key … and then that’s what came out: I picked an E Minor chord and ‘Jeremiah’ came out. And if you listen to that track, it’s very, very grim. It’s a very rough track. When I wrote it, I was like, ‘Aw, man,’ but I had to write that song then. And I’m glad I did.”
So, how does he perform a song written the day after his father was buried on a random Friday night in Norman?
“With everything you’ve got. With all the passion and the pain – and to feel every bit of it. I can’t sit around and play a song like ‘Jeremiah’ without taking a little stroll through that little area of time. I don’t emotionally break down, but if you watch me play that song, I’ll probably have my eyes closed,” he said.
“Without these songs, I don’t think I would have made it. They helped me make sense of a lot of things … and maybe it will help somebody else that needs it.”
The Oklahoman, who has a home base near the Texas border not far from where he grew up, is continuing to pursue his music career full time, serving as his own manager and booking agent and often performing with a rotating roster of musical friends.
“I feel like this is the best collection of songs I have put together on an album,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the songs, I might have been in the gutter and stayed there. … Now I know how to walk through a gutter without falling in every single crack and every single hole. I can walk through the fire gracefully almost because I know it’s necessary - and I can appreciate it.”
12th Annual Norman Music Festival
When: Thursday-April 27.
Where: Various venues in downtown Norman.
MORE TO COME
This is the first of a series of feature stories about Oklahoma artists bringing new music to Norman Music Festival. Look for more here on BAM's Blog, on NewsOK and in The Oklahoman.