DIANA took the indie music scene by storm in 2013 with their debut album Perpetual Surrender. Almost by accident, the band achieved enormous critical and commercial success without ever even playing live together. Formed out of the desire to make use of excess studio time that drummer Kieran Adams and saxophonist Joseph Shabason had, Carmen Elle joined what was conceived as a one-off recording project. They never expected their collaboration to explode like it did.
After posting their album on SoundCloud, the first single, “Born Again“, blew up. One after one, singles from Perpetual Surrender became hits, making DIANA one of the most exciting new indie bands of the year. Suddenly, this one-off recording project was now a band being courted by record labels and booked to tour. DIANA signed to Jagjaguwar and by 2014, Perpetual Surrender had been nominated for the Polaris Music Prize.
The whirlwind of the album’s success propelled the band through a long period of extensive touring and promotion so it’s no surprise that when the time came to begin constructing their second album, they packed up their gear and retreated to a Quebec cottage to write and record what would become Familiar Touch. This time around, DIANA was a fully formed band who had an established fan base and a history of critical praise. They took their time. In stark contrast to the two weeks of studio time that gave birth to Perpetual Surrender, the band spent over five months meticulously writing and recording their sophomore record.
After completing Familiar Touch, DIANA experienced another landmark moment in their career that would further cement their bond as a band. After presenting the finished album to Jagjaguwar, they faced creative differences resulting in the band leaving the label and signing with Culvert Music. Familiar Touch, in its unaltered form, was released last month and has been received with enthusiastic reviews championing DIANA’s vision and belief in their album.
While DIANA’s accomplishments are what most musicians dream of achieving, the nonstop pace of capitalizing on success can often feel like a struggle. Carmen Elle opened up to Stories Behind The Songs about DIANA’s triumphs and challenges over past three years, showing the grit it takes to succeed in this industry. Before heading out on tour, Elle revealed to SBTS how the band really felt about their first record, her battle with being a musician while coping with touring anxiety, her unique approach to songwriting, the process of creating and defending Familiar Touch, and the whirlwind that has been life in DIANA.
Carmen: Mmhmm, that was the deal.
Then suddenly, your music is an online success and you end up signing with a label and touring. Before that happened, was there ever a conversation within the band about not touring or signing to a label and just remaining a recording band?
C: Uh… not exactly, from what I can remember. I was very much like, “Hey guys, I don’t love touring” but it didn’t happen all at once. First it was, “Well, what about one show in New York?” and then, “Well, we should warm up for that show. Let’s just do an AGO First Thursdays” then “Before we do the AGO we should just do a show at The Drake”. So we had those three shows but it was very manageable – it was two Toronto things and a New York thing. Partially, I felt really pressured and like I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t feel empowered enough to be like, “No” at any point. I didn’t even think I could really so I went along with it. Yeah, it wasn’t the best way that it went down, for sure.
Well, that makes sense. I mean, you’re a musician your whole life and then suddenly that level of success happens. How do you even process “No” to it? You know, so many people are trying to achieve that so it could seem crazy to consider not going for it.
C: Yeah, it was very much “We can get signed to a label!”, “We have to tour though”, “We can get distribution on this album!”, “We have to tour though”, “We’ve got a booking agent!”, “We definitely have to tour”. Everything kind of revolved around it and the spirit of the band was just like, “QUICK!”
When did you make the decision to make a second album? Was it when you were still touring Perpetual Surrender?
C: Toward the end of the touring cycle, I was in a pretty good place. I remember us being in Europe for a little over a month and when we were heading back home I remember telling Joseph (he reminds me all the time that I said this), “I’m kinda gonna miss being on the road” [laughs]. But then we came back and the funny thing is that so much time passed that I forgot what it was like to be on the road again so then the fear kind of crept back.
We were so sick of that album because we had toured it for so long that everybody was kind of excited at the thought of having some new songs. I think Joseph and Kieran just sort of went for it! And this is the way that our band has been. They were like, “We have new songs! Here we GO!”. I don’t think that they sit down and have this two year calendar and are like, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to put Carmen through now!”. They’re never like that.
