The electropop songwriter talks about her latest single and how a full-length album is like a long-term relationship
Safe to say that Dagny is a romantic. Exhibit A: her debut full-length Strangers / Lovers was a dance pop / electropop record fluent in matters of the heart, emanating the charm of Pixie Lott plus the slick production of Tegan & Sara circa Heartthrob. Such a debut was more than enough to establish Dagny as a major force in the pop landscape.
Exhibit B, your honor: this interview. The Norwegian singer-songwriter is both intuitive and cerebral when talking about not just her artistry and creative process, but also the life-affirming sensation of what it means to feel something. Feel something! Her latest single Brightsider demonstrates this thoughtfulness. Most songs that lyrically talk about looking at the bright side of things suffer from a kind of canned, insistent optimism, but Brightsider does what good pop does. It uplifts, it inspires, and it makes you aspire towards a heightened state of feeling. Plus it’s hella catchy.
In this interview, I spoke to Dagny about her new single and the trickiness of pop songcraft.
Wonder: Your new single Brightsider is inspired by the human capacity to look for the good even in not-so-good situations. What inspired you to tackle that subject matter? And I suppose this is the part of the interview where we bring up the circumstances of the past two years…
Dagny: Yeah, it’s kind of impossible for me to answer that question without bringing up the last two years. As a musician, you’re so used to it. And I think people in general—a lot of people—are very used to having like, inputs and meeting lots of different people; and for us, we travel a lot. During the last two and a half years, when things were in lockdown, there was a period where there was very little that was happening, and there was very little input. And I think it was massively affecting my songwriting. I felt like a lot of the music became pretty like, uninspired and just monotone, in a way? And so I wanted to write something that felt like how I wanted to feel, rather than how I was feeling. I dreamt about festivals, and I just… I would love to just fall in love and feel something. I was kind of holding on to everything that just made me feel something. And I think by writing this song, it made me excited, and made me look forward to the day we were gonna be able to play it live again.
W: What about the festival season, or performing music live, are you most looking forward to?
D: Oh, it’s the full package! I know I should be more specific. But I think it’s a package thing. I mean first of all, I think [playing] live for me has always been a big part of it, even from before I was releasing music. When you’re releasing a song, you’re not able to see people’s reactions live. When you play a show, you’re able to see it in person. Like, right there in front of you, how people react. And the energy in the room, it’s like, you can’t get that from anything else. It’s meeting my audience and feeling my energy, and then there’s also something about being on stage and releasing the energy.
W: Speaking as someone who has attended online gigs, and watched musicians over like, a streaming platform? I was thankful to have that, but like you said, the energy just isn’t the same.
D: I completely agree with you. It was good that, y’know, there was some kind of way of doing shows when you weren’t able to do shows. And obviously connecting with people around the world. Like I can’t be playing all these different countries in one night. So in a way, that’s positive. You can’t fake a real good concert, and being in the room, and the sound, and the smell, and the vibe, and the everything. It’s just kind of unique.
View this post on Instagram
W: I can’t help but notice as well that Brightsider is, at its heart, a love song. For a person, but also, more than that—and I guess I just wanna hear from you—for what, or for who?
D: Back to when I was writing the song, for me, falling in love or having chemistry with someone, it’s like, there’s not a lot of other things that make me as energetic. Y’know, you start caring about how you hold yourself, y’know? You get excited whenever they’re around. And so with this particular song, it was more dreaming about feeling that. Even like, whenever I’ve got a little bit of a chemistry with someone, I would just hold on to it so tight, just because I wanted to be in that emotion, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t so much about the person, it was more about the feeling itself. It’s like, I don’t really care if it was like, reciprocated, like if the other person was feeling the same. It was enough just feeling the feeling, if you know what I mean.
“Feeling the feeling,” oh my God. I can’t believe I just said that.
W: In an interview with The Guardian back in 2016, you said, and I quote, “There’s a real art to making a good pop song. People underestimate it: a good pop song can be fucking tricky.” There are two parts to this question: First, what are the challenges of writing a pop song that the average person doesn’t know about? And second, is writing a pop song still tricky, considering how much more seasoned and prolific you’ve become since then?
