Nicholas Bannerman speaks to vocalist and improviser Dali de Saint Paul about stage fright, the refugee crisis and Bristol’s evolving experimental scene.
Top image: Dom Moore
A music scene in a city such as Bristol is a complex web of artists, venues, labels, histories and so on, but it is the people involved who shape the character of what is happening more than anything else. Right now, vocalist, promoter and bloody good egg Dali De Saint Paul is piling a lot of energy into numerous stand out projects in Bristol, and believes that it’s thanks to the continual encouragement from those around her that she is doing anything at all.
Dali grew up near Lyon, moving to Bristol in 2011. This move inspired an enormous change for her as she escaped an atmosphere in France she’d found stifling. “It was so hard for people to do something without being judged. You couldn’t create before thinking and thinking, in the end you create nothing. That’s why I didn’t have the desire of doing things in France.”
Having always sung to herself, usually “when under the shower,” she began to make music with others in 2012: “it was pointless to just carry on, on my own, I realised I needed to create with other people.” Dali believes her experience of singing with her sisters during childhood is significant to this recognition.
Her search for collaborators led her to The Cube Microplex – a volunteer-led cinema, arts and music venue – where Orchestra Cube has weekly open access improv sessions. “I was so unsure what I was doing, I remember well my first time, I was terrified, I just had a microphone, it was all men and my English was poor. It took some time for my confidence to grow. I’m thankful to the friends I made there, they were saying to me: “don’t be afraid, it’s going well and what you are doing is good”. For my first performances with the Orchestra Cube, I hid behind the curtain, because I was scared and didn’t want to go out in front of people.”
After six months of Orchestra Cube sessions, Dali was invited to join Domestic Sound Cupboard (DSC), an electro-acoustic improv collective made up of regulars at the Orchestra Cube sessions. “My first band. It’s really close to my heart. We still have four original members. The spirit is more jazzy than anything else I do and so is my approach, it’s because of Harry Furniss’ cornet!”
DSC didn’t play publicly until starting a monthly night in 2013 called The Sound Cupboard (TSC). “DSC always wanted to have somewhere to perform, but we also wanted to have a night where we could put weird stuff on too. One of our first acts was Henry Collins (DJ Shitmat). He just read the menu of a restaurant from across the road, in a really funny way.”
After a season at the Bristol Fringe, TSC moved to The Crofters Rights on Stokes Croft, where it remains today. In 2015, Dali inherited the job of running the night. “TSC exists to open the stage to people who don’t often get to perform their music in Bristol – there are so many creative people not being asked to play very often – for example EMEI and Adi are both playing fantastic music. TSC offers an opportunity for more cross-over between the free jazz, experimental and electronic scenes.”
After years spent honing vocal techniques with DSC, Dali became hungry to perform more often. In 2016 she formed EP/64, with drummer Dan Johnson a frequent collaborator. Inspired by a dream, the project will perform live 64 times and then stop. The 50th concert took place in the woods at the 2019 edition of Supernormal Festival.
“It’s something I created with the idea of finding total freedom with friends for just a small time, not thinking too much, just energy and liberation through music. There is no calculation at all; we do not talk about what we are going to do.” Acts to have played with EP/64 include Ben Vince, Copper Sounds, members of Gnod and Silver Waves. Whilst her raw, non-verbal vocalisations seize ears, the music builds ever more tension from looped, treated yelps, groans and whispers. Dali’s onstage presence is a huge part of what makes EP/64 so gripping – her skittish energy and joy in every moment is as contagious for the musicians on stage as it is for the audience.
In 2017 Dali joined Viridian, an ensemble often including Caitlin Alais Callahan (double bass), Esme Betamax (percussion), Tina Hitchens (flute) and Liz Muir (cello), who improvise to the digital and analogue film collages of Laura Phillips (also waterphone). “Laura tells us what her films are about – she might suggest a rough form the music could take.” Viridian performances are more restrained than those of EP/64, with Laura’s eerie films provoking the musicians to articulate a suitably unnerving response from their positions in the shadows.
Fervently working in three very different improvising projects has helped Dali remain conscious of her own musical development. “I’m more engaged and concerned with the fact that I need to listen carefully to what’s going on in improv, and that is far better than it was at the beginning. I’m learning all the time. I think all improvisers would say that. The more you improvise, the more you are focusing in on others and providing them with space. It’s a game, a way of playing, it’s all for fun.”
Shortly after joining Viridian, Dali began a project quite different to anything she had done before, forming the scathing industrial duo Harrga, with Miguel Prado. Early performances were improvised, but quickly their methods changed. “Miguel is a composer and with him, I felt like I was confident enough to write some lyrics. I hadn’t had that before.” The project swiftly became a reaction to the refugee crises occurring around the world. “We were spending so much time talking, we were shocked by what was going on, aware of our position as privileged migrants watching from far away; the feeling was so odd and cruel, it made me write.”
Harrga released their debut LP, featuring a guest appearance from Moor Mother, this year with the help of Bristol collective Avon Terror Corps. As with their live performances, the record challenges the listener to give thought to the dehumanising effect of national borders. “When it’s impossible to stay, and you know your family is under threat, you take your children and you go away. It’s extremely natural. And the problem is now that this right, to save your arse, is not the same for everybody.”
The focused anger of Harrga is a far cry from the freeform elation of EP/64 or the nuanced reflections of Viridian. But Dali’s vocals still manage to possess a coherent and distinct form of expression. Just as great painters tend to have a strong hand, the most interesting musicians tend to have a unique sound; so given the sense that Dali is still developing as a musician, she will no doubt be exciting to follow as she continues to seek out new collaborators and form new projects.
Want the best of our editorial content straight to your inbox? Sign up to our monthly newsletter.
Interested in writing for The Sampler? Find out how you can pitch us ideas.