The last time we interviewed dvsn, the Toronto R&B were one of the city’s buzziest new acts. Paul “Nineteen85” Jeffries and Daniel Daley had made the jump from songwriting/production duo to artists, but maintained a reclusive vibe and did very little press around their debut album Sept. 5th.
It wasn’t even clear which one was the singer and they kept their faces in shadow in the shot that ran on NOW’s cover. Flash forward to 2020 and dvsn is front-and-centre in press shots, doing a round of phoners with journalists after selling out five drive-in concerts and their third album, A Muse In Feelings, is loaded with guests, from Toronto singers Jessie Reyez and Shantel May to top-40 rapper Future to reggae icon Buju Banton.
In short, this dvsn album feels like much more of a social affair. Too bad they announced it right as North America went into a lockdown mode due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many other artists rolling out new albums, the OVO Sound-signed duo scrapped live dates and press opps and pivoted to virtual projects, including a series of karaoke parties on Instagram.
A Muse In Her Feelings sees dvsn doubling down on rich-sounding R&B slow-jams, with some reggae and faster club rhythms mixed in. It’s more finely crafted, as you would expect on a third album. It revels in subtle textures, samples and retro riffs that deepen dvsn’s sonic affinity with 90s R&B. The songwriting, meanwhile, sticks to the familiar territory of relationship highs and lows, though dvsn remains a gentler counterpoint to the Hot 100’s ongoing aggressive hip-hop moment.
As such, the crowds at their first live shows since the album release were heavy on couples. Dvsn sold out five nights at CityView Drive-In, an outdoor venue that sprang up during the pandemic to keep live music alive for big acts that would typically perform at Rebel nightclub across the street.
Some fans sat in the trunks of backward-parked hatchbacks or canoodled in convertibles. At least one car alarm attempted to compete with Daley’s falsetto while its owners disappeared for an extended period of time. After each song, disparate clapping and whoops could be heard mixed in with horn honks in the vast parking-lot space.
Backed by a three-piece band (85 was at the soundboard), Daley is a showy vocalist. He’s all about dramatic key changes, falsetto runs and lengthy, show-stopping held notes. He frequently interacted with backing singers Camille Harris and Kim Davis and gave the pair a handful of moments to sing lead.
Dvsn made lots of room for chimey guitar solos and extended riffage – Daley frequently duetted, guitaromny-style, with lead guitarist Ricky Tillo – into the brisk-and-polished 75-minute set. Lest you missed their R&B influences, they dropped in covers of massive Usher and Boyz II Men hits.
A day after their fifth and final drive-in show, we caught up with 85 and Daley for a short chat about the state of music during the pandemic, performing for vehicles and sampling Usher.
You announced the album just as Toronto went into lockdown. What was that like?
85: At the time that a lot of borders started closing, we were in L.A. doing press and we had just shot the video for Between Us. That trip was cut short and then we came home not knowing if the border would open again soon. Are we going to be able to travel again? Are we going to be able to do an album release party? There was a lot of uncertainty and then you just make do. A lot of the early plans we had to put to the side and figure out something new. We ended up coming up with the MUSEum, so we could do something virtual online for people. We had to think of new approaches.
How do you find the pandemic has impacted people’s relationship to music or how they listen to music?
85: It’s hard to say. A lot of people listen to music in cars, in gyms, on their way to and from work. When you take that aspect out of everyday life, there’s so many less places that people are listening. At home, the average person would probably go to Netflix quicker than streaming. Streaming is here to stay, but the way people listen to music is a little bit different than, for instance, last year. There’s so much music the prime place to listen to is in the club or a social gathering. Now that social gatherings are so different, I wonder how that will affect certain genres of rap. I feel like you gotta be around people to enjoy it properly.
What genres of rap specifically?
85: You take City Girls or the new record with Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. You need to hear that loud. You gotta be in a club or somewhere that it’s blasting.
Daniel Daley: Not even just loud, but that’s not something for the kitchen. You want people to be dancing, moving around and interacting. It’s not even just the volume. It’s right place and right time. There’s a context for every kind of music. Outside has just been completely changed or locked off, so it’s an interesting time. One thing working for us is we’ve always had music that can be played when you just want to have intimate time. We also have records that would be best outside.
85: So much of the current state of music is based on reactionary records. There’s a whole genre of music inside of R&B and rap, especially for women right now. Women need to be able to react to those songs. You take City Girls, Megan The Stallion, Flo Milli – girls want to react to these things because they haven’t had records that’s just for them in so long. This is a great movement, or a great shift, in the way the female voice is being heard and it’s where things are going.
