I’m keeping Dels from his burger. It looks like a damn fine burger, too. He’s got some chillies in there, just peeking out from under a brioche hood. I’ve one in front of me, and it smells tremendous. But there are priorities to observe, and we’ve an album to discuss.
The Big Dada-signed rapper, producer and designer – real name Kieren Gallear, once of Ipswich and currently a resident of Peckham, London – is about to release one of the finest albums of its kind in 2014. ‘Petals Have Fallen’ feels like the final part of an incredible trilogy for the London-based imprint, following the Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Dead’ by Young Fathers and ‘Everybody Down’ by Kate Tempest.
“It’s really great, because I love both of those records,” he says, plucking a chip from the basket before him. “Young Fathers, everything about them is amazing. And to see them live… Wow, it made me think I have to step up my live game. But that’s what I signed to Big Dada for, because I knew that they had that in their locker, to put out albums like that. They’ve been doing it for years.”
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On the first record, most of the vocals I recorded in my mum’s back garden. This one was done in the studio, and I was there alongside the producers…
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Like those other LPs, ‘Petals Have Fallen’ pushes at the peripheries of domestic hip-hop expectations, changing form and tone across its tracks yet remaining consistent of quality and coherent of impression. Whereas Dels’ debut album of 2011, ‘Gob’, was a schizophrenic affair – perhaps appropriately so for a record featuring a track titled ‘Shapeshift’ – its successor is held together by a more single-minded set of production principles, largely helmed by Kwes, who also served on ‘Gob’.
“I worked with Kwes on the first record, but he was a lot more involved this time around. On the first record, most of the vocals I recorded in my mum’s back garden – she has this shed-thing at the bottom of the garden, which was for my step-dad. That’s where we did my vocals, and then I’d send them over to (‘Gob’ co-producer) Joe Goddard. So the debut was a bit like working in the dark, whereas this one was done in the studio, and I was there alongside the producers I was working with, predominantly Kwes, stripping down the beats. It was a really good experience.”
As well as Kwes on board for the duration, through sessions that mostly took place after dark – “It’s at night when my mind really comes alive, and Kwes is a night owl, too, so a lot of the sessions were late at night” – Dels also called on a selection of friends old and new to contribute to his second solo set. “I knew about Tirzah through Micachu – and then Coby Sey, Kwes’s brother, he produced on ‘Petals Have Fallen’. Kwes was calling himself the Mike Dean of the recording – you know, the Mike Dean who worked on all the Kanye records. He told me about Rosie Lowe, as I didn’t know her at all when we began the album.”
Yet it’s Lowe (Next Wave feature) who serves as one of the more pivotal guests on ‘Petals Have Fallen’, featuring on LP-trailing track ‘Burning Beaches’, which as six of 11 on its parent collection acts as a kind of fulcrum, the point on which its more aggressive tendencies and moments of introspective calm balance. “I’m a tired soul,” Dels begins, before detailing what threatens to be the collapse stages of a relationship running low on love – words that took their cue from Lowe’s chorus.
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Dels feat. Rosie Lowe, ‘Burning Beaches’
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“I wrote the chorus for her, but didn’t write any of my own lyrics until after she’d recorded her part. So her performance led that song – she did really well. The whole record was very organic. I know that sounds clichéd, but it was.”
I know what Dels means – ‘Petals Have Fallen’ never feels forced, its production warm and approachable. Its features are naturally woven into the fabric of the whole in such a way that they serves as additional instrumentation, almost, rather than spot-lit stowaways on another artist’s record. Tirzah is glorious on the album’s closing title cut, her smoky yet soft repetition of those three words a base upon which the track is built. Kerry Leatham lends her talents to ‘Pulls’, a compelling counterpoint to our main man’s distinctively unusual but true enough observations: “Life’s too short to eat tasteless soup.” Big Dada alumna Elan Tamara shows up, too, a ghostly presence on a track that’s been a favourite of mine ever since it appeared on Dels’ ‘Black Salad’ EP of 2012, ‘You Live In My Head’.
“People ask if it’s a love song, if I’m talking about a girl. But it’s not even about me – it’s about my uncle. He hasn’t had a woman for a long time, so I was putting myself in his position, and wondering what it’d be like to be with a woman again. So there are moments on this album where I have fun, and others where I try to be true to the situation. This recording is different to the EP version, though – it finally feels like the finished track.”
Another of the ‘Black Salad’ numbers, ‘Bird Milk’, gets a makeover for ‘Petals Have Fallen’. Of the brand-new arrangements, ‘Fall Apart’ makes for an invigorating opening salvo of confidence, an early arrival that feels confrontational – a little Dels against those who might have once doubted his abilities, decidedly bold of beat and dizzyingly fast of prose.
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Dels, ‘Fall Apart’
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“It is a bit confrontational, but with myself. The first line is, ‘Fool said I’m off-white, to saturate my blackness,’ and that came from me thinking about my own identity. I’m mixed race, and between my mum and aunts and so on I was raised by seven black women. I never thought about my identity in terms of race until I came to London, when someone said to me: ‘You’re not black, you’re mixed race.’ And that was really weird. I’d never really thought about it like that. I had to get that in a song – and I thought I’d open the album with it.
“I’m not poking fun at other MCs who do boast, but I was playing with that idea. I like to have fun when I’m writing, and I like to create scenarios for myself. So I imagined myself as a dead rapper, in purgatory – what would that be? Like, ‘I look in the mirror, and I can’t see myself’ – that’s me saying I’m dead. ‘I see dead people,’ but I think I’m alive. And that’s what ‘Fall Apart’ is about.
“I just go with it the lyrics – it just happens! If something makes me laugh, f*ck it, I’m probably going to leave it in there. That’s how it goes, really. Sometimes – quite a lot of times – the vocals were just done in one take. It’s all about capturing that moment, and those emotions. And when you do it a second time, it’s never the same.
“People ask me how I deal with things I feel strongly about while balancing the need to entertain a listener, but it’s really not something that I think about. I don’t think of myself as an entertainer. This is just a form of expression, and I’m enjoying making music.”
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It’s hard to put into words how finishing this album makes me feel…
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That enjoyment, that satisfaction with what he’s achieved with ‘Petals Have Fallen’, has put Dels in a position where his mind is already on what’s next. “It’s hard to put into words how finishing this album makes me feel. I’m starting to get the itches to make another album already, though – and after the first record, I didn’t get that feeling for ages. I felt, then, like I needed to tour and stuff. But right now I feel like I could go straight back to the studio and bang out some more tunes.”
Perhaps he should, as ‘House Of Commons’ describes, sink into a sofa, bourbon ginger chaser in hand, and properly reflect on what he has here before racing to a follow-up. ‘Petals Have Fallen’ is the most complete statement yet from a very British artist who, like Young Fathers and Kate Tempest’s own elevations in 2014, only hinted at this level of accomplishment before now. And one suspects there’s more to come – suggested by a glint in his eye, a turned-up mouth, an obvious appetite for more.
“I’m very happy, definitely.” A moment of contentment, of reflection – and then it’s onto the main course. Well, it’s going to get cold, otherwise.
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Words: Mike Diver
Photos: Hayley Louisa Brown (portrait), Rose Maisie Willoughby (landscape)
Dels is online here. ‘Petals Have Fallen’ is released on November 3rd. Dels plays a sold-out show at London’s Electrowerks on November 19th – keep them peeled for future dates.