Out of the blue
If you think back over the past five years, it’s probably hard to pin down just how much you’ve changed. For Dan Snaith, those 1825 days have brought unprecedented losses, to an artist who built his reputation on soundtracking blissful, patchy nights beneath the stars.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate in my life, previous to this last five years. It’s been pretty stable and has proceeded without too many shocks or traumas. It’s very lucky to be able to say that for the first 35 years...”
But then someone in his wife’s family died from a heart attack, and the next period of his life took a swerve. “The phone rings and then all of a sudden the world is completely different than it was just a moment before,” says Snaith. “These out-of-the-blue, sudden moments kept happening over and over in my life. These personal events had such an impact on my frame of mind, my mood, the things I was constantly thinking about, the responses I had – that’s why I couldn’t keep it out of the music. There was a sense before where I just didn’t know what to write about, and this time that wasn’t a problem at all. I knew exactly what had to be the lyrical subject matter to these songs.”
As soon as you press play on Suddenly, all this spills forth. You are greeted by the sombre swirling of “Sister”, a hushed lament driven by a spiralling synth and Snaith’s soft vocals. This track sets the mood for the entire album, showing us our first glimpse of the more inward-looking, reflective side of Snaith’s character. Even the lyrics seem to signal that we’re now treading on new ground.
"Sister, I promise you I’m changing / you’ve heard broken promises, I know / If you want to change it you must break it / rip it up and something new will grow."
It was Snaith’s fifth studio album Swim that unwittingly made him into a festival favourite. His following album Our Love continued where its predecessor left off; laced with muddy, indie-electronic grooves to help gather music fans from all walks of life, as they trudge their way together to the main stage. He admits this was unexpected.
“First of all, I’m kind of surprised as anyone to be in this position, to have made a few of these big festival tracks,” he explains. “I never thought of myself to be in that vein. I’m super-happy that it’s happened but it wasn’t what I set out to do. I am always making music from a more personal place, as a music fan. There’s nothing cynical or strategic about it. I just had to follow my instincts.”
Snaith gets a kick from the idea that Suddenly might surprise fans.
“I’m not a provocative person but there is a part of me that thinks, ‘People think they know me and what to expect from me.’ I do get this slight perverse enjoyment from doing things a little differently.” After 20 years of making music under various aliases, Snaith has been given room to grow, and he’s not about to give that up now – there’s no fun in that. “Trying to chase something and create a facsimile of the past is just going to lead me to feeling frustrated or cause a crisis of confidence.”
As if pre-empting my next question, Snaith jokingly thinks out loud. “Was this career suicide?” But he soon shakes off his doubts. “I don’t think I could have made a different record. There’s almost an inevitability to it. Whenever I think about this record, I think about the more reflective, melancholy tracks, but there are lots more euphoric, straight-forward happy tracks too. It’s a hard one for me to pin down.”
There may be a certain air of sadness that drifts through Suddenly, but that’s not Snaith’s focus; he wants you to experience the hope he felt coming out of these situations on the other side. Terrible moments in your life definitely change you, but they don’t always have to change you for the worse.
“I ended up being the person that people around me relied on to give support and be comforting. That was a new thing for me. I grew up as the youngest child in my family so I’m not the person who tends to be in that role. That’s the mood I get when I listen to this music. It’s melancholy for sure, at points, but it also feels reassuring, stable, and tranquil.”
This feeling of tranquility is manifested in the album’s artwork too. Whereas Swim and Our Love drew upon a multi-coloured palette to showcase what lay within, Suddenly takes a more subtle approach, as Snaith explains: “There’s lots of moods on this record, it’s quite diverse. The title also suggests something more dynamic, more punchy or colourful. Jason Evans [long time collaborator of Snaith] would keep coming up with artwork in that vein but somehow it just didn’t suit my conception of the music. Jason had a cycling holiday booked in Spain, which he’d had booked for nearly a year, so he said he had to go. Whilst he was away he took this photograph. He wasn’t sure about it, and wasn’t sure if I’d like it either. He said, ‘I’m not sure if this is right but I wanted to show it to you.’”
