Interviews

DELANILA: “There’s a lot of stuff thrown at us at all times. It gets overwhelming” – Interview



Danielle Schwob on her alter ego’s electronic album, working with Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sir David Attenborough and Ben Folds, and lockdown life

Delanila

Delanila (Photo: Nolwen Cifuentes)

As we all know, these are very strange times indeed for the whole world. It may be several weeks into coronavirus lockdown when we call composer Danielle Schwob in at her Manhattan base, but the sense of shock at the events of the last few months is still raw. The new release churn of music is proving reassuring for many at the moment, however – artists and listeners alike. Danielle is one of those artists with a new album out, though this one reflects her electronic pop leanings under the anagram alias of DELANILA.

As we are to find out, however, it has more connections with her contemporary classical side than immediately reach the eye. For Danielle is just as much a composer of new, small scale chamber music as she is of big, hundred-strong scores for film, where she has worked with the likes of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. She is proficient in a number of related genres, as comfortable with composing and arranging these scores as she is with fronting an electronic pop group, which – on the evidence of DELANILA’s new album Overloaded – is laced with punk attitude.

Danielle was born in London but divides her time between Los Angeles and New York. When we speak, she is mulling over the current situation in one of the world’s worst-hit areas, her home for the immediate future. “I never thought I would see Manhattan like this,” she says, “and I hope never to again. I’m downtown, so usually you find yourself fighting to get through people just to get down the street. To be walking around with no one around is weird, and I’m still not used to it. It’s been this way for a few weeks now and it’s still really strange.”

Delanila - Overloaded

Delanila – Overloaded

We move on to discuss the Overloaded album, and its powerful references to the use of modern technology – good and bad. Its first track, The Philosopher, finds the writer musing on the dark side of social media. “It was inspired by trolling and also the character from Notes From The Underground, Dostoyevsky’s book – and also my own experiences with scrolling through Instagram. I think we all probably have moments online looking at other people’s lives and thinking ‘my life doesn’t compare’, so it was a combination of those three things all stuck in a blender.”

The title track deals with saturation from social media. “I actually wrote that song quite a long time ago, it was the first one that was finished from the record. It’s about social media but also about screen dependency in general. The way we all live our lives now is not a natural state of being for humans. I think it’s much more natural to want to connect to other people face to face, but the way we live now finds us both separated and connected by these screens that exist in between us. It’s bizarre. They can connect you but make you feel quite isolated from one another. That’s what the song is about, as well as the pace of the modern world and how we digest information on a daily basis. There’s a lot of stuff thrown at us at all times and it gets to be overwhelming. I found I was considering the pace of the news cycle and the ramifications these technologies have on our social lives.”

“The way we all live our lives now is not a natural state of being for humans.” – Danielle Schwob

Schwob’s music fits the pop template but has a pleasing tendency to move in unexpected harmonic directions at times – a reflection of her varied musical upbringing, perhaps? “Yes. I don’t think there is a song on that record that is in the same key from start to finish, they all meander in some strange directions! That comes from a couple of places. I like to take the direction of roads less travelled in pop music, partly because I have a background as a contemporary classical composer but also because a lot of my tastes in rock and pop music lend themselves to that. There are plenty of Depeche Mode songs that have weird chord progressions in them, David Bowie too. It comes from my taste in pop music and through my familiarity of working with more complex harmonies.”

Danielle grew up with first hand experiences of classical music. “My dad played classical guitar, which he still does, while my mum is a big fan of rock music. Both of those things were always playing in our house, so I grew up being exposed to both ends of the spectrum if you’re talking about art music versus commercial music. I played classical guitar when I was young and then got into rock and pop – songwriting, for lack of a better word. Then I went on to study classical composition at university. I was a fan of adventurous rock bands who were able to integrate a lot of different influences like Pink Floyd, Tool and Radiohead. Meanwhile my dad always had Philip Glass or John Cage playing in the house.”

Her relationship with music deepened at university. “I went to study classical composition because I really wanted a bird’s eye view of how music was put together. I didn’t necessarily think I would end up as a composer but I wanted to understand melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration and thought it would be a good way to progress my career. I started composing in the concert hall and working with instrumentalists and ensembles. That led to my own concerts; meanwhile I was still writing songs and gigging around town as a performer.”

