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Interviews, Music

Interview: DVSN on Their Creative Process, Staying Inspired, & Mentoring Emerging Canadian Artists With “First Up with RBCxMusic”

By: Sasha Lindsay

DVSN. (Photo: Joshua Hyde)

The R&B duo DVSN, consisting of singer Daniel Daley and producer Paul ‘Nineteen85’ Jefferies talk about their creative process, staying inspired and making art in a bubble during the COVID-19 pandemic. They address mentorship, community outreach and the importance of being ambassadors for First Up with RBCxMusic, for emerging Canadian artists. Citing Jay-Z as a major influence, both members want to transcend their roles as artists and help people, creating positive change. Part of Drake’s OVO Sound label, DVSN’s third album A Muse in Her Feelings was released in April 2020 and their latest single “Blessings” dropped on December 18th. Similar to their atmospheric sounds, the duo speak with a calm cadence as they reflect on their craft and look towards the future.

Music is about community and feeling connected. As artists you create a positive space and inspire people. Tell me a little bit about your musical background.

Daley: I came up loving music from the time I was a kid. Growing up in Toronto in the city, you get influenced by a bunch of different stuff, coming from multicultural backgrounds and West-Indian families, so we heard a lot of different types of music. But to be honest, the first thing I really really fell in love with was rap music. Hip-Hop was my go-to. And even though I was already showing signs that I could sing as a kid, I connected more with rap. As I grew and ended up taking music in school, in like elementary school and piano lessons and different things like that, I got a chance to really fall in love with R&B music too. And that kind of set the platform for where we ended up now.

Nineteen85: My background’s similar to Daniel’s. In Toronto I think we are exposed to a lot based on how multicultural the city is and I guess mine is a little bit different because I started from a pretty young age wanting to be a DJ. And then from there I fell into more of the creation side of things because I started to play instruments. I started to play guitar, I started to form bands with my friends and during that whole time I never actually did DJ but I always wanted to. DJing is probably the first area where I thought like that seems like a career path I’d want to do. I didn’t know how to get into it or anything like that and when I started to play guitar, I taught myself how to play guitar, I started writing songs and really just producing from that sense, putting together the records for the group I was in at that time and this was when I was pretty young. I guess it was that first year of high school.

So first year of high school, that’s grade 9, you would have been 14 or 15?

DVSN: Yeah, I think we had started when we were 13 and between 13 and 15, we were just in this little band.

That’s interesting. This brings me to the question about your group’s name. You’re called DVSN and when I think of the word division, you’re dividing parts of a whole and maybe that’s the point of the name. I was just curious, since there’s two of you fulfilling different roles: Daniel, the singer and Paul, the producer.

Daley: The name came from us originally realizing that we were a little bit different than a lot of the other people we knew that were making music. So instead of trying to be more like everybody, we said you know what, let’s just make that a thing, let’s continue to be the division between us and them or whatever is popular at the time, let’s just move at the beat of our own drum and see where that takes us.

How did you two meet? 

Nineteen85: As far as us meeting, we had a lot of mutual friends and I think at the time we both were so into rap. I met Daniel as somebody who was rapping and I was actually making beats for rappers at the time, so I don’t think any of us knew we were going to be this R&B group.

It seems like you’re heavily influenced by rap and rap is so stretched out since the 80’s. Now when you think of rap, there’s elements such as R&B, jazz and soul meshed in. Who are some of your favourite rappers?

Daley: You know the Drakes, Kendricks and Coles of today obviously are the legends that are moving right now, that are constantly inspiring, just to see them come up. We were around when they dropped music. We were around to see them come into the game and really kind of take over and kind of be these kinda ruling kingdom of Hip-Hop. But throwing it back, I don’t think there’s any bigger and better when you look at the full spectrum than like a Jay-Z. From what he’s done, from moving up from the streets and his circumstances to moving into the positive space of music and business and seeing him now trying to go in and change things for artists and hiring lawyers for people in need and you know doing the work that he’s doing even outside of music now I think just makes him the most inspiring figurehead that you can aspire to be. He’s the bar.

Now that I know more about your background, what does it mean to be an RBCxMusic ambassador, especially during this challenging time? And how did that relationship start? 