The photo he took reveals a simple shot of water with circular ripples slowly moving outwards. A drastic change from the starburst of colour he’d used previously, but it spoke to Snaith on a personal level. “It just felt so right to me. I don’t get a feeling of cold from it. I get a kind of warmth, along with calmness. It reminds me of how I was called upon to make sense of and process all these difficult things, to be something solid and comforting for other people.”
The artwork also mirrors the aftershocks that Snaith felt when the world shifted beneath his feet. “After trauma happens in your life, there’s a long tail that follows that event. It may happen all of a sudden but then the effects of it ripple through everyone’s lives for a long time, and it takes a lot of time to process it.
“In some respects that’s exactly what this music has done for me. It’s allowed me to process and come to terms with what has happened, to think about it, and even discuss it. We all have a changing sense of who we are and where we fit in our families and our world as we go through life.”
Snaith may have found himself being a pillar to hold up his family, but it isn’t a one-way street. He often looks to the people he loves to bring out the best in his music. There’s only three people in his life that his music has to be approved by: himself, his wife, and Kieran Hebden – aka Four Tet. “I’m not a perfectionist, but I’ve made a lot of music, and I feel like there’s a good chance that I’m going to ‘jump the shark’.”
I’d never heard this expression. I had to wait for Snaith to explain it further:
“It’s from the show Happy Days. Apparently there’s an episode of Happy Days where The Fonz – I think – water skis and jumps over a shark. That is seen by the show’s fans as the moment when the show turned to garbage,” he continues. “I’m acutely aware that that moment happens to most people who make music at some point. I’m constantly trying to fight off that feeling one more time with each album I make. With this album I made 900 draft ideas, the last one was 600. I’m not trying to brag, I’m just battling this neurosis – if I’m not really careful, if I let up at all, it’s all going to turn to shit. That’s why it takes me so long to make an album, because it needs to get past me, Kieran and my wife. They are both very tough critics. It’s hard to satisfy them.”
Even though they are both good friends, Snaith still seems humbled that Hebden takes such a strong interest in his creative process. “Insanely, given the amount of time that he gives up to give me feedback on stuff, he seems genuinely excited, interested and engaged in the process. When he knows I’m working on a record he’s like, ‘Dan, what’s going on? I want to hear some music, let me hear what you’re up to.’”
So how does Hebdan’s advice differ to his wife’s? “My wife’s taste is obviously different to Kieran’s. She’s focused on other things. Kieran will often be listening to the production or the mix. My wife is listening to the more lyrical things, or the sound of my voice – the more personal aspects of my music.” With each of them criticising different elements of his music, does Snaith find it difficult to satisfy them both? Again, in his own perverse way, he sees it as a game.
“It’s funny because I quite often try to predict which each one of them will say. I have a great sense about both of them, as people and as music fans. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I know that Kieran will like this one, and I know my wife will love this one’ – but I also know they’re not going to agree on both of them. If all of us agree on something, that’s generally a good sign that things are on the right path. When the album is done and I’m happy with it, and they’re both happy with it – to be honest, that’s all I need.”
Once the album was finished, the title was handed to him by his young daughter. But after the name was chosen, the meaning behind the word began to evolve as time wore on.
“My then two-year old daughter had learnt the word ‘Suddenly’ and she just kept saying it over and over again. My wife suggested that it might make a good title. I assume that when she said that, she was talking about the sudden musical moments that happen throughout the record: there are several left turns that define the sound of the album to a certain degree. And that’s the reason that when I heard her say that it kind of made sense. But then, for instance, when Sam – aka Floating Points – heard the record the whole way through for the first time, he kept using the word ‘suddenly’ when he was describing it to me. And the whole time I was thinking ‘Oh man, this makes an eerie amount of sense.’ It was only at a later point that I realised it also described the events in my personal life.”
