When the time came to make her third album, Denai Moore knew that she wanted to truly tackle the fears that plagued her consciousness. From weak political leadership and institutionalised racism through to climate change, she’d spent the past year processing her concerns through music, only for a global pandemic to throw her world into even darker relief. As a result ‘Modern Dread’ feels like a soundtrack for our times, despair mingling with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this societal breakdown could be the start of building something better.
“It definitely feels a bit surreal, releasing it and doing all the press from my house in the midst of this particularly weird Black Mirror episode,“ she admits. “Obviously nobody gauged that these things would happen, but I feel like my role as an artist is to make music about how society makes us feel and think. We’re all feeling this kind of dread and anxiousness about everything that’s happening, but also a responsibility to do something, to use our platforms to be vocal about what’s happening. There’s so many things that a lot of our generation don’t necessarily align with politically; if you look at people in powerful positions like Boris Johnson or Trump, it’s really hard to exist in a world where you don’t feel identified with or seen by these people in charge. I think there’s a reason why a lot of recent music has shifted into this space - it’s a really valuable movement to be part of. “
"For me, making music has this sense of being in a playground, going back to a very childlike state."
As an artist who’s always advocated for genre-fluidity, ‘Modern Dread’ sees Denai expand upon the chilled, spacey sound that shaped her early career. Both 2015’s ‘Elsewhere’ and 2017’s ‘We Used To Bloom’ tackled life’s heavier subjects, but did so with less in-your-face vigour than the topics might automatically suggest. However, this time around she seems to be having a lot of fun adding complexities to her sound, building on her strong visuals and off-beat layers of percussion, and shaking off the idea that electronic-inspired music has to sound glacial and distant.
“For me, making music has this sense of being in a playground, going back to a very childlike state where you’re really heavily using your imagination to make things from scratch,” she says. “A lot of the sounds on the record were very intentional, but a lot of them also just chose themselves. I wanted to make a record that had urgency about it. There’s a lot of really fast, visceral songs because, in reality, the concept of panic and anxiousness feels like that - it puts you through a whirlwind emotionally. I wanted to capture that feeling, to make it sound very cold and bold but in a very intentional way.”
To achieve this soundscape, she needed a sympathetic producer. In stepped Alex Robertshaw of Everything Everything - no strangers to a genre-bending opus of their own. “I’ve always been a big fan of Everything Everything and how they’ve gone to unexpected places,” Denai explains. “Towards the end of my campaign for ‘We Used To Bloom’, our schedules aligned and we just decided to go into the studio where we recorded ‘To The Brink’ and ‘Motherless Child’. It was a very instant partnership; I felt like a lot of the sounds that he made were on my wavelength and we understood exactly what the other meant. That’s how the record was born - after those two sessions I knew that I was meant to make this album with him.”
“I’ve become more and more aware of why people try to keep me bound to certain genres through the way I look. It’s something I have to change by saying it for myself: I am genre-free."
Partnership established, there were still some emotional difficulties to overcome. “A lot of the songs definitely challenged me to be vulnerable and to say what I actually wanted to say,” she recalls. “Alex was very good at urging me to go to those places instead of just saying nothing. ‘Wishing You Better’ was a particularly difficult confrontation of my own personality - it’s me saying to all of those people that I fell out with in significant parts of my life where I was personally struggling that I still wish them good things. It can feel like an endless therapy session, but it’s good to act on those urges, and to understand more about how you actually feel.”
Now she’s spoken up, Denai is ready to keep the conversation going. “I think this record feels very unapologetic; it definitely sounds ‘bigger’ to me than any other record that I’ve done,” she says. “I’ve become more and more aware of why people try to keep me bound to certain genres through the way I look. It’s something I have to change by saying it for myself: I am genre-free. It’s very undermining of my work to just say it’s R&B, and it’s been great seeing other artists like my friend Moses [Sumney] say it too - we have so many opportunities to listen to everything now, it’s impossible to sound like one thing. There might be a resurgence of music from the renaissance period next, who knows! Music can feel very transactional, but with the world upside down, there’s something nice about finding a space that feels strangely connecting.”
‘Modern Dread’ is out now via Because.
As featured in the July 2020 issue of DIY, out now.