Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Izzi Dunn: Nothing but Izzi

Izzi Dunn
Izzi Dunn Izzi Dunn Izzi Dunn Izzi Dunn

Following prestigious collaborations and tours as a cellist with Gorillaz, Mark Ronson and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, West London-based multi-instrumentalist and singer Izzi Dunn this month follows up her 2003 debut LP ‘The Big Picture’ with the soulful grooves of her new, sophomore album ‘Cries & Smiles’.

A self-sufficient musician (she writes, produces and plays most of her own material), for ‘Cries & Smiles’ Izzi arguably follows the proud tradition of seminal British soul acts like Loose Ends and Omar while also taking in the more alternative urban influences of acts like Massive Attack and Portishead. Meanwhile, with her skilful lyrics reflecting the hopes, trials and complexities of modern everyday life, she additionally brings on board such creative talents as US rapper Booty Brown of West Coast hip hoppers The Pharcyde (the anti-materialism-themed ‘Loser) alongside Mark Ronson’s musical director Stuart Zender; disco/house producer Ian Middleton (the sensually shuffling new single ‘Nothing But Love’); plus bassist Andrew Levy of legendary London funkers The Brand New Heavies.

Interestingly, it was following the critics’ positive reaction to Izzi’s aforementioned debut LP ‘The Big Picture’ that, in 2004, a mutual friend first recommended her to iconic British pop/rock musician Damon Albarn. Who - immediately impressed with her talents as a cellist - straightaway invited her to contribute to his world-conquering outfit Gorillaz’ 2005 ‘Demon Days’ album, before going on to ask her to lead up the string section - Demon Strings - for said band’s world tours.

With transatlantic super-producer Mark Ronson next in line (Dunn spent an impressive nine months on the road as a cellist in his all-star revue), Izzi later also went on to perform with Albarn’s “other” supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen... Meanwhile, having additionally played on sessions for the likes of former Beatle George Harrison, Australian pop princess Natalie Imbruglia and London urban icons Soul II Soul, it’s hardly surprising that - alongside her sensual, soulful voice - ‘Cries & Smiles’ throughout also showcases her established skills as a cellist and arranger, particularly on cuts like the blaxplotation-style, string-led funk instrumental ‘Gangstar Bitch’.

Speaking from her West London home, a fast-talking and articulate Ms Dunn hooks up with ‘Blues & Soul’’s Pete Lewis for an informative introductory chat.

Titling her new, sophomore album ‘Cries & Smiles’

“That title was actually inspired by a film called ‘Training Day’, which starred Denzel Washington - he actually got an Oscar for it. And there’s a scene in the film where, I think it’s actually Ethan Hawke’s character who says ‘The only thing in life you really control is your cries and smiles’… Which I just thought was an amazing kind of IDEA - you know, that though there’s so much around we’re NOT in control of, those things we ARE! And so it just stuck in my mind, to where I actually wrote the SONG ‘Cries & Smiles’... And, with many of the themes on this album encompassing the highs, the lows, the conflicts and the contradictions we experience in modern life, it just seemed a good idea to name the whole record after the SONG.”

How Izzi feels her new LP represents a difference and a progression from her debut album, 2003’s ‘The Big Picture’

“Lyrically I think ‘Cries & Smiles’ is more personal - in that I’m often expressing my really strong opinions about quite personal subjects and things that have happened. Plus I think production-wise I’ve taken my time and gone a lot DEEPER with it. You know, it’s not so much that I’ve kind of left the hip hop thing and the more sparse thing behind. It’s just that, since making the first album, over the last four/five years I’ve been surrounded by these incredible musicians - I’ve toured with Gorillaz and Mark Ronson - and so I got really inspired by the way they were producing... Plus I’ve also gone further into listening to artists like Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. So I think all these things made me, as I said, want to take more time and delve deeper into producing and looking at the way my real HEROES went about making albums. And so I guess in that way this album hopefully represents a natural progression.”

