New Music: Denai Moore

  • Photography  Henry Gorse
  • Interview by  Robert Diament

Talk Art’s Robert Diament met with exciting music artist Denai Moore to discuss her latest album Modern Dread, Joni Mitchell, and all things Margate.

RD: We’re here in Margate in a coffee shop; we both live here. How long have you lived here in Margate?

DM: A year and half. It feels really nice because I’m Jamaican, so being by the sea feels quite natural.

RD: Because you grew up in Jamaica until you were eleven, right?

DM: Until I was nine. I feel like I always wanted to be in a seaside town, but I didn’t really want it when I was a teenager or when I first signed a record deal. I was in more of a city headspace. But I think I’ve grown so much as a person and I feel more connected to nature and calmer in nature. So, I find it has benefitted my songwriting and general headspace.

RD: So, to have the proximity to nature, does it give you some space to relax a bit and take away some of the distractions of the city?

DM: It takes away some of the distractions because it is less busy here you’re forced to slow down and to be more ingrained in the community and do things you wouldn’t have done in London, which is quite refreshing. Especially having released this album in lockdown, the world has slowed down and having to promote my music feels a little insane – almost insensitive with so much shit happening. I think it’s been nice to make content. Even making a music video feels so much more like a human exchange because I feel like everyone is slightly more aware of the energies they give of and more aware of how everyone’s feeling. I’ve found this period quite healing. I don’t think I’d have been in Margate as much had the pandemic not happened. I’d probably have been more in London or trying to do sessions or doing some festivals.

RD: I was thinking back to an episode of Talk Art, we have an episode with Noel Fielding the comedian, we recorded it in January and listening back to it felt weird because we had no idea what was coming. The pandemic, Black Lives Matter… all of these huge cultural shifts and emotional things for a lot of people around the world. It made me think about how lockdown has been this introspective time and people have had to pause. For example, you would have gone on a tour or an intense press junket.

For me, I had time to listen to music and I found Modern Dread, your album, pretty much when it came out on July 4th. In a way it helped me to feel less alone during lockdown, which is something a lot of us were feeling. Contributing in the way that you are, through your music, is helping people.

DM: That’s something that I know is really important. That’s why I think galleries opening and stuff like that feels really important. I recently went to The Barbican in London on a day trip and spaces that exhibit art where I can consume something that’s been made by someone else and has an emotional story to it is really important, any form of art, for people to connect themselves to. Even more so with everything that’s been happening.

RD: I’ve realised more and more that art and music help us all make sense of what we’re going through and what the world is and who we are. You’re right that it’s times like this when it can be incredibly isolating or intense – I met someone who lives in a household of eight – so it’s quite a strange thing. What did you see at The Barbican? Did you see Toyin Ojih Odutola’s show?

DM: Yeah, it’s really, really beautiful. And even going to the conservatory is so nice. Spaces like that where you are also kind of isolate in a sense, looking around a gallery space you are internally isolated and processing what you are seeing and what you feel about it. I think it’s amazing to have spaces like that open and it’s evident how important it is. I encourage people not to put off their releases. I understand it feels crazy to ask people to pre-order now. But music in that sense is the purest thing. You’re not pushing a crazy product to the world. It’s not a capitalistic thing. It’s something you made that had taken you on a journey. I am happy that I put it out, but with everything happening it was maybe meant to be. I was potentially meant to bring it out last year and a few things got in the way.

RD: Oh, so the album was delayed. How interesting – it was obviously meant to be that it came out a different time. With the music you saw at the show, did you notice the music in it? Because I think the music evolves with you as you move through it, triggered by the visitor, that was created by a sound architect called Peter Adjaye. I just wondered if you had noticed it as a musician, or whether it was more subconscious?

DM: I think I was just glued into the art. But that’s really cool. I saw that she created this whole utopian world based on a narrative she had made up.

RD: Something that has struck me is how creative people have adapted so well during lockdown. Have you found that it has influenced your creative process or creativity?

DM: It’s given me patience with myself. With how the music world works when you do sessions with someone else you’re forced to create by the clock and it comes a bit more about how much you can write. For me, I’m writing but it depends on my mood – I might start something and come back to it later. I’m not putting as much pressure on myself and allowing time to inform me on what I need to say. I think that’s really important because we don’t do that enough. You get caught in a world when you make things and work on it so non-stop and you realise it was better before when it was more instinctive.

