Content Warning: This interview with City & Colour contains experiences about death, which some readers may find distressing.
A new City and Colour record is always a marker of self-reflection and digestion from one of the world’s most liberated songwriters. But when Dallas Green began work on The Love Still Held Me Near, not even he could have foretold the headwinds that plagued his life and career in the years leading up to that moment.
Stricken with tragedy due to the passing of two people close to him — and with nowhere to run courtesy of the global pandemic — Green turned inward. The Love Still Held Me Near is what happens when grief is given the time it needs and reconciliation is giving the attention it deserves.
Speaking with Rolling Stone backstage at his Enmore Theatre concert in Sydney, Green delved into the firehose of creativity which surrounded this album, his apprehension of being too open in his music, his reconciliation with his wife, what success looks like, mushrooms and weed, and so much more.
You called this album your “beautiful, perfect, mid-life crisis”. What do you mean by that?
Well, in 2019 it was, there was a breakdown in my personal relationship and then a few months after that my best friend died. And then a few months after that the pandemic started. And then I turned 40. And it was just this, ‘Oh my God’, you know. ‘What’s happening?’ was sort of where I found myself.
My 40th birthday was the sort of thing that started the whole creative process again with me. But actually my cousin who I played in my very first band with, he passed away too, in May of 2020. It was just this strange onslaught of… I don’t even know what to say. What word would actually describe how sort of lost I felt.
The saying ‘when it rains, it pours’, comes to mind.
Yeah. I also think I was healthy and I was financially stable and I knew I was in a better place than so many other people when the pandemic started. So there was just a lot of thinking. A lot of time to just sit there and think which way do I go with this?
Did you ever think of not starting again?
Yeah. My friend Karl passed away a week before my past record came out. And we made that together. And I think it was just so confusing. Usually when I make a record I go on tour for two years. And then when that winds down, that’s when I start to write.
I think because I was still in this state of shock in my personal life and my musical life. In the early stages of the pandemic, people that were songwriters or touring musicians, we had no idea what was going to come of this thing. Like me… I’d built my whole life on just touring and playing for people. So I think there was part of me too that was, ‘Well what am I?’
You also have a full touring band who you write with, so I imagine you were also thinking of all the mouths to feed also.
Exactly, so there was that. I think everybody had that existential dread there for a long time. So writing was the last thing on my mind. I was trying to figure out, you know, who I was. Because I thought I was this person I had created or whatever. This is my life. This is who I am. I am a touring musician. I write songs.
In the beginnings of the pandemic, I thought maybe I’d just start making furniture or something. I guess when I thought about myself as a writer, I thought about myself as a person who writes songs and then goes and sings them. So there was this correlation that I thought was gone.
Then I turned 40 and I started seeing some friends again a little bit here and there. And through conversations I just realised, ‘Well fuck, I can write. It doesn’t matter what comes of it. I’ll just start trying to write about all this’.
Then that was a creative explosion. I couldn’t contain it. I started jamming with Alexis[onfire] again and from October 2020 to May 2021, I wrote 22 songs and made two albums.
It went from, ‘Maybe I’ll make furniture’ to ‘Oh no, wait a minute. This is what I do’.
There’s that phrase, ‘I am not what I do’. And it’s a tricky one to make sure you’re aware of. I think about it in my own life. People see me as a certain thing, my job, all these things. But if that got taken away from me I need to be okay with the fact that I am not what I do. I am different things as well.
Yeah, that was it. I think because what I do is me, and it’s like I write about myself and then I’m selling myself. And my life is my work. It was just very confusing.
The pandemic was the longest I’ve ever been at home since I started touring when I was 21. I’d never spent 15 months in a row in one place, since I was a kid. So there was just a lot of that. Like learning how to live that way and understanding that I could still be myself. Even though I had built this life and this version of what I thought I was. That wasn’t me.
It was a part of me. But there’s this other part of me too that’s just a normal person on the street, right. So there was a lot of that.
