“Each record I’m learning more and more to let go”, says singer-songwriter Denai Moore when opening up on her new album Modern Dread.
Her follow-up to 2017’s critically acclaimed We Used To Bloom is a sonic wonder; an otherworldly journey navigating through the turbulent grip on the world that arrives at its life-affirming destination – hope.
Teaming up with Everything Everything’s Alex Robertshaw for production duties, it marks a dazzling new chapter in her career as she toys with varying textures and soundscapes to devise an intense yet vulnerable trip through themes inspired by the growing threat of global warming, the divisive force of Brexit and the chaos of war.
Songs like the Fake Sorry and Cascades showcase her ability to craft tight, engrossing pop songs while Grapefruit on The Porch and Motherless Child guide you through a kaleidoscopic new course of enthralling electronica.
“I know a few people found it a bit like whiplash”, Denai tells Daily Star Online. “You’re getting a bit of respite but then you have something crazy sonically then something immediate and pop. It was intentional.”
Its creation also saw her scrap original versions of songs and conjure a new vision, like with Don’t Close The Door and Turn Off The Radio. She tells us: “You have to be not so precious and afraid to start to start from point zero and work again.”
In these unprecedented times, Modern Dread gives us cause for optimism.
Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with Denai to talk about how Modern Dread was made, working with Alex Robertshaw, its influences, and its evolution.
Hi Denai. How have the past few months been for you? What’s it like as an artist navigating lockdown?
“Weirdly fine. It’s nice to be at home and have more time to work on ideas. Even session-wise, you’re with people between 12-6 or 10-5 and you go home. It feels a bit more rushed and under pressure to make something.
“It’s been nice to work on music at my own pace and take more time on certain things. I’ve been catching up with friends on FaceTime, which has been really cool. It’s nice to have a more human connection as opposed to it being work, work, work.
“I’ve been really tested in this time. I’ve made the equivalent of two music videos, and I started this whole series in my bedroom, and creating content around this album has been different than I have had before. It’s been a nice challenge.
“I’ve had more time to read as well. The pace of things has been different. Just before lockdown, a week later I was meant to play a show in Morocco. I was getting ready to play shows and putting together stuff like that, which is great. I love playing shows but we just haven’t been able to. It’s bought me more time to really think about what I want it to be like.
“Now I’m working with the live show again with the consensus of trying different ideas and working with different musicians for this new album. You work towards something and you have a certain amount of time to do it whereas now, because there is this uncertainty of when the live shows will start, I’m working a lot more in creative, which is really fun for me. I love the nerdy synth research that I have to look up on.
“I’ve found some cool new musicians and I appreciate the pace being a bit slower.”
You’ve just released your new album Modern Dread. What was its writing and recording process like? For me, it’s a real experience from start to finish.
“Each record I’m learning more and more to let go and allow myself to invite the right people in to spaces.
“I used to be so protective making a record. This time around I collaborated with a lot more musicians. Working with a band was really fun. Working with Everything Everything, it was really cool to have the outlet of a few other musicians.
“Normally I figure out how to play the things. It’s very much me. I learned a lot. In this record, I embrace a lot of different sounds that sonically I maybe wouldn’t have gone for on other records.
“Working with Alex (Robertshaw) and Everything Everything, they’re very unapologetic in the sounds they go for and how they make music. The process kept evolving and we kept creating things that felt very unique between me and Alex’s partnership together.”
Lyrically, what are the themes running through it? It an extremely personal album with concerns for the world today.
“I feel like sonically, like on some of the songs like To The Brink, Turn Off The Radio, Cascades, they were the songs more about how the world makes me feel and how I’m questioning my significance. Am I doing enough? Trying to position yourself in a world that feels like so many things are out of your control, being in this age of information.
“Straight after making To The Brink, I knew what the record was going to be. I’d never made a song like To The Brink before. It was slightly more aggressive. It opened a new chapter that informs the whole theme for the album sonically. It’s something that I wanted to get across in the production.
“A lot of the songs like Too Close, if you listened back to the original demos it would be like night and day. After To The Brink we really went for it and created these textures and sounds that felt as vulnerable and make you feel as intense as it is to be alive now. Something like hope comes across on listen.”
Do you think the album may have taken on a deeper meaning over the past few months? It’s been a traumatic time for the world.
“Yeah, I think so. It’s really strange. This record was harder to make, hard to mix, hard to get right, it was a long process. Almost three years of making. It feels like it was meant to be.
“All the frustrations I had before I feel like it lined up and makes sense that it exists now. It’s really crazy to put it out with it being called Modern Dread with everything that’s happening.