RD: Almost overproducing, whereas the pure thought or the initial reason you wrote the song was actually the most powerful anyway.

DM: I allow myself to come back to think. There are a couple of songs in the vault in the back of my brain. I know they will exist one day. I’ve got a song called Disposable that didn’t make Modern Dread which is informed about everything that happened with Black Lives Matter. It always felt like a song I should finish and I know I’ll get to it, but allowing myself not to feel the pressure or trying to rush. You sometimes lose the joy of actually making something.

RD: You took three years making Modern Dread and you worked with the band Everything Everything – Alex was your main producer on the record – what was that process like?

DM: It was really fun. We were definitely forced to take several breaks, some stretching over months. He also never sent me songs, so I didn’t have the chance to obsess over anything, which was actually really healthy. Not listening to something for months after making something quite intensely, it allowed me to revisit something and have a fresh idea for it. I think making this record has taught me that process. Every other record prior to this was over two months.

RD: So, for this record was it more acoustic and live band?

DM: In a way – less electronically influenced. But that process worked for that album. Sometimes some record producers work differently to others. It just depends on the nature of the record and you have to follow your instinct. In a way it was the best way to make We Used to Bloom because if I had done it over several years it wouldn’t have worked as well.

RD: It needed that immediacy.

DM: I’ve learned a lot from working with Alex. Especially following your gut and if you feel like something might be too bold don’t be afraid of it, which is something I try to stick to. With music, there are so many outside thoughts about what I do, so many people anticipating what they think I should do next or who I should work with. I think it’s important to mute all of those voices and be very instinctive and make whatever it is you want to make.

RD: For me, the new record, Modern Dread, is the most confident thing you’ve made. It feels very brave and experimental. I feel you are coming to the fore in a way I still connect to in the previous records, but there’s something that felt like a big shift for me in your development as a songwriter and a singer. Your voice takes you to so many different places. Were you aware of that when you were making the record? Did it feel different?

DM: I think I grew as a person. When I first signed I wasn’t very confident in myself. I was a nineteen-year-old girl when I wrote my debut album, Elsewhere. I was still so unsure of myself; I think you can hear it, I sound very buried because I was very much in my head all the time. It wasn’t an overwhelming sadness I felt, but I felt like a misfit in the industry because I wasn’t so overtly confident and I didn’t have that immediate sense of fashion. I didn’t really know what I wanted to look like.

RD: I remember that when I was in a band. I couldn’t bear it. I really envied those people who had a strong visual identity from a young age. Some people just have it.

DM: Even live wise. I’ve changed so much based on how much more I know to put a show together. Through my music, you can hear it from my first record to this record. My vocal sounds a lot more open and a lot more direct. I watched an interview with Joni Mitchell and she talks about a song where the first time she recorded it, it was really happy because she was happy as a person then. Her voice sounded warm and a lot lighter.

RD: Oh, it’s from the Both Sides Now album! When she was an older woman she went back and re-recorded her music and sang it with a new voice.

DM: It’s so interesting how the same song can sound so different based on who you were as a person and I feel that as well. A lot of the time I revisit songs when I put them in my live show and the reveal a different meaning to me that I didn’t necessarily see before. I think that’s what’s changed between Elsewhere and Modern Dread; I understand myself so much more now.

RD: It’s interesting thinking about playing live because you’re hopefully going to be going on tour in 2021, the idea of bringing in those current songs but also your back catalogue, will you reinvent it for the live shows?

DM: I get really geeky about live shows because it is my way of creating an experience. I love the concept of sampling older vocals and incorporating them into newer songs. In a live show, it feels like a DJ set in the was songs drift in and out of each other seamlessly. I’ve seen so many shows now since I was signed. I’ve seen so many different types of shows that I think I have learned a lot. I throw myself in at the deep end and I play something new. I’m itching to play because I haven’t in a while. That’s why it’s so nice to put together this live band.

RD: I discovered your record on Apple Music and we connected because we both live in Margate and you came to the Carl Freedman Gallery. It turned out you had always wanted to do a show in a gallery and it turned out we had a week that was clear and you set up with your band. How many of you were there?

