South Jersey Singer-Songwriter Series features profiles on active singer-songwriters living, working, and performing in the South Jersey area.
PITMAN, N.J. — In the lead-off song on her most recent album, Goodnight Boots, singer-songwriter Dawn Hiatt vows that “one of these days I’ll think before I speak, and I will mean all the things I say.”
Judging by her outpouring of original work with personal — and at the same time universal, relatable lyrics — those days are clearly here.
Hiatt’s music can at times sound eclectic, most have an indie folk and alternative country foundation, but every now and then a funky bassline finds its way in along with an occasional smattering of vibes and strings. She says finds it hard to pin down exactly what other musical artists have had an impact on her work. She says any influence is quite broad.
“I always struggle to narrow the list,” Hiatt said. “A few of my many musical heroes and the unique timbre and phrasing of Emmylou Harris, the modal crafting of Joni Mitchell, the ballads of Bob Dylan, the passionate meshing of musical genres in Nina Simone, the timeless melodies of Gillian Welch, the playful compositional style of David Byrne, and in my more recent compositional studies, Herbie Hancock and Bartok. Like I said, it’s broad.”
To Hiatt — a full time performing musician, songwriter, and teacher in the Music Industry program at Rowan University who also has a private teaching studio for piano, voice, and songwriting — making music has always been a part of her life.
“I’ve been making music for as long as I can remember,” Hiatt said. “I started singing growing up in church, had my first solo when I was seven or eight at the church Christmas cantata, and have been singing and making music ever since. My initial efforts as a songwriter stemmed from my learning how to tell my story. It helped me overcome my introverted ways.”
With the support of some friends, Hiatt was able to take her songwriting out in front of audiences and begin to make her way in the local music scene.
“My first band was a group of friends that were awesome enough to believe in my early songs and back me up on a few gigs as I was getting my footing in the Philly music scene,” Hiatt said. “I had just returned from living in Guatemala for a year, where I had injured my foot hiking. I ended up with a big purple toe, so my friends informally called the band, Dawn Hiatt and the Purple Toes.”
Born into a family of musicians and race car drivers in Western N.Y., not far from Niagara Falls, Hiatt moved to South Jersey when she was in middle school. After high school, she traveled around a bit.
“When I left home for college, I ended up in Chicago, then New York City for a time, then Chicago again, then Guatemala, and finally ended up in Philadelphia,” Hiatt said. “Once I had my daughter, we moved back to South Jersey.”
Hiatt, and her husband, Jeff, have a five year old daughter, Magnolia, who, according to Hiatt, is a budding songwriter herself. Hiatt met her husband at Turtle Studios in Philadelphia in 2007 when she was recording her first album.
“He was the producer and engineer on my project. At some point in the process, I remember thinking, ‘Hey, I really like this guy, but I literally pay him to hang out with me.’ Turns out he felt the same. We’ve been together and making music together since.”
Songwriting for Hiatt, who was named winner of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project Songwriting Contest in both 2008 and 2009, has been a way to channel her creativity as well as her desire to perform.
“I think I’ve always been looking for a creative outlet for my entire life,” Hiatt said. “As a kid, I loved making up songs, and would lose time singing and playing on the piano well after my assigned practice was done. When I got older in high school, I got into musical theater, because it was an excuse to perform. When I was in college, I was always performing in choral groups.”
Then necessity brought her to the guitar.
“When I graduated and moved to NYC without a piano, I got a guitar and started writing songs and playing open mics,” she said. “In hindsight, I think starting to write was me just looking for another opportunity to sing and perform, because when I’m singing, I feel most alive.”
Hiatt began her undergrad degree studies as a conservatory vocal major but switched to literature and secondary education, which brought her full circle when she started writing and performing her own songs.
“I recently finished my Masters Degree in Music at Rowan University with applied studies in Music Composition,” Hiatt said. “It was a great experience, and I ended up really broadening my skill sets for composition. Some of my favorite studies included composing string quartets as well as larger scale orchestral pieces.”
Hiatt’s songwriting sometimes comes from sheer inspiration, while at other times comes from pure focus and hard work.
“I have songs that flow through me, a pouring out of sorts, when I give into whatever is ready to come out,” Hiatt said. “This ‘divine inspiration’ approach is a common starting point with composition, I think. But then at some point you mature as a writer and realize you can take control of the process. And that’s when it gets exciting.”
Her songs can find their seeds in almost anything, she said.
“It can start from a melodic idea, it can start from the harmony, it can start from a simple concept, a point of view, a feeling, or a visual image, but it all works the same,” Hiatt said. “You allow the ideas to come without judgement, then you make a series of decisions, suspending judgement until you can step outside of it, take a look, assess what you’ve come up with, and then dive back into molding it in whatever direction you want to take it.”
In addition to 2013’s Goodnight Boots and her 2012 debut album, The Waking Hours, with tracks from both having received regular airplay on radio stations WXPN and WSTW, among others, Hiatt released a duet album of hymns with Todd Barneson in 2014 called Midwestern Hymnal, Volume I.
Hiatt has extensive performing experience and has been featured in music spots across the nation. She has performed at some famous venues including Nashville’s Five Spot and the Bluebird Café, and New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall and Jalopy. She has performed in Portland, Oregon and Bloomington, Indiana and has toured the Midwest and Southeast extensively. She has even opened for top recording artists Joan Baez, Cory Chisel, and 10,000 Maniacs.
She has also been featured at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and on the Bluebird Stage on the Country Throwdown Tour in Virginia. She has performed at many festivals including the Hudson Valley Songfest and Montauk, both in New York; Midpoint and Paper City both in Ohio; the Black Potatoe Music Festival in New Jersey; and the Kimmel Center Summer Solstice and Bethlehem MusikFest both in Pennsylvania.
Hiatt has been on a bit of a performing hiatus the past few months as she has been working on efforts of home studio improvements and composing. “I plan to perform a bunch of new material at the “Uptown and in the Round” Songwriter Series at Pitman Gallery and Arts Center,” she said.
The “Uptown and in the Round” Songwriter Series takes place on Saturday, December 14 beginning at 8:00 p.m. Along with Hiatt, the show features local singer-songwriters Jason Ager, Christopher Davis-Shannon, and Camille Peruto. “Uptown and in the Round” is a Nashville-style songwriters’ circle, an intimate setting where musicians swap songs and stories. Tickets for the show can be purchased online here.
Dawn Hiatt’s music can be found on her website, www.dawnhiattmusic.com, as well as Spotify, Apple Music, Bandcamp, and other music streaming services.
For the most previous edition of the South Jersey Singer-Songwriter Series, check out our piece on Jason Ager.