Denai Moore


Though currently best known for her superb collaboration with SBTRKT, Denai Moore is set to change that with her first full set of soulful alt-folk. We caught up with Moore to dig deeper into her musical roots, and to hear the inspirations behind her stunning debut, Elsewhere.

You grew up in Jamaica and you moved to England when you were seven. Can you tell us about your earliest musical experiences?

Well, my dad played piano, so I was always around instruments when I was younger. I think my earliest memory is playing around on his piano – and whatever other instruments he had in the house – when he wasn’t around. He didn’t like it when I played his instruments; he was really worried about it. (Laughs)

When did you start writing music yourself?

I got my first guitar when I left primary school, so I started playing at about 11 or 12. Writing sort-of happened accidentally; I didn’t do it on purpose. I remember, I played the first song I wrote to my parents and they were just really surprised and taken aback by it.

So what was the first record that you bought yourself?

I think it was either Corinne Bailey Rae’s first album, or it could have been a Paramore album because I was really into them when I was super-young. I think that Bailey Rae record was the first proper album that I listened to loads. And she was one of my first inspirations when I started playing guitar, because she was a singer-songwriter as well.

Were there any other artists that inspired you to become a musician?

Ah man… Well, I was really into Lauryn Hill when I was in secondary school. My dad bought me her Unplugged Session and I’d always watch it at home. It’s a bit crazy in that session: she has a bit of a breakdown and cries – and does this massive speech about the industry. I just thought it was such a human performance. And I think she is someone that is always very honest in her lyrics – and in how she represents herself – and that’s really inspiring to me.

I’m really into artists that are super-bold, and not afraid to sound the way they want to sound, or make the music they want to make. For example, I loved that last St. Vincent album, and I really admire her career; her progression over the last few years has been really inspiring.

I think in the last four years, maybe, I got more into folk music; stuff like Bon Iver and Feist. And I’ve always been into hip hop, but in the last two years I got really into it. It’s interesting to see how my tastes have evolved in the past few years... But I’d say the essential people are Lauryn, Bon Iver, Feist and Kanye.

You’ve actually been signed to Because Music since 2012. Had you been encouraged to release an album soon after signing, how different would it be to Elsewhere?

I think it would be quite different. I definitely don’t think I was ready to release an album at that time, simply because it was all so new to me. I got the chance to write at home and play at different open mic nights. Also, I wasn’t that au fait with the studio and I hadn’t developed my own sound, so I didn’t really necessarily know what I wanted my record to sound like.

I feel really lucky to work with Because. They gave me that space to keep growing and to become more confident in the studio. And I worked with a few different producers before I worked with Rodaidh (McDonald). It was definitely worth [taking time] because now I have something that I really love, and that I’m really proud of.

As you mentioned, Elsewhere was recorded with Rodaidh McDonald, in XL Recordings’ in-house studio. How did that come about?

Well, I loved the albums that he did before with The xx and Daughter so it seemed a really fitting choice. He’s someone that I felt really comfortable in trusting with my ideas so it was just such an amazing experience recording with him. I love that the album is a mix of the both of us because we mostly just did it between us, and if we needed anyone to record any other instruments – like a saxophone player, or my drummer – we’d just invite them into the studio. We started in March 2014, and we recorded it in chunks.

I think the XL Studio is amazing too. The xx’s first album was recorded there, and you can feel it. It’s super-small and there aren’t many instruments around, so you’re forced to focus. I’m really grateful that they allowed me to record there.

What was your creative approach for Elsewhere?

When I got into the studio with Rodaidh, we just had this freedom, and there weren’t too many people meddling with the sound. It was a really natural and organic process: we just bounced off each other, and it was just a really creative environment.

Was there a song that informed the direction of the rest of the record?

I think ‘I Swore’, because I wrote it after a very long [case of] writer’s block. I’d finished uni, and it was a weird environment. I was doing music, and I was also studying songwriting, and I thought [the course] was a bit hardcore for me. It left me feeling a bit weird, like I didn’t know how to write anymore, but then ‘I Swore’ just came out of nowhere. That was the song that sparked something inside me, and made me feel like this was the beginning of something new. And then from there I wrote ‘Piano Song’ and ‘Feeling’.

Thematically, it’s definitely a melancholy record. Are your lyrics observational or is there an element of autobiography?

I think there’s a mixture of both. My only objective as an artist is to reflect anything that’s happening in my life, or in general society. I think all the amazing songwriters do that; Laura Marling does that really well. So it’s really, really important to me that I capture that honesty. My lyrics are an open book because I want to look back on this album in five years time as something that represented that chapter of my life.

As your first full-length statement to the world, what do you think your debut album says about you?

I think it says that I’m a songwriter at heart, you know? Your sound can change, and you can develop to become a different kind of musician, but I think the thread in all the projects I’ve done is that, at the heart, they’re really just very open songs about my life.

Where do you imagine people listening to Elsewhere?

I would say an ideal listening situation is to make a cup of tea – because I’m obsessed with tea – and to listen to it on your own, maybe in your bedroom, or wherever you’re most comfortable.

Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself as an artist, making this album?

I think I learned that I can play a lot more instruments than I thought I could. Not in a weird, cocky way! (Laughs) But I do think that my confidence has grown so much over the past couple of years, and that I was very brave on this album.

On a lot of the songs I play electric guitar, which is something I didn’t really get into until I started the record. I learned to play bass, and I played percussion, plus different synths and stuff. As well as being more confident, I think I allowed myself to be more expressive with what I did, especially with vocals. I was using my voice like an instrument in terms of pitching and tone, and that’s something I’ve never really done before. So I’m more adventurous now, and because of that I think my next record will be a very different experience again.

April 2015