DM: There are me and five other people. It’s amazing because the record is so electronic I love adding more organic orchestral instruments. It’s an amazing opportunity because we had a cellist and my friend Reylon plays this amazing ancient Chinese instrument, the yangqin, and he said himself that he doesn’t get the opportunity to play in a more contemporary sense, which is such a shame.

RD: I saw the clip on your Instagram of him playing in the gallery. It was a riff from one of your songs and it was so good!

DM: I think with live shows it can be challenging because you’re trying to put something together that is sustainable for yourself as a musician. In the past, I have done shows with six horn players, so I have always loved to have special arrangements for songs that feel slightly different to the record and with this album, there is so much scope for experimentation and trying out different textures. I’ve always wanted to play in a gallery. I feel at home, there’s something about being in a space with art where you are silent. It’s a different energy to a live venue or in a bar and I’ve only felt that airiness in the Barbican or in a theatre hall. You because differently in different space. A show in a gallery is really nice because it is intimate but you can make it sound really big.

RD: I remember the drummer. He was so incredible and so incredibly loud! The gallery’s got such high ceilings and so acoustically echoey. That performance will be available to view on your YouTube. Your music videos are very strong and tell stories. They’re very visually complex with lots of layers in the way you use light and location. Some of the clothes you wear are very architectural. How has it been transforming your music to the visual medium?

DM: I’ve always been very into cinema and the art of making something that takes you on a journey. When I first became an artist, I was quite camera shy and didn’t want to be in the videos. I always worked with directors closely to build a narrative that brought out the messages in the music. When I did a music video with my manager, who is also a director, Neela, for Does it get easier? I felt more comfortable. It’s nice to be captured by people who understand you or actively have more of a connection to the music. That’s important to me when I look at treatments from directors. I always write briefs about the context and some visual ideas. For Cascade, I worked with Sam, who is an amazing director. I loved the idea of a huge inflatable, so we had a massive inflatable and it looked like I was in a balloon. I try to be as involved as possible. When you first sign as an artist I don’t think you understand how that works as a process and how involved you can get, to just be vocal and communicate those ideas.

RD: I feel like a lot of the videos also work with the album sleeve. It’s a very cohesive body of work and the visuals connect to the way that the record sounds. That’s what I think works so well to where you’ve got in your career. It is just really powerful. If you think back to Bjork and Skin from Skunk Anansie, I had not made that connection. When we were talking recently we spoke about Paramore and I wasn’t expecting you to say that to me and I don’t know why. A friend was staying recently and he said he saw you as an indie alternative rock artist, as well as being electronic. I was originally thrown by it, but the more I’ve been listening to the record I suddenly started thinking more about Skunk Anansie and I feel a similar connection to your music that I felt in my teens listening to their music. There’s a personal intimate storytelling and there’s also a yearning and confidence with it that makes me feel empowered as a listener. So, I will sing your lyrics just as powerfully as you are while walking along the beach in Margate and it takes me back to their first albums with big anthemic choruses.

DM: I think visually they were always powerful as well. Especially with their fashion.

RD: Can you talk a bit more about your indie influences?

DM: When I was thirteen or fourteen I bought Paramore’s first album as one of the first albums I bought to myself. I connected with Hayley’s songwriting. I don’t know if you’ve listened to her solo album, you’d love it. When I was younger it captured how I was feeling. As a teenager I felt so alone, sort of a misfit, but I felt very seen by her songwriting. My dad listened to a lot of Incubus and heavier bands in the ‘90s and my brother as well. I grew up with that heavier sound. As I got older I started listening to Radiohead, who are probably my favourite band. Tom’s songwriting is always very powerful to me. I get more of an influence from alternative bands. Even everything prior to meeting Alex. It’s always cool to have the whole band come down and play on the record. As they’ve grown they’ve been very proactive with some of the things that they say. I like that boldness, no filler and not trying to shy away from what you are saying. I lobe people like FKA Twigs who musically and sonically is in her own lane. She’s so many things in one and is visually always doing something amazing. I think about doing something slightly more heavy one day – not to an extreme level.