“For me as an artist, I am making this music in these times. It would be impossible for it not to sound like what we’re experiencing.
“On To The Brink, it was the time of Brexit and a lot of these things are very similar to what we’re talking about now. There are a lot of conversations sparked from Brexit. There are a lot of conservations around on global warming, which are still relevant today with maybe just different subject matters.
“In the last three or four years there has been a massive uproar around so many things that happen. War-wise like Syria. Image-wise we’re constantly stimulated with all these tragic stories. We have to work and try to figure out what we do, and then we come home and it’s the same onslaught.
“We’ve been experiencing this quite a while. I think this is why it sounds fitting now because a lot of the things when I made the record are not that dissimilar.”
How do you take these visions and everything that’s thrown at us and form them into songs?
“When I write I hear a lot of things in production. It’s my job to communicate those things to Alex. A lot of the time we had a shared, connected brain. We wouldn’t have to say anything and it’s like ‘yep, that’s it. That’s the sound we need’. We got into a pattern and it ended up flowing really well, this energy between us.
“It’s a tricky one because music is a bit like magic. You make it and it’s almost making you as well, because the process changes you as you’re making it, especially if you’re going into new territory. I felt that way when making this record. A lot of it was so new. Working with a lot of the synths Alex uses, I learned a lot seeing him piece these things together in the way we did.”
Did it evolve from the beginning? Has Modern Dread ended up how you thought it was going to be?
“It’s ended up how I hoped it would. A lot of the time you feel insane because you hear the things in your head and it’s hard to try and translate that.
“That’s the main battle of making music, trying to make what you hear in your head, and allowing the songs to go beyond that.
“On a lot of the songs, there are definitely moments where they went into a direction that I didn’t necessarily expect them to go. It’s a really nice process to see them grow and watch the album become what it is.
“I think definitely the big process of this album was being this conductor in the midst of it and communicate how I heard things, and also allowing them to become what they’re meant to be.
“I always think my position in music, or with my music, is the gardener. You plant the seeds and they grow into whatever they’re meant to be. I’m nurturing those sounds and making sure they get everything they need to become to what they grow into.”
Sonically, it’s extremely expansive and varied, and sounds otherworldly. It really feels like you’re pushing boundaries both stylistically and in vision, have you always had this outlook?
“Totally. There are so many different references for this record. We listened to a lot of electronic music. I think that’s why sonically the album leans into that direction. For me I feel the music I’ve always made has been a mix of so many textures and sounds. I think it’s important for me to make what ever is the most authentic to where I currently am. Even now I am making music that feels new in a slightly different way to Modern Dread, which is really nice.”
So you are already thinking of the next steps?
“Yeah because I think I’m still feeling so many things with what’s happening. It will be hard not to make something. Even if it’s just to write lyrics.
“Making music right now is definitely informed by what’s happening.
“It feels really nice because I have to stay at home. I can’t make music in the same way I’m used to. I’m starting to share them with other people. I’ve been sending stuff to Alex and Steph (Marizano) who did my last record. I would say the first four months I’ve just been making things, and letting go of certain fleeting emotions that come to me in a song.
“You see the patterns align and something changes. Then it feels like a new record.”
Will you take anything you learned from this time around going forward to your next releases?
“I think it’s just letting go of the headspace of what you think you should sound like. Actively making whatever you want to make. Not being afraid.
“Even for me, songs that are more pop leaning, like Slate or Fake Sorry, before I would never go there but I would write these pop leaning songs and never lean into it that confidently.
“I went for it this time around because the songs were coming out of me. It’s authentic but something I’ve embraced a bit more as well on this record. It’s a challenge to come to that crossroads with yourself and actually get over it and have fun and to let go of what you think it should sound like and make whatever you want to make. It’s a very childlike headspace you go in.
“I had a lot of fun making Modern Dread. It was so fun to see the songs come together and it’s really cool that it’s finally out and people are experiencing it in different ways.”
You mentioned Fake Sorry, which has real pop sensibilities. Grapefruit on the Porch brings in horns, and Motherless Child is extremely atmospheric to name a few. I also love the incredible build towards the album ender Wishin’ You Better. How did you hone these particular sounds and did you always set out for it to be varied in style? Was it easy to change mindsets with each one?
“Vocally there’s a thread between all the songs. My vocals are very untouched. They’re dry and bold-sounding.
“I spent a lot of time tracking vocals on this record, more so than any other album. There was a fierceness and energy that I wanted to give off in some of the songs. I really wanted to get the right performances for each song.
“It’s very calculated as well. Even sequencing the record for me is one of my favourite parts of it. Having to piece together how people hear it for the first time was really cool.
