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Artist of the Month: Musician Caryn Dixon is living her dream

by on December 31, 2019 12:16 PM

Caryn Dixon is a local professional musician, singer, and songwriter. Her style could be described as indie-pop or indie-folk and her performances are both engaging and enjoyable. Caryn’s influences include Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Natalie Merchant, Vance Joy, Billie Eilish, the Beatles, and 1990s pop. Caryn can be heard playing live in State College weekly.

I’ve had an opportunity to hear Caryn perform on several occasions and I am always impressed with both her guitar playing and her voice. She has an extensive song book that includes quality covers and original material. Caryn has great pop sensibilities and whenever she plays a song, she makes it her own. Caryn is not only a remarkable talent, but a joy to be around.

Caryn lives in State College and has two children, Andy, 8, and Alex, 5.

I recently had the privilege to sit down with Caryn and talk music, a topic that is near and dear to my heart.

Bernie: Caryn, I appreciate you joining me today. Tell me a little bit about your hometown and childhood. I know that you have lived in a few different places over the years, but you were born in North Carolina.

Caryn: Yes, I was born in Jacksonville, North Carolina. My dad was a medic in the military and he was stationed there. I then moved to State College, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Nashville, Bellefonte, and back to State College again.

Bernie: Which city influenced you the most, musically?

Caryn: I love Chicago. The music scene there was amazing and very inviting. It was a close-knit community of musicians and everyone had the same goal of preserving and growing the music culture there. The blues scene there is huge, so that was always a very strong influence on everyone's music, but they had so many different genres. I was doing pop music specifically, but with a classical twist and a violin. It went over very well there. In 2005 we were named the best upcoming Chicago band and won a record deal with Bloodshot Records. It’s a great city and I hope to live there again someday.

Bernie: Now you're primarily an acoustic guitar player and vocalist?

Caryn: Yes. As of now. I was originally, primarily, a pianist and vocalist. Then I started to become frustrated because I realized that I couldn’t bring a piano to places like a campfire or book smaller venues easily as a solo artist with just piano, so I set out on a mission to learn to play guitar.

Bernie: I didn't know that. I already learned something new about you.

Caryn: I actually tried to learn to play the guitar for over a decade but always gave up. I could never get past that point where my fingers hurt. But once I decided I wanted to make this my full-time living, I just said, “OK, I need to push past that part.” And I made it through!

Bernie: I know it’s hard to compare one instrument to another, but if you had your choice what would you rather be playing?

Caryn: I like the guitar. I find it's easier to insert more of my personality into my songs and into the rhythm. It seems to be a little easier to work with, for me anyway. I know some people are amazing pianists and they have that left hand down, but my left hand never wants to cooperate with me on my bassline, so I just think it's more fun to play the guitar.

Bernie: Is there a particular style of guitar that you like or a certain brand that you endorse?

Caryn: I'm playing a Martin right now. I love the sound of it. Although, it's actually too big for me. So, I'm on the search for a new one. I want something a little smaller that I can do a little more with. I know Martins are great. I also know that some people love Taylors. So, I'm kind of curious to try a Taylor.

Bernie: I understand that you have been playing since you were 8 and singing since age 10. What are some of your earliest musical memories as a performer or as a child listening to music?

Caryn: My mom was a songwriter. Actually, she was a children's book writer first and then she started writing children's songs. So that's very early in my memory of just hearing music and listening to songs being put together. She used to have people come over that would help her write songs. I can't really remember if I watched her, but I do know that she recorded in the studio once. Another early memory was of me sitting in the car with my dad singing along to Madonna.  

Bernie: Do you remember your first Madonna song?

Caryn: It was “Take a Bow.” That's the first one I was singing along to. Anyway, my dad said, “Oh, Caryn, you can sing?” And I thought, “Can I?” And then I don't know what happened. My parents must have had some discussion, because I was swiftly enrolled in this children's singing ensemble with my sisters. And we sang everything from old standards up to pop, but they would always put us in these silly costumes.

