Having first stepped out of the shadows with her 2003 critically acclaimed album release ‘The Big Picture,’ Izzi Dunn returns in 2010 with her sophomore project entitled ‘Cries and Smiles.’ UK Vibe once again enlisted Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards to quiz the effervescent and zestful cellist/composer/singer on her marriage of urban rhythms with such a classical instrument. He discovers that Ms Dunn’s musical CV more than justifies her growing slew of illustrious fans on both sides of the pond and universally.
The Dood: Where you christened Izzi?
Izzi Dunn: My name is Isabel. It got shortened to Izzi very early. I’m getting to the stage now where I kinda prefer Isabel but Izzi is who I am known as now.
The Dood: Save it for when you release a Classical album.
Izzi Dunn: Yes, I could do an Isabel Dunn album or even put an A on it – Isabella Dunn!
The Dood: Ok, initially you shook up the underground music world with your debut release ‘The Big Picture.’ Were you surprised and happy with the positive feedback, especially luminaries such as Soul II Soul and Damon Albarn?
Izzi Dunn: Totally! At that point I had done a lot of work for musicians and watching them work and doing what they asked me to do. And I made the music because I just wanted to sing songs as I had things I wanted to say. To me, I never had any big expectations about anyone hearing it, or what would happen for it or anything. So to get a nice reaction was pretty cool.
The Dood: So in essence that first album was strictly self indulgent?
Izzi Dunn: Absolutely! A lot of the time I wanted to say things…and playing the cello I was sitting behind other people’s music a lot of the time…Also I grew up listening to a lot of singers and with singers in my family. I think I just found the bug really, being around pop music, ‘popular’ music so to speak. But actually some of the most amazing British Pop music I would say. So it was going to have an effect on me, but I didn’t really expect it to be making an album and then people liking it.
The Dood: Obviously you were making a living from session work and touring. Why did you decide to come out of the shadows as it were?
Izzi Dunn: It’s always a really sporadic thing with the touring. Any musician would say, you’re never quite sure when your next bill’s getting paid or where it’s all happening. And that was not my reason for starting to write music, it’s just that you don’t see yourself sticking to one thing. And you’re never with one artist for a large amount of time…you got to go out and do something else.
I think as well. I got a little bit frustrated. I was always creating as a kid. Then I got into working for other people. And you get to do so much creativity behind other people, but you never get to really express entirely. So I think it was almost like a bursting thing.
The Dood: When did you start playing the cello?
Izzi Dunn: I was lucky that I got a hearing test when I was about nine, when I lived in Yorkshire, where I grew up. And they said to me, you’ve got quite big hands do you want to play the violin or the cello? I thought the violin was a bit squeaky, so I took up the cello. My family were quite musical, so there was a lot of encouragement early on anyway, but not necessarily that instrument…Yeah, so at nine or ten I started playing the cello.
The Dood: You mentioned family influence. Was this from your parents?
Izzi Dunn: Yeah, my Mum and Dad are both singers and there was music all the time around me. But it was never an instrumental kind of thing, it was always very much singing. That’s why it’s weird that I came round to singing in the end. But cello was my first way of expressing me. And it’s a singing kind of instrument.
The Dood: So you didn’t do the baby steps – that is learn the violin then graduate to the cello?
Izzi Dunn: No, it was straight into the cello because I didn’t think the violin sounded quite as nice. And it just looked quite grand…I just fell into it straight away, I did love it and I would lock myself away for hours. I was lucky that I was encouraged at a young age. It wasn’t cool to play the cello growing up. But I was actually a real nerdy geek who was quite oblivious to people taking the piss out of me…It didn’t bother me, it was my little world.
The Dood: You have so many diverse musical interests I notice. From Joni Mitchell, James Brown, Chopin through to Drake nowadays. Did your parents play a cross-section of music at home?
Izzi Dunn: My parents played a lot of classical music, a lot of Jazz – Stan Kenton, Sinatra…I think the thing with singing, because it came so late to me was because my Mum was an Opera trained singer, so that was quite intimidating. But as far as me finding Soul and Dance music, that was something I did very much on my own. I grew up in Hastings and I found those kinds of influences completely on my own, that was my own journey.
The Dood: What groups/artists are we talking about here?
Izzi Dunn: We’re talking about Soul II Soul, Young Disciples – that was my introduction to Soul music.
The Dood: What period was this?
Izzi Dunn: Ooh! When were the Young Disciples around? Early nineties kinda time. But that was…how I got into Hip Hop and Soul…But the journey never stops.
The Dood: There is such a diverse range and differing quality of music today. Do you agree, even if it’s not quite to your taste?
Izzi Dunn: Absolutely! But even from the not so good music one can learn an awful lot, that’s what I realised as well, even if it’s not quite to your taste. But my Dad was really cool like that. He’d play Buddhist Monks singing on Radio 5…Lots of things they’d expose me to. But I had my little Journey at fourteen and that’s how I found Soul music, which was my thing. But then again like you alluded to the juxtaposition of such a classical instrument and urban rhythms is ear-catching.
