Catching Up with the Dø, the Separated French Couple Who Still Make Music Together
"We don’t need to spend that much time making music together at the same time in the same room."
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Olivia Merilahti and Dan Levy of The Dø are sat at either ends of a canapé at their record company offices having an argument about pop music. 60s pop music to be precise, though—for a band that has made one of the finest and most direct alternative pop albums of recent years in the shape of Shake Shook Shaken—they can’t agree on much modern pop either. Olivia is a self-confessed fan of yé-yé, the francophone version of bubblegum teen-pop sung by all those swinging mademoiselles in the 60s, while Dan is making a case for the chanson and crooners like Charles Aznavour, as though the two are mutually exclusive and can’t exist in the same pop-sphere.
The personalities in The Dø are very different on this initial meeting, like night and day, good cop and bad, chalk and fromage. Olivia, who to be fair speaks better English, is the amiable one, whereas you suspect were Dan left to his own devices in this room, he might end up in a fight with himself. They barely look at each other during the whole 45 or so minutes I spend chatting with them at their label in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, but perhaps that’s what happens when you’ve been making music as intensely as they have for the last decade. The friction, though, has almost certainly added an extra element to the music.
Dan and Olivia met in 2005 when they were both working on the soundtrack of the Chris Nahon movie L’empire des Loups (Empire of the Wolves) starring Jean Reno. “We were brought together on a few songs and it worked,” says Olivia, who does most of the talking when the pair aren’t arguing, “And ever since then we haven’t stopped making music. Yeah, it’s been very intense.”
Love blossomed, as did a working relationship, and by 2007 they were wowing the French with their insidious earworm "On My Shoulder". The album, A Mouthful, followed in 2008 and went to No.1 in their home country. Since then their career has only gone from strength to strength, bagging best rock album at the Victoires de la Musique—the French version of the Brits—a curious eventuality considering this is their most electronic album to date. With virtually no guitars or analogue instruments, it is what the band themselves like to call a “plug-in” album; ie. most of the sounds were generated from within the computer.
According to the French weekly Paris Match, the pair broke up before Shake Shook Shaken was written and conceived, and much of the album’s lyrical content reflects the painful process of separation, perhaps in the same way Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours does. “The ‘D’ for Dan is still attached to the ‘O’ for Olivia,” said Le Monde, and despite everything they’re “still the most stirring French pop duo”. Their relationship might be fraught at times, but right now they’re making the best music of their career.
Below are the fruits of our conversation. And before that, a premiere of a remix for one of the band's tracks by Berlin-based producer Chi Thanh.
Noisey: Now seems to be a great time for French pop music. Maybe it’s even more exciting than Nordic pop at the moment?
Olivia Merilahti: That’s actually really cool. An English person saying that? Wow, we’ve come a long way. I actually feel there’s something going on. Maybe not just France, but the Francosphere is becoming interesting where the popscene is concerned.
Dan Levy: Stromae was mixed by Kanye West, and he just played at Madison Square Garden in October. 17,000 people - and they won’t only be French or Belgian people.
Olivia: We met him backstage at Victoires de la Musique and we chatted for a bit about choreography. Stromae’s such a genius. There are bands like Christine and the Queens who are really big at the moment, and I really like La Femme. Something is really happening because people travel more, anyone can listen to any music today, so there's a global influence. I'd be excited to hear what French acts are doing in five or ten years.
Are you looking to expand and conquer new regions? You sing in English so that's going to help.
Olivia: I don't think singing in English is really the main thing after all, it's about being emotionally connected to some audiences and not to others. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I do only sing in English but it’s my musical language.
Is English a better pop language?
Olivia Merilahti: Perhaps English is more spontaneous.
A lot of French artists say they’re frightened to write in French because of what came before; cunning linguists like Gainsbourg and Brel.
Olivia: It's a shame to think that because of these immense icons people are scared to try.
You played London’s Koko earlier this year. I hear you were sick though? In the ill sense.
Olivia: I was! I think the audience really helped me and carried me through the show. I told them what was going on and it helped, but I really thought I was going to die ten minutes before we went on stage. We were really proud and excited, and then I remember arriving in the bus at like 11 in the morning and I was literally dying, and I couldn’t really take advantage of the whole thing.
So you didn’t take in the sights of London, you just saw the inside of a toilet bowl?
Olivia: Haha, that’s it! It would normally be a dream for a French band playing there. I don’t know how good a show it was, it probably wasn’t the best, but there was a special electricity to it.
You mentioned Belgian superstar Stromae earlier who only sings in French. His song "Alors On Danse" went to No.1 all over Europe but it barely scraped the top 30 in the UK.
Olivia: Maybe it’s just the UK then [who aren’t receptive to foreign language music]? I don't know, why the UK?
Maybe because the Beatles come from there, so there’s this pop superiority complex?
Olivia: Yes, but I think it's good that that supremacy is being challenged. It’s a very healthy thing.
L’Academie Francaise is all about preserving the French language, and artists like Lou Doillon have been criticised for singing in English rather than French according to the singer. Has that been your experience?
Olivia: It has been questioned. It keeps being a question, but nobody has reproached me for it. I'm half-Finnish and half-French and I just learned English at a very early age. I get good feedback from my lyrics, so I keep doing it. But I would like to be able to write in French. I think it's a strong statement, and it's an even stronger thing to try and sing French around the world. I think that's very important.
Dan: Language is like an instrument, like a violin or a synth or an harpsichord!
Olivia:: Yes but it’s different if you’re trying to say something. To me it's very special when you're bilingual. From an early age when you speak more than one language you have a very different perspective on the world. Finnish is my intimate language; I speak Finnish with my mum and I've been living in France for most of my life, so it's been my secret language. My secret weapon somehow. So these different languages play different roles in my life, and English has always been the musical one.
Are they like different personalities?
Olivia: Yes, but I'm trying to reconcile them all. In the beginning when we started making music the label said “why don’t you sing in French? Because, you know, you’ll sell a lot more if you do”. But it was always out of the question, and I’ve been very stubborn about it. That’s how it is.
Speaking of different personalities, how has your relationship changed over the last ten years making music together? You argue like an old married couple.
Olivia: It’s um… We need to organise things differently all the time, but it’s still very intense in the studio. I think today we don’t need to spend that much time making music together at the same time in the same room. It’s good to have separate studios. That’s what we’ve had for a while, separate studios to work on bits and pieces and send each other ideas, melodies, beats, whatever… And then we get together. But that’s how it worked with this album, just a few days in the studio giving it all, but very concentrated. And then back to our own spaces again. It works that way. I think it’s a normal thing for two people who’ve been together incessantly for the last ten years.
So technology makes it easier being in The Dø these days?
Olivia: [Laughs] Yeah totally, maybe that’s why we made a plug-in album.
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Catch The Dø at Brixton Academy on November 16. Tickets here.