There was a lot of smoking weed, a lot of mushrooms. And I’d never really done too much of that. I just sort of stayed away from a lot of that stuff. I think I just had the time. So I thought well, let me just fucking see if I can go lose myself a little bit. In order to find myself.
Was staying home during the pandemic good for your personal relationship with your wife?
Yeah, I think so. My wife and I have been together for 18 years now. We’ve been together since we were kids and we’ve gone through a lot. But we’ve also realised we have a very strange relationship. And it doesn’t have to be the way other people perceive it. There’s no rule book for how you decide to be together. You get to choose. You grow up in a certain era and it’s like you’re supposed to buy a house, you’re supposed to buy a car, you’re supposed to get a job, you’re supposed to get married, you’re supposed to have kids. Fuck, that’s someone else’s blueprint. You can be whatever you want it to be.
I feel like the record is not specifically just about one moment of loss. It’s about loss in general, but also really just finding your way through that and putting yourself back together.
You were talking about how so much of what you are is in your music. So it would have been tricky to decipher, when the pandemic hit and you can’t perform live, when you can’t do that second part of what you are: you write songs, you tour them.
Is it difficult when it comes to writing your songs — and essentially bleeding onto a page, into a song, through a guitar — and then having to sit in front of people like me, as media, and talk through things that are essentially diary entries in some ways?
I guess I have some practice in just being open about my feelings. But I think there was a real disconnect at first, because I thought okay I’ve always written this way but these things that I’ve experienced in the last year are harder than anything than I’ve ever gone through. I probably shied away from writing at first because I knew I was going to write about these things. It’s just how I am. I was maybe avoiding it.
But at some point it just turned and I realised this is what I do, you know. I’ve always written this way to get out of my own head and then hope that somebody else can take it however they need to.
I think it was just realising that what I was experiencing was not singular to me, you know. Going through a separation in your marriage and losing your friend tragically. And even experiencing the pandemic. I just sort of went full head of steam into it. And thought if the world comes back and I get to put a record out and go and sing and play, then I’ll be better off for it.
Before the first song came out, which is a very personal song about my friend, I did have some apprehension all of a sudden. I was reading the press release before the song was about to get released. And I thought, ‘Fuck, what am I doing? Am I sharing too much, am I being too open?’
And then I was in the middle of listening to the Nick Cave book that just recently came out — Faith, Hope and Carnage — which is all about his grieving process and working through it, and he talked so openly about how much it helped him and the hope that it would help other people because of this connectivity that grief brings everyone together through.
I thought okay, well then no it’s good because it’s not singular to me. And not everyone can just write a three and a half minute song about the process of it. So I think somewhere along the way I just realised it would be better for me to write it and talk about it, than hold it inside.
I think grief is so much more difficult when you tag loneliness onto it as well. Yes you are now having to sit in interviews and talk about the death of loved ones; but also it means so much to your fans when you’re able to talk about these things, because everyone has an experience with grief. Whether it’s as horrific as your experience or something that would be considered minor when compared to it. It’s the same feeling and when you feel that someone gets it, it makes it a bit easier.
I think I just felt that. Like, why not talk about it? You know.
Are there any songs that you feel like you might struggle to sing on stage? Because talking about it is different to reliving the lyrics when you’re in it. Those lyrics are very much in the moment.
I did think about that. But… and again, going back to my older music, there’s a lot of songs that are quite immediate in that sense. Where I was writing about something that was quite hard for me and in the past there’s been moments where I almost don’t even see the line coming and then I’ll sing it, and then it’ll be like, ‘Fuck oh god. I remember what that was about’.
I’m sure that will happen, but for me performing has always been this great release right. It’s never been about getting up on stage and dancing around. That’s where I feel alive. I feel most comfortable up there. It’s where everything makes sense to me.
