Sometimes life takes you places you never thought you would go. Sometimes those places are where you never wanted to be. But if you’re strong enough, you can find your way back. Such is the story of Mitzi Dawn.
To say that Mitzi Dawn is colorful is an understatement on many levels. She’s fascinating, funny, and, yes, flawed. She slipped into the darkness of self-induced drug and alcohol addiction, but has since climbed her way to the light.
The singer/songwriter (who dropped her last name after dropping her ex-husband) may not be a household name, but she’s written for people who are: Jeff Bates, Bradley Gaskin, Billy Bob Thornton and Randy Owen from Alabama, to name a few.
With her independent-release debut album, Trainwrecks and Pink Clouds, she’s writing for herself. The autobiographical album is non-flinching and brutally honest as it addresses her addiction and recovery. At times it’s dark. At times it’s hopeful. It’s kind of like life itself.
Below is our in-depth and wide-ranging interview with Mitzi Dawn, who jokingly describes her music as “Carrie Underwood on heroin.” In it we discuss her sharing her message of hope and recovery; dish details on her single; “ninja attacks”; and her look that sets her apart from the country crowd.
Let’s talk about your album Trainwrecks and Pink Clouds. It’s an extraordinary album in that it deals head-on with your past struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Did you have any reservations about putting something so deeply personal and painful out there for the public?
Originally, yes. When I was writing it I was doing it almost like it was a diary and I would’ve died if somebody would’ve heard it. But through this process of doing it, it actually kinda helped with the process of healing. There’s been three years since my last drug and drink so maybe some of the shame and guilt has gone; it’s not there. So now I’m just excited because if I’m a regular woman that never took a drink or drug until I was at the age of 28 and then wound up hitting my bottom three years later, then pretty much it can happen to anybody. So now I’m just like, “This is what happens and sometimes it happens and you don’t have to live that way.”
Congrats on being clean and sober. You said it’s been three years now?
It was three years on October 22nd. So three years and four months. But who’s counting? (Laughs)
Is it tough being out on the road, performing in the bars and such with the temptation that must be all around you?
You know, it’s really not tough at all. When I did drink I was very counter-productive. It was me sitting in the same seat at the same bar with the same people, talking about all of the things I wanted to do. Then last summer I got to go out on the road with Brooks & Dunn for six months on the Last Rodeo Tour and I was doing what I talked about doing, but that I couldn’t do because I wouldn’t get out of the (bar) seat. You know what I mean? So when I weigh it (the temptation to drink), I say “No!” I’m actually doing the things that I dreamt about doing when I was high. So it’s kinda better! (Laughs)
Most people haven’t experienced what you have, but that doesn’t mean they can’t connect with your songs. Right?
Absolutely! I always feel like if you’ve never taken a drink or a drug; if you’ve never had a broken heart; if you’ve never told a lie; if you’ve never had something that you couldn’t take back; if you’ve never done something that you’re ashamed of; then maybe you won’t relate to the album. But for everybody else, this record is for you because it’s basically for anybody that’s ever hurt or come through something.
I understand the songs appear on the album in the order they were written. Is that by design?
Yes! It is because when you start listening to it you can hear me healing. And you can hear like, “Oh, God! She is messed up!” Then it’s, “Oh, my gosh! Is she going to be okay?” And then it’s, “Oh, look! She kinda figurin’ it out!”…It has to be in the order that I was writing it because I was writing what I was feeling and you can kinda hear me getting better, I think.
The first single is Razor Blades and Whiskey. What’s the story behind that song?
I was in a relationship that I say was a threesome. It was me and that person and drugs. It was really tumultuous and it was really, really devastating. It was kinda what took me out. Separately, if you met that him by himself, you’d think that guy is a great guy. So separately we’re really not that harmful, but you put us together and it’s just a bad combination.
So when Angaleena Presley (of the Pistol Annies) and I were getting together to write everybody was like, “Oh, God! This is going to be the most depressing song in the world!” That’s because I’m really dark and so is she! (Laughs) So we were sitting there and we were saying, “What can we write about?” We were trying to laugh and think of things that were dark. Then I said, “How about razor blades and whiskey?” I threw it out there as a joke, like that would be really dark. And she says, “That’s a great idea!” So I started telling her about me and this person and we started writing it. It literally came out in about an hour and a half and we were done.
