Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
“There’s no literal narrative to it, but I was feeling a little lost and started thinking about certain events and people,” Daniel Woolhouse (AKA brooding South London artist Deptford Goth) says of Union, the second single from his debut album ‘Life After Defo’. “I wanted to write about those fluctuations between feelings of isolation and connectivity. Every so often you have a realisation about something and it gives you a moment or two of clarity and a kind of reassurance.”
The fluctuation that Woolhouse is getting at is one that defines his record as a whole, and that comes through especially on Union because it was written with the isolation/connectivity split in mind. He explains that “the chorus lyrics allude to that connective outward-looking moment, and the verses are more of an introverted examination.” After his murky debut EP ‘Youth II’ [Merok, 2011], the singer-songwriter appears to be much more consciously striving towards classic pop song structures on ‘Life After Defo’, but he couples this structural logic with the illogical sway of emotion, matching a verse/chorus/verse structure with a self/others/self sensibility. Throughout the album there are moments that reach out to the listener and moments of resonating introspection; Union presents those contradictory impulses in one song, and with a hook so reassuring that it hits like a coma (“I belong with everyone, everyone I’ve ever known / I belong with everyone, everyone I’ve ever known is here”) it stands triumphantly at the helm of an album full of deeply empathetic pop songs.
Deptford Goth – Union
“I hoped that writing with some ambiguity would allow them to remain personal whilst making them inclusive.” – Deptford Goth
Boiling the song’s essence down to a sentence, Woolhouse says, “It’s about allowing the past to exist, an acknowledgement that things happen and they stay with you and that’s okay.” “Allowing the past to exist” seems to me to be a great phrase to keep in mind when thinking about ‘Life After Defo’ in general; not only because of the inherent acceptance that it suggests, and which can be felt throughout the calm wave of Daniel’s densely instrumental music, but because of that present-tense assumption that everything that’s ever happened to you exists within you at once. “I belong with everyone, everyone I’ve ever known is here.”
And are all the feelings he was writing about still as poignant now, when he has to re-live them under stage lights and into microphones? “A lot of the things I was thinking about on the record, I’m still thinking about now and will always be a part of me, so there’s still that connection, it just becomes a slightly different thing once you’ve articulated it in some way.”
Deptford Goth and I chatted online over the course of a few weeks leading up to the release of his album, which felt a lot for me like having the pieces of a puzzle but not having the box; I couldn’t really see the whole picture that I was trying to re-create. That changed when I saw him perform at The Waiting Room in mid-March, craning over a cluster of eager audience members to catch a glimpse of him and his low-key set-up (unsurprising given he says he made the album with ““a few guitars, a couple of synths, a piano, various USB controllers, a laptop and an electronic cigarette”). He sat quietly at his keyboard, scarcely looking up and only venturing to actually say something when he’d already played three songs. The surprise addition of cellist and backing vocalist Rhosyn (of Oxford’s Blessing Force crew) to his live show made it all the more transcendent, with vocals mingling together on some of the more emotional hooks and the rich lurches of cello adding another layer of power to the songs.
Deptford Goth – Life After Defo
Even though he’s nervous, he’s figured out the art of completely commanding a room, and on the topic of composition, it becomes clear that ‘Life After Defo’ as a whole was an exercise in learning how to be in control. “I went through different stages – elation, fear, boredom, anxiety… I think initially I was just really excited to be able to spend some proper time writing and trying stuff out, and then that shifted into a realisation that I had less constraints, and with that restriction being lifted it felt a bit like I was out in the middle of nowhere. But then I settled into a routine and the songs started to come together and I had a better idea of what I wanted to do with the record.”
“It’s definitely a way of expressing things that are difficult to talk about conversationally. It can make me feel vulnerable.” – Deptford Goth
Given the subject matter of the songs – wallowing in loneliness, recounting heartbreak, reaching out for an empathetic glow of hope – it’s easy to imagine this being an isolated process, and so under the scrutiny of an audience those moments of quiet contemplation in front of a keyboard become something you feel almost uncomfortable cheering and clapping at. That’s not helped by Woolhouse’s intense quietness – at one point in the gig he ventures “so…how is everyone?” and the rooms bursts with a rush of relieved laughter. Is he shy? “A bit. I think it’s more of a confidence thing, a propensity for anxiety.” So is music a way of taking the anxiety out of talking about certain subjects? “Yes, it’s definitely a way of expressing things that are difficult to talk about conversationally. It can make me feel vulnerable if I’m with somebody and they’re listening, but while I’m making stuff, writing and recording I don’t really think about it.”
Woolhouse isn’t hiding in his music, though. “I’d say it’s all me. I think the name can be misleading in that it could be interpreted as some kind of character, but it’s not really. But using a different name might make it easier to be honest in some ways, to be more communicative, because you can create a little distance from your normal modes of interaction.” To him, Deptford Goth isn’t a facade, but a channel through which it’s a little easier to express certain things – a way of finding “a little distance”.
“I don’t know if I actively engage in a thought process of ‘what rules is that song following’, but I suppose if you grow up listening to different stuff, including mainstream radio, then you glean the bits you like.” – Deptford Goth
With ‘Life After Defo’, then, Woolhouse has found just the right amount of distance, because the most obvious and astounding departure of the new Deptford Goth material in comparison to the old is its up-front, face-on approach and its unashamed appreciation for the pop song form. Peppered with incredibly moving hooks (my favourites include “if you’re telling me there’s no such thing as heartache” on Objects Objects and “forever meant nothing when we had nothing” from Feel Real) the record wears its influences in a self-consciously restrained and yet much more liberated way than ever before. Asked about his favourite song of the moment, Daniel tells me, “ Mozart’s Sister by Mozart’s Sister is the best pop song I’ve heard in a while, it’s really addictive, operatic euphoria. Makes me bounce.”
Deptford Goth – Feel Real
To what extent were these songs written with the addictive euphoria of classic pop in mind? “I don’t know if I actively engage in a thought process of ‘what rules is that song following’, but I suppose if you grow up listening to different stuff, including mainstream radio, then you glean the bits you like from things,” Daniel says. “I remember being on holiday somewhere in England when I was younger, and it was raining loads so we were in the car a lot. And the radio was playing Female of the Species by Space and Fugees’ Killing Me Softly all the time, non-stop. I don’t know if that has any value as an anecdote, but for some reason I remember it pretty vividly.” It has a lot of value as an anecdote; listening again to the album, I can hear it like a child listening to a car radio, the muffled beats and familiar rise-and-fall structure carrying you passively along in a feeling of communal enjoyment. Every now and then, though, startling moments occasionally reach through the sound of the rain battering the windows, making you feel them just that little bit closer and clearer.