D: Oh god, yeah. [laughs] I go into the studio still thinking I have no idea what I’m doing. To be honest, that’s what makes it—that’s what keeps me interested, because I never feel like I hundred percent manage the craft, and I’m learning all the time. Still to this day, I’m so surprised every time we leave the studio, and it’s like, we came in in the morning, there was nothing, and then now we’ve created this! And it’s like, how did that happen? I still feel like that.
I think what people underestimate when it comes to making a good pop song… well first of all, it feels like in pop music, there are some similarities obviously that makes you feel like you recognize the song even if you’ve never heard it. But that’s exactly it. You need to be able to create something that people feel like they know enough to love it immediately, but also that they feel like they never heard before. So, finding that balance is tricky. Like, you need to think new, but still also play on something. You are also still creating an emotion that is a lot of the time pretty universal in a way. I could sit down on the piano and just play lots of chords and sing lots of melodies and be like, oh this is a song. And, that’s easy. The simplicity of it is kind of what makes it tricky. Because just playing those random chords and singing some melodies over it, I could do that everyday. If it was easy, I’d be doing it all the time, everyday, and put out music all the time, everyday.
For every song that you write that’s really good, I write a lot of pretty shitty songs, to be honest. You get a lot of good songs, but you get very few great ones, if you know what I mean.
View this post on Instagram
W: Brightsider is your follow-up single since your highly successful debut full-length Strangers / Lovers. What would you say was the most important or valuable thing you learned since then, between the release of that album, and today?
D: It’s a very interesting question. I feel like I’ve been so in my head since I released my album. Suddenly I was making music into a very complicated thing in my head. Well, one thing I’ve learned, is that, y’know when people who have huge success do one [genre of] music, right? And then suddenly they go off and do an album that’s just so completely different. And you’re like, wait, what? Why did you do that? Before I used to think, “Oh that’s a bit strange, why did they go off and do such a weird thing?” But now, I get it. Because once you’ve done an album, you kind of feel like you need to find the start of something new, rather than the continuation of the old. You feel like you need to be inspired again. You don’t want to continue to write the same song again and again. For me, the first album was what I naturally am just drawn to. So finding something that inspires me in a completely new way has been really challenging. ‘Cause I still love a lot of the same music. I just don’t wanna make the same songs again, do you know what I mean? So that’s one thing. To be a creative, I think you need to be in motion. Or else I think you’re just going to get really uninspired and unmotivated.
The other thing I’ve learned is that, by making the album, it was like such a big project instead of doing it single by single. And putting so much thought into every little detail of the album also made me feel like even more connected to my audience, because I felt like there was a lot more story to tell. For me to be able to make an album, there was so much more for me share, and I felt like I was letting people in much more than I had before, and that was like a “wow” moment for me I guess.
An album versus a single, to compare it to something, it’s like having one date versus having a long term relationship. It’s like, in one date you like, scratch the surface and it can be amazing and it can be something you remember forever. But [in] a long term relationship, you’re going so much deeper, you’re sharing both your positives and your negatives, you get to be vulnerable, but you also have a lot of fun.
W: I love that. That leads me to my final question for this interview: does Brightsider point to a specific creative direction for a future full length perhaps? What lies ahead for Dagny?
D: Yeah, good question, especially now when I’ve been going on about the album. [laugh] Because the truth is, Brightsider is for now a standalone song. For me, I just needed to take away a bit of the pressure that I put on the first single after the album. And so in a way, putting out Brightsider was just like, “Okay, I just need to get back into releasing music before I turn it into something impossible in my head.” But to be honest I’ve been writing a lot since the album, and I have a lot of songs that I really love, and I’m just really trying to kind of create–again as I said with the album–a story that makes sense. I’ve decided, all of that I’m going to figure out during the summer, and hopefully get more music out during the autumn.
W: So it’s like… releasing the single is like a soft reset, and now that it’s out, you can like, really get into music-making.
D: Yeah! Exactly!
If Brightsider is any proof, Dagny is going into the creative process of her next full-length record with a little more optimism, and a little more risk. The single itself is already a romp, full of the kind of energy one can only find in a room full of people. We can expect Dagny’s next album to be a life-affirming experience, less strangers, more lovers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Words Jam Pascual
Art Pis Trinidad