Hovvdy and Dijon Talk the New Frontier of the “Self-Centered DIY Bedroom Musician”

The Austin-based duo discuss Frank Ocean, Lucinda Williams, and the future of DIY with the LA singer-songwriter.

Hovvdy is the Austin, TX-based recording project of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor, who orignally met while drumming for different bands; Dijon, aka Dijon Duenas, is an LA-based singer-songwriter who recently released his album Good Luck and will be touring with Vampire Weekend next year. With Hovvdy’s Heavy Lifter out today, the three got together to talk about Frank Ocean, Lucinda Williams, the concept of method acting in music, and their new albums.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Dijon: I have a question about you guys coming from a rhythmic world: Does that affect the songwriting? I hear a lot of amazing, weird cadences when you guys approach stuff, which is really refreshing to me.

Will Taylor: I think it absolutely informs the entire theme. When you think of rhythm, you think of something that is moving, or that fits within a certain space, but when I’m writing songs and thinking about how things will fit, it’s almost like, what can I bring out or pull back? It’s very subtle, and I think it definitely informs our vocal delivery and the way we play guitar. They swim with each other a little bit, so you can find a groove without it being a drum beat.

Charlie Martin: I think also, the drumming and the rhythmic feel of a song is the least unknown aspect of a track. A lot of the time, just having that confidence in where the backbone lies, and how simple it can be and still feel right. I think especially on the new record, that’s something that we freed up a lot more.

Dijon: I hear a similar thing where you guys will do a simple guitar pass, but there’s a lot of implied rhythm. I do consider myself a child of rap, and even if I’m in this country-ish world, I always approach it as if I’m going to spit 16 bars.

Will: It’s interesting you say that. I was talking to someone the other day and they were saying that they loved our song “Cathedral” that just came out, and I was like, “Yeah, it’s like straight-up rock band 5000.” And they were like, “But the outro is this whole new thing, it’s actually not a rock song. There’s tons of space and there’s some bars at the end.” The drums interact with the vocals — just how you hit the drums and how it fights with the vocal I think is underrated. Sometimes that happens naturally for us and sometimes it’s we’re fighting for that. 

Dijon: Yeah. I find it for me, the lyrics are important, but never as important as how the vocals sit rhythmically. If I’m hearing a simple chord progression that’s been done a million times, the biggest challenge for me is always trying to find a very unique pattern — syllables have to match the cadence of the tempo in a specific way. I love hearing when people are very obviously informed by the implied rhythm and I think it’s, to me, what makes a good song. I think it’s what separates certain people’s taste from other people’s taste. I find a kinship with how you guys write because there is a lot of rhythmic involvement, even if it’s really subtle. 

Will: I feel like I’ve learned a lot about that from listening to your music too. Lyrically, I love what you do, but it never eats at what you’re passionate about, which is how it fits, how it hits you. I’ve always been obsessed with music, but I literally just ignore lyrics. I don’t know lyrics from music I listened to when I was young, I only know little moments. I think that we both kind of have that — being really happy when you have good lyrics and [feeling] really rewarded by a good line, but not writing for a million people, just writing for yourself. 

Dijon: It’s very much an afterthought for me to have lyrics, so my cheat code is just slurring the vocal. If I don’t like the lyric when it’s done, it’s like, eh, you can barely hear it anyway. We have a song coming out, and there was a moment when we did the vocals that it was like, “Dope, but do you want to recut? Because we can’t hear anything you’re saying.” I was like, “Nah, that’s fine.” It’s 2019, you’re not really supposed to have any sort of lyrics anymore. 

This is another thing I wanted to praise you guys for: It feels like even though you guys are writing individually, you both have an obsession with melody, which is something I really admire. It’s not pop, but I think we share a similar respect for the fact that pop is a vessel for melodies, and I hear it in your stuff so I’m wondering if that’s a conscious thing. 

Will: I think we might have a little different answers here, but ultimately, yes, melody is super important. It’s the best way to connect to someone, in my opinion. You can say a really powerful lyric, or a lyric no one can disagree with, but if you don’t sing it interestingly, it just doesn’t matter. So it’s been fun to focus on melody. I’ve tried to do some pop sessions and the struggle of that is it’s a whole new arena for writing. It’s like a competitive arena that I don’t feel is nurturing to the process.

Charlie: I think if anything, at least for me, subconsciously [melody] is the most important thing. I feel lucky in that I seldom am really searching for it. Growing up playing piano — my mom’s a piano teacher, and her whole thing was melody over everything. Even with the early Hovvdy shit when I was super insecure and the vocals were super tough, she’d always be like, “Turn the fucking vocals up, a melody is the most important thing.” I think that kind of comes through in a very unforced way. 