Daley:  The relationship has been there from our teams actually. We have a team with a strong input in the community, Lowe and Ricky. They have a relationship with RBC and I know that RBC is a community supporter and they are involved with the Remix program on that end, so I think that the relationship and the opportunity kind of came about from there. But I just think it means a lot for us to be a part of things like this because like I said, we’re looking up to the guys like the Jays, the Kanyes and you know looking at them and being like you know, we’ve seen them make moves outside of music that really impact the community, that really like give back to the same places that they came from and try and change things that they didn’t have growing up, or when they were coming up. At the end of the day, we’re trying to be another name in those legacy conversations and those legend conversations, one day.  We want to be able to look back and be proud of not only who we were as musicians but who we were as just people, just human beings. I think that’s what it came down to for us, mainly. 

You’re not only interested in music strictly, you’re clearly into branching out and helping new artists who need that guidance. Do you have any mentorship stories specifically with the artists that you have helped?

Nineteen85: Yeah I can share a cool moment. So, on the A Muse in Her Feelings album, we did this song called “Between Us” and the inspiration from that song came from this young guy named Amorphous who is currently blowing up because he’s been doing all these different mash ups. It might be a new artist with an old classic everybody loves or just two songs he loves and kind of blend them in a way that people haven’t heard in a while and he’d done that with our song and this Usher song and I actually kept him on the production of it because I ended up doing it myself. I’ve been in touch with him ever since.

So, for the past year I’ve still kind of reached out to him to see if he needs anything. He’ll send me tracks he’s produced, asked if I have any type of guidance or even tips for him. But over the last two weeks, he’s been blowing up so much that even Oprah reached out to him just off of what he’s been doing online and he’s hit me a couple times just to say you know, thanks for being somebody that I was looking up to that was also somebody I could reach out to because most of the time there’s such a big disconnect between the people that you’re thinking are doing your dream job but there’s no way to actually have communication with them or some sort of conversation with them and I think he was even just surprised that I reached out to him when we were using the idea on the album and I just stayed in touch with him because I feel that those are the things that a lot of us don’t normally have, not a direct line to this group or this producer that you’re looking up to and saying, I wish one day I could work with them or I wish my idea would be heard by them so instead of just taking the idea, we just decided to reach out to him and I’ve actually stayed in close contact with him ever since. 

DVSN released their third album “A Muse in Her Feelings” in April 2020.

That’s good. I’m thinking Amorphous is not part of the RBCxMusic program that you’re currently with. He’s just on his own, correct?

Nineteen85: Yeah, we just happened to find him online. He’s from Orlando I believe.

That’s really interesting. My question was more specifically about RBCxMusic artists you’ve worked with but that goes to show that you’re into helping artists who are trying to get out there, it’s instinctual because you didn’t need a reason. That’s even better.

And now, he’s a success story and you’re attached to it. 

Have you had that experience with RBCxMusic?  

DVSN: Anything with RBC is just kind of happening now. We’re supposed to be opening the doors for all this to start happening and coming through. We haven’t worked with anybody through RBC directly yet but we’re just kind of opening the doors and kind of letting our voice be an outlet to more people so more people can sign up. Obviously we’re down to give back and help the program.

That definitely ties in to my other question about the age group. I notice the program is open to people between 18 and 35 years of age and it’s obviously for artists who are just starting out, so that’s the point of the program. You have to be an ambassador, you have to be a mentor, it seems like you’re already doing that anyway which is perfectly aligned. Since you don’t have an artist from that program, are you able to tell me about the first round, or is it that it’s so new, you don’t have any specifics? 

DVSN:  Yeah, we’re just starting with them now. It’s still new for us. We just knew that when we heard about it, we’re like you know what, we’re down. We’re down to bring awareness to it and bring people in and share our story and help encourage people to come out and be a part of it.

I can definitely say that you’re just hoping that when you do have a specific interaction you can continue what you did with Amorphous and hopefully create more of that success for emerging artists? 

DVSN: Yeah, definitely.

There’s a virtual community with workshops and they provide access to industry leaders, I’m thinking leaders like both of you. Have you heard anything about The Remix Project, which is part of RBC? 

