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Interview: Dan Black – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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Like most young British artists, Dan Black possesses a love and appreciation for rap, rock and R&B that runs so deep that it spills incessantly into any music that he eventually creates. Unable to contain his work within any genre-specific boundary, the hybrid byproduct of Dan Black’s labor fuses together musical inspirations that run from Bob Dylan to the Notorious B.I.G. In fact, the latter artist would eventually be sampled on “Symphonies,” whose alternate American cut features up-and-coming rapper Kid Cudi.

This summer, Dan Black will be making several tour stops throughout the United States, as an opening act for Kelis and Robyn’s joint-headline All Hearts Tour, in addition to a prized performance spot at Lollapalooza in Chicago, Illinois. Before hitting the road, however, Dan Black managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the inspiration behind “Yours,” his unique marriage of visual art and music, and an unorthodox recording session in a New York hotel room.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear you perform at Mercury Lounge. At the time, I was only familiar with “Symphonies,” but I immediately fell in love with “Yours.” What is the central inspiration behind that song?

When I started the song, musically, it was me kind of trying to do something like N.E.R.D. and De La Soul. I experimented with mixing break beats, and doing something simple, yet weird, and sort of out there. I like it when things are kind of aggressive and really and strange, and make you think: “What? What is this?” And then in terms of lyrics, it was kind of a mix of different situations. I’ve been in a lot of bands before going solo, and people were always being passive-aggressive and f**king with your head, but once you point it out, they’re like: “What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything of that kind of stuff.” I have also those kind of partners, you know, people that I’ve been with, and so I wanted to write something that kind of could reference either one. I’m glad I was able to get that down on paper.

After browsing online, I discovered that a music video for “Yours” had been released in Europe, and that the song has been released as a single in the United Kingdom before “Symphonies.” What insight can you give me on the direction you pursued with the video’s concept?

First off, everything visual I do is in collaboration with a company called Chic & Artistic. It’s two friends of mine, basically, in Paris. And they tend to come to me with ideas that seem to involve me being in extreme discomfort. It’s important in whatever we make. They wanted me dangling from the ceiling from elastic. I went along with it, and they found this guy that could come to do it! [laughing] It was fine! [laughing continues] I mean, on the one hand, the way it’s strapped to you, it basically wraps around your legs and cuts into very intimate parts of the body. It’s quite uncomfortable, and hurts quite a lot. But at the same time, you can suddenly jump like ten, twelve feet in the air! [laughing] There’s a lot of physical pain involved. But it was amazingly fun to do that bit.

Since that video was shot before “Symphonies,” what kind of lessons did you take from the “Yours” video experience and translate into the “Symphonies” video experience?

Well, since I work with the same people, it helps to speed up the entire process. When you’re talking about ideas, you don’t have to explain stuff so much. All the videos are an extension of my work and what I’m about, so when people see them, it is going to influence how they are going to perceive me and experience my music. So it’s really key to have people that can really tap into my mind and tie-in how I want to work on the stage. So now that I’m working with Chic & Artistic, we’ve come a long way, as to what I’m trying to do and how to put stuff together. We just get work out immediately, with less going: “Hmm… I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t do that. I’ll be this. He does that.” It’s one of the key differences in being the best. “Symphonies” was ambitious, and it was a massive part of this huge project. But all the pieces fit together.

As I was flipping through the liner notes of UN, you have a string of photographs – related to each song title – in the middle. I was particularly drawn to one image, which has a mouth full of various pills. It also happens to be attached to “Yours.” What is the underlying message behind the image?

When we did the artwork, we wanted to create a visual expression of each song. We did a video for another song called “Alone,” which was about how my internal life was much more vivid than what was going on the real world around me, and how that thought lingered and wouldn’t leave me alone. A lot of animation was done on my face, and it was kind of almost tormented. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve had severe sleep problems, less so than when I was in bands, and I started using sleeping tablets. A lot of different kinds of tranquilizers and stuff. So it kind of gets its essence from that partly, and the fact that I’m quite fascinated by the fact that we put things in ourselves to kind of alter how we feel or alter our sense of reality. Also, when I was younger, I – like most young kids – got into drugs of some form. It was nothing too severe, but the classic raving and partying thing for U.K. kids. And a lot of drugs are basically shortcuts to releasing the thing in your brain that gives you pleasure. And now, I like to think that I find more fun in creating things, which is more satisfying and still accesses the same pleasure center in my head. When you take an Ecstasy tablet, it does the same thing, but there’s a hollowness to it. So it’s really a mixture of all those things.

You also have a pie chart, broken into even thirds, where a third represents “life,” another represents “dreams,” and the last representing “between.” Is this one of your central understandings on the basics of life?

Well, it’s not really a life philosophy. It’s kind of just a life reality. I remember having quite a thing about how do I know if I’m awake or I’m asleep? How do I know if this is a dream or real? I can remember having dreams where I’d go: “Get on! This is not real!” And then I’d have to look back on memories and think: “Was that real? Did that happen? Or did I make it up, or did I dream it?” When I’m creating songs and coming up with ideas, I get completely lost and I’m not really aware of what is going on. I’m just walking around, thinking about the song. I’m kind of much more in my own head. Much more taken up by that reality, not the fact that I’m working the coffee or whatever. And it’s kind of fun, and also it’s kind of sad, at the same time.

Well, there is nothing wrong with being completely absorbed in your work! [laughing] Or getting lost in it! [laughing continues]

Yeah! But not so much, when you look up, and all your friends have gone! [laughing]

No argument there! [laughing]

But yeah, you’ve got the balance.

