Izzi Dunn on Recycled Love, activism and belonging

Izzi Dunn is a woman in tune with liv­ing her artis­tic life to the fullest. And, you know what? She’s incred­i­bly mod­est about it.

Based in west Lon­don via Sheffield, she sings, she song­writes and she plays the cel­lo. Whether you know of her or not, you’ve almost cer­tain­ly felt her input on the string arrange­ments she has con­tributed to for mil­lion-sell­ing artist Damon Albarn and his var­i­ous projects, includ­ing Goril­laz, Blur and The Good, the Bad & the Queen, Atlanta soul musi­cian Cody Ches­nutt, and elec­tron­ic exper­i­men­tal­ist Jamie T, to name but a few. She also curat­ed music for direc­tor Simon Fred­er­ick’s well-received 2016 BBC2 inter­view series, Black is the New Black.

Dis­cern­ing music lovers may already know of Dunn’s sub­lime solo work with The Big Pic­ture (2003) and Cries & Smiles (2010), albums that dis­play her ver­sa­til­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion, song after song.

This month sees the release of Dunn’s third stu­dio album, titled Recy­cle Love.

Tak­ing time out from her album release prepa­ra­tions, Dunn took the chance to answer some ques­tions from Fringe Fre­quen­cy about her social­ly con­scious new album, her co-pro­duc­er Dego, what it means to be both a musi­cian for-hire and an inde­pen­dent singer-song­writer, plus why – in this age of TV tal­ent shows and social unrest – she feels it’s more impor­tant than ever to make music with strong messages.

Look Up to the Sky, the lat­est sin­gle from Dunn’s new album, can be heard below.

It’s been five years since your last release – the Visions EP. What’s changed in the world of Izzi Dunn since then?
There’s nev­er a dull moment in my life, I’m hap­py and lucky to say.

It seems to only be when some­one asks you what you’ve been doing over a few years that you real­ly start to acknowl­edge it all, and even remem­ber it chronologically.

Blimey, it’s five years since the last EP’s release – some­thing that was a bit of a depar­ture for me, musi­cal­ly, as it was more acoustic.

I was jug­gling quite a bit of “string work”, but had start­ed work­ing on this album [Recy­cled Love] around then, hence the gap in releases.

Around that time, I’d just had the joy­ous plea­sure of writ­ing strings for Cody Ches­nutt’s album, Land­ing on a Hun­dred, which I’m still buzzing off, and still remains the string writ­ing work I’m the most proud of. I love him. His spir­it, his pure artistry, and his lyri­cal phras­ing is genius!

I was lucky enough to also col­lab­o­rate with him on a track for the 12 Years a Slave sound­track, and per­form with, and sup­port him on a few shows, which was amazing.

Yeah, I got to work on some amaz­ing projects over that time: Jamie T, Blur, Jim­my Cliff, the late, great Bob­by Wom­ack. I vis­it­ed South Africa, Doha, and, then, more recent­ly Mali with Damon [Albarn], which was an amaz­ing­ly inspir­ing expe­ri­ence – a whole sep­a­rate inter­view in itself!

“With a hugely engulfing sea of information and sounds available it means it’s harder to be heard and easier to be lost” – Izzi Dunn

Is it tough to find the time to work on your own music?
It is quite hard some­times to switch off from the music around me – most­ly I don’t want to either. But I’m cer­tain it seeps into me, creeps into influ­enc­ing my own music, so I do need time out some­times to get back to me, if that makes sense. But I think it’s what makes me tick, to be hon­est. I’ve moved around musi­cal gen­res through doing strings all my life.

I guess, through all of it, I hope I’ve been grow­ing both as a per­son and as a musician.

You grew up in a very musi­cal house­hold, with both your part­ners involved in music. For some (includ­ing the Fringe Fre­quen­cy team), see­ing you play the cel­lo, and lead the string sec­tions on tracks such as ‘Dirty Har­ry’ by Goril­laz or ‘What Kind of Cool’ by Cody Ches­nutt, and then hear­ing you sing impas­sioned R&B or jazz seems like a no-brain­er: you’ve been a com­pos­er and musi­cian for years, with a love of var­ied music; it’s what you do.

But how do oth­ers respond to this “abnor­mal” musi­cal iden­ti­ty of yours? Are peo­ple more open to try­ing all sides of your music in this age of music stream­ing and genre mash-ups?
I don’t think it’s that abnor­mal. Most musi­cians I know diver­si­fy and expand their skill set in some way, so to speak – they have many strings to their bow!

I did start singing more seri­ous­ly quite late com­pared to most oth­er full-time singers, I guess, but it’s some­thing I’ve always done.

