The pop visionary breaks down the music, fashion and literary references behind her critically acclaimed new album.
“Genre-free” polymath Denai Moore, now 27, has been making waves since the tender age of 20 as a vocalist, songwriter and food connoisseur (she’s the founder of Dee’s Table, a supper club for vegan Jamaican food). But it’s with her third album, Modern Dread, that her talents have fully crystalised.
Off-kilter synths, explorative vocals and killer visuals (check the futuristic video to “Fake Sorry” here) join forces to create an uneasy, thoroughly compelling LP about the defining emotion of 2020 – anxiety. If you haven’t been listening, then, seriously, what have you been doing? It’s a project we can all relate to, what with COVID-19 infecting thousands of victims globally, far-right politicians dominating our political landscape and the continued, brutal realities of systemic racism. Not to mention the fact that our planet is, quite literally, on fire…
It’s funny because, whilst Denai has perfectly reflected the dread we feel right now, the inspirations she drew on for the album are far from doom and gloom: ranging from Bluets by cult writer Maggie Nelson, to an “honest and brave” exhibition by Scandinavian art duo Elmgreen and Dragset. Below, check out the other books, exhibitions and albums which influenced Modern Dread‘s creation.
Book: “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson
I read Bluets whilst making my single “To The Brink”. There are no chapters and it has a very non-traditional structure which mixes poetry with very emotional, autobiographical storytelling. I read it in 4 hours and I’ve never read anything like it before. Because there were no signals to stop, and because it was non-linear, the more you read the more you understood. Truly gorgeous writing.
Sequencing Modern Dread, I wanted to create this sense of whiplash, to offer some form of respite, and then hit with a more heart-racing electronic beat. I’ve found it interesting that people have found the listening experience of the album to be overwhelming, as I intentionally made it so — inspired by Bluets.
Album: “Figure 8” by Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith is such an unsung hero an his lyricism was so genius and poignant. There are so many songs of his that I wished that I wrote from his record Figure 8. Lyrically, I re-wrote songs on Modern Dread a few times, to go a little further, and I was encouraged by my producer Alex Robertshaw [of band Everything, Everything] to really go there on a few songs. Elliott Smith has lyrics that still stay in my head, that I remember and think about, like; “you’re a world within a world”. He’s still such a massive influence on me, and one day I’d love to curate a tribute album.
Book: “Pretentiousness and Why It Matters” by Dan Fox
Pretentiousness and Why It Matters is such an interesting analysis of how we think about pretentiousness and why we often call things pretentious. It’s interesting that pretentiousness is never really something people self-describe as, and it’s often a term applied to art that’s just misunderstood. I think when you make music you ultimately have to tap out of what people think of you and tap into how you see the world and how those feelings inform you.
Art: “This Is How We Bite Our Tongue” by Elmgreen & Dragset
I saw this exhibition at the Whitechapel in London at the end of 2018 and it’s really memorable to me. Sculptural art makes me so emotional and Elmgreen & Dragset’s work tends to be politically driven, offering a black mirror to society. Their work is normally presented with just a title, rather than a lot of gallery text, so as to leave you to decide how you feel about it. The main feature at “This Is How We Bite Our Tongue” was a deserted historical old leisure centre that was knocked down to make way for flats in Hackney, a narrative that felt really real because it was real. I appreciate art that is extremely honest and brave like that.
Art: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
I went to LA on a writing trip in 2018 and whilst I was there, I went to the MOCA and saw this exhibition where the entire gallery was blue. I left feeling extremely emotional — the colour blue just really resonated with me. I remember this exhibition so vividly, the colour just made me feel so emotionally charged and afterwards, still on this trip to LA, I wrote tracks “Don’t Close The Door” and “Slate”. I also wear a lot of blue across the whole album, very intentionally. In the video for single “Cascades” the room I’m stuck in is blue and I wear blue in the video for “Fake Sorry”.
Fashion Photography: Campbell Addy andTim Walker
I got into the fashion world a lot more on this record, more so than previous ones, and had the opportunity to wear some of my favourite designers like Robert Wun, Iris Van Herpen and Susan Fang for the album’s visuals. More generally, I love the visual world of Tim Walker and how he creates a bridge between fashion and surrealism — that was something I tried to capture on the album cover and my press images.
I was inspired by a lot of photographers that also captured this uncanniness in their work, like Campbell Addy, for example. My partner and I worked alongside each other in a lot of the imagery around the album and I think you can read an authenticity there, because her gaze is so real.
Modern Dread is out now. Check out the Black Mirror-style video to “Fake Sorry” below.
14 July 2020