(Photo by McLean Stephenson)
DANIKA IS THINKING about definitions. Personal and professional.
“I think making art is a lesson in letting go because it’s a representation of one part of you at one point in time,” the singer/songwriter says as she contemplates the release of her debut EP of low-smoking intense songs. “So to hold onto the idea that your music defines who you are all the time, is unrealistic.”
She has a point, the artist formerly known as Danika Smith, and not just because this EP, When Love Comes, has several songs released over the past two years that transformed her from a local-with-talent in Melbourne to the kind of moody folk-rock artist your Gilles Peterson types push on the BBC, between Aldous Harding and Cat Power.
While the decision to go with the single name, Danika, was for simplicity, a secondary appealing aspect to it for her was the fact that “it feels less personal, which is nice”, allowing her to separate a little bit at least the public performance Danika, and the home Danika Smith.
Does that extend to thinking differently in public and private mode?
“I think there’s a slow separation happening at the moment. I guess the music is the most public personal journal I’ve ever had, because I use music as a way of soothing. It’s like a habit: whenever I feel overwhelmed, I have unspeakably guitar and start playing to flesh out what I am feeling,” says Smith. “It just so happens that it also becomes music that I share. I think ideally for me it would be better to write in a somewhat universal, ambiguous way, hitting very universal things from a genuine place, but also not too personal.”
Making decisions about how much of herself to expose, or even whether to put herself there at all, is something she’s been dealing with for a decade. At 16 she became a triple j Unearthed discovery, and opportunities began to open up. Rather than take them up though, Smith travelled, relocated her home (she was raised on the NSW north coast) and worked as a collaborator (with the likes of jazz/rock adventurers Hiatus Kaiyote). Anything, it seems, rather than become a solo artist yet.
That’s crazy brave at a time when careers seem to be rapidly foreshortened, if they happen at all. Waiting? Who does that?
“I definitely had a bit of a fork in the road when I was 16. I’d already planned to go overseas for a year on exchange, an existing thing I was really excited about but then I had my first public response to my first song that I put out. It was like, oh there’s all this attention,” Smith says. “But I went with the overseas thing because it made more sense. When you are 16, I don’t know, it felt too much to jump right into the music career thing.”
Knowing yourself well enough to recognise that the “obvious” thing might actually be the wrong call, is no small thing. “It’s interesting getting to this age now – like, 27 – with that blow-up about ageing out of youth radio, and the ageism that’s around for women, you always worry is it getting too late? But then it doesn’t really matter: just make music.”
The EP’s balance of simplicity and depth, of minimalist textures that actually sound immersive, suggests the writer has come to know her style as much as herself. She tips her hat to producer Nick Herrera, of Hiatus Kaiyote, for fashioning the original elements, but the themes were already there.
“I actually was listening back to the demos that I made, on Garageband, and I feel like they do carry the essence quite clearly,” she says with a tone of surprise that cuts against any hint of smugness.
The other thing that she balances on the EP is a palpable sense of loneliness, or at least alone-ness and almost detached observation, and intense feeling. What’s been going on in her life then?
“I think it’s been a pretty interesting time, over the last 5-plus years. I guess my whole understanding of how the world works has been tipped on its head and I’m just having lived through that feeling – I don’t know, lots of feelings,” is as much as she’ll say.
“Writing those songs was a space for my intense emotion. I love that my therapist describes me as an ocean trying to fit into fish tank, which is true probably most of the time. Except when I express myself through music, where I think I’m more well received in my emotional self. It’s a beautiful experience I think. I hope.
“No, I don’t hope; that’s what it is at the moment.”
When Love Comes is out today on Endless Recordings.