I remember the three of us up there on stage singing “Singing in the Rain” with our umbrellas and rain boots at the strawberry festival. We did that as siblings all the way up until I was 16 or 17. We did musical variety shows at the Palace Theatre that always had fun themes. We would get ready and rehearse for six months for it and loved it! It was so cool.

Bernie: As you moved into your early 20s, who were your musical influences?

Caryn: I was obsessed with Jewel. I knew her albums from front to back, every lyric. I love TLC. It’s funny, because back then you didn't have Spotify or YouTube. I would sit in my room, lock the door, pull out my CD player and open the little pamphlet with all the lyrics. Then, just go through the songs until I learned them by heart. I had Sarah McLachlan, Alanis Morissette, and most of the strong female musicians from the 1990s.

I also love Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. I love classical music. I love Elvis, but my huge influence was definitely the 1990s female alternative folk and pop. And then, as I got older, I began to love the Chili Peppers, Matchbox 20, and anything that was pop alternative or folk pop. I never really got into country. I kind of wish I did. Because now when I listen to some country songs, they are kind of cool.

Bernie: A lot of today's country reminds me of 1970s Southern rock. Your setlist is well structured with all styles and periods of music. It's interesting, because a lot of artists might just stick to a certain decade or genre of music. As a young artist influenced by the ’90s, when you hear Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles songs from the ’60s and ’70s, what is it that you find interesting and attracts you to this music?

Caryn: I like to pull a lot of older songs out. I find the melodies are catchy. It's funny, because when you dissect pop songs from back then and compare them to today’s music, we are still using the same magical chord progressions. Those few chords can and have been used to write thousands of songs. But I feel like the vocals and the lead melodies of the songs were cleaner back then. They seem happier and more innocent. While the lyrics might not have been innocent, there is something in the production that gives off a happier vibe. I’m drawn to these songs for that reason.

Bernie: What do you enjoy most about performing live?

Caryn: I love meeting people. I love when people come up after a setlist to just say hello or talk. I am very appreciative of people that come out and especially people that are reoccurring attendees of the shows. You can make a lot of friends this way and meet so many people in the community. A lot of times people will shout out songs for me to play and I will try to accommodate them. Thank goodness for my iPad, because, it's impossible to memorize three or four hours of songs, especially when I am always adding new ones or trying to take requests.

Bernie: You're a solo artist, on stage with only your guitar. As a drummer, I have never experienced that. I have always played on stage with three of more musicians. What is it like? Have you ever thought about being part of a band or a duo or trio? Or do you really like the vibe you get back as a solo artist?

Caryn: I love playing with other musicians. I really do miss that a lot. And when I do my corporate gigs, and when I travel, they do request sometimes that I appear as a duo or trio. And I love using that opportunity to give local musicians paying gigs because, as you know, usually the corporate gigs pay more than the local ones. But the local gigs are so important because they tie you in with your community. I play mostly solo locally, because unfortunately, when it comes down to trying to make a living at music, it just makes more sense, for me, financially, to do that.

Bernie: You have written, recorded, and performed original songs. Tell me a little bit about your philosophy and methodology of songwriting. Do you write music or lyrics first, or do you write both together as an idea comes to mind? Do you write on a guitar or keyboard?

Caryn: My ideas come from all over. Sometimes I'll hear a story about someone’s life and I'll write about that or sometimes from my own personal experiences. People love trying to dissect my songs to find out what they are about. But I try not to tell them, because I like my songs to be relatable to everyone.

I can't easily write on the guitar, which is weird, because I play it. I have to write on the piano. I usually play a chord and then the melody pops in my head, or the other way around. Also, I write many of my songs while driving in the car.

Bernie: How do you decide on lyrics?

Caryn: Sometimes I’m telling a story and sometimes my songs are not about anything specific. Sometimes I just put words together and they work. Not to compare myself with these artists, but I know Bob Dylan and the Beatles have songs like that too. If you can write a song that's actually gibberish and means nothing, but then millions of people can pull out deep meaning from it, that's a good song!

Bernie: Are there certain originals that you really like to play live? Or ones that you enjoy better as a recording?