C: I think I was very away of the sophomore slump kind of thing that happens. But we were not as stoked on that first record as other people were. So, we were kind of like, Perpetual Surrender is done. Fuck that record. We would have changed everything about it. Well, it’s a good record, but there were certain decisions that we made mixing and stuff that we knew we definitely didn’t want to do [again] and so it was going to be radically different no matter what. I mean, the bones, the foundation of the songs, were written by Kieran and Joseph and I really didn’t have to deal with sitting down at a computer and being like, “Okay, I’ve got to write this song that’s gonna be better than the other…” Really, I just came in and was like, “How can I help?”.
I always wonder about that. I asked Wintersleep that question about the success of their single “Weighty Ghost” and how they had been around for years before that song blew up and if that affected how they approached writing their next album. Like, how do you deal with that?
C: I think it’s something you just need to push through because you think about how you write an album and you release it and you tour it and everyone’s like, “When’s your new album gonna come out?”. It’s that whole thing. And then you play the new record and they’re like, “Play your old stuff! Play ‘Born Again’!” [laughs]
After you finished Familiar Touch and you took it to your label at the time, Jagjaguwar, they weren’t on the same page as the band when it came to the direction of the album. That must be such a difficult experience – to have a collection of work that you’re happy with and for your team to not feel the same way about it. How did you handle that?
C: We were lucky because we were able to leave that situation. We had a difference of opinion and Jagjag was really nice about letting us go so we didn’t get fucked. But I think that is a really shitty situation to be in. Not so much because it’s an ego blow if somebody doesn’t like it – it’s totally fine and usually I don’t align with what record labels like in music anyway – but when you get stuck in a label and they’re like, “We don’t like it but we’re not going to let you go either!”. That’s when it’s really shitty because then you think about all of the time, money, energy, plus your soul that you put into this thing! I think we were really grounded in our belief that it was a good record. Maybe that’s all you need to do in those situations.
As a band, you guys have gone through a lot together in a short span of time. You had sudden success and fame, then you signed to a label, went on tour, wrote a sophomore album and then signed to another label – you must be really tight at this point to have gone through all of that together.
C: Yeah, definitely. We have done a lot of things together and we’ve made a lot of mistakes in relationship with one another and have started to work all of that stuff out which is really great. I used to be the kind of person who, once the well is poisoned, would be like [throws hands up], “I’m out!” [laughs]. But now it’s like, one day at a time. And you know, we’re like-minded people. We don’t party on the road. We’ll see what happens on this tour because we’re now nine instead of four. When Paul Mathew, our former bass player, departed the band, we wound up replacing him with two people because everybody was so maxed out. Kieran was doing drums and electronic drums and samples and running his computer and even playing keyboards and Joseph was playing bass synths with his feet and saxophone and like three synths, I don’t even know, and Paul was playing baritone guitar and bass and bass synth. It was just like, crazy. So our core touring lineup is five and then we got two backup singers because of how many vocal layers there are on the record.
Speaking of being on the road, you’ve spoken about your anxiety in the past and I wanted to talk about your coping methods. You’ve mentioned that you meditate and stay out of the venue until the moment you go on stage to help ease your anxiety – are there any other things that help relax you when you’re feeling anxious?
C: The way that I’ve always dealt with anxiety is by not telling anyone that I’m anxious. I really internalize. A lot of people can’t tell when I’m having a panic attack because I would be like this right now but maybe a little quieter. People keep being like, “You have to start letting that energy out!” because it’s really exhausting bottling it. But I have a really hard time letting people know that I’m anxious because I always feel like I’m inconveniencing them.
