Dan Black has leant his songwriting genius to the likes of Kid Cudi, Imogen Heap and Mikky Ekko, but it's the words he's penned -- and sung -- himself that are once again front and center.
Black's breakout hit "Hearts" features Kelis, which makes sense given that he and the "Milkshake" singer wrote the track together. "She rang and I heard that she wanted to write with me, just some stuff for her," Black said from Paris in a recent interview. "She was in Spain, so I flew out to Spain. She had rented out a place just down the beach, and it was super low-key. We just sat in her living room with a laptop and a microphone and weirdly wrote a lot of stuff. One of the tracks we wrote was 'Hearts,' and I sort of thought, 'Wow, that would work great for me.' So at the end, I nervously brought up the possibility of me keeping it for me. She was instantly into and was cool, so ... I did."
It turned out to be a smart move. "Hearts" is now the lead single off Black's upcoming solo LP, "Do Not Revenge." It's accompanied by quite the music video, a "human time lapse" that Black collaborated on with his wife Corinne Black, who runs the creative agency Chic & Artistic with Axel d'Harcourt.
"All the visual stuff that I do is my wife's company," Black said happily. "All my artwork, web visuals, video, mercy and stage stuff is a collaboration between me, her and her partner. Often times, they'll have a pool of ideas and just want to execute one. One of their ideas was to do a human time lapse -- using time-lapse photography but on a person. When I wrote the song with Kelis, one of the first things that came up when we were working on it was the idea of cities sped up -- like the cliche thing in movies when camera angles zoom through a city. The horror and alienation of it and, at the same time, the thrill and excitement of it. And so that fed into this maybe working with the idea me being above the city and life shooting by." [Take a look at the accompanying video for the behind-the-scenes rundown.]
The end result is at once cute and impressive, meaning that the intense amount of labor that went into creating it doesn't overshadow the whimsical presentation of Black's cheery tune. That doesn't mean, however, that the hard work isn't the point: "I love seeing things where you can feel them," Black said. "It's sort of like with [Kanye West's 'Yeezus,' which Black praised earlier for being created and delivered in an innovative way]. You can feel the story around it, and it's as though the thing you're listening to is an artifact of the experience, not just a recording of it. I'm not sure what the right word is for it, but it feeds into your experience."
There's a sterling class of pop songwriters currently redrafting what it means to make pop music. Scribes and singers like Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos, fun.'s Nate Reuss and, yes, Kanye West have restored intensely human paranoias, fears and desires in ways that recall the fearlessly emotional pop jams of Michael Jackson and early career Madonna. From Black's "Hearts":
Call paramedics and other experts
Could I be re-fixed?
All these broken people
They trunk your parts
Somewhere we got missed
Black agrees that it's a good time to be in the business of radio music. "Someone around the corner asked what kind of music I make, and I said, 'pop music,'" Black said. "I'm pretty sure five years ago, I would have been more hesitant to use that word. In terms of the state of things now, it's such a broad church. If people say, 'Oh, that's just made in a manufactured sort of way and it's made to make money,' even if that's the case, it can still end up being super touching, moving and important to people. People can also try to write something that's not pop and end up being more vacant and untrue. I personally connect with the rush and the immediacy of pop, and for me, they're kind of a contradiction. You have to be a comic script, and a holy scripture."
Unsurprisingly, it's the experience which Black is obsessed with committing to music. When asked if he feels any responsibility other than creating something sonically pleasing, the singer didn't hesitate before answering. "It has to be important to me, in the sense that it has to be meaningful," he said. "It's hard to pull off, and that's quite a loose term, but I have to believe it. It has to get at that one thing. I want it to be sonically pleasing, like you said, and I want it to sound like something you haven't heard before. But I want it to capture something that hasn't been captured before, or that it has to do it in a way that hasn't been done before."
Black's clarity of vision is undoubtedly also a product of having worked alongside the many artists he he written with. The singer says recording with hugely talented folks like Kelis and Ekko has taught him a great deal about music, but even more about himself. "When you see something being created in front of you, in the flesh, it's more like, 'Wow, you can do this,' but also, 'I can't do that,'" Black said. "On one hand, it's depressing, but on the other hand, it's very enlightening. It's like I've finally grasped the truth of me."
As for the "things" that Black finds himself returning to when writing? They're familiar themes to fans of pop music, but there's a depth to the way he describes them that was perhaps missing for much of the pop music of the early 2000s. "Lost youth, in both senses of the word," Black mused. "Some kind of youth is always slipping away from people, whether they're 18 or 35 or 50. But also lost youth, in the sense that there are more young people lost in the world than ever. Pop music is particularly good at dealing with that, and it's weirdly important now. Not to be trite, but we all find fleeting moments of comfort and assurance, and if it can come from a pop song, then ... great."