This South London band first popped up on our radar under the one-word-moniker Dahlia three months ago following the release of their beguiling debut “Breathe”. Our community of new music lovers instantly fell for this band - reflected by 15 agrees in just one day and a quick-fire feature. Shortly after that they changed their name to Dahlia Sleeps and this four-piece headed up by songwriting duo Lucy Hill and Luke Hester continued to treat us to ambient wonders “Hessian” and “Black And Blue”.
It’s not often we see a double feature at HumanHuman, but listening to Dahlia Sleeps’ delicate compositions built around layers of gossamer instrumentals and Lucy Hill’s crystalline voice, we can see why Going Solo was determined to discover this band twice. In recognition of the continual excitement around this emerging act, we decided to speak with Luke and Lucy about their journey so far in their first ever online interview.
First question I want to ask is how did you come up with the name Dahlia Sleeps?
Luke: In a nutshell, we came up with the name Dahlia, and then we weren’t allowed to use it, so Dahlia was put to sleep - so, Dahlia Sleeps. Apparently it’s done on the basis of what you hear, so if it’s read out on the radio and it sounds the same as someone else, then you have to change it.
Oh, I didn’t know that at all! So, before the name change, how did you first get together as a band?
Lucy: We met through some musician friends just over a year ago. Luke sent me some instrumental stuff he was working on, so I started writing to it and it worked so well that we decided to make it a proper project. Then Cameron and Spencer came on board at the beginning of the summer last year.
Not long after that your first single “Breathe” was put up online, and the last time I checked it had been played over 84k times on SoundCloud. Did you have any expectations for that?
Luke: We thought it was going to bomb! [Lucy laughs] Putting it up, we didn’t have any expectations, we were just like, “ah well, if it flops, that’s just the way it is.” That’s what we thought was going to happen, but it was so surprising.
Lucy: Yeah, I think you know your song so well that you stop being able to judge it objectively. It’s so hard to guess what other people’s reactions will be, so when we put it up we just had no idea what would happen. We were really blown away that people liked it.
Luke: It was definitely unexpected.
To me “Breathe” sounds like a classic tale of unrequited love retold in a modern way, but what does it mean to you?
Lucy: Oh… It’s really difficult to talk about the meaning behind songs. I think when you write a song and there’s lyrics and a melody, it kind of masks the feeling of it. When you try to explain it with words in speech it becomes so much more difficult... I guess it not unrequited love, but not quite balanced. It’s when you know that there’s an imbalance there, but you can’t seem to take a step back anyway. It’s knowing what you probably should do, but also knowing that you’re not going to do the right thing.
“It very much feels like the opening dance at a wedding: wrapped in your lover’s arms, you feel safe and lose sense of whatever is happening around you.”
Obviously, there’s a lot of meaning in the lyrics, does one of you take the lead there or is it a joint effort?
Lucy: For “Breathe” I wrote the lyrics and melody, and that’s how it generally goes, but there are some songs that we haven’t put out yet that Luke has written. It varies, but largely I do the writing and Luke produces the instrumental part.
Oh, so you guys also self-produce?
Luke: Usually, I produce the instrumentals then send it off to Lucy and we get some guide vocals down, so we get a rough edit of what we want. We’ve been working with this guy called Carey Willetts, he comes in when we have the song in place and he helps us to master, mix and add more components to it. We’ve been working with him a lot, which is great.
You’re quite closely involved with the production then?
Luke: Yeah, I produced them.
Lucy: Luke spends days and days sending himself completely mad over the instrumentals. He gets massively stuck into it! He spends like two days on one sound! [laughs]
Luke: Yeah, I’m obsessed. My last project was just instrumentals, so that’s why it’s nice to have this other dynamic where there’s fifty percent lyrics and fifty percent instrumental, but it’s become so much more of an obsession. It’s so much harder to produce for vocals, where I thought it would just complete it and make it easier. You have to understand where the vocals fill in. They add so much to the track, so you have to produce very thinly, which is something I wasn’t used to.
It seems like a lot of artists these days do self-produce or are very involved in their own production, why do you think that is?
Luke: It’s all so accessible now. You can produce through a computer and you can download these plug-ins that emulate instruments that are worth tens of thousands of pounds which sound thereabouts the same. It’s become so accessible for people and it’s great! Self production has become just... enormous! It seems like everyone is having a shot at it. That’s why there’s a general impression that if you have a laptop you can compete with industry professionals.
Lucy: It’s totally the age of the producer at the moment. I think that’s amazing, because they’ve always been more in the background. The amount of incredible work that goes into what they do wasn’t necessarily recognised in the past, whereas now they’ve very much come to the forefront. Producers can now be more part of a project in a public way, which is really important.
Yeah, definitely! Let’s go back to something a little more recent, which was the video for “Hessian”, in which the main character - obviously played by Luke - seemed to be waiting for something. What’s the story behind that? What were you trying to say with that video?
Luke: I was trying to show complacency with the world at that point. Where everything is passing you by and it’s not like you’re oblivious to it, you’re just not trying to recognise it. We really wanted to emphasise the idea of time behind that, so that’s why it’s got a two or three day time lapse. All of it was really embellishing the sense of complacency that can be found in the lyrics.
Lucy: It was a really fun one to shoot! Luke and Chris [Behnisch], who shot the video, were up at all hours and I was just happily in bed when it was like three in the morning and they were trudging down to the set. [Both laugh]
Luke: Yeah, that wasn’t fair!
