ML Dunn is not only a great client, he’s an incredibly talented songwriter and has a fascinating backstory. I first worked with him (and Justine Perry, whom I interviewed here) on a project called “Conscience,” and we then worked on a new one I’m excited to show you!
Let’s start at the beginning: When did you start writing songs and making music?
When I was at boarding school, aged 7 or so. I was homesick. My first song consisted of one repeated line with a developing tune – ‘I wanna go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go ho-ome’. It was not ‘cool’ to be homesick, it showed weakness, so that song went round and round in my head in private. Many decades later I used both the tune and words in an album made by one of the bands I was in, except my partner Claire sang it. (‘Jupe’s Return‘ from the album ‘An Acute Sense of the Absurd’) When I was a little older, I auditioned for the school choir. They were very good, and performed with other choirs in Cathedrals in the South of England. I got into the choir and experienced elation for the first time that I can remember. When I heard I had passed the audition, I was absolutely euphoric and went up to my dormitory where I jumped up and down on the bed, shouting with joy. When I went to my next school I took up the trumpet. I was apparently pretty good, and they gave me a bursary (like a mini scholarship – free tuition). All was looking good until one day when I could not make the sound I wanted with it I threw it against a wall, damaging it badly. It wasn’t my trumpet. They were, understandably, furious and withdrew my bursary. That’s when I joined a band and turned my back on ‘classical music’, for some 20 or more years. In those days, you couldn’t make both ‘serious’ music and ‘rock’ music. They were considered mutually exclusive, in my school, at least. Which is daft. Music is just music. These days it’s different.
What is your favorite and least favorite song you’ve written?
That is difficult to answer, as whenever I am writing a piece of music (and I write a lot of instrumental music as well as songs) then that one is my favorite. As soon as I have finished writing it I lose interest, sometimes within minutes. I then quickly move on to the next piece and that one becomes my favorite. I guess in general my Digitiphonies are the work I am most proud of – Electro Orchestral Symphonies. But my son told me the other day that ‘Be Like This River’ is the best song I ever wrote. Which is handy, as you just sang it! However – disclaimer – my son has not heard everything I ever wrote!
As for least favorite, I think I have felt dissatisfied with nearly everything I have written in the past. It never quite comes out how I intend it and hear it in my head. Perhaps the most frustrating was the first song I wrote not long after I had a stroke 5 years ago (caused by a rugby injury – of my kidney – I had at school). I pretty much lost the use of the right side of my body and thought I had lost everything, music wise. With great support from professionals, hard work and many tears I recovered 110%, but the first song I wrote after I started to recover does make me wince when I hear it. My voice is not quite ‘on it’ and I messed up the groove, it sounds really stilted to my ears. People were very nice about it at the time, and the lyrics and tune are OK but I think I need to redo it sometime (‘Deep Garden‘).
Your band was one of the first to post music online. How has the digital market changed since then? Do you think it’s better or worse now?
Well one of the first in the UK, not in the world. I think in the US things happened a little quicker, as that is where much of the technology was developing. It was so, so exciting! Like a Wild West of music. We started to play online gigs to people all around the world at the same time. We would be playing to people in India, New Zealand, US, Canada, and they would be reacting to the music in real time. Sadly, by then our drummer Nigel had died, so it was just Claire and I playing acoustic gigs and streaming them out of the studio. Nige would have so loved it, he was a techno freak. It’s definitely even better now – far more stable, but the ‘Wild West’ feel has gone, for me at least. And the internet has just become like one big shopping mall, which is sad, but to be expected I guess. What disappoints me most about the internet is how it can be used to spread hate and disinformation. A bit like the ‘real world.’ Humans will be humans. And the value of music has changed due to the internet. In some ways it has plummeted, but at the same time new avenues for creativity and collaboration have been opened up, which is exciting. And lets face it, making a living from music has never been easy.
What is some advice you’d give to new songwriters looking to get started?
I would say just do your thing, don’t let anyone stop you or tell you how to do it. Learn from other people, but be you, use your own voice, don’t be afraid. Don’t give up, but don’t expect it to be easy. It took me decades and decades to make my whole living from music. I would have good spells, then bad spells, and get very depressed when each good spell ended and I had to get another ‘proper job’ (of which I have done many – and I still live in fear of having to go back to that). Just keep going. When you look back it will have been worth it.
I know you from two very specific songs: “Conscience” and “Be Like This River”. Let’s hone in on those a bit. What was the inspiration for “Conscience?”
Conscience was the song that took me the longest to write of any song I have written. I first thought of the line ‘Conscience, leave me alone’ when I was in my teens, and the tune for it too. I could never quite finish it, however hard I tried. But the tune haunted me, for years and years. Each time I tried to finish it I hit a brick wall. Then after my stroke, when my brain was giving me ridiculously vivid dreams (the best part of having a stroke!) I had a dream about a peaceful, lonely beach that jutted out between two different oceans, backed by tall palm trees and carpeted with soft white sand. It seemed like heaven, or the door to it. In the dream I was aware that the place was called Cape Understand. The years after my stroke were not easy, and if I’m honest I did think about suicide at that time. I really did not want to live a life without being able-bodied enough to make music. So that prompted the line in my head ‘In the absence of a better plan, I’m going to Cape Understand’ – which tethered itself to the ‘Conscience’ line. It was doing my head in, as I still couldn’t find the right words for the verses, so I went to Lyricist Justine Perry and she helped me finish the song. Very quickly, in fact. That song would never have happened without Justine.
