Denai Moore: Political Turmoil, Inundation, and Modern Dread
When faced with the everyday realities of living life defined by an epochal global pandemic, there’s an understandable temptation or tendency to think in simplistic terms, to view the pre-COVID world through rose-tinted spectacles and yearn for a time when there was apparent normality in our day to day lives. But giving things more than a cursory consideration quickly brings back into stark focus the fact that recent times have been no cakewalk; political turmoil and polarisation, pervasive misinformation, and a climate crisis just a handful of the very real issues confronting society at large.
I say this not to deepen anxieties or dampen spirits, but rather to put into context the environment in which British-Jamaican singer and artist Denai Moore was conceiving of and creating her third album Modern Dread. An album that, despite its undeniably befitting title, is one not explicitly tied to this very specific moment in history. Rather, as Denai tells me from her frankly enviable seaside location in England’s southeast, “Modern Dread was influenced by the political environment and the things happening in the world around me – the concept of the title comes from how I exist within it, what it feels like to be alive now”.
More specifically, the album’s central themes come from a facing up to an overwhelming feeling that as a society, particularly in the west, we are “at the end of a constant stream of information”, a generation that is “flooded with adverts, and all these things that don’t really have significance… it’s just microbytes of terror, and consumerism”.
While a simple glance at the tracklist highlights the obvious thematic exploration of anxiety and discomfort – ‘Too Close’, ‘To The Brink’, ‘Motherless Child’, ‘Turn Off The Radio’ – exploring these themes and invoking these feelings is by no mean confined to the lyrics themselves. “The music itself, to me, had this kind of visceral, abrasive nature to it which seems to really fit as well, because it ties into the world sonically.”
While the idea of being ‘genre free’ is something that has long been part of the way in which Denai Moore characterises herself, it’s definitely fair to say that this album brings with it a definite shift or progression from what we’ve heard previously, that being music that sat somewhere at the intersection of neo-soul, folk, art-pop. Those elements are still present, of course, but there’s an increased focus on more experimental electronic production thrown into the mix.
Enlisting Alex Robertshaw from Everything Everything as the album’s producer clearly had a hugely important part to play in the way that Modern Dread sounds. Their first output together came with single ‘To The Brink’ late last year, and it’s clear that this song was pivotal in the subsequent creative process. “It kind of set the tone sonically for the rest of the record. It became very apparent to me that we’d go in this direction that was more electronic, and more spontaneous”.
From there, studio sessions were predominantly “centred around modular synths”, their comparative unpredictability and spontaneity feeding into a recording process that seemingly cultivated creativity, “you turn something on and don’t really know what it’s going to sound like today, it’s kind of got a mind of its own”. Once this approach had been established “the album was just writing itself after that”.
Equally, the same environmental circumstances that influenced the album’s themes had an effect on the sound of the music that they were making together, “because of everything that was happening on the outside I think the music could only sound chaotic and present itself in the way that ended up happening”.
The visual presentation of the album also encapsulates this sense of departure from what has come before, accompanying the sonic shift. The rustic orange and floral details on the artwork for We Used To Bloom (and debut album Elsewhere before it) make way for a bold new visual identity on Modern Dread.
First there’s the album cover itself, which seems to draw variously from elements of the Afrofuturist aesthetic of influential artists like Erykah Badu or Janelle Monae, the visuals of Björk and longtime artistic collaborators M/M, and the glossy metallic sheen of, among others, SOPHIE and PC Music (which is also apparent in the video to ‘Motherless Child’). Elsewhere, the video for ‘Cascades’ takes cues from the pioneering work of Hype Williams and the neon-lit cinematography of Nicolas Winding Refn’s more recent films (Drive, Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon).
This isn’t mere stylistic affectation, however, and in fact more than that it also goes beyond being just a byproduct of the aforementioned sonic shift. “The visuals and everything that is presented around this record feel important as well as the music; how it’s been visually portrayed”. They serve as a means to further engage listeners and viewers with the concepts and messages contained within, apt for a record that explores consumption in present day society and culture. The visually striking, frantic, and claustrophobic video for ‘To The Brink’ for example, explicitly invokes images of deforestation, plastic pollution and oil spills as part of the wider aim to “provoke conversation, encourage people to talk more, or even write themselves about what’s going on”.
Recognising this authenticity feels important, not least because it’s something that Moore has previously emphasised in the past. When I bring up a quote from an interview given before the release of her second album in which she asserted “I don't think I'd feel very authentic as a songwriter if I didn't talk about issues that I face daily”, it’s clear that this has, if anything, only been heightened since. “I think it’s only the place to go when you make music, otherwise it feels very forced. There’s a reason why people cling to authentic voices and artists that are very vulnerable in their work because it’s very real. And for me it just feels very natural to go to that place, especially with this record”.
Understandably, exploring not just difficult topics but also very honest and personal responses to them brings with it a certain degree of introspection that isn’t always comfortable. “It’s an intimate thing to totally re-evaluate how you’re feeling, or what you want to say in song, on a daily basis when you’re making a record… you’re almost upheaving all of these emotions”. And yet, while facing up to these emotions can be challenging, it offers a form of catharsis. “It is a release, completely… all this frustration, it’s something for me to get rid of. I go on runs quite a lot and that feels similar, I feel like sweat leaving my body is almost the same, it’s something that’s leaving me in a way that really feels like a release”.
Unsurprisingly, this attitude is one that has been carried forward into our current situation. “In the midst of everything, I’m writing, because how can I not write anything? There is so much happening that it would almost be impossible not to”. Creativity is clearly something that Moore values incredibly highly as a means to alleviate feelings of despondence or listlessness. As she said when she first announced the forthcoming release of the album: “making this record really helped me to tackle feeling over-saturated in this modern age”. But that focus on creativity also extends to the work of others – “art, and other people’s work, gives me a sense of relief. There’s a reason why we turn to music and film, and these human forms of expression, as a kind of respite from what’s going on… I’m very interested to see and to hear the records that are being made in this time, the books that are being written. Significant things in society definitely shape and affect art and music”.
It also seems the current situation has actually given Moore a renewed sense of focus. “At the start of the year I found it quite hard to concentrate on anything in general really. But I’ve been reading quite a lot in lockdown”. When I enquire as to her current read, it comes as no real surprise when I’m told that it is “a really interesting book called Trick Mirror: Reflection On Self Delusion” a collection of essays that explores, among other things, “our interaction with the internet and how we perceive ourselves”, a fitting companion piece to the new record perhaps.
So what is it that she would ultimately like listeners to take from Modern Dread? “I hope it just invites people into my world in a sense. For me, that’s what I feel the most when I listen to other people’s music, I feel like I’ve got an insight into their experience, or their frame of mind, like I’m stepping into their world… I’m just really excited for people to hear it, it feels really significant for what is happening right now”.
Modern Dread is out now via Because Music.