Dora Jar tells the crowd at the Lafayette venue in London that she’s “made up of elves,” and they cheer back at her. It’s her 16th show. The 15th was supporting Billie Eilish at New York’s Madison Square Garden the month prior, and her first took place less than a year ago. Dora floats around the stage, leaping and laughing, in her element entirely. Any nerves felt beforehand are far from apparent.
“I like holding hands with my band and sending a pulse and reminding ourselves what the actual point of it all is: to connect with people,” she explains, preparing for the show. “It’s not about proving a point or singing the best songs in the world. It’s about being together and that’s what we’ve been missing for so long.”
The day before the concert, the sky is tinged a hazy shade of yellow. Dora Jar greets me from the studio where her band is rehearsing—a collection of talented producers and musicians entwined with London’s music scene. We stop to wish her bandmate happy birthday before weaving through east London, taking refuge from the drizzle outside the storefront of a corner shop cafe. There’s an apocalyptic glow behind her, sandstorm residue, and this fantastical hue is a fitting backdrop for the fairy-like musician. Leaning forwards in the rickety chair, wide eyes peering out from a Peruvian style hat wrapped around her, she taps the tape recorder: “Hello? Check, check, check…”
Dora is back in London for the first time since the pandemic hit, and she beams as she tells me it’s her “second home.” She lived here for a year before it began, coming to the city for her first ever session. This soon led to many more as she found herself at home in London and inspired by its collaborative nature, her own confidence growing. After a year, she moved back to LA to focus on music, any plans to leave soon derailed by COVID, so returning to London is a special experience. She grew up in New York, before moving to Northern California so that her sister, Lueza, could attend The Bridge School (a specialist educational establishment), then attending boarding school on the east coast. She’d been in Poland when her snippets caught the eyes of the London producer.
The last year has been a whirlwind for Dora. She released her first single in October 2020, “Did I Get It Wrong,” though it wasn’t until the past year that her new reality sunk in for the young artist: “When I played my first show and when people responded to Digital Meadow my first EP,” she explains. Still independent, she’s been navigating industry frenzy whilst coming to terms with the multi-faceted nature of being a musician in 2022. It’s something she had always desired but never felt was possible.
In March, she released comfortably in pain, the EP’s lucid imagery threaded together by kaleidoscopic sounds and recurring themes. After learning, quite literally, to sit with the pain over the past year, Dora Jar is determined to share the sentiment. Now, she’s trusting the process: “You’re living the history of your future self, so make this confusion matter. It’s all going to lead to clarity if you let it, if you stop flailing.”
How does it feel to be back in London?
Oh man, I love London. It feels like a full circle every time I come back because it’s the first place I ever recorded in a studio. I learned a lot in the first year that I lived here; how to become the captain of my own ship. Right out of high school you’re just following all of these things you’re told to do, and I’d dropped out of music school. When I came to London I was in this in-between phase of my life where I wasn’t making money doing music.
My Dad was like, “what are you doing?” but I knew that I had to be here. And I fell in love with someone. I left to go back to America and really focus on the music, and now every time I’m back it’s like being home again. It’s like a home away from home and I think I’m going to move back at some point.
How does London and its culture compare to other places that you’ve lived in, for instance New York and LA?
It just feels totally different actually, it’s hard to compare. I don’t like LA. I like working there but if I have a day off in LA I am sad. When I lived in New York I always babysat all of the time and that was my focus, and then I would play music in my stairwell and run around all full of electricity. I’d just feel so energetic there and like you’re just a little cog in the machine.
But London is a nice mix. When I land in LA, suddenly I feel like I’m having this big identity crisis. But then I realize that everybody who lives there is. London is just more chill. Also I feel like the London culture is just a little bit more at peace with the negativity of life naturally, which is kind of a relief because you don’t have to hide. You can complain and not be fake positive.
Are you excited for the show tomorrow?
I keep having to remind myself! Because when you’re in a mode of rehearsal, you’re just so in that headspace. I just feel like wherever I am I’m totally absorbed, and tomorrow I’m going to be shitting my pants.
My first show ever was in September, and people were singing [my songs] and I couldn’t believe it was happening. It’s just crazy. It is terrifying, but that’s why I have to remind myself it’s literally for all of us in a room together. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just giving an offering and they’re giving me an offering, and it’s just this exchange of some mysterious beauty.
Can you remember the first record, or artist, that you really fell in love with and why they resonated?
