You don’t need to be a talent scout to hear something special in the voice of Denai Moore. It’s soulful without affectation, powerful yet at times restrained … In short, this 22-year-old from Stratford has a gift. She writes her own songs too, about timeless themes – heartbreak and hard times – doing so with a rawness and emotional honesty that sets her apart. Moore has collaborated with the likes of Astronomyy and made several acclaimed EPs. This month sees the release of her debut album, Elsewhere, produced by Rodaidh McDonald.
Denai, congratulations on releasing your first album. Do you see it as a defining point in your career so far?
Totally. It feels really strange now having spent the last year living with it. I’ve seen the album grow and it’s weird that it’s out of my hands now and out in the world. I’m mostly excited because I’m super proud of it and I feel like it’s turned out just how I wanted it to be.
I’ve been watching the video for your single ‘Blame’, which is set in Iceland. The sparse beauty of the landscape there seems fitting for your music in general, don’t you think?
It’s crazy beautiful up there. We were wanting to capture an epic scene from a film, and I think the video conflicts being caught between love and lust, and the danger of putting blame on other people, or blaming yourself. The whole idea was to make it really ambiguous so people are left wondering what happens and you get a different idea each time.
The album follows I Swore, your EP from last year, which really showcases your voice and song-writing ability. Is it a good primer for the album?
I think I Swore is definitely a good introduction, sonically, for the album and that’s why it was important for me to put it out, as I felt it was showing a different direction. I got such a good reaction and so much support from it that it made me look forward to the album coming out even more.
Both the I Swore and Elsewhere were produced by Rodaidh McDonald (who’s worked with The xx and King Krule amongst many others). How important is he to your music?
I think he’s brought a lot out of me that no one else has done before. When we met he helped with ideas for songs and I felt really safe creatively with him. When we work together I feel we’re bouncing off each other. Like with the song ‘I Swore’, the demo was shorter than the version you hear now. He pushed me to make the song better and I felt like he was that extra 30 per cent that pushed my songs and everything to what it is now.
Another champion of your music is Ben Drew (Plan B), who produced your 2013 EP The Lake, as well as co-producing ‘Blame’ and ‘Feeling’ on the new album. What does he bring to your sound?
I feel every time I work with him he surprises me even more. He’s so underrated as a producer. With the last song we put on the album, literally a week before I handed it in it was just this demo. We got in with Ben and he had all these ideas that really made me excited about the album again. I really value his opinion on just about anything really. Even as a mentor he’s really important.
You’ve done quite a lot of work with other artists, collaborating with the likes of SBTRKT on single ‘The Light’ and the track ‘All I Need’ by Astronomyy. How do collaborations help you creatively?
I really like working with people outside of what I do because I think it makes me a better songwriter. The song ‘All I Need’ came about the first time I sat in with Rodaidh and we started working with Astronomyy. He has a really fresh sound to him with surfy guitars and hip hop and R&B beats. I feel he’s super talented and he’s someone people should look out for.
Will you be joining him at Field Day in June then?
Yes, I’ll definitely be at Field Day. I’ve been there for the last two years and this year the line-up looks really amazing. Before then I’ll be doing a show at Electrowerkz the same week of the release, so I’m really looking forward to that – last year I spent a lot of time supporting other people, and while it’s really amazing touring with other people it’s even better seeing how their shows work and taking inspiration for your own live shows. I’m really nervous but it’s really exciting to be playing new material.
You were born in Jamaica and came to Stratford when you were 10. What was it like when you first arrived, was it hard to adjust?
I wouldn’t say it was hard to adjust really, I’d been there for holidays about three or four times previously and I had relatives there already. I think I definitely identify more now with East London than Jamaica. Of course there were a lot of cultural differences, but I didn’t really notice them as I was really young.
And growing up in Stratford were you always musical?
I guess. When I was younger my dad was working as a musician in Jamaica and America so I experienced what it was like to be in a studio. And I’ve always been around instruments at home. I suppose my musical development started when I got my first guitar when I was about 12 in Year 7. It was where a lot of my first songs came from.
And what was your first song?
It was a song called ‘Changes’ I wrote when I was 12. I’ve got a recording of it on an old laptop and hearing it now it’s so crazy how different it seems. That’s why music is really important to me. I write about what I’m currently going through, what my opinions are, and I put that out in my music. There’s a song on the new album called ‘No Light’, which is one of the oldest songs on the album, from two years ago. When I wrote it I was in a dark place and when I listen to it now it feels so different, like it’s taken on a different meaning. Even already, I look back at some of the songs on this album and get a feel of the time I wrote them in, like when I was turning 20 and and dropping out of uni and having all these new experiences for the first time. I think that’s what’s the album’s all about.
Was dropping out of university a difficult time for you? How did it come about?
To be honest it was just a bad experience anyway. I was studying songwriting and before, when I was just writing with no really kind of real method, it was just natural and I was just writing in my own time. I found that studying it, so you have to write so many songs in a week, just took the joy out of it so I had to stop. I think that’s the same for a lot of people. When you’re being told to write about four songs a week about this or that it all starts to feel tired and mechanical.
How were you discovered?
I started taking song-writing seriously when I was doing my A-levels. It was my last year but instead of focusing on my exams that were in a few months time I was more excited about the new songs I was writing and just wanted to get out there. So every week I was going to all these open mics and all these little gigs and that’s how I stumbled on the singer Clare Maguire. She saw me and asked me for my email. A couple of weeks later I was at her house making demos and we literally have the same manager now.
Listening to your first EP Saudade you can hear a lot of Bon Iver in there. Who are your big musical inspirations?
I feel like the staple ones are Bon Iver, like you said, then Lauren Hill, Feist and Kanye. These people to me are artists in the sense that they are people who are super uncompromising and write music for themselves. I think a lot of people get lost jumping on a trend and trying to create a ‘moment’. I think the main thing is to make yourself happy. That’s what I try to do every time.
What’s the next step for you and what are your ambitions?
I’m not ambitious in a traditional way. I’m not the kind of person to be like ‘I’m going to go after that Grammy’. I think in a sense what’s important for me is to keep growing as an artist and as a songwriter, get better in the studio, be more comfortable trying out different instruments, and more confident as a performer. After these first few shows hopefully I’ll do a few festivals, then hopefully write again, get into the studio and work with a few other artists. That’s the idea.
Denai Moore plays at Electrowerkz on 9 April. Elsewhere is available from 6 April