Just like the title of the song, there are some particularly painful pairings — “cocaine and a paycheck”; “rope and a lonely neck”; “strong drug in a weak vein.” Those must’ve come out of one heck of a writing session!
It was pretty incredible. I brought up cocaine. We were throwing things back and forth and I thought, “Cocaine and a dollar bill.” You know, because you roll it up and use it for obvious things. She looked at me and she said, “Or a paycheck.” From then on it was just, “Oh, God! Let’s just go!” We just started throwin’ back and forth things that were actually thought about in relation to me, not her necessarily, with the cocaine and then a long rope and a lonely neck – contemplating suicide. A strong drug in a weak vein, you know, all of those things, like the mascara in the rain. My mascara was always running. So they all were pretty personal. We just kinda made them rhyme.
Razor Blades and Whiskey may be the single, but another song, Less of Me, is already affecting people. What’s the story behind that song and what have you been hearing in response to it?
When I was thinking of writing Less of Me, in the beginning it was because it was true: I really did hate myself. I would look in the mirror and kinda pinch and pull and think, “Well, gosh. If I had this different or if I had that different. Then life would be different because he would love me.”
I would just constantly think of terrible things about myself. And I started thinking about myself as a stranger and I looked at myself and thought I would never walk up to a woman and say, “My, God! Look at your belly! It’s not even flat when you stand up. Holy cow! You should be embarrassed about that!” I would never say that to anybody, but I’d sit and say it to myself over and over again.
So that’s how the song came about. When it started it was like, “Why do I do that? Why do I want to get so skinny? Why do I want to be so thin? And why do I hurt myself all the time?” And it was like, “Well, I guess ‘cause then there’d be less of me to hate.”
We actually wrote that song later after I was feeling better. But even now when I listen…I heard it today in the car, actually, and I started to cry. I’m really grateful that I’m not in that place anymore, but then really sad for me that I had to go through that.
I’ve gotten calls from treatment centers and they’ve asked me if they can play that for the young girls and groups because they feel like it’s helpful for them to hear something like that. So they’ll stop hurting themselves and stop thinking of themselves like that. So that’s pretty cool.
How important is for you, as an artist who has been through so much, to try to make a positive difference for other people?
It’s the only reason I would do it. Honestly, just to be of service. The obvious thing was I wasn’t out to make a commercial record and (try) to be number one on the country charts like this. But it’s possible because anything’s possible.
I really just want people to hear it. I give it away all the time. I go play shows for free, if you can’t afford it. I just want people to hear it. I had a lot of shame because I thought I was the only person that had these struggles. I thought something was wrong with me; that I was broken and I was never going to be okay.
The feeling, the way that I feel now, is I’m not broken. I just needed a different set of instructions for life. And I needed somebody to help me because growing up I never had examples or instructions on how to be a woman. So I really just had a lot of shame about it.
When I had a problem I didn’t even know that regular people could go to rehab. I didn’t go to rehab, but I didn’t even know that it was an option. I didn’t know about any programs for help. I just kept trying to stop, I just kept trying to stop and I couldn’t. Finally, one day somebody came up and said, “I know how I can help you with that.” And I thought, “Geez! How come nobody ever told me this before?”
But I really love for women or men or anybody to hear this and go, “Look, if she can do it then I can.”
You’re an independent artist. What do you see as the benefits of being in that position?
Oh, it’s wonderful! I don’t have an A&R. I don’t have somebody to tell me what I’m allowed to record or what I’m allowed to say and not allowed to say. I got to make a record. I did the artwork. I got to choose the single. I got to choose the release date. Just pretty much everything. Those are the benefits, but at the same time those are the things that make it hard.
The other part is with the Internet presence right now, with a major label deal I would have to probably sell around 150,000 copies of a record to make, I don’t know, around $100,000. With an independent, the way I’m doing it here, I have a tour bus and I have a record and I have all of these things. So I can go out and sell 10,000 copies and make $100,000.
Not to break it down to money. It’s possible to do it this way (independent) is all I mean. I don’t know if I’ll do it this way forever. But I think especially for this record, I just really want to get them out there – even if by handing them out. It’s something I don’t think a major label would understand my passion about.
