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The personal, the political and 'Suddenly': How Caribou reconciled five years of his life for his new album

26 February 2020 | 3:07 pm | Emma Jones

With his new album, 'Suddenly', out February 28th, Caribou talks all about how life's unpredictability helped him deliver his most personal record yet.

Five years ago in 2015, the world was a very different place. Pre-Brexit, pre-impending immediate environmental collapse, pre-Trump, pre-Hong Kong protests, pre-#MeToo, pre-Australian bushfire crisis — the list goes on. Of course, half a decade also brings with it its fair share of personal changes too: births, deaths, marriage, divorce, health, illness. It's in this that Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, found inspiration for his latest album, Suddenly. Out everywhere February 28th, the gap between his 2015 record, Our Love and Suddenly is the longest period of time between releases in the project's history, dating back to 2001, and it doesn't take long when listening to the album to realise why.

Our Love was the album the catapulted Caribou from cult legend to global juggernaut thanks to its wide-ranging universal themes of that very emotion. It was broad, aiming to connect with others all at once, and straight forward in its mission to do so. On Suddenly, Caribou turns inward, speaking directly to people in his immediate life or to himself, and sharing very specific perspectives. As a result, Suddenly is by far Caribou's most personal record ever. It still has its moments that will suit the festival main stages he is now used to -lead singles 'Home' and 'Never Come Back' in particular- but it also aims to offer a form of catharsis or therapy as Caribou tries to process the last five years.

The album is full of unpredictable twists and turns, with the rug constantly being pulled out from under you over and over again. You finally hit a moment where you think you have reprieve, only for things to once again, all of a sudden, change. Just like life itself, Suddenly is a wild ride into the unknown; a chaotic, blissful, turbulent, incalculable journey you just have to trust in. From the vulnerable moments that double as almost like eavesdropping on private conversation into those of celebration or the downright heartbreaking, Snaith's lyrics carry him through a deep retrospective of his recent life. As the songs gently meander or quickly snap between house beats, ambient soundscapes, trappy hi-hats or booming beats, Snaith's vocals also flick between falsetto, pitch-shifted loops, samples and more to create a rich, dynamic cacophony. He takes everything he's ever employed in previous releases, bringing with him his loyal fans, and thrusts it all into a kaleidoscopic vortex, intent on keeping the listener always on their toes waiting for the next sudden change.

In the creation process of Suddenly, Caribou created over 900 demos, and whittled it down to just twelve songs for the final product. Tackling life's moments from the sometimes earth-shattering to the sometimes quiet but profoundly impactful wasn't an easy task, but coming out the other side, Snaith has a body of work he can be proud of. And, without realising it until some time after, he has created a record others can also seek solace in. While our personal lives might continually be turned upside down and inside out, so too does the world at large, and without intentionally doing so, Caribou created a mirror with Suddenly to the world's history for the past five years: death and life, triumph and defeat. It's this that makes Suddenly not just a powerful record, but a vital record as well, and it's this that I wanted to talk to Snaith about when we jumped on the phone together. Talking about connecting with listeners in new ways, how punk it is to be unifying people in the world today and the political power of inclusive music, Caribou and I peeled back the layers of Suddenly a bit more to find a deeper understanding of what it's all about.

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Suddenly is out February 28! How are you feeling? 

I'm feeling really good about it! I finished it in August last year so there's been this kind of slowly building excitement and anticipation, like the momentum kind of building and building. I'm totally ready, actually I'm PAST ready for people to hear it at this point!

You've noted how long you've been working on this record and how proud of it you are - what is it about this album and the journey up until now that has you feeling so proud? 

There's also that, that I've been waiting so long to have a new record out -- that also adds to the anticipation. I should say that, I never really have a good sense of a record I'm going to make before I start and also, the vast majority of the time I'm making the record, I feel like I still don't have a clue what I'm doing. Every time it feels like starting again, every time I get lost in the middle like, "Where is any of this going? Is any of it ever going to cohere into an album? Is it ever going to be something I'm as happy with as the stuff I've made in the past?" I enjoy it and I enjoy the process of making music always, there's a lot of joy and excitement in it. But there's also a sense of battling to make this thing happen like I'm willing it into existence by working on it over and over again. Inevitably, when I've got the finished thing there and I've managed to make something that at least I'm happy with and proud of and feels like it adds to the stuff I've done in the past, it's just natural to feel proud and excited about having come out the end of that process. I hope and feel it will connect with people and I enjoy that part of the process so much, so that makes me excited too.

You've spoken in the past about how in the lead up to the release of Our Love, you wanted to minimise the distance between yourself and the listener. Did you still want to narrow that gap even more this time around and try and connect with people that way even further? 

