Interview: Josie Dunne
Gaining momentum with her Motown-inspired debut EP, "To Be The Little Fish," the Chicago native visits Columbus as part of Andy Grammer's "The Good Parts Tour" at Newport Music Hall on Wednesday night
Josie Dunne’s debut EP, To Be The Little Fish, reflects the copious level of joy the rising 21-year-old singer-songwriter is finding at each new stop along her career path.
“It’s been unbelievable,” she rhapsodizes during our phone conversation on Monday afternoon. “I feel like this is a really cool particular phase, too, in any musician’s time or career. I’m just getting to do a bunch of things for the first time. This is my first real tour, my first time on a tour bus…and this morning, I did my first TV performance. I’m crossing stuff off the bucket list way faster than I thought I would. It’s just been amazing.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago (La Grange, to be specific), Dunne spent most of her teenage years playing to Illinois crowds in bars and restaurants on a weekly basis. By the time she finished high school, she had already signed a contract with Atlantic Records. She’s now a Nashville transplant, living and working in the thick of a community of songwriters, a big personal and professional move she claims has given her an invaluable education.
“I think Nashville teaches songwriters the art of telling a story,” she confirms. “That’s been a really great lesson for me to learn as a songwriter — how to tell a truthful, honest story. From that, you can kind of do anything, because if you can put something out that’s believable, and real, and raw, people are going to be able to relate to it, you know? And that’s really helped me as a person, too. As I’ve been working on this EP, I spent three years writing, just trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to say. And I think because I was doing that in Nashville, where, as I said, it’s all about the story and getting down to the heart of it rather than just writing a fun pop song…I grew up a lot in songwriting sessions.”
Her first single, “Old School,” arrived earlier this year, a genuinely sweet (and infectious) love letter written in tribute to her parents’ decades-long relationship. While she’s worked tirelessly for her breakout, the journey, like the one she chronicles in that track, has been a rather happy one.
I mention that much of her EP’s appeal is that the music seems to flow from a really authentic place.
“Totally, totally,” she echoes. “I’m a bad actress, so if any of it was phony, it would be pretty evident [laughs]. I’ve grown up and have just had a really great family and a great life. I just don’t have much to complain about, so I hope that…I’m glad that shows in the music. You know, I’m just having fun and I love this…it’s just the best life ever. You get to go out and sing fun songs and make people dance. It’s the best. It’s the cherry on the sundae.”
This fall, Dunne is supporting singer-songwriter Andy Grammer (“Honey, I’m Good,” “Fine By Me”) on his The Good Parts Tour. They’ll be in Columbus on Wednesday night at Newport Music Hall.
Having been a long-time fan of Grammer’s, she hasn’t taken the opportunity for granted.
“I think meeting Andy was…he’s fantastic. His band and everything has been really cool. So, just getting to hang out and spend time person-to-person and getting advice from him has been really pretty cool, because I’ve looked up to him for a while. He’s been really…he’s a big believer in practicing what you preach. He keeps a really positive vibe with his band, and everybody has been really uplifting and super positive. Exactly who you’d think he is from [listening to] his music, he is. And, so, it’s been inspiring to meet somebody who’s remained so positive in kind of a tough industry, and somebody who keeps spreading joy in his show…better than anybody I’ve ever met.”
To Be The Little Fish borrows many of its buoyant vibes from her parents’ Motown records she listened to growing up. Recreating some of the verve that made Hitsville music so timelessly captivating was part of Dunne’s vision when she went into the studio.
“I think it’s important to keep Motown alive, and that kind of energy, one, because there’s just a lack of real instrumentation. I think you can hear whether or not a real human’s playing a trumpet or a guitar or drums. You can hear the difference. And there’s…I think a lot of the music that’s coming out right now is a little bit lacking that human touch that I think made Motown great. And, so, on the EP what I tried to do was put those players back in the room, and having that energy of an actual person playing and smiling behind the drums, or having an actual person play the guitar or bass was really important to me.”
But Motown is more than just a sound. It was a philosophy. A movement. The impact of the message and the sense of feeling she conveys in her writing and performance isn’t lost on Dunne.
“A lot of the music that’s coming out right now is very…it’s ‘cool not to care.’ Do you know what I mean? With a lot of kids my age, there’s this culture of being too cool for school, ‘I don’t care about anything,’ you know? There’s this negative thing going on right now…and Motown was so the opposite of that. It was about feeling things really deeply, be it good or bad. With the EP, I think it was important for me to include a lot of super personal stuff in the lyrics, and let myself as a singer go to this super vulnerable place.
And maybe that was super happy, because, you know, Stevie Wonder songs, you couldn’t help but smile and bob your head along. But then people like Amy Winehouse, and Aretha, and Etta James — they could really kick you in the gut with sadness. And so on ‘Saying Goodbye,’ I tried to get really personal with it to go to that place, too.”
Audiences are clearly connecting with her approach as her EP gains chart and radio traction, and they’re showing up at her shows to express their gratitude.
“It’s been cool because it’s been such a wide range of people,” she explains. “It’ll be adults, parents of people and people my parents’ age who have gone out on a date for that night, and they’ll be, like, ‘I loved your music and I play it for my kids, and the show was so fun.’ And then it’ll be little kids who will come up to me and say, ‘This was my first concert ever, and you were the first act of the night and the first show I’ve ever seen…’ And that’s been so neat, too. Every single person that comes up and says something, it’s been so impactful. That’s why being on tour has been so fun, because you get to put a face to Instagram comments or streams, or whatever, and that’s been a really special thing.”
While Dunne’s burgeoning career might be taking her on the road even more in the near future, a large piece of Dunne’s heart is still in Chicago, where she recently got to live out a dream that would make most of her fellow Windy City dwellers red, white, and blue with envy.
“Across the board, one of my favorite moments so far has been getting to sing the national anthem at the [Chicago] Cubs game. I’m the biggest Cubs fan. It was a really cool moment for me to get to stand on the field and shake Joe Maddon’s hand…the whole thing.”
Josie Dunne will perform on Wednesday, Oct. 10 with Andy Grammer at Newport Music Hall, 1722 N. High St. in the University District. Standard general admission tickets are $29.50 (plus applicable taxes and fees) and are available via Ticketmaster. Josie’s recently released EP, “To Be The Little Fish,” is available via her official website.