Yeah, it’s a mix of things. Foo Fighters were the first band that I ever fell in love with. I got the chance to see them live at a benefit concert that was to raise money for my sister’s school for kids with cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk or talk her whole life. And we both were just obsessed with the Foo Fighters and Dave Grohl in particular. We were in love. When I learned guitar I would just YouTube tutorial Foo Fighters songs and then make up my own songs over the chords that I would learn. Because I would never have the patience to learn someone else’s song, I always wanted to get my own thing out. It felt more personal and also it felt like Dave was teaching me how to play guitar so that was a big one.
Also Outkast with ATLiens! That changed my life. I was a bit cynical when I was young; I was like why is everyone singing love songs all the time? And then Outkast was talking about things that I didn’t understand but using words that were like, “cooler than a polar bear’s toenails, oh hell.” That opened my mind to the possibilities of what words could be and how fun it could be to do poetry.
Can you remember the first song you made?
I’ve always been singing. I remember actually taking my mum’s tape recorder and recording a jingle. I was really young, 5 or 6, and I remember thinking, “This is going to be a jingle for Raisin Brand, the cereal.”
Was there a moment further down the line where you felt that making music became a more serious possibility?
This year. I was always just frustrated, wondering how is this ever going to happen, what is the industry, who are these people that control these things? And then I realized that it’s not really like that, it’s just human connection and people with passion just intertwining. Meeting my managers really changed the game because I’d had this belief that no one wanted to help me and I was like I can’t do this by myself. All I do is write songs and I don’t know what else to do.
I know there’s a whole thing where they say that all pop stars are high on the narcissism scale because you know it’s all ego and personality. And I’ve always felt this funny thing about attention. I didn’t want to ask for attention but then I realized that it was a part of myself that I had to accept. Really what wanting attention is is wanting connection, and so finding a way to be at peace with that takes a minute.
I read that you went to that you went to a religious school as well as a boarding school?
Yes I went to an Episcopal school. Every day we went to church for 45 minutes, which was actually amazing. Think about it; you get to school and rather than go straight into have you done your homework or not, you’d get to go to chapel and sing. It’s dark and cozy and smells like incense, the organ is playing. That was always so dramatic and filled me with this otherworldly sense. So I don’t know, I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian now but I respect the stories. I find that there are many truths in the world and we just have to respect each other. But the school was tiny, there were 19 kids in my grade for 10 years.
Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Yes. I had a breakthrough with meditation when I was 18 where I realized that if I close my eyes and breathe, my heart stops racing and I feel like I’m more capable of feeling love for myself and other people. I also really believe in being honest with yourself because for a long time I wasn’t. In high school I had a lot of trauma that I hadn’t dealt with and because I had all of that inner trauma to work through I couldn’t write, I couldn’t be real. Maybe I was fun to be around and I had a good time, but that didn’t have any lasting power. So, through meditation.
I didn’t believe in myself for the longest time and it wasn’t that I knew that I didn’t believe in myself but it was like this law of honesty. If you’re not accepting that you’re hurting, you’re lying to yourself. And how can you believe in yourself when you’re not believing in what you’re feeling and owning it. I think it’s what this past EP came from too—being comfortable with the pain, comfortably in pain. Yeah, it has to go there.
I watched this interview where you mentioned seeing life as a performance for angels. I’ve kept thinking about it since. Can you share more about that idea?
Cool, I love that! I think it came from a way I coped with being lonely in my past, in childhood sometimes. At first it started kind of spooky, like are there ghosts around me? Am I being watched? But then I was like wait, I don’t feel like there’s anything menacing watching me, I actually feel like there’s something encouraging… Maybe it’s just space. But then I think with meditation I’ve come to realize there’s just so much mystery and magic works when you believe in it and doesn’t work when you don’t believe in it.
So, if I believe in something that makes me feel comforted, like if I’m alone in my house singing and I know that I’m not just singing for myself, that feels good. And my sister is alive all around me all of the time and I know that she’s laughing at things. Maybe I’ll mess up and I’ll get frustrated and she’ll chuckle, and I know that’s she’s like I see through your bullshit and that’s such a grounding relief for me. So yeah, it always goes back to that and I’m glad that you think about it too. It is motivating! And I always do better work when someone’s watching me so I might as well believe that I am witnessed.
There’s been a frenzy around your music on the label-side, and I’m curious what it’s been like to navigate the music industry as an independent artist?
