In an effort to dig deeper into the creative and personal influences behind new music, we recruit artists to tell us about five records that they consider "Essential" by any definition they like. Today, Toronto tropical synth-pop band DIANA spill about the albums that urged them to push their sound further.
In the middle of NXNE 2013, a capacity crowd at the Horseshoe Tavern were waiting, and waiting, and waiting, to see a triumphant hometown show from DIANA, the hotly-tipped Toronto synth-pop group rising up from months of global hype. Then a cord broke during their set up. Tens of minutes crawled by and discontent began to metastasize in the sweaty audience, impatient even for a festival crowd. Sharp grunts and mouth breathing began to build. It was tense.
Then they started playing, and the bad feelings just sort of evaporated, like we'd all just been squeezed affectionately on the shoulder by our big crush after losing our keys. “Serenity” has been malformed through overuse to mean something passive, but in that performance and on their debut album Perpetual Surrender, DIANA are militantly dedicated to deep breaths and calm centres. It's a bliss boot camp, and below are some of the albums that put them on its path.
Feist, Let It Die (2004)
Carmen Elle: I went to school with Feist's brother and he gave me a copy of Let It Die a month before it was released. Between that album and The Reminder it was really exciting to see her vocal idiosyncrasies grow. It made me realize that that’s possible, that the singing voice you start with is not the one you end off with. There’s an evolution there that’s very personal.
I was in my early stages [of singing], so I was still experimenting. I didn’t have a strong voice but I had a timbre that I liked. It was just me trying to find different tricks to make myself sound better. I tend to really lay into E vowels.
You can tell sometimes with people like Joni Mitchell - her voice dropped an octave because she smokes twelve packs of cigarettes a day. It's a very simple cause and effect. But with Feist, she’s unique. She changed over the course of one or two albums, and it was really interesting to be able to see that.
Brian Eno, Another Green World (1974)
Kieran Adams: [Another Green World] is a pop album that doesn’t seem confined to pop songs. That’s something that inspired Diana’s album.
Just the way he approached music was really great. I love when bands are able to make something that is accessible and challenges you in some ways as well. He obviously had tonnes of talent but wasn’t afraid to experiment. Maybe it’s because he’s blessed with incredible taste and a good intuitive sense, he’s able to do that. Even his ambient stuff never leaves you on the outside. The concept might be challenging to a real pop listener, but I think if you’re open to it it’s easy to get in there.
We’re definitely not shying away from pop songwriting. But I am definitely a fan of lyrics that are not really overt or hitting you over the head like, “Here’s what’s going on.” They’re not as vague or verbose as someone like Bill Callahan or Leonard Cohen where it’s a really particular thing that keeps you on the outside but you want to get in.
We consciously try to make things interesting. We’re all interested in psychedelic or just sounds that are interesting: big delays or reverbs. We try to give people a deeper experience. And it’s fun to create that way. It’s for us as much as for other people.
Björk, Vespertine (2001)
Carmen Elle: Björk is such a great singer, it just seems like lungs go down to her feet. [She’ll] add certain vowels or H’s or consonant sounds to make rhythms. She almost personalizes the words.
I used to love listening to Björk and Thom Yorke. I love hearing the breaths that they take before they sing almost as much as the words that they’re singing. It adds a completion to it. It’s a very dynamic way of singing. There’s never a moment where they’re resting.
Bryan Ferry, Boys And Girls (1985)
Joseph Shabason: [Boys And Girls] was a very beautiful album and the lyrics were suggestive while also being quite sparse at the same time. From a production standpoint, the way he would use the saxophone, the guitar, these textural things like percussion to fill the songs out, he was somebody who wasn’t afraid to use elements that can sometimes be perceived as cheesy but he owned it. It’s very shameless and emotional, but also percussive and smooth and sensual. It’s just great. For me, that album was huge.
Chart Attack: Are you ever afraid that people might perceive the saxophone on your album as an ironic gesture?
Yeah, totally. It’s this thing that people tend to gravitate towards in reviews and articles. People [at shows] shout out “Careless Whisper.” [The saxophone] has become this internet meme thing and I hope that when people listen to this album they hear it for what it is, which is a pretty expressive instrument in the way any instrument can be. It’s certainly not an ironic statement whatsoever.
D'Angelo, Voodoo (2000)
Kieran Adams: I think Voodoo is an absolute classic, like one of the best albums of the past 25 years. I think it’s just a testament to the fact the good things aren’t made quickly. Sometimes, taking the time to make something good and an insane amount of attention to detail can yield the most amazing things. Everything in the album is strengthened by the attention to detail.
What does hearing it make you aspire towards?
Greatness. That’s what I would like to focus on for the next album, really creating a whole. Like the really great Joni Mitchell albums, the first few Dirty Projectors albums, things that have such a feeling to the whole thing, such a statement that it blows your mind that someone in such a concise way can put feelings into music. Voodoo definitely has that. They conceived something, they worked their asses off to make it happen and they made it happen. It hits you on every level.