I think the one thing I’ve maybe come up against since I start­ed mak­ing my own music, along­side work­ing for oth­ers, has been the per­cep­tion of what I’m “sup­posed” to do, or the music I’m “sup­posed” to make, being that I play a clas­si­cal instrument.

The con­fu­sion or mis­con­cep­tion some­times is that I make the kind of music I make, whilst play­ing the cel­lo. The idea that I wrote and per­formed the song – and yes, that is me singing – sur­pris­es some people!

Also, female pro­duc­ers are sad­ly still under­rep­re­sent­ed in music. Whilst I wouldn’t con­sid­er myself a “pro­duc­er” in the clas­sic sense of the word – well, not yet, any­way – it still seems and feels com­mon­place for peo­ple to assume that the man involved in the project must be the main pro­duc­er, not myself. We, as women, can often be the most guilty of that assump­tion and per­cep­tion, even about our­selves. There’s still some way to go in chang­ing that.

I guess whilst work­ing with oth­er artists I can be just a hired “back­ground musi­cian”, and tend to sit behind the scenes. Peo­ple get to see you in that envi­ron­ment, so it comes maybe as a sur­prise to some peo­ple when I step out with a dif­fer­ent per­sona as a singer-song­writer. I just con­sid­er myself a musi­cian who hap­pens to sing and write songs, as well as play a cel­lo – much like some­one else would play a guitar.

What’s good now is those per­cep­tions are chang­ing in terms of ‘genre mash-ups’. The clas­si­cal world is wip­ing off the dusti­ness, and slow­ly embrac­ing more pop­u­lar “cur­rent” music. The cross-genre of orches­tral reworks and col­labs is more com­mon: grime night at the Proms, etc. The spread of music through the inter­net has def­i­nite­ly opened up our musi­cal worlds and minds.

So, tell us about your new project, Recy­cled Love.
This new album is prob­a­bly the most coher­ent I’ve done – I hope – in terms of bod­ies of work. I think, maybe, because I reached out to some­one else [co-pro­duc­er Dego], besides myself and long-term col­lab­o­ra­tor Tee Bowry. So, I had to keep it to some kind of time­frame and focus. Being inde­pen­dent does allow me the free­dom to take as long as I wish in between oth­er work.

Lyri­cal­ly, you’ve described the album as a sto­ry of “belong­ing and per­son­al expe­ri­ence”, which also touch­es on its com­men­tary on the state of the world – as seen in your video for ‘Our Time’. When was the moment you decid­ed you want­ed to com­ment on world events in your album, and the pro­mo videos for it?
Recy­cle Love, yeah, I guess it has a con­cept – if that’s not too arsy. It’s a metaphor for our crazy times.

So, much was going on at that time and since: the vote on mil­i­tary action in Syr­ia, the bomb­ing of Pales­tine, increas­ing police vio­lence in the US and here [in Britain], the refugee cri­sis, Brex­it, Trump… Like many, I was per­son­al­ly dis­il­lu­sioned and angry, tak­ing part in some protest march­es myself – there was a lot to write about!

I was ques­tion­ing soci­ety as a whole, and the aspects of what we tru­ly val­ue and what we leave behind: how far we may be mov­ing for­ward with tech­nol­o­gy, and oth­er ‘advance­ments’, yet how dis­con­nect­ed and regres­sive we may be becom­ing, fun­da­men­tal­ly, with our­selves and each other.

I think (and hope) every song touch­es on that theme in some way, be it valu­ing fun­da­men­tal things like our rights to vote, and to protest, in ‘Our Time’, to the clos­ing track ‘Don’t Let Them’, which is about valu­ing our com­mu­ni­ties, our spir­it, our role and rela­tion­ship with where we live, our cities, as well as the pre­car­i­ous bal­ance of not los­ing sight of our­selves, our his­to­ries and iden­ti­ties in an ever glob­alised, homogenised, yet unsta­ble, world.

Every time I do anoth­er batch of music I think it gets a bit broad­er. Since I start­ed, I’ve always enjoyed and strived to write obser­va­tion­al and social com­men­tary lyrics, and cer­tain­ly it’s those kinds of artists around me that I admire, that com­pel and inspire me to push myself. But, more recent­ly, my writ­ing has become more intro­spec­tive – I’ve always found that hard­er to do. On this album, I hope it joins it all togeth­er a bit more. Musi­cal­ly, I came out of my com­fort zone a bit by work­ing with some­one new. It’s been a great jour­ney so far, work­ing with Dego.

“I was questioning society as a whole, and the aspects of what we truly value and what we leave behind” – Izzi Dunn

Dego is the UK-based funk pro­duc­er and musi­cian who co-pro­duced the album with you. How did this part­ner­ship come about? And how did Dego’s input help shape the project?
I’ve always been a huge fan of his: from his days with 4hero to all his more recent projects as 2000Black and col­labs with some of the great musi­cians I already know, and some I’ve been lucky enough to work with: Kai­di Tatham, Bugz in the Attic, Tatham, Men­sah, Lord & Ranks.