I remember on a tour that we went on last summer my therapist said, “If you have a panic attack in the car, you just ask them to pull over and you just do some jumping jacks or just run around in a field” and I never did it, not once! It’s such a horrible feeling because once you acknowledge that you’re having a panic attack rather than pretending you’re not, then you have to deal with it. It’s also hard because you don’t need anybody to do anything for you but everyone’s like, “Okay! What do we do?” and it’s like, “NOTHING!” [laughs]
But [regarding coping methods], I definitely advocate doing things that are safe. I’m not saying medicate or drink or anything. Some people bring essential oils to smell and feel calm. I sometimes have a stress ball that I’ll squeeze. I used to make really long playlists full of my favourite songs. Songs that are really familiar to me so I could just like, sink into them. I also find books on tape to be good because they really help the time pass. Having all of the things that I need, like making sure I don’t forget anything, is huge. I really like bringing my own pillow that I can hug or sleep against because when I hit a certain level of anxiety I just fall asleep. That’s how my body has started to deal with it, especially on tour. Like as soon as I get in the car. I’m a really shitty driver to have on the insurance [laughs].
C: [laughs] Yeah, Daniel from Moon King.
With that in mind, you’ve said that you love being on stage and the feeling of the energy exchange between the band and the audience and it reminded me of something BANKS said when I was interviewing her. She talked about how when she first started performing, she felt super alone when she’d come offstage and that she’s now come to understand that it’s because she gives all of her energy to the audience so afterwards, she’s drained of that energy and is alone with her empty body. After you experience that energy exchange with the audience, does that fill you up or do you feel similar to what she was describing?
C: That is a very good question. My mom does Reiki and she explained how she perceives energy – and the BANKS thought is really, really profound but when I heard you say it, it made me think that I’m a vessel and you’re a vessel and you can be full and I can be empty and vice versa – but my mom’s like, “No, we’re just channels.” Because things just pass through you. That’s ideal, right? Like, whenever I’m onstage, I’m giving all of this energy but I’m getting back way more than I’m giving, in a way. Sometimes, if it’s an emptier room or people aren’t super into it, then I give way more because they’re not self-perpetuating their own energy as much. But yeah, I never feel empty afterwards.
When you first started playing guitar, you were nine years old and you started writing songs around age 12. You’ve said that once teenage angst set in, you started writing constantly and that many of your songs were about being alone. Is that a theme that still comes up for you when you write now?
C: I definitely can’t write when I’m happy. This is abundantly clear for me. You ever have those times when, for like a week, you’re pissed or heartbroken or whatever? That’s usually when I do a lot of writing and it’s because I want to communicate something to other people in the world who I consider to also have the potential to feel that thing. I never write for me. I’m always writing thinking about who would listen to this and who would feel comforted by it.
Wow, I’ve never heard anyone say that before. So, do you still feel like your songwriting is really personal?
C: Mmhmm, yeah. It has to be. Maybe this is self-serving in that it’s also a comfort to me to think somebody else is definitely going through something similar so let’s make a song about it.
C: It’s very abstract how it happens. Usually I feel like I’ve got a bee nest in my head. There’s just this flurry of energy and activity and then I’ll sit down and start plonking away on the guitar. If I find something that I kind of like then usually the chord progression has certain words that then jump out at me. It’ll be like the word ‘stop’ and then I’ll be like, “Okay, so there’s that word” and then I build a line around it and then that line often becomes the topic sentence of the song. It goes from there and at the end of writing it, I’ll go, “Oh, that’s what I was thinking about today!”. But it’s very automatic. My problem is, I write a really good verse 1 and then can’t write a chorus or verse 2. I usually nail it on verse 1 and I say everything that I want to say in the song and it’s perfect and I’m like, “Oh, shit! I still have to come up with 90% of this!” [laughs].
C: I used to, when I was younger, write really, really fast and I would kind of just shit these songs out that weren’t as good as they could be, probably. The choruses were usually one line repeated twice or just once as a sort of turn-around to the verse which was really where I felt things were good lyrically. That’s where I shined. My verses. [laughs]
C: Now I try so hard. I have voice memos on my phone of nine versions of the same song and I’ll rewrite the chorus six times and it’s usually still not very good. I don’t know how to write a good chorus. But then, in revising the song that many times, it does get a little bit better.
C: Mmhmm. What I really like to do is take a word or a phrase that’s, in my mind, the most profound line in the song and I’ll sneak it in somewhere that it doesn’t shine. I’ll put it like in the third line in the second verse or something and just like tuck it away in there because I think that it’s almost more meaningful if that line hits you when you’re listening to it one day and you’re like, “Oh man! Yeah!” instead of the people who take that best line and they’re like, “This is the chorus line!” which kind of makes it mean less to me.
