An interview with Dani Lee Pearce
In 1992, when Frank Zappa was described by Nicolas Slonimsky as “the pioneer of the future millennium of music” because of his ground-breaking work with the Synclavier, one of the world's earliest digital audio workstations, Zappa immediately disavowed that title, convinced as he was that this technology would never catch on and would eventually go lost. Today, 25 years later, this way of composing and producing music is utilized by countless talented artists across the world, armed with nothing but a computer. One of the most exciting underground musicians who uses the technology that Zappa once helped popularize is Dani Lee Pearce. Since she started releasing music under her current name in January 2015, she has completed six albums covering a wide variety of genres, and is currently working on a seventh album. Her original album trilogy, consisting of the instrumental albums Dani Lee Pearce, Dépayse and Kelvin, was released in the first half of 2015 and combined elements of chiptune, progressive rock and experimental music. From then on, she has released a number of vocal albums that draw more inspiration from pop and folk music, starting with Notes Of A Nervous Little Pixie in March 2016 and following it up with Petrichor, which was released exactly one year ago today. Her most recent album, Dandilionheart, was originally released in February of this year and was later remastered and re-released in July. As a fan of her work, I was honored to have a chance to speak with Dani about her oeuvre and her plans for the future.
Doom: Which musical artists do you feel your latest three albums have been most influenced by?
Dani: It's quite difficult to narrow it down to just individual artists in a lot of respects. Music itself, in all the nuances and idioms it contains, tends to influence my work in at least one way or another. A lot of times I suggest or hint towards things that people probably wouldn't expect. Individual artists are there in some places, but I actually find it a lot more fun to have people try to guess what my music could be influenced from. Whatever gets guessed for a particular song is usually correct.
Doom: Can I make a guess?
Dani: Go ahead.
Doom: The continuous driving rhythm, slightly droney nature and stream-of-consciousness style vocals on the track "Dandilionheart" (or at least the first part of it) reminded me of Talking Heads. Am I far off?
Dani: Nope. Pretty much if you say "this reminds me of this" I will go "Yes" every time. I listen to music all the time of all genres and all of it gets worked into my psyche and inevitably comes out into the music somehow when I'm writing it. I may subconsciously be working in things I don't intend at any given time during the process.
Doom: From 2016’s Notes Of A Nervous Little Pixie onward, all of your albums have contained vocals. Is making vocal music something you had wanted to do ever since you started releasing music under the Dani Lee Pearce moniker, or did this desire come later?
Dani: Earlier than that, like, 2013 at least, back when I made music under the name Kansas City 7up. My earliest recorded attempt was a song I never finished called "The Midnight Seer" from 2014, but ultimately shyness and a lack of the right equipment prevented this from happening sooner. After Kelvin I made a solid pledge to myself that my next album would have me singing because it would add an important and essential element to my music, and any new music I made would be saved until I could get that to happen. That's part of why the gap of time between Kelvin and Nervous Little Pixie was as long as it was.
Doom: Which do you usually write first: a composition or lyrics?
Dani: That depends on what I think of first, although generally these days the words come first, in a rough form, since I will usually come up with things I want to say but not yet in any particular order how I want to say them. The music then helps me to establish a metric and pattern for how I will fit my vocals into the song in a way that works, which will in turn help me to revise the song and add things to it to make it gel. I try to work on each element independently because I like the challenge of creating music that surprises me in regards to the words I'm writing it for. Some of the things I've been working on recently are like that. It very much helps to keep my music fresh and unique to me. By contrast, all of my current albums were mostly music first, words second. Some songs took years to write proper words to, like "Tell Me I'm Cute Again Cause I Forgot", which previously existed with 3 different sets of lyrics before I finally settled on the current set. It's a more difficult way of working now but I will occasionally still try making a song that way for fun, since it enables some great creativity.
Doom: I'd like to talk about your album Petrichor, which is approaching its first birthday at the time of this interview: When you created the album, did you set out to make a concept album from the start, or was it an idea that came into play while you were working on it?
Dani: The album came in many embryonic forms when I was first developing it. At first it was going to be an album called The Many Lives of Maypole, and it was going to document the life of a young girl with queer parents and her friendship with a child who later comes out as trans who has much more angry conservative parents. I was going to write a book in addition to an album of music to go along with it, and while only one song ever came out of this incarnation, the idea of an album + accompanying book stayed, and I later wrote "???", which I haven't gotten to publishing yet, to go along with Petrichor, containing poetry that elaborated upon the concepts of that album.
After Maypole it was then called The Giving Of Violets, an album which would have been about a capitalism-induced apocalypse that forces society to start over on a much better path, this time fully embracing LGBT rights among other things, as people are now more free to explore their identities gender and sex wise. The title is derived from a lesbian custom in the 50s where women would give each other violets to declare their love for one another, which in the story would be readopted as a gesture of affection. A good chunk of what would eventually be the finished album was written during this time, with early versions of "From Young Unknowing Eyes" "I Hope It Doesn't Rain" "Silver Tree’s Mixtress", "Twig Parade" and "Lute-Bird Calls" being put down in a test sequence, along with "Down In Evergreene", which was already done, and what eventually became "Give You My Earth" on Dandilionheart.