We had a lot of west Lon­don musi­cians in com­mon, but we had nev­er met. I actu­al­ly read an inter­view of his online, and loved his blunt­ness and real­ness. It just con­firmed to me that I had to be brave and break­away from my fair­ly self-reliant, insu­lar stu­dio world. So, reached out to see if he want­ed to try a day writ­ing. Luck­i­ly for me, he did!

We went on to do half the album togeth­er, bring­ing a more up-tem­po vibe to songs and pro­duc­tions. We both have an insa­tiable love of funk, which we let loose on a lot of songs, like ‘Lady’ and ‘C.O.N.T.R.O.L’.

What is Dego like to work with? And who else did you work with on the project?
He’s a won­der­ful co-con­spir­a­tor. A huge­ly under­rat­ed artist: pas­sion­ate, pro­lif­ic and com­mand­ing. I had such a great time in the stu­dio with him. He real­ly brought a new ener­gy and inspi­ra­tion to me, and the whole process.

Not for­get­ting my long-term part­ner Tee Bowry, who’s involved in every way, steers and nav­i­gates the whole thing when I’m off on mad tangents.

As far as the visu­al side, I’ve been equal­ly blessed to have been able to work with the won­der­ful visu­al artist Har­ris Elliot, who helped con­ceive some strong images and ideas for the art­work. He sub­se­quent­ly intro­duced us to James Mooney, aka PointShoot­Think, a deeply intu­itive and pas­sion­ate film­mak­er, who kind­ly brought us into his world, where he beau­ti­ful­ly cap­tures won­der­ful peo­ple from all walks of life, all just being them­selves in their worlds.

We’ve made a series of short films, which real­ly have brought my songs to life, and even brought new inter­pre­ta­tions that I hadn’t expected.

“I do believe that TV talent shows have definitely undermined the actually love and value of art and music” – Izzi Dunn

With your lat­est record in mind, what do you feel is the place of the musi­cian or song­writer in today’s world?
It’s a kind of dou­ble-edged sword being a musi­cian or artist these days, espe­cial­ly for inde­pen­dent artists.

With our abil­i­ty to reach all cor­ners of the globe almost instan­ta­neous­ly, there’s nev­er been a bet­ter or eas­i­er time to be heard in terms of that imme­di­a­cy. But, in con­trast, with a huge­ly engulf­ing sea of infor­ma­tion and sounds avail­able it means it’s hard­er to be heard and eas­i­er to be lost. So, it feels even more impor­tant to me to be say­ing some­thing of con­se­quence as we become desen­si­tised to so much. And as gen­er­al­ly our world seems to become more about mar­ket­ing tac­tics, sen­sa­tion­al­ism, and pop­ulism, than real artistry – which goes back to the theme of the record: what we value.

I do believe that TV tal­ent shows and their ilk have def­i­nite­ly under­mined the actu­al­ly love and val­ue of art and music. Where­as, his­tor­i­cal­ly, there was always a lane of pure­ly cyn­i­cal, com­mer­cial music, it was nev­er the pre­dom­i­nant form, exploit­ed and exposed as much as it is now, to the point where the “artist” is not as revered or val­ued for “art” itself, but more so for its instant finan­cial and aes­thet­ic desirability.

What was the tough­est moment in the cre­ation of Recy­cled Love for you personally?
The hard­est part of doing this record was actu­al­ly fin­ish­ing it!

I find it hard to let go, and know­ing when to just stop fid­dling and tweaking.

The song ‘Belong’ was a par­tic­u­lar­ly emo­tion­al and sig­nif­i­cant song for me. Some­thing soul search­ing and per­son­al I’d been try­ing to write for a while that final­ly just burst out. It was quite cathar­tic to write it and release it out into the world.

Now Recy­cled Love is com­plete, what’s next for you?
Well, I’m gonna be doing some shows in the next few months, around the release of the album in June, which is exciting.

I’m hop­ing to con­tin­ue writ­ing and record­ing with Dego. I’m also look­ing to release a series of EPs that may focus in a bit more on the dif­fer­ent styles I dab­ble with on the album. It gives me the free­dom to be more exper­i­men­tal and har­ness, in small­er releas­es, my eclec­tic musi­cal haphazardness.

I also hope I will get to play and record again with artists like Damon and Cody.

I hon­est­ly don’t know what’s around the cor­ner. I’m insane­ly blessed and lucky to still be doing what I do on my own terms. And, like I said, there’s nev­er a dull moment.

Recy­cled Love by Izzi Dunn is released on June 23, on Idun­nit Music. Find out more on her offi­cial web­site.

Images (main and body): James Mooney