Dijon: the experimental star making a bid for pop’s top table

Dijon: the experimental star making a bid for pop’s top table

Dijon Duenas is no stranger to collaboration, having initially gaining traction as one-half of buzzy duo Abhi//Dijon, a project created with his former high school classmate Abhi Raju while they were both students at the University of Maryland. As well as working together on their own potent mix of R&B, dance and folk, the pair appeared on Nao’s ‘Adore You’ which remains a standout on the Londoner’s critically-acclaimed album ‘For All We Know’.

An accomplished songwriter and producer, Duenas has also teamed up with zeitgeist-shifting artists like Brockhampton (‘SUMMER’, ‘1998 TRUMAN’), Charli XCX (‘pink diamond’), and No Rome (‘Trust3000’). However, until last year, he preferred a more solitary approach when it came to working on his solo material.

“I’ve always had a kind of chip on my shoulder,” Duenas tells NME over Zoom from his studio. “I wasn’t as skilled musically as a lot of people I grew up around, and I wasn’t as hip, but there was always this idea that ‘Well, I gotta figure everything out’. So I started this project hell-bent on being the only person involved.” This was certainly true when it came to Duenas’ first solo releases, a string of self-produced, Americana-influenced R&B tracks – like 2018’s mesmerising ‘Skin’, which is closing in on 60 million streams on Spotify.

He describes his 2020 EP ‘How Do You Feel About Getting Married?’, which saw him push deeper into more alternative influences, as the point where his self-imposed notion of musical autocracy “gave way” as “friends came in and made it sound better.” Those same friends encouraged Duenas to create 2020 single ‘The Stranger’, his “digital posse cut” featuring contributions from John C. Reilly, Becky And The Birds, Raveena, and more. Duenas reveals this process helped “redefine what the Dijon project might entail” as he ultimately realised “this can be bigger than [himself].”

‘Many Times’, the first taste of the Duenas’ debut album, was created with Grammy-nominated producer Andrew Sarlo (Bon Iver, Big Thief) and Mike Gordon, aka Mk.gee. It’s an incendiary moment for this experimental trailblazer, whose rapturous delivery commands your attention across two minutes of lively anti-pop.

NME caught up with Dijon to discuss what we can expect from his closely-guarded first album and his hope for a future where experimental sounds are further embraced.

How does it feel to be introducing this new chapter with ‘Many Times’? Is there  additional pressure now that there’s a bigger project attached?

“I flirted with the idea of a couple of previous releases being part of an album, but it never quite felt like what I was supposed to be doing. It’s this double-edged thing; it feels good, and it’s the most appropriate time and sound, but there’s also this frustration, because you do feel like you’ve been releasing music for years. You have to temper your expectations a little bit, then pretend that this is the first thing you have ever done. It’s the only way to not get too jazzed up about it.”

What makes this album the perfect introduction to Dijon? 

“There are a lot of choices you can make when making music that allow you to not be criticised. I think this is the first time you can hear me trying to make music for everybody without it being a concession. I think it’s actually probably the hardest, most demanding music I’ve ever made – but it feels like there’s a person behind it, as opposed to many layers of fuzz. You can determine where that person slots in your world – or if they do at all.”

You wrote on Instagram that ‘Many Times’ emerged from a “2pm flurry fever dream”… 

“I think a lot of my music has been fuelled by shrouding myself inside at night time and drinking a little bit, but this came from the complete opposite energy. Caffeinated and first thing in the day – I’ve never really made music that way.

“The process was very simple; Mike played drums, I played a weird backup thing and we arranged the music pretty quickly. I picked up a mic and freestyled. It was very immediate what was supposed to be achieved [with this song] based on Mike’s drums – they’re the guiding post of the whole song. Andrew did his mixing in real-time, and we all agreed it should be loud.”

Where did this shift to a bolder sound come from?

“It came from removing myself from isolation and being willing to ask for help for the first time. Mike played these drums, and even the way he played the main rhythm part of guitar… you have to humble yourself and remember this person has been crafting their technique for years. It’s been a humbling process for me; it feels like this is the first music I’ve ever made. That’s only with the help of other people being more inclusive and extending the hand.

“What’s funny too with ‘Many Times’ is that the song is impossible to replicate in terms of energy. It was one of the last ones I did for the record and we just had to accept it for what it is, because there’s no way you can compete with that energy for an entire record. I’m interested to see how the rest of it is going to be received too – it’s pretty bonkers.”

Did the other songs on the album come together in a similar way? 

“For the majority of the record I would just be in the studio and I would tell some friends to come along. Then the door would be open and sometimes the nights would yield nothing, and sometimes it would be pretty immediate.

“There’s a song on the album that is sung entirely by a friend from Wyoming, and I’m just doing backups with Mike. He’s a great friend of mine, but also a real country boy – I couldn’t approximate that. I think that’s the promise of what this project is: If I can curate the sound, I can make the world [of the album] interesting, hopefully in a way that I haven’t heard before.

“The other thing I had on my mind while working on the record was how to reinterpret my performances, because I’d just finished my first tour ever. When I started working on the music, I felt that there was something quite deceitful about my older music, because it was so it was overthought in a lot of ways.”

How did that experience of touring for the first time change your creative process? 

“There was this irritation that I couldn’t quite pin down when I was playing live. I haven’t quite figured it out, but there is a distinct hatred I had for [touring] that informed this record.

“There’s an anger that I felt while touring. There’s something so strange about making music and how any narrative that you want to have goes out the window. For one song on the album, I deliberately wore my voice out for a long time, and then tried to make a song about a person who can barely keep their composure.”

How would you define the boundary between experimental pop and ‘just’ pop? 

“That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot because I grew up really informed by DIY, tape-heavy, experimental music, which is more of a difference in intention.

“Jai Paul’s ‘Jasmine’, for example, is one of the most influential songs of the past 10 years. And I feel like the only barrier to it being the biggest smash of the past decade is maybe the lack of vocal clarity, which is super frustrating.”

Is that a barrier that you’re trying to change with your music? 

“I’m trying to figure out how to undo the barrier and to not acknowledge it at all, to the point where you feign ignorance. Maybe that will change the way things are supposed to sound.

“‘Many Times’ doesn’t sound like anything else right now, which of course is by design. If you introduce something a little different that can still be received on a global scale, just imagine what music other people will make.”

Dijon’s new single ‘Many Times’ is out now

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