Is that something you think of when you’re producing songs for dvsn or other people? Or is it the lyricist’s job to create that galvanizing tone for a song?
85: It’s a bit of both. No matter how amazing Daniel’s lyrics are, how amazing the thought or the concept of the song, if the beat doesn’t get people to react, it goes over people’s heads. That’s something we learned being on the road. Certain songs connect better in a live space because of the way people can react.
At the drive-in concert, you really leaned into R&B jams even though there are clubbier rhythms on the new album. What vibe were you going for with the drive-in shows?
DD: We’re always about filling the voids and doing things differently. The idea of making our live show something you can’t get other places was the motive. We knew it was going to be a lot of couples. It was a lot of people pulling up with the drive-in movie theatre mentality, where they were going to have to hold their space and vibe. We were like, let’s just make this the ultimate vibe experience.
What are the challenges of doing a drive-in show? Small venues have been closing, medium-size venues are equipping with livestreaming technology and bigger acts are able to do these drive-in shows.
DD: [A drive-in concert] will best serve artists that make a point of their live shows being highlights of what they do. A lot of it’s about what you can do with the crowd and unfortunately the crowd is more restricted right now. Our challenge was how do we play to our strengths and make it the best experience the audience can have while understanding that I can’t go out and touch anybody. There’s not going to be a giant crowd singing along because some might be in cars, some might be standing up, some might be listening through their radios, some might be in their own bubble. There’s so much to say about the energy that’s created when a crowd is packed together. Whatever that intangible thing is is very real when it comes to concerts.
To shift topic to the new album, why did you decide to open it with No Good? It’s a solemn song about not being good at relationships.
85: That’s one of the best songs that sums up how everybody feels. There are songs that sum up how certain people feel at different times, but No Good speaks for so many different people at once. I feel like everybody’s thought at one point, “Maybe love is not really for me. Or maybe I’m not good at this. Maybe there’s something else out there for me, but I don’t know about this love thing.” Opening with that theme allowed so many of the other themes to follow.
Tell me about the interlude that follows that song. It has a woman explaining how she thinks of vulnerability as a sign of weakness, which is a big theme in culture right now particularly when people talk about men. But you have a woman vocalizing that sentiment.
85: We were looking for relatable references. If you go back to our Morning After album, we have one of those interludes in between Nuh Time/Tek Time. We’re always looking for pieces that feel like you’re having a conversation with a friend or somebody you know so it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to music that doesn’t actually fit into your life. When I heard that, it fit so well with the theme of the album. All of the women [in the interludes] were comfortable enough to give us these stories and let us know where they were coming from.
DD: Or vent at us.
Scarborough singer Shantel May joined you on stage during the drive-in concert and she’s on the record as well. OVO and OVO Sound have a rep as being all dudes. Women like Jessie Reyez and Haviah Mighty have started breaking out in Toronto in R&B and hip-hop, but it seems like it’s been harder climb for women locally in those genres. What’s your take on that?
85: That’s a good question. I think timing is the biggest thing. We went through a five-year period in Toronto where a lot of the ground-breaking artists coming out just happened to be men. I don’t think it was like that for a very long time. Especially in the R&B space, a lot of the more known R&B artists in the past were women, like Kim Davis, Deborah Cox or Jully Black. Women have always been at the forefront and this is one of the first times where a group of men were pushing the boundary. I think it was timing. There’s a wave of a lot of super-talented women coming out of Toronto.
You covered two Usher songs at the drive-in concert, you sample Nice & Slow on Between Us and you have Usher songwriter Bryan Michael-Cox on the album. What is it about that era of Usher’s work with Jermaine Dupri and Bryan Michael-Cox that appeals to you right now?
DD: That’s what we grew up on. I’ve always just admired Usher as a vocalist. He’s one of those guys that makes things seem so effortless. There’s so many women vocally to talk about, but when it comes to guys who are a legacy act he can really sing while performing and dancing at that level. That legacy, for that generation, was Usher. He is that still. I put him at the same level as Beyoncé as far as the talent to sing and dance. Me and 85 bonded on how much we loved the Confessions album – from the production, the writing, the concept. Being able to get his blessing on sampling him was special to us.
85: Bryan Michael-Cox was one of the first people to hear dvsn and reach out. When we put out those first two songs, he hit [Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib] in days and was like, “Yo, what is this? I heard you’re involved. I need to meet these guys.” So that’s always been family.