Izzi Dunn: Cries, Smiles and Social Contradictions

A more vivacious conversationalist than Izzi Dunn you won’t find.   We’re sat in a riverside bar in Vauxhall South London and as she talks Izzi gesticulates insouciantly, her sentences sometimes struggling to keep up with her sharp mind as she switches from one train of thought to the next.  In short, she is a lot of fun to interview.

Singer/Songwriter, producer and Cellist-extraordinaire, Miss Dunn brings new meaning to the phrase ‘critically acclaimed’.  Her 2004 debut album The Big Picture received rave reviews from such reputable rags as the Independent on Sunday and was described by Blues & Soul magazine as ‘sublime’. 

Izzi has been headhunted by some of the biggest names in western music to feature on their records.  She heads up the Gorillaz string section ‘Demon Strings’, is about to go on tour with Damon Albarn and co and has everyone from Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B and UK Hip Hop legend Roots Manuva gushing over her abilities. 

Dunn’s love affair with music started in Sheffield where she grew up. She comes from a family of music lovers; her mother was an opera singer, her dad a vocalist and radio presenter.   They were very supportive of Izzi’s musical predilections, even giving her a taste of life on the road from early on.

“As a kid I travelled around with them so it was pretty much from birth,” she tells SoulCulture. “Mum and dad, they used to go out touring, doing all the theatres and stuff.  So it was always around me… I don’t think they ever really pushed but they encouraged me and my siblings to get into music.”

Izzi started the cello at nine after being given an ear test at school and told that her ‘big hands’ would be ideal for playing the instrument. Considering the cello is so readily associated with classical music I wonder where Izzi gets her long-standing affinity for it; it is an unusual choice for a soul artist.

“A lot of people start on a classical instrument like violin and piano and then move to drums or to bass.  I suppose I just didn’t move,” she explains. “I could have gone into playing bass and maybe it wouldn’t have been as weird to combine that or piano with the kind of music I make.  The cello never changed; I always played and worked with it.  So to me it’s quite a natural progression.”

The Family Dunns’ listening habits encompassed Swing and Big Band music but it was through the Acid Jazz explosion of the 1990s-with groups such as The Young Disciples, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies – that young Izzi was introduced to Soul.

According to Dunn she was a musical geek, locked in her room practising for hours.  Yet it would have taken this kind of focus to forge ahead especially when she reached her teens, a time when many abandon learning an instrument altogether. “I just got so immersed and loved it, straight away,” she says.  “I seemed to be oblivious to the piss-taking, the stuff that goes along with it.”

Izzi doesn’t feel she fits some of the stereotypes of musicians who were classically trained from a young age, either. “My family weren’t rich.  I’m not saying I wasn’t privileged to get to do music because I was.  But as far as the idea of Laura Ashley dresses and living in a mansion, playing the cello and everything is wonderful, that really wasn’t the case.  My family were working class and they wanted better for me.”

Success as a professional cellist came early for Izzi. “I started making money quite young at 16 or 17, working, busking, gigs, sessions… Before I set off to college I was already doing things as a cellist.  I fit a lot in at a young age.  I was lucky.”

Izzi’s musical palate ranges from the ‘mind-blowing’ string arrangements of Serge Gainsbourg, to Earth, Wind and Fire, Prince and Massive Attack.  Vocally I think Dunn is a dead ringer for Kele Le Roc, a comparison she finds flattering.   However it’s stateside songstresses who have had the most enduring impact on her as a singer.

“I grew up mostly loving Chaka Khan to pieces and people like Carleen Anderson… she is amazing.”  Izzi shares, “Before I got into Soul I was listening to a lot more folky stuff such as Tracy Chapman.  I listened to her debut album literally over and over again.”  Dunn is also a great admirer of Mary J Blige. “There’s something about her that I absolutely adore.  It’s the passion; it’s absolutely unbridled. She just loses herself.”

With string instruments being the mainstay of Izzi’s artistry, I ask if she ever tries to imitate the texture of the cello with her voice. “No,” she replies, “because it took me so long to get round to singing, I think I have a slightly different approach to it. At first it was all about melodies on string instruments and that’s obviously going to affect how you write.  I think now I’ve almost done the opposite… I’ve gone more into concentrating on things that aren’t string melodies.”

Earlier this year Izzi released The Bigger Picture EP – a sample of songs past and present.  Hard to miss is the proto-feminist track ‘Tits and Ass’.  In a previous interview Izzi said she wrote the song to address the inconsistent attitudes towards sex in contemporary society. “We use sex every day to get by, or to get on.  If it’s subliminal and tasteful we buy into it as something to admire, but the more blatant it becomes the more we vilify it – whether we like to admit this hypocrisy or not.”