Overloaded may deal in electronic pop currency, but it has striking interludes reflecting a cinematic approach. It also has a strong collaborative feel. “A lot of those instrumentalists I’ve been working with for years on my concert pieces,” says Danielle, “so it was really cool to have them come in and be involved with something that’s a little different. Jenny Choi is a fantastic violinist, and there is Andy Lin, a viola player who has played my concert pieces since I got out of college. There are 12 players in all, people who I’ve loved working with for a long time and who I love working with.”

There is a deep satisfaction that Overloaded unites these different elements. “That was something really special about this project, seeing all these areas of my musical life come together under one roof. I’ve got all these big guitars from the rock side of my background coupled with players I’ve done concert hall performances with. I did a lot of the string arrangements but had a couple of people help flesh things out and deal with the copy work – they are from the film world, so it was really everyone under one roof which was special.”

Speaking of the film world leads us to talk about Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Danielle’s experience ow working with him on the film score for Mother. “He did a score that didn’t end up in the film but it was an original score,” she explains. “I was a booth orchestrator for it, and I had to arrange things on the fly; transcribe from demos, get music from the copyists and to the players. They needed someone who could manage the more experimental side of things. It was really special because he was such a luminary and his music meant a lot to me – as indeed it means so much to so many people. He was such a lovely guy and we stayed in touch until unfortunately he passed the following year. It was such a shame, we lost a lot of great film scores but I think of myself as lucky to have worked with him.”

“I’m spending all of my time with these people on a screen, and maybe these are my friends – but where are my actual friends?” – Danielle Schwob

By contrast, she speaks warmly of working with Ben Folds on an intriguing and unprecedented day of composition. “When I got out of university some of my first paid jobs in the music industry were playing guitar for other people. I did some session work mostly revolving around musical theatre, mostly because I can play guitar but also read music, which is quite a rare combination. I did a lot of theatre gigs, and that one was a wonderful benefit concert called 24 Hour Musicals, where they have different writers and performers from the theatre community and pop world. They throw everyone together in a hotel overnight, and they write a mini musical in 24 hours. It gets performed in front of a big audience, at the Gramercy Theatre I remember. Ben Folds was one of the writers, and so we worked on a mini musical he wrote overnight. He played in the band and we did a show which was pretty wild. He was such a treat to work with. When you’re in the room with a really great artist you can tell, like with Jóhann – they have a presence to them and a command over their musical language and artistry. He was very creatively sure-footed.”

Another musical project of Danielle’s was Conquest Of The Skies, a Sky series narrated by Sir David Attenborough. It has left quite a mark on her. “Being involved with any David Attenborough project is a bucket list moment,” she considers warmly. “You can’t even say you’re a fan of him because he’s such an international treasure. My uncle was a conservationist and ecologist, and I’ve grown up with a ton of admiration for David Attenborough because of that. It was really special being involved – I did some arrangements and score preparation. It’s a beautiful score, and the composer Joel Douek did a gorgeous job with it. It was a real treat.”

Finally we return to the DELANILA album, and an uncanny parallel with the Covid-19 world as we know it today. The last track has the title It’s Been A While Since I Last Went Outside – which seems uncannily prophetic. “I know!” She sighs. “It’s a horrible and sad twist of irony. Funnily enough I wrote that song during a time when I was working from home a lot, and was incredibly busy, so I wasn’t seeing many people outside of work. I was so tired all I wanted to do was watch TV, and after a while you start to ask questions. What even is reality? I’m spending all of my time with these people on a screen, and maybe these are my friends – but where are my actual friends? Sadly it’s turned out to be the current reality for most people.”

Thankfully she is keeping busy. “I actually wish I had a little bit more time for starting new projects, but I’m wrapping up this one and then an album of chamber music that’s coming out soon via the innova label later this year. It’s a set of smaller concert works, with a string quartet I wrote for PUBLIQuartet. Some of the people who play on DELANILA album are on it – Jenny Choi has a violin piece on there, and Andy Lin is playing on a recording of a trio. I also have a film score project and sorting out the videos coming out with this album. Most of them are in progress so I’m not writing anything new… but I expect if this goes on for much longer I’ll probably come out of it with a new record!”

DELANILA’s album Overloaded is out now; hear it here. Tour dates and further information can be found at delanila.com 


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DELANILA: “There’s a lot of stuff thrown at us at all times. It gets overwhelming” – Interview