Maybe. Perhaps it is all an illusion! [laughing] Real quick, I wanted to ask you about the following quote that I found on your Facebook page: “In a cheap NY hotel room, probably driving other guests nuts doing vocals on my laptop.” I am guessing that you do not use your hotel room for sleep? [laughing]

No, I do! [laughing] I do! [laughing continues] But the only time I get a chance to create anything on the road is with a laptop, and I can’t really do vocals on a plane. I could try, I guess. But, yeah, when I’ve got these vocals, I’ve got to do them in hotel rooms.

And no complaints yet?

Well, I had a really small room, and I could hear the people next door just walking around. So, I was thinking: “Sometimes you’ve got to sort of make an idiot of yourself, in a way, and throw caution to the wind and not worry about stuff.” Sometimes, it’s bad, and not very good. And sometimes you don’t want to feel like people are watching or judging you. But heck, whatever! The walls were made of paper! [laughing]

In your most recent press release, it noted that the bulk of UN was recorded in the basement of your apartment. I think it is an interesting transition – literally and metaphorically – to go from the darkness into the light.

Yeah, man! I destroyed my life there! [laughing]

So when you look at this project, what particular part of this process resonates deep within your spirit?

Well, I have been doing music for a long time, and I think the thing I’m most proud of is that I kind of finally worked out what makes me happy. And I have had to pay quite a high price to get that, but I love the fact that I’ve one, worked it out, and two, generally have the will to pursue that, because I think lots of people don’t. There’s been many a time that I’ve thought: “Oh, f**k this, I’m just going to go do something else.” And it would be less stressful, certainly, and less frightening at times. But I’m proud of what I have achieved. This is my heart, and a lot of people never get the chance to completely share themselves, because they are too scared and stop themselves. So I’m glad that I, so far, haven’t given up.

You have a strong background in art – enrolling, at one point, in school for your talent. Visual art and musical art are generally created in different artistic spaces, but what do you think is the glue that holds music and its accompanying visual together?

That’s a good question. Something that’s quite difficult to articulate. I mean, like, the thing that’s quite interesting about art and music is that they can express stuff that we can’t express in words, or it’s very difficult to express with words. You know, language is half of living. And that’s what’s particular about music for me. Music can make you feel things or make you look at your own feelings in a way that language can’t. So when those two things come together, it’s really interesting that these two non-language-based things can merge and interact. I think we could talk for ages about what different things affect different things, but I think one firm way of thinking about it is like this: there’s quite a few artists or styles of music that upon first listen, I haven’t seen any of the artwork and I’m not sure how I feel about it. So sometimes I can think: “Oh, it’s kind of cool.” And then I’ll come across some artwork or I’ll see a video, and it can make me either go: “Oh, I see, I don’t like this,” or “Suddenly I fully get it. This is solving the puzzle for me.” You’re going to have to still say why, but, you know, it ties in with how you personally feel about the performance of the song and whether it feels real to you, true to you, cool to you, exciting, whatever. All these different things just are. Most fans, when they’re really listening to music will seek out the universe of that artist. They won’t just go, “I like this song,” in a vacuum, and that’s it. So, I’m sure that the artist would want to be able to have some kind of control, or at least some imprint in those other elements, because they’re going to affect how people hear their music. For example, you could make two sets of album artwork, and listen to the record, looking at one. Then you listen to the record looking at the other. Suddenly, you get the feeling: “This is the one I want to be saying. This is the one that makes the album feel right.” It’s a weird kind of mathematics.

That is really interesting. As you were talking, I started to think about Lady GaGa, and I am quite certain that many people are just as fascinated by her music as they are to her visual aesthetics.

Yes, and there’s a long history of that. From the Beatles to old jazz Blue Note records, and stuff like that. It’s like music and its visual components have always had a relationship of sorts.

Speaking of the Beatles, I know that you and your father have a similar taste in music. And from what I have read, he possessed a record collection that you coveted. Since you are big fan of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, what childhood memories immediately come to mind?

Wow. My dad had very diverse taste. One of the things I can remember is just the sheer number of records he owned, and I really wasn’t allowed to touch them much. So if he was around, and he was there, I was allowed to pull them out and look at them. And I just loved looking at the covers and reading and pulling out inserts. They were like small artifacts. With Dylan, his work was the perfect example of the way artwork and the music kind of fused together to create kind of a myth. You can look at his covers and see the whole story of his life. I remember sitting, looking at his records and starting to understand his chronology. You go from this kind of young, short, slightly short-haired kid on The Times They Are a-Changing, and quite rapidly he turns into this older man with this sort of electrified Jewish afro. There’s a little richness to great artists. It’s not just, oh, I like this song, or this song said something to me. It’s a kind of a huge journey. So I can remember that. With the Beatles, I remember the Red Album [1962–1966] and the Blue Album [1967–1970], and how they’ve got the same shot of the Beatles: one, when they started, looking over a balcony at the EMI Records, and then a recreation of that shot at the end. So, in the first shot of the Beatles, they’re these young teenage boys with short bowl cuts looking over the edge. And then they’ve taken another shot of them, just before, you know, the break-up. John Lennon’s got a huge beard and long hair. And the others have got mustaches. And it’s a strange shot to just to see how far and radical a distance they went. And this is all captured in that simple photo. Stuff like that. Just the whole mythology. I love that, and it’s emblematic of people’s life journey, and I love how rich those things can be.

Any thoughts on the second album title yet? Or are you going to continue with the numerological sequence?

I could do a bad pun on deux. Obviously, “one” in French is “un.” I could call it “duh,” D-U-H, meaning “deux.” That will sort of match, too, but that’s kind of a bad joke, so I’ll probably won’t go with that! [laughing]

For more information on Dan Black, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Kara

    DAN BLACK IS AMAZING!!! definitely go see him perform. nothing like it!!