Photography by Rob Christian Crosby
Exploring music at an early age, Hannah Dobson has continued to develop her original style and create a unique sound that is captivating local audiences.
If you’ve ever been in a venue and witnessed a noisy room hush as soon as a singer begins to perform, then you’ve witnessed an unusual superpower — the ability to quiet a room with a song. It’s a rare talent that’s equally intoxicating for the performer as it is for the listeners who were just pulled from their conversation.
Hannah Dobson has this superpower. Imagine, you’re sitting in Lakeland’s Hillcrest Coffee, a 1920s’ bungalow preserved and repurposed as a stylish coffee shop in Dixieland. Small talk, the hiss of steaming milk, the shuffling of feet, and laughter, all instantly give way to the music. It’s the kind of quiet that even the tiny rustling of a sugar packet could disturb. Through the silence, over the drone of the softest finger-picked guitar, her melody swells and swings. Her voice is low and delicate with an airy rasp that lays over every tone. Her melodies are sorrowful and slightly hypnotic, using short phrases that repeat and tumble over each other. The repetition provides a kind of tension, just enough to draw you in, but always delivers some sort of lyrical or melodic payoff.
The Dobson family moved to Lakeland from Northwest Indiana when Hannah was 12. They are a creative family, with her mother, Amy, encouraging Hannah and her siblings to explore music from an early age.
After years of working on music by herself, she’s finding it refreshing to create something with others and let go of control a little bit.
“My mom played piano, so all of us were encouraged to learn piano first. We were allowed to explore any other instruments we wanted, but we learned piano first. Once you know piano, everything else falls into place a little easier,” Dobson says.
She took up the violin for a few years during her early teens. But when a passion for the instrument never really formed, she put the violin down. She became interested in guitar, and with that came a passion for songwriting.
Dobson now writes music for two different musical projects: her solo music under the pseudonym Ayerlyn, and a collaborative project with her fiancé, Rachel Pollock called Dog Heaven. She released her first recording as Ayerlyn at the age of 17. It was a five-song album with layers of vocals, soft acoustic strums, piano, and ghostly electric guitar swells. Even as a young artist, Dobson’s lyrics were abstract and incredibly visual. As she developed, the songs became even moodier and her unique writing style solidified.
“I care so much about my songs. They all have a very special place in my heart, so sharing them is scary. It’s like my songs and I have a secret, and once they’re out, anyone can partake in that. It feels risky. It’s also liberating, but it’s like sharing a huge part of yourself with anyone who’s willing to tune in,” Dobson says.
Her hesitation to let her original songs be heard is apparent in her output. In four years of writing and performing as Ayerlyn, she’s only released a handful of her original songs.
“My favorite part of music is writing. My second favorite part of music is playing for people. So naturally, recording has taken a backseat,” Dobson says.
“I feel lucky to be a part of a welcoming music community here in Lakeland. That does not exist everywhere.”
As a result, searching for Ayerlyn music on Spotify or any of the popular music streaming platforms is a relatively fruitless activity, with the exception of YouTube. The Ayerlyn YouTube channel is full of videos of teenage Dobson performing covers and original songs from her bedroom. This seems to be the one medium she felt comfortable recording and releasing material during the early years of her music making.
“YouTube was definitely very empowering. As someone who was young and just getting their bearings, it was a good place to start. I think some people get stuck there playing other people’s music. People [viewers] want to hear songs that they know. Naturally, I fell out of doing covers because I wanted to pursue original music,” Dobson says.
That renewed vigor to work on her original music is exciting. Dobson is working on a new solo album and her new project, Dog Heaven. Dog Heaven is different because she approaches this project with a spirit of collaboration instead of pure self-expression. It’s the feeding off of the creativity of her collaborators that makes it exciting for her. After years of working on music by herself, she’s finding it refreshing to create something with others and let go of control a little bit. She shares writing and singing duties with Rachel Pollock, whose voice is much higher than Dobson’s. It’s wafer thin, hazy, and delicate, like a frosted glass pane. Their voices together are the perfect contrasting tones, with the same nuanced finesse. So far, the duo has enlisted help from fellow songwriter Emily Jones (guitar and bass) and multi-instrumentalist Brendan McGowan and look forward to an open-door policy with regards to collaborations in the future.
“When I lifted Ayerlyn off the ground as a solo project, the idea was that it could evolve into something more. I soon realized that there was a very tender part of my heart that I could tap into just being on my own with my guitar. Thankfully, because I do have another project, Dog Heaven, there’s something I can’t achieve when I’m on my own. There’s an energy having other musicians with me who are passionate about the music we’re doing.”
In 2015, Dobson moved to Nashville for almost a year. “The music community in Lakeland is very tight-knit, at least the people I was surrounded by were. I thought that moving to Nashville, I would fall into another group like that. That didn’t happen,” Dobson says.
“I care so much about my songs. They all have a very special place in my heart, so sharing them is scary. It’s like my songs and I have a secret, and once they’re out, anyone can partake in that. It feels risky. It’s also liberating, but it’s like sharing a huge part of yourself with anyone who’s willing to tune in.”
She didn’t go there specifically with the hope of pursuing music, but her observations of the Nashville music community versus the Lakeland creative community were interesting. “You move away and it’s sink or swim. I think it’s really good for people to have that experience. But for me as an 18 year old, it was very scary. It was easy to compare myself to other musicians and to just feel so defeated.”
Through her brief stint in Nashville, Dobson garnered great insight into how Lakeland played a fundamental role in her life and how the unique community that exists here is difficult to find elsewhere. “In hindsight, I believe I could have gone to Nashville and succeeded had I chosen to immerse myself in it, but I didn’t. I feel lucky to be a part of a welcoming music community here in Lakeland. That does not exist everywhere.”