Dijon: For me, I have to force the shit out of finding really good melodies. I guess really what I was trying to say was just, in a space where everything is played really well, I think people can rely on allowing the overarching instrumental world to imply the arrangement. I love that your stuff is not just played well, but also there are distinct parts in the verses that feel poppy. 

You were mentioning how tough and competitive [pop] is — it’s because the skill set is to make distinct parts in a song. I love hearing the distinction in each song and I think that’s very important. I think that you guys do it really well. I’m very fascinated that’s not meticulously labored over, because I have to labor over making a track super distinct. 

Will: It’s funny because I feel like we’ve ruined Charlie now. Now he’s gonna think about that and be like, I should be trying harder. [Laughs.]

Charlie: I feel like approaching songwriting, my main hurdle was realizing that I don’t gotta beat Townes Van Zandt. Even though I grew up listening to pretty eclectic music thanks to my folks and my brother, I kind of thought that folk singer-songwriter-y stuff —

Will: — was songwriting.

Charlie: For whatever reason. Will, I think maybe you experience a lot of this too, just being some, like, Texas acoustic guitar boys, you think that that’s songwriting, then realize, Oh, wait, I can just like build on rhythm and melody and that’s actually tight. It took me a long time to realize that’s all you need. 

Will: What changed a lot for me was listening to Blonde by Frank Ocean, and then going on and discovering you [Dijon] and how you approach songs. It rearranged in my head the way I view songwriting. It’s not just like, a verse and a chorus and another verse. That’s all one mode, and there’s all kinds of modes. Hearing new music freed me up to worry less about the lyrical narrative. 

Dijon: That’s what I hear in your stuff — I don’t hear any sort of constraint in a world of guitar. There is this pop sort of tone, and there’s also this R&B world that I hear very distinctly, and I think it might just be through that vocal tone, which is amazing. But you don’t hear this boundary of guitar. Do you both write on guitar primarily, or piano, or does it switch up? For me, I’m always guitar.

Will: Charlie writes a lot on piano. 

Charlie: Yeah. Early on I couldn’t write a on piano, because it’s the most beautiful instrument. It’s too perfect tonally. I can only play in open tuning on guitar, and that was to me the most expressive; that’s how I kind of found like a voice. More recently, I write on piano and I think it’s cause I’m able to use my right hand as melody. But I’ve even started to just sing. 

Dijon: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting one. I’ve tried it a couple of times — voice memos that have no harmonic information, and build a song off of it. I’ve found it very difficult. 

Charlie: The thing that I wrote that way is on the album, but there are some new songs I’ve written a verse for with no instrument, no music. It’s usually when I’m not at home. I’ll go home and try to find how to make it work with, like, the 14 chords I know. 

Dijon: I know, like, four. What’s your favorite chord? 

Charlie: G major. [Laughs.]

Dijon: It’s the best chord. [Laughs.] I learned how to play guitar listening to The Microphones, so that’s why a lot of my music is only the bottom three strings. In my primitive understanding of guitar, I was like, this is the only way I can emulate it. But I like this one chord — it’s like an F-sharp minor but not actually the bar chord, you just put your thumb on the top. Best chord of all time. You should try it tonight.

Will: I’ll try it right now in my head. [Laughs.]  

Dijon: I don’t know how you’re supposed to know more chords. I can’t figure out how you’re supposed to get better at an instrument. 

Will: I mean, I don’t know new chords. There’s a new song I’m really excited about that I think sounds so fresh, and it’s literally the exact same chords as every song I’ve ever written. 

Dijon: I listen to Neil Young and, man, that fool just rocked, like, one progression for 35 years, but every joint is just fire. I’m trying to work on [having] the freedom to just write songs, but in my head, it’s like I have to find a new progression. Even if it’s in the same key, I have to find a new way to play and it’s like really killing me. Then I’ll hear “Unknown Legend,” which to me is the best song ever written, and it’s just like, this man has been hitting the same vibe for 76 years.

I wish I could write faster music. How do you guys write faster music? 

Will: That’s funny, because we’re a really slow band. 

Dijon: Yeah, but there’s stuff like “Mr. Lee” where there’s tempo. I don’t know how to do it. How do people do it? 

Charlie: Well, sometimes I just end up doing the demo a little faster than I should have, and it just kind of sticks. 

Dijon: I find that a huge hurdle for me is when I put drums and now, I feel like I can’t write a song at all. I feel like the drums inform one space and I can’t ever get out of it. I just don’t know how to do it. How do you do it? I can’t figure out how to write on a groove at all. I came from making sort of bastardized electronic music that was very house influenced, and I would only be able to write a certain thing in that world. I’ve been trying to incorporate these glitchy techno rhythms but the moment there’s a kick drum, it changes my entire writing approach for some reason and I can’t write a song. 

