Kaity Dunstan wrote and recorded one of her first songs when she was only 11 or 12 with her sister for a school competition. “Just A Memory” was super corny, “literally about nothing,” and lost them the competition, hard. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
It’s a decade later and, thankfully for Dunstan (aka CLOVES), that early musical attempt is just a distant, cringeworthy memory itself. The London via Melbourne artist has a lot consuming her attention right now: a US tour with English soul musician Michael Kiwanuka that kicked off at the Fonda last week, a music video for single “California Numb” on the horizon, and a debut LP set to drop in late 2017/early 2018. The former particularly dominates her attention – despite having performed in Melbourne pubs since she was about 13 years old, Dunstan gets major performance anxiety. Sitting across from me the day before her Fonda show in a low-key outfit of white sneakers, grey skinny jeans, and a faded Budweiser t-shirt, the 21-year-old confesses that she’s already devoured by nerves.
“But you just have a little gin and it’s fine,” she quips. Her voice is like what one might imagine a Siamese cat would sound like if given human language capabilities.
In the four years since her appearance on The Voice Australia she has signed with Interscope, had a song from her 2015-released EP XIII featured in the film Me Before You, and, most recently, sold out her first headlining show in London. Dunstan has long been drawn to the city and its music, naming moody artists like Radiohead and Amy Winehouse (her “pop idol”) as a couple of her favorites. Now, it’s the place she calls home.
The sparse, piano-driven ballads on XIII are perhaps closer to Adele, but Dunstan’s soulful delivery and smoky smooth voice garner comparisons to Winehouse. The melancholic, confessional tone of Banks also comes to mind; the similarity makes sense considering that Dunstan’s writing partner, Justin Parker, names the artist as one of his many collaborators.
But in the few years since it was released, Dunstan has matured and her new music with it. She looks back on XIII with a hint of the reproach she has for her adolescent musical endeavors.
“I think that’s something that I’ve grown into as well, like being more sure of myself,” she said. “Just knowing who I am in the now, and I think maybe that just comes with maturity or life lessons or whatever. I think more so the EP is sort of that young, vulnerable side. “Don’t Forget About Me” feels like a song that’s quite young, whereas now it would be more trying to hold your own at the same time.”
On her upcoming debut, the singer gets tough with her subjects, herself for starters. “California Numb” is bigger and bolder in both attitude and sound. Hefty back-up vocals and rollicking guitar and drums fill up previously empty space while the singer confides, “I don’t like my face or how I’m turning out.”
“California Numb” is about when you feel like you’re becoming a bit of a dick and you sort of need to pull yourself back in,” said Dunstan. “It’s quite easy to get lost in California and it’s really about that feeling of losing yourself and becoming somebody you don’t want to be and then pulling yourself back.”
At the same time, Dunstan remains as emotionally complex as ever. She believes in representing the full spectrum of emotions people experience – the vulnerable and self-hating with the powerful and confident, the sad with the happy. “Better Now,” released last November, exemplifies this ambivalence. The end of a relationship prompts a mess of feelings in Dunstan, from arrogance (“can you honestly live without me”) to self-doubting “(I’m getting nowhere fast”) to pissed off (“I said ‘get the fuck out’/burn your pictures”) to mournful (“just for a moment I’m free/then it dawns on me/that our time has passed”).
And that’s as close to reality as it gets. Life is bittersweet, and Dunstan is as real in her music as she is in her day to day.
“You don’t always feel strong and don’t always feel weak, you’re back and forth. I think that’s how I am as a person as well – some days I’m feeling really good and some days – I don’t even know what’s going on,” she said, laughing.
Dunstan tells me with quiet excitement that she has worked and worked and tweaked her new songs until they’re “10% extra.” Whatever that means, I have no doubt that they will be as punch-to-the-gut honest as the singer herself.
Written by Kylie Obermeier