French art pop frontwoman Olivia Merilahti talks about the sights and sounds that shaped The Dø's second release
Parisian musical duo The Dø have topped the charts in France, but they’re not at all your typical pop stars. They began their musical collaboration working on soundtracks for film and ballet and their emotive music is influenced by Hungarian composer Belá Bartók as it is by Björk.
Listening to the second album Both Ways Open Jaws, a wild variety of influences and inspirations tickle the ears, but talking to frontwoman Olivia Merilahti about her interests, musical and otherwise, and those of her partner Dan Levy, you realize there’s much more than meets the ear.
Is there any backlash against you in France for singing in English?
No, I don’t feel that and I wouldn’t care because now so many bands allow themselves to sing in English, so I think the mentality has changed. I think it’s quite clear that it’s an artistic choice not a strategic choice.
What inspired you guys to do that Janelle Monae cover, “Tightrope”?
We love that song so much. It was a song that we loved in the band. We were all crazy about that track. I have the obsession of changing the songs completely with covers and what was really fun with that one is that the tempo is really quick and so we wanted to slow it down and make it quite sultry and sensual. It was just a great challenge. I think all the musicians had fun with it as well.
You both started out making music for films and ballets?
I was singing in bands and I wanted to write songs. We met while we were both on the same soundtrack project. It was really the first time for me and Dan had done that before. Dan didn’t care about songs. We had many other projects after the first one where we met.
There was one project, a ballet by a Finnish choreographer. It was a coincidence that he was Finnish and I’m half Finnish. He ask us to make the music for the performance of his new play. That was quite an important step for The Dø, because The Dø did not exist before and that choreographer somehow pushed our own boundaries and asked for something we’d never done before. He was looking for a specific sound and so we had fun trying to appease his wishes and at the end there was a song called “The Bridge is Broken” that was used in that ballet. And at the end we put out an EP that had “The Bridge is Broken” and a few songs that were more contemporary or concrete music.
So, this choreographer is sort of responsible for you guys finding your sound?
Yeah, he just triggered something and we’re ever thankful for that.
Is he a fan of the band?
No, no, he’s a friend. We’ve seen him many times after that and we’ve had other projects with him after. He’s still a very close friend.
What did making music for films and ballets teach you that you’ve gone on to apply to pop music?
It’s not conscious at all for me, but I think in the beginning what was interesting and great and inspiring was we were working on different projects at the same time. So, different stories and different characters, and in between we started working on our own songs. We weren’t really working on an album, we were just making songs. We didn’t know what was going to happen next. That was inspiring.
And Dan has this obsession , I do too, but he knows how to do it really well, to have some sort of visual music. There’s space and there’s a lot of images in the color and the orchestral elements that we add to our music.
So, you are aware of a synesthetic component in your music?
We are now. People have pointed it out to us. It’s important for us now that each song have a different setting different characters, different moods. That’s how we like to move on from one song to another.
You’ve said before that you might consider doing a film soundtrack again. What director would you most like to write for?
I would prefer to write for a new director, a new fresh face who is ready for anything. It can be difficult, that’s why at some point we decided to stop working for film because directors usually come with a lot of references that we have to stick to. But maybe … well, we’ve been obsessed with David Lynch for this album.
I’ve read that you grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop. Who are your favorite current emcees?
I was just talking about this with my cousin who is in Finland and he was saying oh, I’m not excited by what is going on in hip-hop these days. And I was like oh, yeah, I have been listening to older stuff mostly. Except Azaelia Banks is really exciting. “212” is an amazing track. I think the girls these days are better than the boys. Even M.I.A., she’s a great hip-hop artist. Even though it’s not only hip-hop, she’s a great rapper.
I tried to listen to Odd Future but I couldn’t get into it. It’s all attitude. There no depth to it yet. I’m not so excited by it.
Are there any hip-hop artists you could see yourself collaborating with?
We want to do something with Die Antwoord. We’re fucking crazy about them. We’re obsessed with that project. It’s amazing. It’s vulgar. It’s gross. It’s ridiculous. It’s corny, but it’s genius as well.
What are some of your non-musical influences?
There is a Japanese film Oni Baba that was a big influence while we were working on the album. Also, manga by Kazuo Kamimura. I started reading that at the same time. They kind of matched I don’t know why.
When you guys first met I understand you had somewhat different musical tastes. You grew up on different things. Have you turned each other on to different things?
Well, sure, when we first met that’s all we did. Dan, his absolute masters are Stravinsky and Bartok and Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, which I didn’t know about at all. And I listened to them a lot and I think Monk has become one of my favorite musicians of all time.
On my side, I think I just introduced him to pop songs, very simply. I think he realized that a pop song can have an emotional impact that is as strong as a symphony, but it just takes a little less time.