“I know a few people found it a bit like whiplash, to go from Fake Sorry to Grapefruit on The Porch, to Cascades, it feels very much like whiplash. You’re getting a bit of respite but then you have something crazy sonically then something immediate and pop. It was intentional. I played with those dynamics when sequencing.”
It saw you team up with Alex Robertshaw from Everything Everything. What was it like working with him and what did he bring to the table in terms of Modern Dread’s production?
“He validated me, which is the most important thing of working with a producer. You want to be in the position where you can say anything without seeming a bit crazy.
“That’s really important and he was always someone that on a personal level really wanted to get into the meaning behind the songs so we can best replicate that feeling into the music sonically.
“There were moments where I ended up rewriting things in the sessions with him. That’s why the partnership really works. He really saw me and helped me to make it in a way that I wouldn’t be able to make it with anyone else.”
Do you think that deconstructing helps sometimes? If something’s not working, it doesn’t harm starting afresh.
“You need to, otherwise it becomes stagnant. Sometimes it’s a scary thing to think ‘OK we need to start from scratch!’. We had that on a few tracks. For instance, Don’t Close the Door and Turn Off the Radio, we had versions of it that sounded fine but we knew that it wasn’t it. We knew that this is not what the song should be. We started from scratch and cleaned it.
“I’ve just recently listened back to the older version of Don’t Close The Door and it’s such a different song. These are important on a record when you have to be not so precious and afraid to start to start from point zero and work again.
“For me, sometimes that can be an instrument. Guitar is always my comfort. I’m so comfortable playing guitar and a lot of the time the songs that were based around it didn’t feel right because it was in my comfort zone. We had to take the guitar completely out and start again for it to be something that’s beyond what I’d done before.
“To me that’s always something that’s important. To figure out the things I like outside your comfort zone in a song. Why isn’t it working? It’s probably because it’s something that’s not as challenging or new, so it doesn’t feel as interesting or right for the record.
“Those moments were really good and I’m not afraid to scrap a day of work to start again.”
Are you pleased with the response the album has received?
“It’s always an interesting part of the record. When you make something it’s so insular and you spend years making it and suddenly thousands of people hear it in a couple of hours of it being out. It’s really strange but it’s interesting, especially with this record in how I sequenced it.
“Some people found it overwhelming but too overwhelming because of the way the songs are positioned with each other. Some of them are quieter and then it’s really loud or bright and then intimate. I find it interesting to see people’s experience. That’s what’s amazing about art.
“You put it out and people will take from it what they want to. I just move on and make something else, which I am doing at the moment.
“I also find it interesting when people have found the things I did deliberate very challenging about the record. It makes me feel like I did the right thing for Modern Dread.”
Do you enjoy hearing people’s interpretations of what you set out to do?
“It can really vary. It’s crazy to me because I spend years making a record and putting everything into it. It’s interesting how people can interpret it. It’s also not my position. I watch something and feel something that might be different from the maker intended it to be.
“There’s something really nice about that indifference. There’s something really nice about when people get it. There’s something really nice about people not getting it on first listen but come back and find something they didn’t before.
“I find that a lot myself when listening to something. I hope people take the time to listen to it and I think sometimes with music there’s this disposability of it. You hear it once and listen to the next thing. On records I’ve found challenging at first, I come back to it I have a different experience from when I first listened to it.”
Who were you influenced or inspired by on this record?
“I watch a lot of film. I was very inspired by a lot of fashion artists like Tim Walker and his weird warped world that he put together.
“I also read a lot. I read a lot making this record. More essays, which is probably why the political world bled into this record because I’d read a lot of books about things that are happening politically or socially. I read a lot of poetry so I feel like literature has really informed Modern Dread.”
What are your next steps? Are you looking at the live aspect of it? What can we expect from your shows looking ahead?
“I want to create something that feels as literal and surprising live. That’s always a challenge. Music changes and you have to almost start again and try and remember how to perform again. It’s a weird complex.
“I’m really excited because I’m currently putting together some ideas and piece together the puzzle of the show. When music has become more electronic from the debut music and the first EPs, there’s a whole different world for me to explore. I’m really stoked on that.
“I’m still making music and still writing and making things that, who knows, I might put more singles out later on in the year or next year.
“I really want to tour this record in a really special way. I live in Margate and there’s a few cool galleries here and I want to perform in spaces like galleries that feel intimate but are so massive. You feel alone in this really crazy space.
“I want to perform more in unconventional venues that doesn’t necessarily read as a venue. I spend a lot of time in galleries as well so it feels quite right for me. I’m looking forward to playing again whenever that will happen.”
Denai Moore’s Modern Dread is out now via Because Music