Some time later I had an anxiety-induced epiphany and spent a period of time very withdrawn in a quiet space only listening to quiet music, and I thought of an idea for an album of "whispersongs", very quiet music with whispered spoken word of very simple poems accompanying it. The project would have been called Rest Easy Love, and that's where I came up with "This Tree". This was the beginning of me writing poetry for a period of time, which eventually led to the writing of "Over My Wall" and "The Hill of Mist" as well. The Giving of Violets was dropped since I felt I could make the concept stronger, and later an album called The Scarlet Sky With Anais was developed but never fully finished. The song that eventually became "Monsters and Rainclouds" was listed as the final song of an album that also contained songs that would later become "Periwinkle Death", "Tell Me I'm Cute Again Cause I Forgot" and "Burning Pearls". "Down in Evergreene" was listed again also.
The actual concept began to develop around this time when I met three very important people: The first was a musician named Izzy Unger Weiss who met me for the first time at a birthday picnic, and the first thing we ever did together was sit down and play guitar. They introduced me to more worldly sensibilities both in their music and aesthetic, which began in me a more forthright interest in what I like to call "personal occult", which is essentially like a redefining of monsters, demons, spirituality, magic, the construction of the universe, etc. all on one's own terms, either casually or otherwise. Izzy did that to an extent, at least I could sense it, I'm not entirely sure if she would say the same but that's largely what my brain tends to produce for answers regarding it. Izzy was also overall a big musical influence at the time and made me more interested in learning guitar and writing guitar-based music. I'd later design a couple of album covers for her own music and eventually we may even collaborate on something.
The second person I met was Never Angel North, an agender independent author who was and still is writing an anthology of fiction collectively titled Sea-Witch. At that time the first volume was written but not yet released. Never's writing is unlike anything that's really been written in regards to fiction or poetry, especially in a queer/trans context, as it constructs an entire world inside of a living, breathing, feeling sea monster and the inhabitants who worship a meteor to whom they pray "may she lay us waste". The writing is at once emotional, intimate, sexual, terrifying, harrowing, ecstatic, decadent and mordant, but in all respects is absolutely brilliant and it completely redefines ones view of the world, of life, of gender, of quite possibly everything. It was being introduced to Never's writing and Never hirself that I became more open to the idea of constructing a world of my own in a similar fashion.
The third person, Jade Eklund, I met through Never, and she showed me through her own art how I could make this possible. Here was someone who practically lived and breathed their art which largely revolved around spiders and a recurring central character known as the Spider Queen. You'd enter her room and the walls would be covered in drawings ranging from spiders to seeing eyes to otherworldly presences, and she had filled out several notebooks of things that she had written stream-of-consciousness, and continued to build upon her mythology by doing the same on Facebook. We traded notebooks the first couple times we saw each other to get to know each other a bit, and she would draw/write surreal things in my notebook that inevitably influenced Petrichor's content, specifically the character of YESSAND the Masquerader King. I began writing poetry and concepts stream-of-consciousness in my own right, making up my own mythology taking inspiration from all three of these people and making frequent references to them in the process as I did so. This carried over into the eventual songwriting of Petrichor, and the creation and completion of the remaining songs.
"Monsters and Rainclouds" was at one point a song written specifically for Never, referencing a lot of elements of hir writing, and snippets of things Jade wrote in my notebook, which contained unfinished lyrics for Petrichor's songs, found their way into "Masqueraders" and the background voices of "Lute-Bird Calls".
Doom: Well damn, I was planning to ask some more follow-up questions about the story, the role of Jade Eklund (whom you credited in the album's description on Bandcamp) and even the voice samples on "Lute-Bird Calls", but you've already answered everything I could ask about the album. I'll be sure to look into the works of the other artists you mentioned just now.
I’d like to talk about your latest album now: Dandilionheart. In contrast to Petrichor, which is an epic, prog-like concept album, Dandilionheart is a collection of avant-garde pop songs that seem to be only loosely connected thematically, much like Notes Of A Nervous Little Pixie. Was it a relief to be able to write self-contained songs again or is it actually easier for you to write music when you have an overarching concept to work within?
Dani: Concepts are actually quite difficult because you become restrained within one world of thought, and if you want to make it work you can't stray too far from it. Petrichor is a satisfying work but it was stressful to have to write about one thing for 8 months. Some of Dandilionheart's songs I actually began writing in tandem with that album, just to give me another outlet for other ideas at the time. So I would say that yes, I actually have more fun with individual songs than anything else, and I will probably continue writing in that context. I'm someone whose mind always wanders to different places at different times, so it's important for me to have a variety of ideas going because it feels more free to me. In that respect Dandilionheart was quite nice to make.
Doom: There’s another difference I’ve noticed between the two albums: On Petrichor, the vocals are quiet and dreamlike throughout, whereas on Dandilionheart they have a more prominent and more powerful presence. Is this the result of a conscious decision or simply a natural consequence of you becoming more confident about using your voice and getting more familiar with the recording process, et cetera?
