With the relaunch of her wonderful recent album Recycle Love just days away, I had the good fortune to connect with Brit soul singer-songwriter Izzi Dunn about her varied career thus far and her reflections on soul music. Although Recycle Love is her third album, she may be more readily familiar for her work as a cellist and string arranger for the likes of Bobby Womack and Roots Manuva, to name but two. All that should change though as Recycle Love boasts a smoothly funky approach to soul music, steeped in honesty, integrity and style—three qualities that also shine through in her answers to my questions below.
Taking in her long-lasting artistic relationship with Damon Albarn and love for the thriving British soul scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, our conversation reveals an artist dedicated to connecting with an audience with her own distinctive brand of soul music and continuing her own personal musical journey. Eloquent and self-assured, Dunn’s only hesitation came when choosing which Prince album to include among her list of five favourites—an understandable moment of indecision that the Albumism staff, our readers and I can most certainly relate to!
Patrick Corcoran: Now that Recycle Love is being given the push it deserves, what are your hopes for the album?
Izzi Dunn: I guess I'd like what every artist and musician hopes for after the journey of making an album: for as many people to hear it and hopefully take something from it, be it good or bad. To encourage the listener to ask questions of me, themselves & the world around us the way that the music & artists I admire do. To be able to emotionally connect with someone in a way that I otherwise couldn't do, or simply make you dance or sing along! Any of the above and my job is done! This album is about questioning what we value, treasure & leave behind. I just hope people can identify with the sentiments.
PC: It’s clear what Damon Albarn got from you—your exquisite strings and arrangements! What do you think you have taken from and learnt during your long association and collaboration with him?
ID: I've been very lucky to have worked with some amazing musicians, but I think the one I have learnt the most from, maybe just from the amount of different projects and timespan, is Damon. He is fearless, passionate & disciplined about making music. I say “learnt,” but honestly it's hard just to keep up with him in the studio! He has such a presence and a driving force that can't help but sweep you up and inspire you. He thinks away from the obvious, but always somehow gives you that heartfelt sweeping melody or poetic message you want to hear. He is true to himself and inspires me to be the same.
PC: You’ve worked alongside such a varied array of artists from soul legend Bobby Womack to UK rappers like Roots Manuva to the elusive talent of Jay Electronica. Do you approach each project in the same way or does it change according to the genre of music? Do you pick a little something up from each job that informs your own songcraft?
ID: It does depend on how or what kind of collaboration I'm doing and how much freedom the artist gives me. But I tend to go with my musical gut and do try to just interpret the directions and vibes they give me—a bit of musical mind reading! Sometimes artists are very precise and clear about the styles or references they hear. Everyone works differently, but I've been very lucky on many occasions to be trusted and left to my own devices somewhat! Less is mainly more I've definitely learnt. I have often forgotten that strings are not the most important feature of a song! I'm obviously biased! They should complement the song, and it can be a fine balance to get right. I like to think that with every varied and diverse collaboration I've done, I've walked away learning something, even if it's not obvious straight away. Especially if l've been immersed in their particular music for a while, it tends to seep into my subconscious somewhere down the line!
PC: As a daughter of the Steel City (Sheffield) how did you come to be more interested in soul music given the city’s more recognized indie/rock persuasions?
ID: I was born and lived my early years in Sheffield, but my musical journey and identity was shaped more growing up on the South Coast and moving to West London. Interesting that you should mention the indie/rock scene in the North as more predominant, but of course it was Northern Soul that spawned a huge Soul following in the mid ‘60s onwards. I discovered the rave/dance scene in my late teens, also at that time it was Soul II Soul, The Young Disciples, The Brand New Heavies, etc. which gave me my first introduction to soul, hip hop & jazz.
PC: Your parents were both musical—was it always a given that you would follow that path? Did you fight it at any stage or embrace it?
ID: Coming from a musical family, I don't feel it was a given, but I guess I was lucky that it was nurtured and music was all around me. It was a solace and sanctuary for me in my early years. I think as a kid I felt a bit lost and that I was a bit of a misfit. Music was a comfort and a way to express myself. Then I met other like-minded misfits!
PC: What came first, singing or playing the cello? Was there ever a time when you thought your voice wouldn’t find its place?
ID: Cello came first, but I always sang, as both my parents were singers. It took a very long time before I wrote music that in any way resembled a song or I attempted to sing anything! Well, at least publicly! I think I was a bit intimidated by the family history. People say that the cello is a very expressive instrument, close and similar to the range of the voice. I just see it as another extension of my voice. I didn't realise early on that the kind of music I was making wasn't “conventional” or “traditional.” I just made it. I did eventually see that I fell through the cracks “musically” somewhat, but although I've struggled dealing with the labels, boxes, and genres we tend to need to categorise music in, I've been very happy and comfortable to still be a bit of a misfit and make the music I've chosen to make.
PC: The album doesn't stick to the usual R&B themes of love and matters of the heart. How important do you think it is for artists to speak about the wider society and modern life?
ID: Throughout history music has been a way for people to communicate and tell stories. Love is a fundamental, basic part of human existence. There could never be enough songs and stories about love! We love love songs! The finding of love, being in love and losing love! I think I was just determined early on to not just write solely about it, or at least try to not repeat what a million amazing songwriters had done before. If I was, I needed to write one as good as Leonard Cohen or Carole King or not at all! One of the first proper songs I wrote was on my first EP, Big Picture. It is total social commentary, observational conscious stream. I wrote it very fast and realised I had a lot I wanted to say!
Some of the most powerful Soul music ever made—Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone, Bob Marley—yeah, naturally they sang about love. But they also documented seminal moments and periods in history with songs of life, struggle & social unrest.
We don't live in a one dimensional world, why would I write about only one thing.
PC: How did working with Dego of 4hero come about? What was it that attracted you to his take on soul music?
ID: I knew a lot of musicians in the West London music scene, and had been a fan of 4hero. I have the majority of their albums, know a lot of people in common, but had never met Dego. I read an online interview with him a few years back and loved his attitude to music and life in general. He is brutally honest, sharp and uncompromising, a real joker too. Plus, of course, incredibly prolific as an artist. I reached out and we tried a day in the studio. The rest, as you say, was history! We spent the next year or so writing this album, and he has become a great friend. He is a wonderful musician, has taught me a lot and has nice hats!
PC: What comes next for Izzi Dunn? Are there plans to tour or take the record to other markets?
ID: I love the music writing process, I think it goes back to being that young misfit! But I do enjoy performing too. I love experimenting with my songs, reinventing them and taking them out live. So I'm really looking forward to doing some gigs in the next few months, and I’m already back in full-on writing mode for another couple of EPs. Wherever the music takes me!
PC: Here at Albumism we are in thrall to the glory of the album. What five albums are your favourites?
ID: Really tough to give only 5! Tracy Chapman’s Tracy Chapman. Prince’s Sign O’ the Times and Dirty Mind—I can’t choose, please don’t make me! Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Man. And Shuggie Otis’ Inspiration Information.