Will: I think that’s fine. I think you find your true strides when it’s less defined. The parts that wreck me are when there is a good transitional part and it’s a little bit broken and it’s just pure emotion. 

Dijon: I’m a two-trick pony.

Charlie: I mean, one rhythm guitar track, one finger-pick guitar track, and one vocal is pretty much all you need.

Dijon: I can’t really wrap my head around anything else. 

Charlie: Writing something that doesn’t feel really straightforward, that has, like, dynamics in the drum track is tough. That’s one thing that I struggle with, with “Mr. Lee” and even, like, pretty much every electronic drumbeat that we’ve ever made — just like figuring out how to create dynamics. I have a Volca sample and I always end up using some live takes where the drums are all just one track, which is garbage because you can’t mix anything down. I feel like taking that approach, it’s hard to find dynamics when you’re just kind of building the track around one solid beat. What we’ve done to jump that hurdle is just turn the drums down and create the dynamics elsewhere. 

Will: Even just muting the drums. 

Charlie: Yeah, just scrapping the drums entirely. 

Will: We did that on a song called “Tools” on the album. It had this huge drop, and we just could not make it sit. I wanted it to be more of a bop, but we were so over breakbeat.

Charlie: It was too good, too easy. We stripped it and it felt, like, naked and completely right. 

Will: It also makes space for those weird vocals to have their say.

Dijon: Not to make this whole thing a technical masterclass, but it’s really all I think about ever — that’s something I’m super fascinated with and something I’ve been trying to do with all my new music. I’m hoping that a lot of the new music that I do is more explicitly informed by like rap. I’ve been really fascinated with how back in the day, you could just drop a bunch of drums from a drum machine and that’s what it is.

Will: It’s very punk. With a lot of punk music, the thing that never changes is the intensity. I love that about older rap music — you just press go and fill it out in unique ways. 

Charlie: We talked about that pop and hip hop influence. Listening to Young Thug and Lil Baby and Gunna — they just carry a song with the strength of their melodies. The drums never let up.

Will: And they’re fun, which makes it easy to listen to. 

Charlie: I think we’re all just trying to make melodies that could stand alone with or without drums. 

Dijon: Do you guys listen to Playboi Carti? There’s so much inspiration for me to be had in… I like to think of it almost like method acting in music. That’s something I’ve been trying to experiment with a lot — assuming a role, not content-wise, but physically. I love that Thug and Carti do this thing where the person that they are changes with their voice. On “Flatbed Freestyle,” Playboi Carti just turns into a tiny baby. I’m really glad I’m not a music historian, because I think I would gloss over all the actual significant moments in music history and only focus on him turning into a baby on “Flatbed Freestyle.” 

Charlie: I mean, Thug sounds like Kermit the Frog on his new shit. This one track, he just straight sounds like the Cookie Monster. 

Dijon: I think it’s the next wave! I have this song called “Drunk” that is supposed to be sort of like a tongue-in-cheek soul song or whatever. I re-recorded it and put it on YouTube, and it was this weird experiment of character acting. When I recorded it, I was hunching over the mic so I could only squeak out certain words. Also, I was really drunk when I did it. [Laughs.] Hearing Thug and Carti, I feel like that’s the new wave, method acting in music. If I’m going to record a tender, romantic song, I have to, like, take my clothes off and really assume this form of a person who’s really romantic; if I’m recording a really manic song, I’ll, like, drink a bunch of coffee. Maybe this just means that I’m lost and I don’t know how to make music anymore. But I think there’s this world that needs to be explored in all music, of, like, full character acting. Oscar-level shit.

Will: Even just within yourself, there’s so many versions of you. There’s your angry self, there’s your happy self, there’s your immature self. 

Charlie: You talk about it from a method approach, but when I hear Thug, to me he just sounds like the most like uninhibited, expressive artist. I think that it can be an intentional choice or a practiced skill to break down those barriers and just really fucking express yourself. 

Dijon: I mean, it’s always going to be that the person is the vessel, but I do wonder about the ability and the potential to tap into this world of like… not specifically through a narrative, but actually through your presentation to try to assume different forms and different roles. 

Do you guys have a record from the past, like, five to 10 years that has really altered the way you guys think about making stuff?

Will: I think Blonde is one of them. 

Charlie: Yeah, in terms of contemporary music, definitely Frank. Alex [G’s] DSU really fucked me up. I was super late to Alex. I was on tour with another band and we were booked by some sort of fluke with him in New Orleans, and that’s where I discovered his shit. Lately, especially for the new record, Frou Frou — have you listened to that new record? 