Her new album’s most controversial track, the funky and confrontational ‘Tits & Ass’

“Yeah, that’s definitely the track I’ve had the most interesting reaction to! It wasn’t about a specific thing that happened to me. It’s about more me reacting - just like I’ve done with a LOTTA the songs on the album - to things that are going on AROUND me. I think I basically just got frustrated with a lot of the things I was seeing. For example, for the last 10 years I’ve been watching videos with tits-and-ass all over them, on the premise that they’re selling me a lifestyle, or an artist or whatever… Yet subliminally I’m really just being sold SEX! So in that way I think ‘Tits & Ass’ was just a reactionary song. And, even though it was quite tongue-in-cheek, the reaction I’ve had to it has actually proved to me it kinda almost needed to be SAID! And the fact it still confuses a lot of people to me just goes to show the kind of world we LIVE in! You know, we’re fed this stuff every day - and yet people don’t even REALISE that! So - in addition to it being something I just wanted to get off my chest - I guess another reason I wrote the song was to open a debate, but in a good way!”

How Izzi feels about being a musician living in West London

“Well, I wasn’t actually BORN in West London. I moved here when I was about l7/18 - when I came out of college and started working. But, while as a kid I’d grown up on the coast in Hastings, funnily enough the actual MUSIC that I’d been listening to during that time, and that kind of introduced me to soul, was guys like Young Disciples, Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai... You know, all those bands that kinda eminated from West London! And, so while maybe I am being biased - because a lot of people from South London argue with me on this! - I do think West London is an amazing place for diverse MUSIC! You know, just the sheer broad spectrum of music that comes out of West London is to me just INCREDIBLE! And so, as a musician, I’m really pleased that I’m living in this part of town! Because, if I’d been living maybe in the north or the south of the city, the music I’d be making may have been quite different! I mean, the cultural diversity of places like Ladbroke Grove just suits me down to the GROUND!.. So yeah, I LOVE being as West Londoner - or maybe I should say an ADOPTED West Londoner!”

How she feels about her experiences of collaborating with artists like Gorillaz and Mark Ronson

“To be honest, Pete, there’s not a day goes by where I don’t actually pinch myself! Like I just got to do a gig in Damascus with Gorillaz, and I’m sitting there onstage looking at Bobby Womack performing alongside me!.. I mean, some of these experiences I’ve had - even just as a string player - are enough to kind of last you a whole LIFETIME! You know, as an artist - or somebody that wants to make music and say things - I can’t even TELL you how inspiring it is! Because it’s not just that you share stages with these people or that you get to do, say, Glastonbury - which is a once-in-a-lifetime thing in itself - it’s also the kind of place where I’m SITTING, and the kind of VIEWS I get of these other artists! Like I get to see part of Damon Albarn and his processes that other people - and other artists - DON’T see... Plus it’s also very varied - from Damon Albarn and Gorillaz, right through to tours with Mark Ronson! So from my point of view, even on days when I don’t think I AM learning, I’m still picking up things about how these people WORK. Like how they rehearse; how they literally put things together; how their minds think about every aspect of the music... And, while it may sound cliched and cheesy, it really is AMAZING! I can’t even BEGIN to tell you the difference actually being around these people has made to the way I’ve made my OWN new album! To me it’s so evident in the way ‘Cries & Smile’ is produced just how much I’ve changed, and how these people have influenced me.”

Izzi’s opinions on the current female Brit-soul movement, which she herself can now inadvertently be seen as part of

“I think it’s great! I mean, in Britain we’ve always been strong in exporting incredible talents. And like you said, recently there has been this huge wave of female artists like Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele… All these people who are bringing soul back to the mainstream and literally carrying the torch around the WORLD! Which in turn is great for someone like me, because it’s opening doors for people to listen and delve a bit deeper to find other things that maybe AREN’T as big. You know, it’s always a positive when the music that’s close to you is blowing up. Because, no matter how specialist or how low-down on the list or the radar you think you are, it’s opened people’s ears up SO MUCH!.. So yeah, to me the success of these artists not only has a great knock-on effect for British music in general, but also for independent artists like myself and even people who’ve been around for YEARS, like Omar, Mica Paris... You know, these incredible British soul artists who’ve been going for over two decades and aren’t as massive as they should be, but who’ve laid the paths for people LIKE Amy Winehouse and Duffy.”

Izzi’s album ‘Cries & Smiles’ is released October 11. Her single Nothing But Love’ comes out October 4, both through Idunnit Music

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