Family is what lies at the heart of Suddenly. Snaith’s loved ones have not only helped guide him through his creative process, but they have inspired his writing too, Snatih often putting himself in their shoes to tell their stories. “A lot of these songs are me writing from the perspective of the people around me, or as if I was writing the song to them. They are written in admiration or as a tribute to the people who have been most affected by the terrible circumstances we found ourselves in. I wanted to valorise them.” I mention to Snaith that it is often easier to write down your feelings than to say them out loud to someone. It seems he feels the same. “That’s why I’m almost writing these people a letter, directing it straight to them. A lot of these stories aren’t my stories, first and foremost. They’ve obviously affected me, or have been difficult for me, but there was always someone I could see, within the people that I love, that was most affected. So I wanted to write from their perspective, to imagine what it meant to them.”
Writing songs in this way also caused some inner conflict for Snaith. On one hand he felt he couldn’t write about anything else, but on the other, how would his family feel about hearing their lives laid bare in his songs? He was about to find out: “I’ve just had this situation with my wife’s sister. She went through this crazy, difficult divorce, which came off the back of other events that happened. She escaped a really difficult and controlling relationship. She did it with so much dignity, and we’re so proud of the way that she has carried herself, that I wrote the song “New Jade” as a tribute to her.
“The songs aren’t super explicit. I’m not mentioning anybody’s names or anything, but I thought, when she hears this album she’s going to hear herself in it and recognise her story. What is the responsibility there? We are close, but then I had this moment of, do I have the right to tell these people’s stories?” With the release of the album looming, Snaith had to talk to her, “I talked to her recently and said that I hope that you take the song in the spirit that I intended – as a tribute to you. Fortunately she was moved, and happy about it. We’ve personally had lots of talks throughout the process, but it’s a completely different thing to have a song out there in the world about her.”
These little personal touches are found throughout the album, giving the listener a peek behind the curtain of Snaith’s life. Whether it’s through the lyrics or a fleeting recording of his mother’s singing, Suddenly finds Snaith at his most vulnerable. He’s opening up more than ever. Through his music, and through his voice – an instrument he has often struggled with personally.
“It’s been a long progression for me. I used to be embarrassed and shy; not confident in using my voice. I don’t regard myself as a singer. Some people can open their mouths and sing whatever they want and it sounds beautiful. I have to be very cautious. I have to find a melody that I like, but that I can also sing. I never know what it’s going to sound like before I try. So I’ve been gradually learning those things over the years. Over time I’ve built up this confidence, familiarity, and understanding about the things I like about my voice, which actually is the frailty and imperfections, and how they help carry the emotion of my songs.”
The frailty and imperfections in his voice are what make these songs so captivating. They wrap each note in a warm familiarity. The reassurance and tranquility that Snaith found whilst creating these songs is now being projected through every word he sings. And as Snaith says himself, it’s not all doom and gloom: his fans will still find tracks – such as “Never Come Back”, “Ravi” and “Home” – to soundtrack their late nights and early mornings.
“These songs carry on their lives much further than the point that they were recorded. When I think about the track “Sun”, I don’t ever think about the version on the album, I think about playing it at a festival where I see all these people having an amazing time, and we play it for like 15-20 minutes – which is a long way away from the version on Swim. It will be interesting to see to which degree these songs will take on a life of their own.”
And it’s true. Songs do have lives of their own. Even though these tracks may have been born from a dark place, as soon as they are heard by other people, they take on a new context. Music has this amazing ability of glueing itself to certain moments or memories in our lives: They could be happy memories, they could be sad, it doesn’t matter – life is a balance of both.
After five years of searching, Snaith finally found that balance for himself. “I guess it’s acceptance. I don’t think I’ll look back on these past five years and think, ‘What a terrible time in my life’ – not at all. What I’ll remember is how myself and my family rallied together and were united by the difficult circumstances.”