Some things are just meant to happen. For South London’s DRY CLEANING, forming a band was a matter of fate. Its draw eventually proved inescapable, even when recruiting a lead vocalist who didn’t sing, or has ever expressed an interest in fronting a band. And yet, in less than a year, the four-piece – consisting of Florence Shaw, Lewis Maynard, Tom Dowse and Nick Buxton – have authoritatively planted their flag in the ground of a crowded London scene, setting about turning heads nationwide with a searching blend of spoken word and reassuring backbone of home-built riffs.
Gearing up for a busy 2020, the band make their way to Liverpool on their first UK tour. Ahead of the stop here on 21st February, Elliot Ryder interrupted vocalist Florence Shaw’s day of personal admin to chat about her quantum leap into the spotlight, internet introspection and owning on-stage tension.
It’s been quite a mercurial transition for yourself, going from never playing a show, joining the band, recording two EPs and now about to start a full UK tour – all in the space of a year. Are there times where you have to ask yourself how all this has happened?
Mentally, I’m still catching up to it. It’s such a big change that I’m dealing with it one day at a time. There’s a lot more turmoil involved than you’d imagine. I’m quite an anxious person, really. Things like my routine, my plans and how I organise things – seeing that changing freaks me out. I’m one of those people where any small difference and I shut down a little bit. It’s definitely been a big challenge to reorient myself as performer.
So is it a little strange to go from being an artist and lecturer to having to take phone interviews at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon?
When I was drawing, I was always talking about my work. The main difference is that it’s now much more personal. There’s something about speaking or singing or fronting a band that is more personality led. Visual art, less so. It’s not so much about you. You make a drawing or image to detract attention from yourself, putting it onto a piece of paper or onto a wall. This is different because it is me. The voice is coming out of my body. It’s interesting to see the difference in the reaction that people have. To a certain extent there’s a lot of food for thought in terms of your actual personality and yourself and how you look as more of a product. That’s just the nature of performing in any field; it’s much more about your body. It’s frightening but also inspiring.
Is there personal curation in your lyricism? You’ve previously harvested comments from YouTube, written an ode to Meghan Markle and questioned the cleanliness of budget hotel carpets. Or is it more a conduit for reflecting and interpreting random fragments of society?
Some songs are very carefully curated where I’ll have a whole heap of collected words that I’ll comb through really carefully, and almost colour code things so they align to different themes, finding phrases that speak to that theme. Sometimes it’s just how words sound. It’s much less a specific story idea. More so something that sounds funny or unexpected. It’s a bit of everything and changes over time.
Do you find similarities in your other artistic practices when writing lyrics?
Like any kind of drawing, the way I feel about making images and putting the words together, is kind of the same. Anyone making something is trying to solidify how they see the world in an object that they’ve made. Everyone has their own point of view, their own personal TV show of how they see the world. Making a reflection of it on paper or in words is so reassuring. When I write the words, I’m trying to encapsulate what the world appears like to me – for comfort, essentially. To feel less alone. To feel reassured, if that makes any sense at all.
So is dictating these feelings a form of coping mechanism for the constant barrage of messages and signals that surround us?
Some people are quite soft and have one layer less of skin. Some people find it easier to let things bounce off them. I’m definitely not one of those people. I’m quite a raw nerve, and in any environment I would feel fairly inundated by thoughts, just because I’m an over-thinker and I attach meanings to things that I probably shouldn’t. The lyricism is sort of like talking to myself, talking myself down off a ledge. I’m making sense of things, obviously not in a straightforward way. It’s also like reaching out, testing the waters, asking if anyone knows what the hell I’m on about. That’s actually been one of the nice things about the band – people do relate to the words. It surprises me at first, because I see it as a random collection of phrases. But when I put it all together, I start to see something in it. It’s quite intuitive.
I think the social media age provides us with pockets of absurdity that communities coalesce around, an example being YouTube comments, something which you’ve fed into your lyricism. It’s almost like these spaces are a deep pool of introspection beyond tangible judgement.
When I find things that I want to include in songs, it’s almost always because I’m moved by them. Even if that’s just the act of someone putting something personal on the internet under a video, it says something about somebody who might not have a lot of outlets, or maybe there isn’t anyone to talk to at that moment, so they throw it out into the abyss. I find something moving about that. I think people can relate to that, too, as though they’ve just told a stranger at a party something very personal. I feel like YouTube comments are a little bit like that. It is anonymous, in that you’re telling people who don’t know you at all. There’s something very valuable in that. But at the same time, they can be so crude and so, so nasty and vitriolic. And you know, I’m sometimes moved by those, too, because who are these people and why do they need to be doing it? When I see the really nasty comments, it fills me with empathy, because I just think, ‘What a tortured soul’.
You recall being slightly hesitant when being asked to be lead vocalist. Do you think it’s this shy reluctancy that places in you in the position to be a compelling observer when collating lyrics?
I think it has. When I joined, I thought, ‘OK, crap, I’m going to have to try and be a front-person in a band – at some point I’m going to have to work out how to move, how to be a performer’. But I said to myself, ‘I’ll do that side of things in a bit, but for now I’ll just get through it and do it the best I can, and if I look nervous then I’ll just look nervous. I’ll just embrace whatever I can manage’. I thought that would develop into an all-singing, all-dancing persona, which I now realise is completely unrealistic, and not me at all. Now I’ve just leaned into that first version a bit more. I’m still learning how to be on a stage. The best way I’ve found is to make yourself feel as at home as possible and to get out of your head. Just be myself. Just be an observer and remain quite physically shy.
You’re owning the tension in a way.
Yeh, that’s a good way of putting it.
It’s interesting the way you mention the home environment on stage. I think there’s a strong sense of home in the atmosphere of Dry Cleaning, something which you can draw from the tight repetition of the instrumentals and the titling of the second EP, which emerged from practices in your bassist’s mum’s house. How much does comfort and familiarity sculpt the world of Dry Cleaning?
The whole thing started in Lewis’ family home, and maybe it’s because we’re all bit older than most bands breaking through, but we’ve come to a place where we really value home, and not be doing things because of expectation. We’ve outgrown the social pressure to do certain things, or act a certain way. That has a lot to do with feeling comfortable in your own skin. It’s definitely the theme that runs through our band. We look quite different as a group. We never said we need to adhere to a particular style, or we all need to dress a certain way. We just did our own thing and it worked out quite well. It owes a lot to just being at ease in our own skin and the homeliness of it all.