Dani: I was very confident with my voice when it came around to Dandilionheart and in a lot of places I get really into the song and just let loose, try things with it that I hadn't tried before. "Let Me Remind You" is currently home to the highest note I've ever sung for example. In some ways it is conscious as well because I always try to make albums independent from each other, like making films without visuals. I largely let the music decide what my voice will do though, and the music was definitely a departure. The fact that I actually sing loud is another indicator, I had never really done that before this album.
Doom: Let’s go back once more to the 13-minute title track of Dandilionheart. As you can probably tell I'm intrigued by the process by which specific music gets developed, and if I’m correct, “Dandilionheart” (the song) is the longest track out of your latest musical trilogy. Did you set out to create a track of such length before writing it, or did it naturally evolve into what it ended up being?
Dani: The project file name for the song is "something maybe", which indicates that when I started this I didn't even know if it was going to turn into anything substantial. I was largely at the time playing around with the sample from what became the end of "Galaxy Owl" just to see for fun if I could take it anywhere and the more I developed the piece the more it kind of took on a life of its own. Specifically the section right before the lyrics was when I got the first inkling that the song would become what it ended up becoming. I realized three minutes in that it sounded thematically linked to a composition I had written in 2013, so I ended up stringing that (the "let all the rain come down" section) together along with another composition I had written in Sept. 2016 (the "goddexx bless" section) on the basis that they all shared a similar drive and tempo. When I got them all together and listened to it back I was dumbfounded at how perfect all the pieces sounded together, and then I had my song. I knew it was special and I knew I had to make it the title track from then on, and the lyrics were later written to fit the best I could with the sound.
Doom: Do most of your songs come into existence through something along the lines of what you just described?
Dani: Sometimes, yes. "Masqueraders" happened the same way only with one additional section. I don't think I've quite written anything else in exactly this way, but I do still find uses for old unused compositions I have lying around.
Doom: What is the biggest challenge you encounter when composing music?
Dani: I don't really face any incredibly big challenges in the composing bit itself except for sometimes finding uses for a composition, because sometimes I will write something but not have any particular idea what to do with it yet. I think my biggest challenges actually come in producing/mixing a track properly, which I am always very persnickety about.
I think also, at least today, it's trying to figure out how I want to do a song that I have lyrics written for. The number of approaches I could take is very broad and it's hard to find a direction that I think fits my words the best. I'm dealing with that situation presently for one song.
Doom: I think you've told me in 2015 that your first three albums were made primarily using FL Studio. Do you still use this or have you switched to a different workstation in the mean time?
Dani: Dani Lee Pearce was actually also partially made with Ableton Pro when I was in college ("You For You Four Ich", "Every Clock Is 3 Minutes Behind"), and with a Casio Keyboard ("Animated Tattoo"). Otherwise yes, FL Studio is still my weapon of choice. At this point I visualize my songs as project files within that DAW and can make an instrumental up in under an hour at times. I don't anticipate that I'll change from it at any time soon since I'm so familiar with it and can work with it so efficiently.
Doom: Like you said, in your original album trilogy from 2015, there were a few tracks that were played on a keyboard, and “Moth Girl” was originally recorded on acoustic guitar but was later rerecorded using a DAW when you reissued your latest album. Do you still use any physical instruments in your recordings, and/or do you plan on using physical instruments in the future?
Doom: Of my yet-to-be-released work I have one song that does in fact have me playing guitar, and another song in which I have had someone record guitar for me. One of my girlfriends is also going to be contributing guitar to my music eventually, and at some point I plan to record myself playing clarinet for some songs, as that is the one instrument I have proficiency at.
Doom: Is there anything else you’re willing to disclose about what we can expect from you in the future?
Dani: More surprises. And more ways to convey them.
Doom: I can’t wait! I’m nearing the end of my question list now. Can you recommend to anyone who reads this interview two artists who deserve far more attention than they’re getting right now?
Dani: Rumor Milk is a very good musician friend of mine from Canada who gets very little attention for her work but she has a voice that has made me well up in tears multiple times. She is very talented and it would mean the world to her if more folks would check out and support her music. Chase Milo Reid is one of the first trans musicians I ever met when I came to Portland homeless and I've watched him perform live and develop as a talent in amazing ways. He's another who I think is worth people's attention and he would also very much appreciate additional support.
Doom: Finally, if you’ll allow me to ask one more clichéd question: what advice would you give to other aspiring musicians?
Dani: Don't listen to advice intended for aspiring musicians given by musicians who are no longer aspiring. Let your soul do the talking. Let it dig into itself and find what makes it you, and turn that into art. Allow yourself to be raw and wild. Change it however you wish. Don't change it at all. However you do it, just make something, anything. And most importantly, make a fucking shitload of it.
Doom: Thanks immensely for your time; I've thoroughly enjoyed this interview. I'll be sure to check out all the artists you brought up and I'll be sure to use the word "persnickety" as much as possible now that I've been introduced to it.
Dani: I've very much enjoyed doing this! Thank you very much for your interest in me, it helps me to remember that I'm doing something that reaches people.