When we spoke with Dvsn in April, singer Daniel Daley remarked that they use their live shows something like focus group sessions for their albums: “When we perform, we get to kind of see which records do what to people, and how they take them and interact with them.”
Clearly, the OVO Sound duo have been itching to see how the jams off their third LP, A Muse In Her Feelings, would test with fans—so much so that they weren’t about to let a pesky global pandemic get in their way. Daley and producer Paul ‘Nineteen85’ Jeffries are coming off five sold-out concerts at Toronto’s City-View Drive-In, a parking lot-turned-venue that opened recently as a way for people to get their live music fix while still social distancing.
The hometown shows, which took place earlier this week, were undoubtedly a vibe—one both electrifying and dystopian. Audience members—which on the night we attended included OVO crewmates 40 and Roy Woods—sat on the trunks of backwards-parked cars or danced within their assigned parking spots, voicing approval via scattered hollering and horn honking. Doing justice to A Muse bangers from “Miss Me?” to “...Again,” Dvsn’s brand of retro-futuristic R&B sounded spotless—even if the experience was a little bizarre for them as well.
“It's definitely different,” Daley told us the day after completing their fifth concert (August 13). “But just like anything, we as humans adapt. So as the shows went along, not only did I adjust, but the crowd adjusted. And by the time it was done, it was like, yo, this isn't even that bad! This has actually got some upside to it, as long as people can feel free to vibe in their space. It turned out to be super enjoyable.”
Daley was an entrancing force on stage, closing the distance between himself and the audience with his bedroom-appropriate croons and bloody-hearted falsettos. He interacted with the backing band often, trading verses with supporting singers Camille Harris and Kim Davis, sparring vocally with guitarist Ricky Tillo’s solos (a la Deep Purple), and ceding the spotlight at one point to Scarborough chanteuse Shantel May. Noticeably absent from the stage, however, was Nineteen85.
The producer explains that he was posted up in a tent offstage, ensuring Dvsn’s bass-heavy, slow-burning sonics translated well amid the unorthodox acoustics of a parking lot packed with cars. “An inconvenient part is that because it was all cars, we couldn’t put the front-of-house console in the middle of the parking lot, because then you’d be obstructing somebody’s view,” Nineteen85 said. “Throughout the night I probably walked through the crowd three or four different times just to understand what people were hearing from their cars or wherever they were parked. And then I’d have to go back and tweak [the sound] based on that.” The fact that fans could also have the show transmitted to their car radios added yet another variable for Nineteen85 to stay on top of. “I would have to go in and out of my car just to check the sound on the radio.”
It was a strange setup, but hey, this has been the Year of Weird. Daley and Nineteen85 say 2020’s many life-changing, paradigm-shifting developments have impacted the direction of their next project, which they’ve already begun working on. While baby-making jams and text-your-ex tunes may be Dvsn’s calling card, the waves of social change swelling around the globe are compelling the duo to weave more political themes into their future output.
“I think the message in a lot of music is going to change a bit more—there's a lot of issues that people are going to want to address in their music, in their art,” said Nineteen85. “But on the flip side, I feel like people are going to want to celebrate, too. People will want to have something to dance to; to get loose to. So I think you're going to see two extremes: a lot more party music and a lot more deeper introspective views in music—and in our music as well.”
The disruption wrought by the pandemic has forced everyone alter their behaviour, while also bringing societal fault lines to the fore and causing most people, including Dvsn, to rethink things. “It’s definitely woken up parts of all of us, from being away from people to having a lot more time to think about what's going on within the Black community as far as standing up to the injustices we've stomached for so long and turned a blind eye to at different times, or let pass too easily,” said Daley. “A lot of things have happened this year that have made me personally make some conscious decisions about how I want to move with my life, my privilege, my music. As much as I look at this year being one of the worst, as far as how many tragic things have taken place, it's one of the best because it's actually put a lot of things into perspective.”
Sure, the quarantine has given rise to no shortage of thorny new relationship dynamics to write about ("I think the divorce rate is up right now," noted Daley), but there are more pressing matters Dvsn want to explore in song. And though protest music may seem like quite the detour for them, the duo maintain that social justice issues are something they’ve actually intended to write about for a minute. So what better time than now? “Me and 85 both have views and opinions on all different kinds of topics,” said Daley. “Yeah, R&B is at the core, but we’ve always planned to do and talk about different things. So this year just bumped those things up higher on the list of priorities, as far as when we wanted to talk about them. We have a lot of things that we haven't touched on yet that we plan to—just talking about different things besides love or relationships, because there's so much more to life that happens around that stuff. We experience it just like the next man."
Which is cool and all, but just what exactly might this new, activist-friendly Dvsn sound like? While their drive-in show was heavy on the ’90s R&B influences that have informed their oeuvre up to now—including some impassioned covers of Usher’s “U Got It Bad” and Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”—the duo indicate that they’re looking to embark on a new, otherworldly sonic frontier well past the genre’s borders.
“Boundary-less,” is how Daley describes the new music Dvsn have been cooking up. "The idea [of Dvsn] has been and will always be: the moment you guys think you figured us out and know what we're about to do, we're gonna prove you wrong."
"There are some things that'll sound more futuristic compared to what we've already been doing," added Nineteen85. "And then there's also some stuff that's gonna sound a little more like we've gone back to our roots in some ways."
That all said, the guys admit they aren't overly committed to moving in one definitive direction. How can they be? Among the many things this calamitous year has already taught them: sometimes, having no plan is the best plan of all.
"After realizing how much setting plans doesn't really mean anything right now—and we planned to do a lot[this year]—I think we're just literally taking things day by day," said Daley. "If tomorrow, there's another idea that comes up to do something that can further Dvsn, we're all ears. The only thing that's next for us that I can say for sure, is just more music for more people."