In Dawn Riding’s ‘Love Song,’ Love Can Mean Sending Flowers or Lying to a Judge

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A musical trio dressed in denim sits on the couch; the woman on the left holds a drum stick, the one in the center strums an acoustic guitar and the one on the right holds an electric guitar.
In Dawn Riding's “Love Song,” the Oakland country-folk trio looks beyond romance. (Photo: Dani Nomura, illustration: Kelly Heigert/KQED)

Welcome to Pass the Aux, where every week we feature new music by Bay Area artists. Check out past entries and submit a song for future coverage here.

“I’ve seen so many kinds of love,” Sarah Rose Janko croons in “Love Song,” the slow-tempo single from Dawn Riding’s sophomore album, The Light, released by Oakland label The Long Road Society on June 25. She counts the ways love manifests, by turns rough and sweet, scary and commonplace. Love can be flowers or Christmas dinner, but it can also mean lying to a judge and running through the streets. In its most corrupted, abusive extreme, she notes, it can take the form of verbal and physical threats. “Love Song” culminates in a direct entreaty to Janko’s listener. “Scientists and analysts, they don’t know your heart,” she sings. “Don’t ask them what it is, tell me what you want.”

The Dawn Riding trio is tight and spare on this album. Hall McCann joins Janko’s acoustic guitar with electric guitar and harmony vocals, and Jasmyn Wong’s drums steadily guide each country-folk track. Janko’s lyrics on The Light are often hyper-specific: “Avondale” references a night spent in a parish women’s jail, another song a funeral in South Missouri. Her words paint pictures of places and people on the edges of American society. Sorrow, yearning and absence are palpable.

“Love Song,” like its title suggests, is less about the specifics of a particular romance than the expansive ways we can experience love. A music video by photographer Chris Berntsen illustrates the song with images of queer relationships and youthful rebellion: freight-hopping, swimming holes, groups of gorgeous men at the beach. But despite this connection to often sunny imagery, “Love Song” feels to me like something played late at night in a quietly attentive bar, perfect for a shambling slow dance with whoever makes you feel right, and good enough.