The impulse was actually kind of to not chase that anymore. That was the only thing I started off on with this record. What I was thinking about that, in respect to Our Love, was how every metaphorically speaking "surface" was really polished and everything was as concise as possible. Everything was, without compromising anything, as digestible and pop as possible so it could as easily as possible travel through the world. My impulse this time around, I recognised that chasing that even further was going to lead to madness and frustration trying to think like, "Okay, I have to have a bigger song than 'Can't Do Without You' on this next record." That thinking in those kind of terms about the exterior life of the world or that ambition, I was just thinking, "This is going to drive me crazy," and would result in something I'm not happy with. My impulse was to push in the other direction and make music that had jagged edges and rough corners I hadn't smoothed down and I think that has manifested on the record in the end. The way it makes sudden left turns and weird unexpected things happen all the time, I enjoy the more idiosyncratic and eccentric things that come out of my music taste and my music-making process and how I emphasise those parts. To me, it will be interesting or ironic if it does connect with people more closely because this record is very much a personal record for me. A lot of the songs are me singing directly to people in my family or the people I love around me who have gone through difficult things, or me reflecting something very personal about myself. I wasn't really thinking at all about the way it would be received in the world. I was thinking more about how its kind of cathartic or therapeutic to be dealing with all the moments that have happened in my life in the last five years, so in some ways it was really a narrowing of focus and field of vision in making this record. Now that I look back, I think that's maybe why people will connect with the music -- because it has that sense of you being in a room with me. It's intimate in that way. Our Love was trying to talk to everybody all at the same time in a really universal way, this is very much talking to one person at a time.

In a way, it makes sense though. It does feel more intimate. When I was listening to it and closing my eyes and really feeling it, it does feel like you're letting people in in a different way to what you previously have. One strong thread I picked up on was one of gratitude, and this is throughout all your music but especially here. To your fans, to your family, to the way your life has evolved and how you've evolved and now instilling that deeper with this album. It feels also quite poignant to be sharing this message of gratitude given the way the world is these days and how different it is from just five years ago. Did you feel that as well? 

I didn't think of it consciously or know it was going on when I was making the music. Obviously the theme of the record is there's these sudden or unexpected things in my personal life and the life of my family in the last five years like divorce or my dad went through a health crisis, like difficult personal things and things that happened completely out of the blue in a dislocating, disorienting way. That, I think to some degree, is why the music has this kind of disorienting quality to it where the rug is pulled out from under the listener over and over again. When I say that out loud, and when I think about the last five years of our collective life as citizens of this world particularly for me living in the UK but also for lots of other places, it mirrors our lived experience in the political and cultural world as well. Whether that's waking up on a morning after an election and feeling like the whole world has shifted because of a result you thought was impossible, or one for me personally was the #MeToo movement, which the first song is explicitly about this. Obviously I was aware of male sexual violence and harassment was an issue, but that movement completely changed my perspective. I just didn't understand the world that I lived in, I didn't understand at all how prevalent, how pervasive, how universal this experience was amongst women until I saw women on my social media feeds talking about it. I realised virtually everyone around me had a story along these lines. I like to think of myself as someone who has their eyes and ears open to this and being an ally in this kind of thing, but I realised I had not been. I was not aware of what was going on. The first song on the record, I have two sisters and I grew up in a very female-dominated household. My dad was emotionally absent, so I was around women all my childhood. I now have two daughters and a wife and a two-year-old niece, so I've always been in a very female environment. So this song is writing to them to say, "I'm sorry. How did I miss this?" and a commitment to changing. Sometimes the personal and the political have overlapped and felt like they mirror one another. It's a symptom of the time we're in that our personal experiences and our political experiences are crossing over.

The more chaotic the world gets, the more punk it feels to be listening and sharing music that brings people together the way dance music does. Do you feel that it's almost a sign of unity that everything is wanting us to be more and more isolated from each other, but then there's music like this that is all about coming together through adversity? 

I do feel like that. Not just in my own music but dance music is such a great example of that. The tradition of dance music is that's where it comes from, from marginalised cultures. It isn't always the case now but people are being reminded of that more and its becoming more of an element of dance music culture than it was in the early 2000's or the 90s, I think. I might be wrong, but it seems to me like you say, it's a reaction to the world and that thread is becoming more dominant again. I've always had this thought that its not a weakness of my music, but a lot of the music that I love from the late 60s or late 70s -- it's explicitly political. It's protest music, it's engaged with the problems that people were facing at the time. That's why its still relevant because it's music that is so integrated into the political climate that it was made in, and I've always felt like my music doesn't do that and that's a weakness or a failing of the music I make. A big inspiration for me on this record is an album by Beverly Glenn-Copeland and the album is called Keyboard FantasiesGlenn-Copeland is a trans-man in the classical world in the 80s and he made this record in complete isolation in Canada. It's amazing, it's unlike any other music I know. It has that new-age texture and in the centre is this emotionally-potent and reassuring and comforting element. Listening to it is like a big hug. I was talking on the radio the other day and talking about this album with the producer, and he told me he saw Glenn perform live. This producer just burst into tears in front of me, just remembering that moment. It was so powerful and so potent. Having seen Glenn speak about music and that being political music that's uniting and reassuring, and bringing optimisim through he obviously had a different and difficult experience than me but it had that power to reassure and comfort and that being to some degree a political element.

It's a form of unifying and bringing community into that space, and I think that's what you've achieved here. So if you've felt like you didn't do it before, you've definitely done it with Suddenly.

Well that's nice of you to say. I hope so. That album is a big inspiration and a kind of "A ha!" moment for me as if my music could try and be political in this way, to spread comfort and love and be, what's the word? Inclusive! Music that is genuinely inclusive and seeking to speak to have that intent of unifying people and bringing them together.

Suddenly is out February 28th on City Slang via Inertia Music. Pre-order here.

Words by Emma Jones

Image by Thomas Neukum