By Tish Hamilton

How does a mom who’s a high-powered intellectual property and media law attorney by day become a lead-singing, hair-tossing, guitar-shredding dynamo at night?

Entertainment law and hard rock may seem like an odd couple, but Dawn Botti ’91 brings her force-of-nature energy to both. Recently promoted to executive vice president of business and legal affairs for AMC Networks Inc., she’s recorded three albums with her band New Day Dawn, which played at the seminal music festival SXSW, in Austin, Texas, four times. She married hard-rock drummer and art director Gary Szczecina, her high school sweetheart. They took their son, Walker, now 17, on cross-country music festival road trips, giving him a chance to see the country in ways most kids never do. It’s a pretty sweet life.

But the road to this happy hybrid place has not been free of speed bumps and potholes. One disapproving boss early in her career questioned Botti’s commitment to her work. An up-and-coming band she fronted in the early 2000s broke up on the cusp of fame. In fact, even Botti admits it’s hard to put pedal to the metal to law and music at the same time. When one passion takes center stage, the other steps out of the spotlight. That’s OK with Botti, as long as she has both—and her family.

“Our society is too focused on being 100 percent great at one thing,” Botti says. “I think a perfect life feeds your soul holistically—it’s intellectual, creative, spiritual, with love, passion, empathy. It’s important to pursue all the things you want to do with equal passion because you’re not going to get all of that from just one thing.”

a pink fleur de lis

Botti was 5 when she started taking piano lessons and studying classical music, as do many budding musicians, including her role model, Pat Benatar. The radio was always on in the family’s home in rural Long Valley, N.J. She is named after one of her parents’ favorite songs, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Dawn (Go Away).”

As a high schooler, Botti loved the Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” so much she picked out the melody on the piano. “Once I realized I could figure out the whole song without sheet music, I quit classical music and started writing my own songs,” she says.

That’s when she joined her first rock-and-roll band. “The guys couldn’t hit the high notes,” Botti says. “So they were like, we need a singer.” The band was called Havoc; the drummer was Szczecina, today her husband.

As much as she loved performing, Botti enrolled at Lafayette College with a focus from which she never wavered: pre-law. She majored in American civilization, writing her senior thesis on the citizens of Easton who founded Lafayette in the 1820s. She graduated with honors and was admitted to New York University Law School.

“My mom was a schoolteacher, my dad was a UPS driver. I wanted a small college where I’d feel safe,” Botti says. “Lafayette felt like home. And I grew a lot in those four years.”

It wasn’t all nose to the grindstone. Botti sang in the Madrigals, in the Chaplain’s musical, and in musical theater. She fronted a rock band composed of members of Sigma Chi fraternity who needed a female singer (those high notes!).  “I was sort of like a punk rock-and-roller,” she says. “We played at parties and had so much fun.” Recently she brought her son, Walker, soon to be a high school senior, to visit campus. “When I was at Lafayette, I was a tour guide,” Botti says. “But there are so many new buildings now, I lost my bearings. Walker thought that was hysterical.”

Going to law school in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City was a huge change from Easton, Pa. “The two places could not have been more different, but Lafayette gave me the confidence I needed to go onto the next part of my life.”

New York’s downtown music scene in the pre-internet 1990s was hopping. Venues like CBGB, the Continental Divide, and the Elbow Room hired bands to play original songs. Botti joined two bands: Lane’s World, a band composed of NYU law students (in homage to Wayne’s World and the name of their bass player, she explains), and Rope, performing some of her own original songs.

But wait a minute. Isn’t law school notoriously hard? How did Botti play late-night gigs and not flunk out? “When you’re playing original music, you don’t actually perform that much,” Botti says. “We were rehearsing once a week, playing once every two months. It only had to be as time-demanding as I wanted to make it.”

After her first year of law school, Botti put on her best suit and heels for rigorous interviews for a requisite summer associate program. At a lunch with attorneys from the world-renowned firm of  Proskauer Rose, her interviewer said, “OK, are we done talking about law? Because I hear you’re a singer, and I have a band. Would you want
to try out?”

What? Yes! Botti landed the band, the internship, and a first job out of college. And that senior associate who had taken her to lunch now served as both her mentor and inspiration. “He had a band that played at these great clubs, and he was a superstar at the law firm,” Botti says. “He was like my blueprint. I could do this!”

Pull quote reads: "I want to bring more happy energy into the world with my songs. I want to make people smile. I want to make people dance!" -Dawn Botti

A purple “Welcome” butterfly flag flutters in front of the family’s center-hall colonial in musician-friendly Maplewood, within walking distance of the Midtown Direct train into New York City. A sunroom on the first floor serves as Botti’s home office. The finished attic is their creative space. On one side, Szczecina, who’s always worked from home, designs DVD covers and posters. On the other side is the rehearsal room, filled with drum kits, guitars, amps, mics, and assorted recording equipment; a large Turkish rug covers the boarded-up window to minimize neighborhood noise. “It’s not completely soundproof,” Szczecina says. “The neighbors across the street hear us. They say they like it.” The walls are lined with photos of Botti and Szczecina onstage, tour posters announcing their dates at CBGB and Maxwell’s, and framed vinyl LPs. The couple moved in during a pivot in Botti’s twin passion projects, although they didn’t realize it at the time.