Dunn is pleasantly surprised when I tell her I’m a fan of the song. “I’m so happy because some people get it and some people don’t.  I wrote it and didn’t even think twice.  I was just honestly feeling a certain way and had an opinion which just literally came out.  It wasn’t until after I’d done the song I realised it was quite a contentious thing. It’s a mixture of us being fed things that we don’t realise we’re hearing.  A lot of people don’t listen to lyrics.  So I think sometimes it’s not necessarily that they don’t agree, it’s just they don’t process what I’m saying.”

Izzi becomes even more animated when discussing the double standards she sought to highlight in ‘Tits and Ass’.  She takes umbrage in particular with a comment on the video from one detractor.

“He was criticising the fact there were girls poll dancing… He just didn’t get it.  You watch videos, day in and day out with this same thing in it.  This song is called ‘Tits and Ass’.  You don’t like it then why were you watching it in the first place if you knew by the title what I was showing you? I thought this is exactly the reason why I made the song.  When this guy reacted this way and said it was disgusting I was like, ‘There you go’.”

There is, incidentally, a lot of T&A in the actual video.  Still, the irony is not lost on Izzi; she uses it to emphasise her point. “We’re sold products nothing to do with sex at all.  Yet we show the same images in a video-and I won’t mention a particular video, there’s too many-of exactly the same thing but there’s no honesty about it whatsoever.

“I’ve done a song which tells you all the ridiculous contradictions we have in our society about sex; we’re prudish about it but we have Page 3. We’re completely schizophrenic about sex.  I’m not criticising the women that do it; far from it.  Whether we like to think it or not we all use sex subliminally a lot of the time.  As long as you’re honest about it; it’s the honesty I’m trying to get across.  One artist will sell it in the most honest way and the other one will act all innocent about it.”

Although she’s not condemning strippers and the like there is – dare I use the word – an empowering aspect to ‘Tits and Ass’.  At one point she sings “Put that away; why don’t you show some class? You know there’s more to you than just Tits and Ass.”

Izzi admits to some cognitive dissonance on her part regarding the issue. “Even in the song I’m contradicting myself because that’s how confusing things are.  It’s the irony of all these things and how we are totally selective.”

Dunn’s lyrics generally have a lot of substance to them.  ‘Oblivious’ for instance is a backlash against the UK and US government’s choice to go to war in Iraq.   She puts this profundity down to the influence of sophisticated pop and Hip Hop even more so. “I love storytellers,’ she says and cites The Police, Tracy Chapman, Nick Drake, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen and Common as amongst those who have inspired her writing.

Izzi has just finished working with uber-MC du jour Jay Electronica which she claims was a dream come true.  She is particularly impressed with his ‘amazing’ wordplay.  Dunn is a huge fan of Roots Manuva too.  “He has had a huge influence on me because of his lyrics; I have to raise my game because he is so quick.  He’s got such an incredible way with words.”

Izzi is particularly proud of Cries and Smiles – her new album (released on 20 September) – although she’s aware it might not sit comfortably alongside most of today’s radio fodder. “I’m older; I’ve got to make music that I would at my age.  I’m really happy with the sound of my album.  It doesn’t fit with the synthesised music of now. 

“There’s a lot of music [around] that is kind of copycat. There’ll be a seminal track that will stand out at the start of a new era but the rest of them will always be secondary.  So if you want to follow that, go ahead. In a way it counted against me when I made the album because I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t sound current’ – but as an artist you’ve just got to do what you do.  So I’m really happy.”

It bears witness to how much Dunn is respected by her peers that Cries and Smiles features contributions from former Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zender, The Brand New Heavies’ Andrew Levy and The Pharcyde’s Booty Brown. Despite the many musical veterans singing Izzi’s praises, her attitude is refreshingly humble.

“If you go around thinking your s*** doesn’t stink and have got it all in a bag, you’re in trouble. I’m lucky I’ve worked with fabulous musicians… I couldn’t even touch them.  It’s humbling being around them.  In some ways it can really inspire you. At the same time it can make you think, ‘How can I try and write a song hearing that tune?'”

“I’m also learning things from people I’ve worked with like Damon Albarn.   He doesn’t necessarily have to be the most incredible at an instrument but it’s [about] intention and feel and passion and texture… something, that can add volumes to your music.  It made me concentrate more on production because I’d seen the processes other people had gone through.  If that’s how those kinds of artists do it, maybe I should take more time to do that or experiment with more layers.”

Following the plaudits heaped on her debut album there must be some pressure for Cries and Smiles to exceed expectations. Izzi doesn’t see it that way. “I feel like I’ve got such a blessed life doing what I have done already up to this point as a cellist. Everything that happens from now on-writing songs that people listen to and like – is a huge bonus to me.  There’s no expectation on it really at all. 

“If as an artist, you have this effect and people buy your music, you should wake up every day being bloody grateful and feeling blessed about it. It’s not a given; nothing’s a given in life.”


Photography by Neil Raja