Nineteen85: Yeah, I know there’s a workshop that happened about two weeks ago that they had put together with James who is a great friend of ours, who has been in many ways a mentor of ours but he’s also probably one of the greatest songwriters in the game at the moment and I heard that he was just able to provide so many gems to the people who are fans of his but also coming up in the industry trying to do the same thing and the cool thing with James is he actually has a very similar project to The Remix in LA. One of his partners there they’ve done a very similar initiative so it’s been good that we can connect from these different outreach programs in the different places even as we’re becoming more successful too.

Speaking of these different programs and workshops, obviously there’s limitations now because of COVID, how have both of you tried to reach out to make this happen or to market it? 

Daley: It is a bit different. We’ve done a lot of virtual things, online things that we can just do from home,  whether it’s sharing stories or trying to reach out online to our Instagram and different things like that to get the awareness going. The big thing with us being a part of this is we know that people know that we just don’t do things, we kind of make a point of only doing things that are actually real to us, the same process we have with our music. So, coming from us we know that certain artists that may just kind of like skim by something will actually stop and listen. We wanted to make a point of being like let’s use that part of what we’ve built and kind of bring people to this thing. And since we can’t be out there and kissing babies right now, let’s do the things and talk about the things that we know other artists will get inspired by.

There’s definitely a level of authenticity with both of you and it seems like you don’t just do things to cross it off a list. I was looking at your Twitter and there was a tweet about being busy not necessarily meaning it’s always a good thing since someone can be busy doing things that aren’t good. Care to elaborate on that?

Daley: That’s kind of something that we live by. We kind of made a point of being separate from the rest and we’re in an era where there’s so much that’s either force fed, there’s so much of people just trying to fit in with whatever else is going on, there’s so much that’s being shoved and pushed in our faces from ad companies and marketing companies and this corporation and that corporation and we never wanted to be a part of that because we don’t feel it actually touches the people where it counts. You might touch their eyes a thousand times a day, but you never touch their heart, you know what I mean? You never touch their soul with it. So with us we’ve always been like, “if we’re going to do anything we want to be able to stand behind it and know what it is and really stand behind it.” So we make a point of when we are busy or trying to stay busy that it’s things like that. Things that we could look back on in 20 years and 50 years and just say, “yo, yeah, that was a good look, that was something that we did to give it back to where we came from.”

Thank you for elaborating on that. Now, let’s address COVID and how it’s impacting artists. Over 50 per cent of the revenue artists receive comes from ticket sales, live performances and touring. How has the impact of COVID impacted you, aside from the fact that you can’t go outside and perform, how has it affected you creatively? 

Daley: I think we both should answer this because we both could have different opinions or different perspectives. Some days it’s very uninspiring, some days you’re in the house and you’re energized and you’re motivated and you’re getting ready for the next chapter because one thing about this is this has never happened in the history of mankind. What we are witnessing right now never happened, period. There’s been a million things that has hit this planet and this world and society. But we’ve never just shut down the entire world before. So we have a lot of time to think, a lot of time to really see where you’re at with things, and to dig a little deeper. I try to do that when it comes to the approach to the music and the creativity. But it hurts that we can’t be outside and do not only our job but our passion. If there was anything that I’d want to be paid in besides money it would be the love from the fans, which we’ve been disconnected from. You know that alone makes it all worth it. A lot of artists dump a lot into their projects and their music is their everything so it’s like putting everything they have into a bowl and you have to just put it out the door and never get anything back. Usually we get to put it out the door and we get to go out and do shows and get it all back. We get to see what it did. We get to see that this song made you cry. This song made that person in the corner super emotional. This song is this one’s favourite. You know we get to hear it all, see it all, feel it all. You know that’s kind of been taken away from us right now, so it’s hard, besides obviously what it does financially and what it does as far as how we make our bread and butter as artists. It does a lot to you mentally, like where you’re at. It’s a tough time. But like anything in life, the strong survive.