In the early 2000s, Botti and Szczecina were playing with Slushpuppy, a hard-rock band that seemed on the verge of landing a record deal after Matt Pinfield, originally a veejay for MTV, who was then a deejay for the largest syndicated rock station in the country, was passed the band’s demo. “My bass player calls and says, ‘Turn on K-Rock! They’re playing our record!’” Botti says. “I was like, this is it. I’m giving up my law career, we’re about to be famous.”

The record labels loved Slushpuppy’s sound, except for one thing: The lead singer, Botti, then in her early 30s, was deemed “too old.” The band broke up; Botti was heartbroken. Conceding that she’d been “burning the candle at both ends,” she decided it was time to double-down on law and start a family. Walker was born in 2005.

a pink fleur de lis

As much as Botti loved being a mom, she missed music. “Then I realized, the baby goes to bed at 7 o’clock! I said to my husband, I really want to start another band. That could be our date night, we could go out and play.” Szczecina thought she was crazy. “My first reaction was NO!” he says. “Walker was so young. Dawn always pushes me to do more than I want to, but in the end, I always end up enjoying it.”

She named the band New Day Dawn—“This time, it’s my band”—bought recording equipment, and they recorded an album in their third-floor studio.

“Walker’s nursery was on the floor right below our rehearsal space, and he would sleep through banging drums,” Botti says. “I think it was comforting. Those were his parents upstairs making noise.”

New Day Dawn was invited to Nashville to record their next album with session professionals. When Botti posted the exciting news on Facebook—with a photo of herself in full rock-and-roll regalia—her boss wasn’t thrilled, asking, “Is this a midlife crisis?” Eventually the only thing the two could agree on was that it would be better for Botti to move on.

Determined not to hide her passions, on her first interview with the general counsel of AMC Networks, Botti said to her potential boss, “I just want you to know I’m a rock-and-roller, I’m in a band, I have a tattoo.” His response? “That’s awesome! I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert more than 50 times!” Botti’s new boss encouraged her to continue music. “That’s what makes you a great entertainment lawyer,” he told her. “You understand creative people.”

How does an attorney become a rock star? “I put in hair extensions, tons of makeup, sky-high heels, and cinch my corset,” Botti says. “Then when I get to the office, I do the opposite.”

“I always told her she should dress up as a lawyer, then go onstage and rip it off and become a rocker,” Szczecina says. “But more than what she looks like, what people really react to is her voice. When she starts to sing, she’s just got this big, powerful, sultry, sexy, and strong voice.” Along with Pat Benatar, Botti counts Ann Wilson of Heart, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan as influences. “She blows me away,” says Szczecina.

New Day Dawn—with PJ Angeloni then on guitar, Elo Hernandez on bass, and Szczecina on drums—road-tripped to festivals like SXSW and Rocklahoma and opened for big acts like Three Doors Down, Saving Abel, and Lita Ford.  Over the years, some of the band members have changed, but Botti and Szczecina always served as the constant. “We were in a good place,” he says.

Their last show was January 2020, right before COVID hit and music venues shut down. When rock stepped out of the spotlight, law again took center stage. The quarantine accelerated the launch of AMC+, the company’s premium streaming service. “We went from producing two to three shows a year to now having over 20 shows in production,” Botti says. “So the responsibilities of my job have ballooned. But it’s also what gave me a promotion.”

Today, Botti feeds her musical side with outdoor acoustic performances playing 1980s covers with Szczecina and a neighbor, as The ReVinyls. She’s writing a fundraiser musical for her church and thinking about how to reboot New Day Dawn. “I want to bring more happy energy into the world with my songs. I want to make people smile, I want to make people dance!”

She won’t give up her day job—or her gigs at night. “I have friends in rock bands who became famous, but records don’t sell anymore, so they have to stay on the road to make money, touring 200 to 300 days a year,” she says, descending the staircase from the third-floor rehearsal space, past concert posters, past the second-floor bedrooms, to the front hall leading to the quiet street. “They’re tired, and they’re missing seeing their kids grow up. And they say they’re envious of me because I’m still onstage, just not 200 days a year.

“I never really thought of it that way,” Botti continues. “When I was younger, I was envious of them. But now I think it all worked out. Had the band not broken up after we got played on K-Rock, Walker wouldn’t have been born, and I can’t imagine my life without my son. All the pieces came together.”