Then there’s a kinda battle between this classical kinda world which I was in at the time…it was a very traditional full on formal way of learning and I quite rebelled against that with the music I was listening to. It’s a lot easier for kids at college now because they encourage it, but they didn’t encourage that much when I was growing up, for you to be involved in outside musical influences.
The Dood: No blurring of the edges?
Izzi Dunn: Exactly! And that’s when it got a bit more interesting for me. And that’s why I’ve ended up here I suppose, because it didn’t really stop me wanting to just blend them together and do something that was just ME I suppose…A lot of people would like learn an instrument at school, but it wouldn’t be cool or they’d get into something else and then drop it. I just found a nice place with the cello which meant that I could incorporate all the things that were influencing me and all the things I liked socially. But I managed to be able to maintain playing the cello with it without having to give one up…Eight to ten years ago people were confused that you would listen to this kinda music but play this instrument. It’s still very much a rich person’s elitist instrument. They’re only knocking down those boundaries now. I feel privileged to have learned it because a lot of kids don’t get that, but it wasn’t about money or being elitist for me. Misconceptions and stereotypes are still being shattered now.
The Dood: Why the six gap between the releases of the debut and sophomore albums?
Izzi Dunn: I didn’t really mean it to be. I didn’t really have any expectations after the first album and then I got involved with the second Gorillaz album and got back into being a cellist as a session musician…I still had bills to pay being an independent artist. It was just quite natural to go back and especially to do a project like that. I was like, ‘Yeah, of course!’ And I got to do more projects with him (Damon Albarn) off the back of that which slowed down my writing process. The influences on me from just being around those people made me stop and say, ‘Woah! What I am doing?
The Dood: So you’re big time into writing and lyrics?
Izzi Dunn: I’m into producing as well. I’m pretty heavily involved in every aspect of it.
The Dood: You cite John Barry as being a major influence on your arranging and composing?
Izzi Dunn: That’s right. I just think that I started to take it more seriously, because when I did the first album I don’t think I took myself that seriously – I just did it!
The Dood: Sometimes ones best work is produced with the least amount of thought or effort, just trusting ones inner feeling.
Izzi Dunn: I didn’t know what I had done…what I did know is that I had watched people like Damon Albarn and whoever else working. Jazzy B for instance – working within Soul II Soul was one of the biggest moments of my life! Sitting there in a room and for him to know who I was – wow! And to work with Femi Williams who was in the Young Disciples and also to meet Carleen Anderson.
The Dood: What was it like to work with those guys in the studio?
Izzi Dunn: Incredible! It laid the foundation for how I carried on. I got to work with Femi on my own album as well other tracks with him. Plus being in a room with Jazzy B and another guy called Mike McEvoy working on tracks and writing late into the night. The fact that I even got to do that! Amazing! So because I was exposed to those people whom I hadn’t before, it made me think a bit more about what I was doing. And of course I was listening to Curtis Mayfield. I was getting deep on Marvin Gaye and how they put the strings down. I was really thinking about the arrangement, the production. Although I was lucky enough to be around these people making music, it is quite intimidating.
You alluded to the fact earlier that there’s a beauty to not knowing what you’re doing. There’s ignorance and that’s how I did my first album. Then I saw how they did things and it was quite intimidating. It raises your game.
The Dood: The new album ‘Cries & Smiles’ has a very diverse subject matter showcases the many sides of Izzi Dunn. Why the title?
Izzi Dunn: Exactly that. Because everything to me is quite diverse…we don’t wake up and want the same things every day. And I think there are a lot of albums which are great concept albums…but I’ve never felt the need to conform to any particular genre. Also the nature of my life has allowed me to do this style of music one day and do some other kinda music the next… I like to try things and experiment.
The Dood: Would you say you’re an observational writer?
Izzi Dunn: I’d like to think I am now. I don’t know if I was before. I’m learning to be, I’m hoping to get there.
The Dood: Maybe you’ll produce your version of Marvin’s What’s Going On album?!
Izzi Dunn: That’s the kinda of music that inspires me…That’s the kinda music that really blows me away, the kinda of music that turns me on! Recently the lyrics have become more important to me, because you listen to a lot of music and you don’t take notice of the lyrics. But I suppose that I’ve become more aware that I want to have a stronger lyrical content and have more to say.
The Dood: Therein lies the power of music, it draws you in and then you begin to focus on the lyrics.
Izzi Dunn: Absolutely! The songs on the album have some quite strong subjects on them. People don’t quite understand them because they listen to it the wrong way or they see the title and judge the track, which to me is quite interesting because it brings up interesting conversations about it, so that’s good.
The Dood: Ok! Now I’d like to talk about your Tits & Ass….single?!
Izzi Dunn: Ha-ha! That’s a classic example. It just came out! And It wasn’t like I’m going to write a song that’s really pretentious that’s going to challenge people – it just came out. It wasn’t until after I’d written it that people were like, ‘Oooh! Do you that song is a bit …..’ I’m like what’s music for if you can’t express yourself. It’s very relevant. And people’s reactions are quite interesting – I’ve just met a lady who was so pleased I made it and so understood where I was coming from, she really got it. And there are other people who REALLY don’t get it at all!