Justine Perry is great! Had you worked with a professional lyricist before? What led you to hiring one?
No. I had worked with many other writers before, but as collaborations where money was not involved, just a copyright split. It had never occurred to me to pay someone. But I am glad I did! I did not specifically search for Justine, I just happened to be in a Tweetchat room where she was talking. After the chat was over I messaged her and we got to know each other gradually. I wrote two other songs to her lyrics before we worked on ‘Conscience’ (‘Knuckles‘ and ‘Dear Beloved Demon‘).
Prior to me, had you worked with session singers before? What do you think makes someone an ideal candidate to work with you?
No, like professional lyricists, it had never occurred to me. Plus, I had always been so broke I was more preoccupied with buying food and paying rent than paying singers or lyricists. I found another singer and messaged her, but she did not reply for a while and you got back to me first! There’s a moral in there somewhere. It’s all about the work ethic. Do things now, not later!
Haha I’m so glad I got to you first! Do you want to tell the story of “Be Like This River”?
One of the bands I was in had a female lead vocalist, who had an intense love affair with the keyboard player and guitarist. I won’t mention any names, but they made a great couple, and wrote wonderful music together. I started to write this ballad about my state of depression, but it did not go anywhere. It was just an outlet for how I felt and I didn’t play it to anyone. Then the vocalist and the keyboard player/guitarist split up, and not in a nice way. I was very sad about it, they had so much promise, both as a couple and as a writing partnership, all gone to waste. The band did not last long after that, they were the driving force behind it. So this ballad that had originally been an outlet for my own ‘depression of isolation’ morphed into a lament for my talented friend’s lost love, the depression that then enveloped her, and a plea to her to be strong enough to get through her dark times. It was a hard song to write, it’s a hard song to play on the piano (it modulates – changes key – several times) and a hard song to sing (though you make it look deceptively easy Mella).
Thank you, it was difficult but I really enjoyed the challenge! What is your goal with music today? Are you making money/business with it or is it more of an artistic adventure (or both)?
Music is my life as well as my living. That sounds corny, but, like many other musos out there it’s true. I am lucky that in spite of the ups and downs I am still here. I do make my living completely from music these days, I have not had to get a non-musical job for some 15 years or more now. As well as writing songs, I have written a fair bit of production music in the past, which still pays out royalties. My band days are over – writing music has always been more important to me than performing it.
Some years ago in one of the ‘hiatus’ periods when music was not earning me money and I had to get another job, I found work as a carer in a home for Adults with Learning Disabilities. I started making music with some of the residents there. When I no longer had to work there, the staff asked if I could carry on making music with them. Though I never advertise that side of my work, it has increased by word of mouth. I am not a music therapist, I am trying to give access to music to people who would not have it otherwise. Some of the people I work with are very disabled, some are even missing limbs. So I have designed instruments that they can play, using computer technology as well as more conventional instruments.
I have also designed virtual instruments which I sell online. The secret to survival as a musician is to have several income streams. But it’s an artistic adventure too! When I was younger, doing other jobs to make a living, I would get home at the end of the day and disappear up to my room to record or rehearse, rather than sitting down and watching TV or socializing. I was, and am still, obsessed.
Your wife Claire is a musician as well – was that how you met? How did you start working on music together?
No, we were match-made! The bass player in one of the first bands I was in used to come to London to record on my portastudio. He thought I needed a partner (I had been single for a year or two and had been diagnosed with depression for the first time) and introduced me to his girlfriend’s sister. That was Claire. We went out together one night and got extremely drunk and danced in a Night Club in North London (I never normally dance, I am dance-phobic) and we hooked up after that. I did not know she was musical then.
Claire is in fact a Nurse by profession, but comes from a very musical family. The first thing I discovered was that she played violin in a semi-pro orchestra in Walthamstow then gradually I realized she sang as well. She has a gorgeous alto voice, but Nursing is her vocation. It has been a constant battle to find time with her to make music, and nowadays we are both so busy that it’s almost impossible. Which is why I was looking for a backing singer for Conscience when I met you. Normally Claire would have sung it, but she is really, really busy these days.
Does Claire have any of her own projects? Do you guest star on hers as well?
She has sung the lead vocal on a couple of songs I wrote. One was specifically for her to sing (‘A Place to Hide Me In‘). One was one of the first songs I wrote when I was 17, about a girl I was studying music with. She was a talented pianist and it was, sadly, unrequited love. It is the most inspiring thing, unrequited love! It never stales. I made a new version of that song for Claire to sing (‘Cat in the Rain‘) And of course she also sang harmonies for uk heights, as well as the occasional lead vocal (‘Coming Clean‘).
What are your goals with your music, and what steps are you taking to achieve those goals?
For the last 12 years I have written Digitiphonies, they have been the main focus of my composing. After Nigel, the drummer of UKH, died I needed something different to work on or I would have just stalled. I felt musically bereft when he passed. Having written 9 of these, I would like to get them performed by orchestras with DAW/Electro performers as well. That’s quite enough of a goal for me, it will be a huge undertaking. But I expect something else, unexpected, will come along too and grab my musical attention. That’s how life works. That’s its beauty.