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