Caryn: I don't know, I go in waves with my originals. I’ve never recorded a song that sounds exactly like I wish. I will write a song and record it, then hear the final product, and a couple months later, I think I could have done this better. I'm always overly critical of my own work and I always want to redo things. I'm constantly tweaking them so that my favorites are constantly changing. Playing live, it's not going to sound exactly like it sounded on the recording, because there's some live nuance added to it.

My favorite originals, right now, are “Fragile,” “I’m Not Sorry,” and “Running for Gold.” “Running for Gold” is now available as a single, downloadable on all music platforms. “I'm Not Sorry” is in production right now. There are several producers working on it. We worked with someone who's currently in London, so we're just kind of waiting to see what the best route for that song is.

Every time I write a song, I question whether I should release it myself or pitch it to other artists. Actually, I've been so focused in the last couple years of getting live performances under my belt and getting my schedule down. I am definitely not writing as fast as I would like to. But the few songs I have finished, I'm super-happy and excited about. Let's see what happens [this] year.

Bernie: Who are you listening to today?

Caryn: I am really into current pop right now. I love Vance Joy. Lewis Capaldi is amazing. I enjoy Ryan Hurd. I love Billie Eilish. She was homeschooled like I was. Most people don’t know that, and I can relate to her because I can picture her doing exactly what I used to do, sitting in your bedroom and your schoolwork is like your music. It is your craft. I also listen to a lot of artists like Mumford & Sons. It just depends on the mood I’m in.

Bernie: In our local music scene, more smaller venues like wineries, restaurants, and clubs are booking acts for atmosphere, more so than as a showcase for live music or dancing. Often, especially as an acoustic artist, you must play over the talking, laughing, televisions, and noise levels. Is this a distraction in any way or is it just part of the package deal?

Caryn: I don’t mind performing as background or atmosphere music. If a venue is consistent with having good music, good food, and good service, people will come. I love contributing to that.   

I think that as an artist, it's important to be open to all types of venues. I love to sit down in a quiet listening-room type venue where I can play my originals and do some story time. That's my favorite. But those shows are something you can only do locally once or twice a year, where you're selling tickets and you're bringing people in for that. So, no, it doesn't bother me at all. I love all venues.

I play between 15 and 20 shows each month. I perform weekly or bi-weekly at Gigi’s, Barrel 21, The American Alehouse, and Edges Pub. I perform at almost all the local venues in State College, Bellefonte, and Boalsburg on a three-month rotation. I’ve just added some dates in Huntingdon that I’m excited about. I'll play a dive bar and I'll play a fancy restaurant; it doesn't matter, because I can engage with people anywhere before and after the shows.

Bernie: Any final thoughts or advice for aspiring musicians?

Caryn: I try to encourage people to realize that if there's something that you're really passionate about, and you think that you can't do it because of obstacles, don’t give up. Yes, it may be hard, and certainly harder for some more than others, but there are always ways to achieve your goals and dreams. Dreaming big isn’t silly. It’s what makes us unique and pushes us to evolve. I want my kids to see me dream big because I want them to be comfortable to do the same.  

Music is something extremely personal to me and I almost gave it up because I thought, “Oh, I have kids now. I can't do that sort of thing anymore.” It took a lot of soul-searching and willpower to do this, and it was a little scary, to take that jump from “I want to do something like this” to actually doing it. “How can I make it work? How can I make it possible without jeopardizing something that is very important, raising my kids?” I want to encourage people to try and not let things that look like they are walls stop you, because even if you can’t break down the walls, you can usually move it around, or rearrange some things to make sure that you're not giving up parts of your life that are you.

Music is me and that's something that I realize now. I will never be able to give it up. I don't know what it’s going to look like in the future. Maybe I'll just be sitting on a bench on a street singing every now and then. But, if something's part of you, don't be afraid to try to make it work. Find people to help you. There are people out there, friends and family and even strangers, who might be able to give you advice or pointers to help you find a way toward reaching your goals.


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Bernard A. Oravec is publisher of Town&Gown.


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