For the digital release of your album, you’re splitting it into three EPs. The first one, Trainwrecks, will be released on Valentine’s Day. Did you choose that date on purpose?
Yeah, I did. I always hated Valentine’s Day. I was broken-hearted and I was sad and very near my bottom. It was a time when my relationship ended and the house went away. I lost the kids and the house and the car and the man and the job. Everything was gone. And it was Valentine’s Day and I couldn’t stand watching TV because I would see the people kissing and holding hands and I just really hated it. And now I’ve come to love it.
I was making jokes saying, “Are you sad this Valentine’s Day? Do you have a broken heart? Then go buy Mitzi Dawn’s record!” You know, because they always have all these happy “love” and this and that. But now there’ll be something for people that maybe just need some hope rather than another “you’re in love and it’s a beautiful day.” (Laughs) So that’s why we picked that day!
You do something unique on your Mitzi Dawn Fan Page on Facebook. You call your fans “Ninjas”. Why is that?
They’re my little ninjas! (Laughs) They kinda sneak attack people. It’s like this record has been sneak attacking people. What I’ve noticed is that my people are doing is that they are spending hours going online and inviting their friends to do things.
I’m humbled and amazed constantly. I’ll go on and see who have been sharing. I see constantly people that are just sharing it like crazy – people I don’t even know! And I have opportunities come up where I’ll get a phone call, “Would you like to do this show? Your page was shared with me from this person or that.”
Recently I had a really cool opportunity. There’s an actor named Clifton Collins. If you look him up he’s a really great actor and he’s really big and he’s heard my music through a friend of a friend of a friend. He’s become a fan is gonna help me by posting the video on his YouTube station, which gets millions of hits constantly. So just from my friends, these people loving me and putting it out there for other people to hear…it’s growing and getting legs. So I started teasing and saying they’re like little ninjas that sneak attack people in the middle of the night. (Laughs)
By the way, you can thank Angaleena for helping me finding you. She posted about the single on Facebook, so I checked it out. Then I listened to the rest of your album and now here we are.
Angaleena is wonderful! Her and I, two years ago, were sitting there in our beat-up clunkers. Her baby had spilled milk in her car and we could barely even ride in it because it was so smelly! The two of us had just finished writing Razor Blades and Whiskey and we’re driving in this smelly car and we’re talking about how we couldn’t wait until people could hear our music. Then we watched her just fly out of the gate with one phone call to Miranda Lambert. And now these things are happening for me.
You just don’t realize that when somebody, anybody, says anything about you that has friends like that, it just grows legs. And with the Internet, it just so possible to reach so many people. It’s just baffling right now.
Naturally, we have to talk about your look. Many country artists have a few small tattoos here and there, but you’ve got some serious ink!
Skin and Ink magazine loves you, crowning you “Country Music’s First Painted Lady”. But how has Nashville reacted to your look?
Can I just tell you first of all that I love Nashville and I am their little baby doll. Anywhere I go people love me and they’re like, “Mitzi! You’re crazy! Come over here! I love you! I love that song Razor Blades and Whiskey!” But they have no idea what to do with me. I mean they cut my songs and they’re great and they take meetings and they love me but they think I’m nuts!
I think that they’re afraid of my look, honestly. But I was tellin’ them…like you know when Billy Ray Cyrus came out, he had a mullet and sneakers and everybody flipped out? They couldn’t believe that a country singer had a mullet and sneakers. He was dancin’ around and nobody could believe it. I don’t think it’s gonna hurt me at all, like I said before. If I’m ever out there in the public eye I don’t think anyone’s gonna look at me and go, “Hey! Is that Miranda Lambert?” They’re gonna know immediately that it’s me because I’m the girl with the tattoos. So I think it’s a good thing. But we have to convince everybody else of that! (Laughs)
I’d like to end this by giving you the opportunity to say whatever you’d like about you, your music or whatever. The floor is yours:
I just want to say I’m really grateful – grateful for people like you and anybody that gets the word out and hangs out and presses “like” and starts spreading the music around. Because at the end of the day, this record is really just about experience, strength and hope and I don’t think that message is wasted on anybody no matter what their circumstance. So if I have to give it away, you don’t have money and need one, call me! Just share it if you like it.
More info: www.mitzidawn.com and Mitzi Dawn Fan Page