We’ve been playing a few shows here. And we open with “Meant To Be”. Because I’m like, ‘I’m just going to get to it’. Why avoid it? I know what I wrote it about. I know why I’m singing it for people. So I’m sure there will be nights where it’s harder than others, you know. But I’m okay. I’m up to the challenge of that. I’m sort of looking forward to it.
What has helped you most with your mental health? What’s been the best thing?
Obviously getting back on the road was wonderful. Last year being on the tour with Alexis[onfire] was amazing.
But I think just trying to be a little easier on myself just in general. Giving myself a little bit of a break, because I have made a living off of celebrating the negative. And what I mean by that is I’ve always focused too much on the things I’ve done wrong or the mistakes I’ve made, or regrets I have, instead of actually appreciating the positives that have come from this life.
It’s just in my nature, I don’t know why it is. It’s not perfectionism. Because I don’t think that is a thing — especially when you’re writing a song or singing. There is no perfect. It’s always this endless search to write something better and that search is only whatever I’m pressuring myself into doing. It’s not anybody else’s pressure I’m feeling. So I think it was just trying to find some more balance, and I think I have.
It’s like everything now is a bonus, because you’ve achieved all that you wanted to do and the fact you get to still do it is just wonderful.
That’s really what it is. Not to sound too cliche or romantic about it. But that is truly it. I think because of my nature, because of always trying to nit pick myself to death., I’m just trying to be more truly appreciative in the moment.
That’s what “Underground” the song is about. Is the fragility of life and, not to quote myself, but treating each day as the gift it is because it is. Because it’s gone like that. Or it can be.
What was the kicker that made it possible to put less pressure on yourself in that way?
I think to be fair, I think when I started experimenting with mushrooms it did really open up some things that I was holding onto that I wasn’t even aware of.
When we started [Alexisonfire] we were young kids and then it grew into this thing that none of us thought could happen. And then leaving the band was very traumatic. It was traumatic for me and all of us. But we kind of never really talked about it.
Then over the years when we’ve been playing again, I realised there was just some stuff I needed to say to the boys. Having some deep emotional conversations unlocked whatever the dormant, creative part of my brain that loved writing music like that. It was like all of a sudden I have riffs. You know what I mean?
Also because we were writing and I was exploring that side of my creative brain, it did allow me to put a magnifying glass on the shit that was destroying the rest of my life and I was able to really focus and write about all of that loss on the other side. While not being totally bogged down by it. I could go and turn my guitar up really loud and write songs in this other vein.
I also would say ‘time’. Time was a big plus. I hadn’t had that much time to just sit and make music, and think about music since before I started making music for a living. Once it opened up it just… kept coming.
That’s such a luxury too. [Writing is] why you do what you do. It’s what you need to do in order to do what you do. But when you are as big as you are, it is hard to be able to slot that into the diary so easily.
Yeah and I think just because I’m an independent artist and I’ve always sort of done it in my own way. It’s up to me to keep it going. There’s no deadlines or label breathing down my neck. It was always just me pushing it forward.
Part of that was also why I think I was always afraid to stop and take a break. I always felt that it was up to me, and if I stopped, where would it be? It would go away…. All of this weird mental torment you put yourself through as a human.
There’s a song that you have, “Fucked It Up”, which has the lyric, “Let’s hold on tight and we’ll break this curse”. What do you mean by that?
That was probably actually the first song I started working on in that vein of that group of songs. And I think the chorus came to me one night.
I do like having a few playful songs here and there. I think like the song “Lover Come Back” is a playful love song. I knew there was going to be a couple of heavy ones but I wanted to write something a little playful.
I think saying we’ll try to break this curse is like the curse of what was happening to us. It was like we were disappearing, we were separating and there was this strange… what felt like a curse on every facet of my life.
You felt like the ‘curse’ on your marriage was also affecting everything else?
Right. Because it was all happening in this one stretch where I was losing that and I lost my friends, and I lost my career. And it seemed like the world was losing itself.