Nineteen85: Yeah, I agree with Daniel. I think inspiration comes in waves with this. You definitely go through moments of feeling more inspired. Because you’re in the house, you have nothing to do, you’re just in your own head. So you feel like “hey, maybe I can be creative and get something off.” And that also comes with waves of feeling like you’re stuck and you’re in the same environment and there’s no outside influences to give you a reason to write a new song. It’s almost like you run out of pocket, you have like a creative block. But I think in a lot of this, you’ve got to just push through it or whatever that means. Because yeah, financially it isn’t the best situation for an artist or even just the lack of interaction with people is not the best thing. Because even though a lot of times we do thrive on our own personal time I think artists also need those interactions to then write about and to talk about these experiences because what else are we pulling from? If you’re not in the middle of something, situations, relationships, events. It’s kind of hard to pull everything out of thin air, even though we do spend a lot of time in isolation anyways, I do feel like the separation of this has made it a little bit difficult. A little bit more difficult than any other time. And then as Daniel was saying, the lack of interaction with just fans or an audience in general, it’s hard to make music or art in a bubble, and not know how people respond to it, if that’s the type of art you make. If you’re art is made for an audience, it’s hard to never really be able to present it to the audience in the way you made it.

You’ve both collaborated on discussing the challenges and limitations of not being able to interact and touched on how important an audience really is, especially for a group like yourself. Thank you for sharing. 

Let’s take things back to RBCxMusic. I know you both haven’t worked with an artist as of yet. But as mentors, what tips can you give a new artist to get their music out there, especially during this pandemic? And with First Up, these artists get a virtual set hosted on their personal Instagram channel. Any tips for performances via Instagram seeing as there is no stage with an audience? 

Nineteen85: I think right now I’d recommend to really use the internet as your tool. And by that I mean everyone has access to the internet but I don’t think everybody uses it the same way. So if you’re a singer or a rapper, understand that your audience is virtual, your audience is not in front of you. So you have to understand how certain things will translate too, so that can be even by choosing the right song. Think of it from your own perspective. What types of songs or performances capture you when you see somebody performing a song or when you’re scrolling through Instagram? Because I think we’ve all seen people put up a song they’re singing or rapping on their Instagram or Twitter but certain things for whatever reason stick out more to us, so I think if you know what your audience is and have a game plan as to who you’re trying to target, if you’re going for a certain audience maybe that means you’re sitting in front of a piano because you know that your audience would love to hear you play and sing. Or maybe if the background of wherever you’re at is going to capture the story you’re trying to tell a little bit better. I think knowing your strengths or weaknesses are good as well. Not everybody will sound as good if they’re not performing with music in the background. Some people might sound better if they’re just performing a cappella, so their voice is the only instrument. So I think there’s a few questions you could probably ask yourself and understand where you fall as far as what type of performance might translate the best.

Do you have an idea about any other opportunities that artists in Canada can take advantage of with RBCxMusic. Or for you, is it too new to comment on?

Daley: Yeah, it’s really new. We’re down to do whatever we can to kind of help the idea that this is all built on, which is giving back to the community, giving back to the artists, creating conversations with them and the people that have kind of pushed through these doors already. And also one thing I do hope gets incorporated with this and I think it will is even the financial literacy part of it all. I think that will go a long way and who better but people that actually deal with banking and deal with the money and figure out how to make this sustainable for a bunch of people coming up with a passion.

Nineteen85: It’s almost certain that whatever is done now will be a lot different than whatever will be four months from now, six months from now because so much is changing in the music industry based on where the world is at with COVID-19 and things like that. Even just where the world is at as far as being able to gather in spaces or have performances. So I feel like it’s going to be a learning process for everybody involved where had you asked this question even a year ago there are things that might have been in place and would have been a standard way to have workshops or even just learning sessions. But it’s like such a strange time for everybody in our industry right now.

You released your third album A Muse in Her Feelings in April 2020. Thinking back to when you released your first album, would both of you have been interested in a program like First Up with RBCxMusic?

Nineteen85: I definitely think we would have loved to have any of this type of guidance in those times. Especially In Toronto. Toronto didn’t have the music scene it currently has. A lot has changed and a lot is still changing. So I think it’s amazing that we’re a part of that change and also helping the next generation of artists but when we were that generation, there wasn’t very much to look at or to learn from, we were sort of just making mistakes and trying to come up.

Daley: I really kind of agree with what Paul just said. It’s about the changes that are happening now, it’s about making the differences now. What the future holds is kind of super unknown for 2021. I think the world is undergoing a change, period. I hope that it’s not so much of a change that some of the things we’ve known and loved are never the same way. But it’s kind of on us as society and a community to kind of like keep it pushing, keep looking out for one another, keep pulling the next person up. And keeping all of our minds you know breaking down barriers, that’s the only way we’re going to get through whatever’s coming.

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