RD: You have started producing your own records during lockdown and you’re starting to write songs for your next record now. Are you enjoying being your own producer?

DM: I love it. There are so many parts of the journey to a full album. Even when you realise you’re writing an album it becomes very obvious. It’s going to happen. I don’t know when it’s going to end. The songs coming out of me now feel like they will be something new.

RD: I feel like there’s a funny energy going on in Margate at the moment. Do you think you will produce your record here? There are so many recording studios here and there’s obviously Moshi Moshi Records have set up here and I keep seeing Christine and the Queens in this very coffee shop because she is recording her new album here. I was thinking about her because she posted a video where she sang a Tame Impala song, the one that Rhianna covered. She was singing it on the piano and I thought but was one of her songs and suddenly realised that it wasn’t. When you were talking about how songs sound differently at different times, I was thinking about cover songs and how people like your friend Lianne la Havas who did a Radiohead cover recently. There’s something about how songs can have a totally new life when someone else sings them. I almost preferred Christine’s version. Do you do many covers?

DM: I did on my last record. I covered an Elliot Smith song – I’m a massive Elliot Smith fan. I think he, for me, is like Bob Dylan. His lyrics are so moving and he’s probably my favourite lyric writer. I kind of love the concept of doing a compilation album of covers that is based around his music. It could totally be taken into a really contemporary context because his lyrics are so direct but very poetic. It hits really hard. That’s the only cover I’ve done. It was a very spur of the moment thing in the studio where I didn’t intend to put it on the album. It just felt really right to have it on the record.

RD: Is that something you did when you were growing up in order to learn how to be a songwriter?

DM: I learnt a lot of things by Air – the melodies, trying to figure out how to play them on guitar. When I was younger and had fewer songs, I would play covers when I didn’t have many originals.

RD: How did music come to you?

DM: It just came to me. My primary school music teacher gave me a guitar and I didn’t know how to play it. She was Australian and was moving and didn’t want to take it with her, so she just gave it to me.

RD: So, it was almost like an accident.

DM: It was really crazy. I was given a guitar and I figured I had to learn how to use it. I got a chord book and started to learn. At the time I’d only learnt two or three, but I wrote a song. It was very instinctive and I wasn’t planning to do it. Then I played it to my mum and dad and they were really confused but very encouraging. I started doing the London Music School on Brick Lane, I don’t think it’s there anymore. I played this song called Changes; it was really dramatic about someone running away from home. I don’t know why I wrote it, but you had to be over sixteen to join, but they let me. Every Saturday I was with all these sixteen to late-twenties people as a twelve-year-old. We did vocal warm-ups and exercises, learnt about singing techniques. They’d encourage us to wrote and once a month there was a show.

RD: That support and belief in your creativity, some people don’t get that. It’s great you had that encouragement.

DM: My parents have always been very encouraging. My dad was a musician.

RD: For the next record, would you make it in Margate? Would it depend on you doing it on your own or if you’re collaborating with other people?

DM: I think I will make it here. I like the idea of inviting people to come. Mostly doing it on my own, but having someone to help with final touches to make it bigger or warmer. With a record, there is an instinctive nature behind where things should be made and how it should come together. Because I have been writing here it would make sense.

RD: It reminds me of Rockfield in Wales. That was the thing in the ‘70s and ‘80s and people would record in nature. I feel like here is similar. There is such a blankness in Margate and it reminds me of David Bowie going to Berlin at a time where it was such a blank landscape and you could invent yourself there. I feel Margate has that room. Maybe it’s because there is less distraction

DM: I think a lot of people are itching for more space. I’ve had a lot of producer friends come down for a couple of days to clear their head. A friend who is a journalist had a deadline and came for a week over the summer. I think people are realising you need to have a connection to nature. Studios most of the time have no windows and it’s a weird underground, dark place. And you can alienate yourself from nature. It’s important to have a balance.

To see more by Denai click here, she has an exclusive performance coming out on the 28th October with the Carl Freedman Gallery via her Youtube Channel, so be sure to keep an eye out for that. To see more from Robert, follow Talk Art, and their buy their book Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament, to be published May 6th 2021, with Octopus Books.

See more at denaimoore.com, instagram.com/talkart