The Dood: You can imagine their shock when they view the video?
Izzi Dunn: Exactly! That’s a very important part of it! That’s what a lot of people don’t get, the fact that they’re getting it (tits & ass) everyday! One guy complained and said it was disgusting. I told him it’s called ‘Tits & Ass!’ Why are you even watching it if you don’t want to see tits and ass! It’s like a no brainer! So it’s quite interesting.
The Dood: You enjoy messing with people’s heads?
Izzi Dunn: Yeah! I quite like it!
The Dood: How did the link up with Booty Brown from The Pharcyde on the track ‘Loser’ come about?
Izzi Dunn: Well I was just lucky that I’ve got a really good manager…I was on tour with the Gorillaz and my manager approached him and he (Booty) really liked it and said let’s get in the studio and do it. I would never have had the balls to approach a Hip Hop legend like that and ask him to be on my track. I nearly cried to be honest, because when he dropped his lyrics on the one verse I was blown away. I still see him now because we’re going on tour again in the next couple of weeks. So hopefully I’ll get to do more stuff with him which would be amazing!
The Dood: Maybe return the favour by laying down some strings on his next project?
Izzi Dunn: Yeah! I’m still pinching myself. And I’m lucky that it came about in a natural way. A lot of the time these artist are quite open to things but most people are like me and think, ‘Oh I can’t ask him or her that.’ He completely smashed the tune for me…everything that I wanted to say he said.
The Dood: Another killer tune is ‘Nothing But Love.’ The alternative break dance video works so well with it. Details please?
Izzi Dunn: Yeah! We just married different things together. It’s got a lot of energy that remix. The song itself was collaboration with a guy called Tom Middleton. He’s more a House music producer. So you wouldn’t really expect him to do this.
The Dood: The production on that track is first class!
Izzi Dunn: The production was a very deep thing that Tom and I did. We took a LONG time and I think that really shows. I’m drawing a lot of influence from the real old Soul guys that I grew up listening to…As far as production goes I’m really proud that I’ve been that involved in the process.
The Dood: You’re learning all the time? It makes you a more rounded artist because you understand the different processes and technicalities of making a record?
Izzi Dunn: Yeah, now I can hear it as a whole. I’m noticing if there’s too much snare drum and stuff…But yeah I loved producing that track, especially the string element, I could really go to town on that.
The Dood: Moving onto the instrumental ‘G@ngst*r Bitch.’ There’s some serious rift on that track. It’s akin to a score from a 1970s action movie like ‘Shaft’ or something. Was that intentional?
Izzi Dunn: It was not intentional but I just love the music. The Final Comedown is one of the best albums I got from a second-hand shop. It’s by Grant Green – BAD, BAD ALBUM! It’s just obscenely good. I’ve got the vinyl of it. There’s so much energy on it, it’s just incredible!
The Dood: Sample city?!
Izzi Dunn: It is, but then of course you’ve got like Love Unlimited and those kinda things as well…And I wanted a track on there that was not lyric lead or vocal lead, because I want to do a whole album of just string based music. But there is room for someone to do a vocal on it, so at some point it might come out with another person’s vocal on it.
The Dood: A whole album of instrumentals. DJ’s would love that.
Izzi Dunn: An instrumental album but featuring guest vocalist on it.
The Dood: So what are your aspirations for this album ‘Cries & Smiles?’
Izzi Dunn: To get people to speak about it and create a buzz.
The Dood: So what’s the name of your label?
Izzi Dunn: It’s called ‘Idunnitmusic’ and we’ve got healthy distribution in the UK which is nice.
The Dood: And to get onto radio play lists?
Izzi Dunn: To get radio play in this day and age is quite tough for everybody, so i’m just grateful to all the play and for getting to meet and talk about it and keep doing it.
The Dood: It’s good that you’ve built your career gradually through hard work so you can appreciate the success?
Izzi Dunn: I don’t think it’s ever meant to be easy…I wouldn’t want it that way anyway. So i’m just making the music that I want to make.
The Dood: You have artistic control?
Izzi Dunn: I do totally and I just love that. Because I’m lucky enough to work with other people I want to keep doing that too. So it works out well for me that I’m not totally dependent on others. As soon as I get back from touring in the New Year, I wanna get back out there doing my own stuff.
The Dood: What future projects are in the pipeline?
Izzi Dunn: I go off with the Gorillaz and tour America and India…And then come back and hopefully start gigging in January – because I love it! I have been doing a lot of string arranging also which is really nice as well. There’s a guy called Jay Electronica who is like the most amazing rapper from New Orleans. He’s amazing! I got to do some strings with him the other day and I was blown away to be
honest because he is just AWESOME! It feels quite epic.
And I love getting my hands on the string section and ordering them about…I want to get into films more – soundtracks and stuff. I’d love to do that. It’s a long long way to get to that kinda thing but I would love that. People like John Barry are like my heroes, but I would put my own little twist on it.
Michael ‘The Dood’ Edwards
Cries & Smiles (2010)
The Big Picture (2003)
Nothing But Love (2010)