Dijon: I’ve never heard a Frou Frou record in its entirety, but I know that one song that was on the Garden State soundtrack. [Laughs.] 

Will: Fire soundtrack.

Dijon: Honestly, changed my entire life. 

Will: Literally put indie music on the map. Other than that, I’ve been really influenced by Lucinda Williams. 

Dijon: Oh, my god, if you look at all of my YouTube situations in the last two days, it’s only been her playing “Fruits of My Labor.” I actually think that she’s the greatest person of all time. 

Will: She’s ridiculous.

Dijon: Lucinda Williams has really quite fucked up my entire process of trying to finish a record, because now I’m just obsessed. I just really wish I was Lucinda Williams. I also heard that she takes a really, really long time to make music, which is very helpful for me. 

Will: That is encouraging that people take their time, but It’s also nerve-wracking because that only works if people, like, care. 

Dijon: Yeah, I know. That’s such a crazy thing, because I just started making music publicly and I already wanna take three years on this project. I’m trying really hard to not lean into my impulse, which is just to make a couple songs a year and then sit on a porch. That’s pretty much what I want to do. 

When I released all the music I had, it was, like, all the music I had. There was no demo. I mean, all the songs are kind of demos, but there was no extra thing that I had put to the side. There’s this, like, “OK, you’re gonna have to strike while the iron is hot,” kind of world, which just isn’t my impulse. I just don’t approach music that way. Music is almost divine for me, because I was never a songwriter. I could produce, I can make beats and stuff like that all day, and I probably could make a cool record for somebody, but when it comes to writing songs it’s very hard for me. I don’t know if like you guys feel that at all.

Will: It’s getting harder, which is funny. There’s moments that are easy, but if it means anything, looking at your catalog and hearing all the ground you cover: A. It doesn’t seem like it’s hard, and B. It doesn’t seem like you’re throwing everything out the window.

Dijon: That’s nice to hear because, I feel like every time I make a song, I’m like, that’s all I had. Those are the final moments and I’m gonna have to go back to waiting tables. Every time I export a song, I’m like, Well, that was the last one. [Laughs.] 

Charlie: I still feel that way every time I write a song, just because I was so late to it and found any degree of confidence… it seems very recently, even though it’s been years now. Every song is like, oh, I gotta fucking hammer this out and release it

Dijon: That’s something I’m trying to fix, is when I do write a song it feels like it exhausts every capability per song. 

Charlie: And that feels unsustainable ways. 

Dijon: Yeah, it’s really unsustainable. It’s scary in this hyper-fast consumption world. It feels like before I’ve even started, there’s a potential that I’ll be left behind because I’m not making enough music to sustain interest. 

I did start very late in songwriting, so I have such a precious approach to it. It wasn’t something that was natural for me. I hear a lot of people like, “I’ve been writing songs since I was like five,” like, easy peasy. Every song for me is a new relationship to music and a new relationship to the idea of arrangement. There’s a really fun aspect to it, but there’s also this horrifying abyss that I know if I don’t tackle it immediately, then I fall into it and I’ll never make a song again. 

Will: I think in the future, we want to do something that’s hyper-collaborative. I’m not really sure what that looks like, but I’ve had the idea of hitting up, like, six people to do six songs and let them [each] have half a song, and putting something out where no one person is making all the choices.

Charlie: It’s like the new frontier for the self-centered DIY bedroom musician.

Dijon: I think that’s a really amazing and fascinating idea. I’m actually really intrigued by that world, because I feel like outside of a rap record or a pop record that has potentially six producers, I feel like it’s not really ever seen. Songwriting is typically so individualized.

Will: Despite how much people want to pretend this isn’t true, I feel like indie rock specifically, and any music that is very “bedroom,” is actually pretty egotistical. 

Charlie: You cling so tightly to [your vision]. 

Dijon: I think that there’s something kind of generous and egoless in something like Blonde — like, look at the list of collaborators. I find that so encouraging and empowering. I think there’s something to learn from that sort of, like, eight people mess with the drums on a thing. It’s something really fascinating, and it also scares the shit out of me. It’s like, if I didn’t write the chords then maybe I’m not a good songwriter, you know? Which is so wrong.

I love that idea. Maybe I’ll steal it.

Will: [Laughs.] Please do. I’m gonna be hitting you up in a month for some help. 

Dijon: I’m so down and I’m so excited by the prospect of it. 

(Photo Credit: left, Taylor Clark; right, Joaquin Bartra)

Based in Austin, Texas, Hovvdy (pronounced “howdy”) is the writing and recording project of Charlie Martin and Will Taylor.

(Photo Credit: Taylor Clark)