When you were saying that certain words jump out at you when you’re writing, it reminded me of when I was interviewing Laura Sauvage and she was talking about how she sees colours when she writes her songs. Does that also happen to you?
C: Yeah, that’s synesthesia. I also have a little bit of synesthesia but it’s in the form of shapes and it doesn’t do much. I don’t write based on a visual landscape but it really helps me in regards to relative pitch which is just a nerdy thing.
You, Kieran and Joseph spent a lot of time crafting the lyrics for this album. Did you write the lyrics together? You used lyric boards right?
C: They were not so much lyric boards as overall master to-do list boards. Kieran wrote the bulk of the lyrics. There’s a song called “The Coward” on the record that I wrote in its entirety. We all kind of fit the songs together collaboratively. For example, I have really strong opinions about the aesthetics of words. If there are two words that mean the same thing but sound radically different, I’m the one who’s very opinionated about which word makes it into the song. Kieran will be like, “Well, I think this word has more of a delicate meaning about this thing” and I’ll be like, “Yeah but listen to how it sounds when I sing it!” [laughs]. Kieran is very detail-oriented and Joseph is very detail-oriented with other things so that’s my thing.
C: Everyone has a different interpretation of this record. Mine is that – and this might just be where I’m at in my life right now – but I think the album is about contending with yourself and the struggle to find yourself, be more comfortable or compassionate with yourself because a lot of the songs are love songs or sad love songs but they’re not so much about like, “Oh you went away and I miss you so much! Come back!” so much as they are, “Ooh, what did I do in this situation that was kind of fucked up?”. It’s a lot of that. It’s a very introspective album.
C: I came up with the name. It was a song that we rejected that didn’t make it onto the album.
Did you have a certain sound that you wanted to achieve for Familiar Touch? I’m thinking about the fact that you’re coming from the big, sudden success from Perpetual Surrender. Did you have a conversation before you started creating about what it should sound like?
C: I think we had a few conversations about making it more live and less sort of studio driven. It is still very much a studio record but we wrote it in a room all playing instruments with one another as opposed to at a computer with plugins and synths. DIANA is a band that writes very much based on what we’re listening to. So, you know, I would be like, “Oh man, there’s this Beyoncé song and it’s got this snare sound that’s so good!” and a lot of people would be like, “Let’s draw inspiration from that”, we’re like, “Let’s copy it exactly!” [laughs]. You get that total tone and then you put it in and the song’s built around that and then we’re like, “The Beyoncé thing isn’t working” and we take it out but there’s still so many things that are inspired by that. We were all listening to Sadé a lot so for me, I was like, “Oh, it’s going to sound like a Sadé record” [laughs]. I can hear it in a couple of ways for sure. We were also listening to The Blue Nile which is an ’80s band from Scotland. But just a lot of that big ’80s production.
C: Umm.. I think about myself as a human as being primarily somebody with an anxiety disorder, that’s like my number one. It’s like, 1) English speaker, 2) Canadian, 3) anxiety disorder [laughs]. I think about how many aspects of music are really fucked up by my anxiety disorder. Like, I can’t really travel, it’s hard to be on stage sometimes… It’s like, [raises one hand] here’s this natural ability [raises other hand] and here are zero life skills to deal with it! [laughs] Which is so unfortunate! I always felt like I didn’t luck out in that way but then, the fact is, I still kept writing and I still kept singing and I still kept playing so to me, it’s so beautiful and profound that it grew in spite of me. It’s like a tree that grew in the worst climate. I think that’s the reason I never quit because the other stuff is sort of surface shit, it’s just trivial, and this is this deep thing that keeps happening.
C: I think that music connects me with my most authentic self. It’s just… All of those moments of connection and clarity and feeling really grounded are always music-related for me.
Check out DIANA at their album release show in Toronto this Thursday at The Great Hall
Twitter: @DIANAtheband Instagram: @familiar_touch