Lucy: [laughing] I definitely got it easier.
And you mentioned Chris Behnisch there, why did you decided to work with him for the direction of “Hessian”?
Lucy: He found us actually… well, did he find you, Luke?
Luke: Yeah, he came at me through another project and I looked at his work, it was super interesting. We got chatting after that. He’s a really nice guy. We were supposed to film the video in Munich originally, but that fell through, so it was a bit of a shot in the dark that it worked out.
Well, it definitely did work out - I really enjoyed the video.
Luke: Oh, that’s great, thank you!
Another form of imagery we’ve seen with your music is the illustrations from Ruby Brown. What connection do these images of hands have to your music?
Luke: It’s meant to show desperation. It starts off really unified [Luke imitates the cover art for “Breathe”] and then they follow the nature of our relationship. It shows one person trying to detach themselves from the situation and then the other is trying to pull them back in.
Lucy: They very much reflect the songs as well. Ruby is incredibly talented, we’re so lucky to be able to work with her. I think her art works so well with the music and also with our general vibe.
Luke: It’s funny that the drawings do add a lot of context to the music.
Okay, let’s talk about your latest single “Black And Blue”, which the blog Going Solo likened to The xx. How do you feel about being compared to other acts?
Luke: Well, it’s brilliant! The xx were a huge influence there. I’m completely happy to be compared to people like that.
Lucy: It’s weird when I read about being compared to people like that, It gives me impostor's syndrome because they're huge, and incredible! [laughs] It’s obviously really flattering.
Who or what else has influenced your sound then?
Luke: Erm… I guess I started off on a really, really electronic front and listened to a lot of SoundCloud artists and a lot of ambient scores. Then, I was completely obsessed with more beautiful, songwriter, guitar stuff when I was younger which then moulded into electronica. After that, I got into real left-field production and instrumentals.
Lucy: I think for me it’s just everything! There isn’t a specific genre of music. I’m very lyrically focussed. The words mean everything to me. I listen to stuff like Burial and Bon Iver, not that their music is lyrically focussed, they’re amazing in general. Also Bob Dylan, I think he’s incredible. And anything that has a clear beat, but also manages to be very beautiful and generally a little bit heartbroken, like Shy Girls, Young & Sick and No Ceremony.
Luke: It’s funny that I don’t really have direct musical influences, but what has been my driving force is that I’ve been in a perpetual state of frustration for a year and a half now. I’ve been constantly, continually writing just to try to fill that void.
“Soft electronic interventions work as a path to lend the song the same greatness that belongs to mentors like The xx, while the chorus well… we may never find something that works better than this one.”
Do you feel like this project is helping you to get that frustration out?
Luke: Yeah, it’s the only way I can translate it and get it out of me. I write, I feel okay and I keep on going. It’s not like a sadness or anything, I just feel like I need to be doing more.
I feel like you music is all quite soothing and peaceful, so is that a counteraction to the frustration or is that just a sound you’re naturally drawn to as a band?
Luke: It’s not really soothing… when I write instrumentals it’s usually projecting something. I want it to be gutting and with more melancholic sounds. I think that’s what happens when I write, it’s more sad, morose music and then Lucy adds a complete other dynamic to it, which brings it more to life.
Lucy: A lot of what we write is quite melancholic. If you listen to the words of “Black And Blue”, it’s not a happy song, but you don’t finish listening to it and feel depressed, because it’s relatively upbeat. In a way, it’s quite uplifting. I think we’ve found a way to talk about topics that are downtrodden, but in a way that doesn’t leave people feeling completely depressed.
That’s very true. Alright, so you guys played your first live show earlier this week, how was that?
Lucy: So much fun! We were really lucky to get such a great venue [Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London] for our first show.
Luke: It had such an unexpected turnout as well - the room was full!
Lucy: A long time ago, I did do a few shows on my own, but I had never really done anything like this before. Until you’re up there, you just don’t know how you’re going to feel about it. It was so overwhelming. I used to get utterly terrified, but now after the other night, I’m not so scared.
Luke: It’s definitely given us all a confident boost, because we got such a nice response from it.
So, you’ll be looking forward to playing some more shows this year?
Lucy: We’re putting on a night actually at The Old Blue Last on Old Street [Shoreditch, London] on the 25th of February. Then we’ll see what follows!
I was thinking about the duo Vallis Alps who made music together from different continents for a whole year before playing a gig together, and although your situation is different, I was wondering what was it like taking your music offline and give it to a live audience?
Luke: Difficult. [laughs] When we were translating our music into a live sound we had so many learning curves. Initially, we were trying to make it super electronic, but then we realised that you need to have some form of amalgamation, otherwise there’s no nuance and it will just fall flat. Yeah, it’s really tough to create something that will represent your music in a live format.
Aside from live shows, what else are you looking forward to this year?
Lucy: Making more music and seeing what happens. It’s a really cool place to be in, just being able to do this and I guess not really knowing what’s going to happen.
Luke: I’m most happy when we’re just sat writing and it seems like we’ve got time to do that now.
For my last question and because we’re all really excited about what you’re next release will be, what does the next track sound like?
Lucy: We don’t know which song will be next! We’re working on lots, but we don’t know which one will be released next.
Oh okay, so it will be a surprise for all of us then!
Lucy: Yeah! Watch this space.
Thanks to Luke and Lucy from Dahlia Sleeps for talking to us! If you happen to be around London on February 25th, then head down to their gig at The Old Blue Last. Event details here.