It was just this like, ‘What is happening here?’ And as a writer, I think it’s easy to just go deep into the singularness of it.
But I just wanted to make it a little bit more playful. Like the chorus, the line that said “Isn’t it strange how we keep falling in and out of love?” I think that’s just like a perfect line for anybody who has been in a relationship.
I had a conversation with a friend recently and they hadn’t heard this song yet. A bunch of us were just talking about relationships or whatever. And she said when you’re married, you have like eight or nine or ten different relationships all with the same person. Because you’re growing.
You’re both growing and you’re trying to stay together, but you’re changing a little bit and you’re growing apart. And then you’re trying to grow back together. And you know, it’s like anyone who has been in a relationship for that long I think understands that. When she said that I was like, ‘I just wrote this fucking song, you’re going to love it’, you know.
It’s so true and it’s a blessing to be able to have a marriage where they say, ‘yeah, this is marriage number two or marriage number three’, and you both re-contract in a way.
Yeah, well it is to me. I feel like that’s where I think any relationship that has been together for a long time, you realise after being in one now, there’s just peaks and valleys.
What do you think was key to your reconciliation with your wife?
I think we just can’t seem to not love one another. And I don’t mean to sound too flippant about it. It is this thing that we… It’s almost inexplicable at this point.
I love that. I want to talk about the sound on this album. The guitars seem more front and centre on some tracks and they seem very pulled back on others where your voice is shining through — like the title track. Did you have an idea of the sonic journey that you wanted listeners to take with the record?
I think so. I had so much time to just sit there and work on the songs. Like my friend Matt, who produced the record with me and plays in the band, when we started playing the demos together they just really started to present themselves that some were going to be real grand songs, sonically.
And then other ones where I had to get something off my chest, just needed to be me in the room with you. But I think there’s also probably part of some of the songs that are a bit louder because I was writing Alexis[onfire] songs too. That part of my brain was just there and I was like, ‘Okay, well you know what? I’m tired of how confused everybody is that I do both’.
Yeah, people are still like, ‘How can you be in both bands?’ And I’m like, ‘Because I fucking am and I like different styles of music’.
Last question. You’ve talked about how you lost yourself for a little while because of the pandemic, because you defined yourself by your art. How do you define success now, knowing all that you know about yourself and all that you’ve learned over the past few years?
Success to me was always the ability to continue doing it. I didn’t care about if it was a number one record or if there were people at the shows. I appreciated all of that but for me the idea was can I keep doing it? Can I make another record? That would always be success to me.
But now I’m just so thankful that I can do it. So success to me is the thing that I’d always measured it against, right? It’s the ability to continue doing it and it’s like that realisation of, ‘Oh I’m doing it. I’m successful because I get to do it’.
To have that realisation happen at 40 is actually quite young when you think about it.
I think that was it. I think because I was young enough and also, I would be remiss to say that standing in the hospital looking at my friend on the table was the real moment where I was like, ‘Okay, I need to stop being so flippant about all of the good things in my life’. So that happening, mixed with the time to sit and think about it, really changed my perspective on the whole thing, you know. I’m just so grateful that I get to do it.
In a really morbid, weird way, it’s a gift that your friend has given you.
I know that. And I can see that. I’m in a good place with it now, you know. It’s been three and a half years since we lost him. It’s coming and going and you know, it comes in waves. But I think that was just such a… I mean it changes you. It does. I can’t tell you any different. It just changes you.
But in many ways it has been for the better.
If you found this article distressing, help is available to you.
- Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14 (24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services)
- Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 (24/7 mental health support and information)
- Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement: 1800 642 066 (bereavement support and information)
- Headspace: 1800 650 890 (mental health support for young people aged 12-25)
- MensLine Australia: 1300 78 99 78 (24/7 counselling service for men)
- Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 counselling service for young people aged 5-25)
- The Salvation Army: 13 SALVOS (24/7 crisis support and referral service)