Photos by Kate Killet
Knowing yourself, to paraphrase one of Toronto's most lucrative artistic exports, is vital. But that luxury doesn't always come so organically or easily for most musicians. In the music business, knowing what you want and who you are doesn't always align when confronted with labels who may want you to be on track with their vision. Major labels have an ongoing reputation that they create pop stars into specific kinds of consumables for their audiences; moulding artists in a way like Dr. Frankenstein would when he created his Monster. The independent record labels are functioning businesses, too, like the majors and sometimes have to succumb to audience demand. This was the situation Toronto's synthpop group DIANA found themselves in when they presented their excellent, though markedly different, sophomore record Familiar Touch, to their label Jagjaguwar.
"We presented something that—to us— felt so much more real and actually musical in a way that was like we weren't hiding behind anything but presenting earnestly the words and sounds that meant a lot to us," Kieran Adams tells me in a dimly lit condo meeting room in downtown Toronto. "And it seemed like the response to that was maybe like 'hmm why don't you just go back to that thing you did before?' When you're a) proud of what you've done and b) not expecting that from the situation you were told you'd be in, yeah, it's upsetting." And that thing DIANA did before was attract instant success with their song "Born Again" in 2013. Adams, along with the saxophone whiz for Destroyer, Joseph Shabason, began this project that would inevitably become DIANA before recruiting Carmen Elle (who was a touring member of Austra and also from the garage rock group Army Girls) to do vocals. Having never really played music together at the time, that achievement came as a shock to the group. "We didn't have any plan for any of that stuff. And then after that, even before that, we had even played a show, we had never jammed together in a room or been together on a stage and we're being asked to sign to labels," says Adams.
Trying to capture and profit off of relevance in a veritable echo chamber of Twitter timelines, blogs, and SoundCloud embeds is a struggle most artists face. Success at this level, if that is what a band is seeking, is more often than not very rare. The success of "Born Again" undoubtedly bolstered the speed of their debut release, Perpetual Surrender. The fast-paced, fickle nature of the Internet and the musical climate at the time can be a bracing thing to go through. "It's almost like they leverage your desire for the album to be a success against you because it's very hard at any point in that process to be like, 'wait, can we press pause for one second? And, like, think about this a little bit slower.' That feels like the most difficult thing in the world for you to do, it's like this train," says Carmen Elle.
On the first track off Familiar Touch, "Confession", there is an immediate sense that we're being served something that is more deliberate and considerate. The song opens with pulsing, cascading beats and precise drums before launching into Elle's measured vocals. Such sharp vocal potency appears both subtly and overtly on songs like "Moment of Silence", "Cry", and "The Coward." In person, Elle is a relatively quiet but an earnestly observing person. "Early days we were getting compared to like Purity Ring and a lot of chillwave bands and electronic pop, like Chvrches. I think the impression a lot of people got was we were that kind of band and really it was aesthetic choices we made when we were mixing the album," says Elle. "We didn't put the vocals very forward… and we kind of got lumped into this one category. As it happens, every band has a trajectory and should be allowed to evolve past a certain point. So, this is a very different record from the last record."
Feeling confident in what they had created with Familiar Touch, the band presented the record to the label and were met with hesitation. Instead of having an open mind to their evolution, they were told to produce something more of the same which left the band feeling lost. "It makes you question yourself," says Shabason. "We all stuck to our guns, but at the same time you can't help but be like 'this sucks, I believe in this, why don't they?' It's tough." Elle adds that their uniqueness, in terms of actually finding wider spread success, is a position in which most bands don't often have and there is tension with that narrative, too. "We are in a privileged position, DIANA, as a band, that is doing and has done well, like, it's done better than any of our other projects like right from the get-go," she says. "So, I feel kind of weird [saying] 'stick to your guns' because I've been in bands that struggle and know this immense pressure to say yes to the gig and do the thing you don't want to do."
The band adamantly says there were no specific negative or harrowing instances they ran into with their label when they presented the record. Their separation from their label was derived from creative differences but more importantly DIANA's realization that as a band they needed everyone involved to be on their side. "It's crucial for every band to have a team that supports what they want to do. A lot of bands feel obligated to labels, booking agents, and various industry people like we owe them something because they signed us and we have to do what they say," says Elle. "That isn't the case and we basically learned the last time around that finding a good team is crucial." They found a home for Familiar Touch on Toronto's Culvert Music and feel a kind of support that— not that they didn't necessarily have it before—fits how they feel is best for them. "You just feel empowered [when] you're working with people who want to rather than people who are working for you, says Shabason.
Familiar Touch is a layered synthpop record that sounds like it belongs in the clubs and recording studios of the 80s. Adams say those tracks from that era are typically very "sonically pristine or at least actualized in a really cool way. The ideas are interesting and they are rendered interestingly" and why they find such inspiration from them. The song subjects on the record (love, letting go, tension in relationships, connection with someone) are set against deliberately constructed and arranged songs that work decidedly well together, not feeling too busy or bulky. DIANA worked on the record for almost a year; they even traveled to a secluded spot outside of Quebec to write and piece together, sometimes with gruesome and sharp revisions, what would be the lyrical backbone of the record. That choice was conscious but also the only way they feel they can create. Other musicians can so easily write a song in 15 minutes or so, set it to music and track it with hardly any additional time needed, but that is not how DIANA functions.
They speak to me with a reverence tinged with trepidation about their lyrics board that illustrated, on average, the 3-5 revisions each song and each part of that song went through. If the sounds they sought were to be constructed in a specific way, the lyrics, too, should follow suit for maximum impact. "We were conscious of the fact that we wanted to present the vocals in a way that wasn't covered up. We also wanted to, if you're going to do that, have lyrics that really mean something," says Adams. "'I want to say something, I want to tell you something earnestly,' so you want it to be clear. It's that fine line between not being too vague with lyrics but you still want to be lightly ornamental."
Creative evolution can make or break a band's next record—so often the sophomore when coming off of a successful debut record or single—but what falls by the wayside is how each band member personally evolved in that time and what aspects of that transferred into their sound and group dynamic. Elle publicly discussed her anxieties being in conflict with her musical career. The band also tells me that they had to personally work out how to be in a band together, to create together, and if that was something they wanted to do going forward. DIANA did not necessarily work out their personal frustrations of knowing what they want out of the industry, their place in it, and who they want to be on Familiar Touch. But the record is certainly the catalyst for them, though, by going forward with it at all and shopping it around. "We believe in it enough to change everything. To change labels. To say this is what we want and move forward with it because this is what we want. We believe in it, which is scary," says Joseph Shabason. "It was a be brave moment. The overarching thing is you have to believe in your own work and as soon as you start to pander to what people want you sort of lose the way." DIANA doubled down on this one record and whether or not it becomes commercially or critically successful is a bonus because they already feel like it is.
Sarah MacDonald is a staff writer for Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.