- Dondero has earned over-the-top accolades in the press, but wouldn't mind doing without them.
Most artists would kill to have NPR put them on its list of the 10 Best Living Songwriters. But David Dondero kind of hates it.
"I wish they never would have written that," says the altogether unpretentious Minnesota native of his inclusion among the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and Sufjan Stevens. "People say like, 'Oh wow, how great that you could get that kind of press.' But then some people come out to shows thinking it's going to be like that, and it's not, and then they're highly disappointed. And it kind of makes me ashamed of myself, because I can't play like those guys. I just do what I do very simply, and that's it."
It's true: Dondero doesn't really sound like any of those artists. Nor, for that matter, does he sound all that much like Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, or any of the other less-than-living singer-songwriters to which the former carpenter, trucker and bartender is routinely compared.
In some ways, Dondero doesn't even sound that much like himself on his new collection Inside the Cat's Eye, the latest in a career that's spanned nearly two decades and a dozen albums, three of them on Conor Oberst's Team Love label. For one thing, his vocals sound less strained and shouty than in years past, with a deeper resonance that suits the album's more reflective songs.
"Maybe I'm a late bloomer or something," he says of his newfound depth. "I guess I try singing more, rather than just screaming the lyrics. I try to get into the pocket of the song a little more."
Dondero also upped his lyrical game, as evidenced by the track "Capitol Buildings Bleed," which, despite its title, is not as political as you might expect from a musician who spent his early years in a band called This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb. A slow, achingly beautiful track, it arguably rivals the best of Jeff Tweedy. (And, yes, Wilco comparisons are now pretty much inevitable.)
Dondero's electrified acoustic, with minimal backing by bassist John Winsor and drummer Cully Symington, leaves plenty of room for lyrics that manage to reference Hermann Hesse without sounding pretentious: "It's coming full circle, your own Siddhartha / Chased your tail for years, all around the country."
Such songs may come as a surprise to casual fans who are more familiar with Dondero's wryer material. Take, for instance, one of his earliest songs, "The Waiter," a mostly true story set in a New Orleans restaurant where Dondero briefly waited tables. "That's maybe my favorite character-driven song," he says. "Wade the famous waiter from New Orleans, who stabbed a guy in the head with a corkscrew bottle opener. That's a cool character."
The song also has some classic Dondero lines, including this one: "Now the waiter got to thinking / Maybe he should call the cops and report this vicious awful crime / They could check the hospital / Maybe find an injury of the corkscrew kind."
Another favorite in the musician's repertoire is "Rothko Chapel," which name-checks some of the churches and chapels the endlessly touring artist has visited when not otherwise occupied in bars, diners or clubs.
"I'm not much of a religious person, but I do find inspiration in architecture and art," he explains. "And I find peace in those structures, though I don't really subscribe to the texts they're based on."
Dondero was especially impressed by the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, a religious institution in San Francisco's Fillmore District where jazz and the divine find communion.
"There was a sermon for about half an hour, and then it turned into an extended jazz jam session," he recalls. "I'm not sure exactly how long it went on, but I assume probably through the afternoon. It was beautiful, but we had to leave after a few hours because I had to go to my job as a bartender at the Hemlock Tavern."
Another fond memory for Dondero was his visit to Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's studio in St. Augustine, Florida. He met up with her while touring through town, and she invited him to stop by and maybe record a song or two. The result was Dondero's six-song With Love EP, which Grace released last November on her Total Treble label.
"It did take a while," says Dondero of the four-year interval between the sessions and the actual release. "There was a huge storm, and her studio got crushed by a tree. So then Laura had to move all her gear up to Michigan, salvage what she could."
The session with Dondero, meanwhile, got lost in the shuffle, but eventually turned up. "She found them again, and then kind of polished it up a little. It was nice of her to spend the money to put that 10-inch out. I'm grateful for that."
Dondero's current 15-date jaunt is the latest in a seemingly endless series of cross-country solo tours. Many of them go through towns and cities the musician has, at one time or another, called home.
"Yeah, I was in New Orleans before I went to San Francisco," he recounts. "Before that I was in Florida, and before that in the Carolinas, and I grew up in Illinois and New Jersey, and was born in Minnesota. I've spent a lot of time out in Oregon and Alaska and around the country, Texas lately, but I'm living in Virginia currently."
So how does the country that Dondero tours today compare to the one he remembers from his earlier days?
"It didn't seem as volatile in the past as it is right now," he says. "I never remembered it being so class segregated, or divided along party lines with people being so angry with either side. It's divided my family and a lot of friends I know, and it seems like it just creates these walls of bitterness."
Even so, Dondero is resolute in his belief that there's still cause for optimism.
"Yes, there has to be," he says. "It has to start on an individual level, just continually trying. I can't see the polarization and picking sides working."
In the meantime, the songwriter has his own personal plan, and it's one that just might work: "I'm just trying to enjoy this life and sing," he says, "to get to a happy song, somehow, down the road."