I think the cute thing about it is you realize the industry is just all of these people that love music, and that’s really sweet. You also hear horror stories about the ones that give you bad deals. With any profession there’s going to be scumbags, but I don’t want to focus on that. But also there are new demands, like now it’s not just the music. Now it’s like photos, promotion, interviews…
Last night was a funny moment. I got this great thing where I had to say “thank you BBC for playing my song” and I had to send in a voice note and video so they could play it on the radio and it took me like half an hour to say it. [Laughs] At first I was in the craziest voice and it was never going to work. I just kept going back to when I was in middle school listening to the radio and it was like, “Hey I’m Lady Gaga.” And that’s what I mean about the ego thing—I find it so hard to take myself seriously. It just makes me overthink shit, I’m like okay whatever I’ve just got to say it and sound stupid.
You mentioned the new demands and I feel like a lot is expected of artist in 2022. What has your experience been like?
It is. I used to post things on Instagram just because I felt like it. If you go way back on my Instagram, you’ll see. I’m very pun oriented. One time I put an onion on my ring and it was like, onion ring. Dad jokes forever. I am a dad at heart. But now I have to post because I have a show coming up and I need to remind people. It’s this practical thing, it’s a tool now, which is cool and I like how it’s useful but I also want to maintain the realness and… Whatever it is.
Did you ever imagine you’d be in this position?
I always knew I wanted to be a singer. I even wrote in my journal when I was seven: I want to be a famous singer, but my Mom says fame isn’t good. So that was an idea that I had in my head, that I don’t need to be famous as long as I’m a singer. And then I realized that was my deep want for attention when I was young.
There are a lot of layers to your sound and various influences which come through. How would you describe it?
My sound is like a house with a lot of different rooms in it which are decorated totally differently. One room is wood, one room is metal, one room is glass, one is marble. It’s everything I love in a collage, and I find it really hard to define. I just feel like it’s all truly my imagination having fun.
Actually I was really energized by this one critique of me before I had released anything. This guy who’s a big manager came to listen to some of the songs I had and he said, “Well you’re still trying to find your sound.” And I was like, “Huh, b*tch?!” I have my sound and you don’t get it so. I kind of went even further into the nothing is the same after that.
My sound is like a house with a lot of different rooms in it which are decorated totally differently. One room is wood, one room is metal, one room is glass, one is marble.
Going into the new EP comfortably in pain, what was the core idea that you wanted to get across?
I think that idea of pain and accepting it and finding comfort that we’re all in our own different kinds of pain. We don’t always have to try to relate to each other through how we’re similar, but be interested in the differences in what causes our pain and connective vulnerability.
Your writing style is very vivid. Where do you find inspiration?
Disney films are major. Me and my sister would watch one film for a month straight, over and over again. So I’ve downloaded all of the Disney movies and so many strange things happen in those, like Pinocchio is a puppet who comes to life who gets eaten by a whale who builds a fire inside of the whale which is impossible but they make it happen to make the whale sneeze and come out. And then there’s the cricket who’s his conscience. So crazy. Anyway I find a lot of inspiration from that and literally just melody itself and how much emotion I feel from listening to beautiful melodies. I’ll work on a melody for like an hour in a hallway—six notes—and I’ll rearrange them as many times as I can just so that it feels perfect. And usually it’s the simplest thing that’s the most perfect so that’s the lesson I’m learning.
Do you have a dream in particular that’s always stuck with you?
Oh so many, so many. But one in the past year really stuck with me. It was a koi fish and it was hugging me really tight. And I was looking down and thinking, wait this fish is going to stop breathing because it’s not in the water, and so I was worried and trying to pry it off so it could live. But then I saw the boots of this fisherman wading in the water, and he said, ‘don’t worry, they like to hold on’. And then in the moment he said that I felt so much love for the fish, I was like what is going on. And I woke up so happy and then I made “Polly” that day. So, some nice blessings.
What are you excited for next?
I’m excited to make the lyric booklet and I really want to spend time on making it personal and sending it to the people who really want it. Excited for more shows and getting more theatrical with them. I love the circus, like Cirque Du Soleil, and I want to make my shows feel like you’re in a Leonora Carrington painting. She’s very dream come to life type artist.
Do you have ideas for how you’d bring that into your live shows?
For example in the ”Multiply” video I was really inspired by a dance performance where there’s a woman with rope tied around her waist and she’s attached to a boulder and she’s continuously running away from it and getting stuck. And so I used that concept in the “Multiply” video where I tied myself to a tree and kind of did that. I’ll tie myself to something during a show, and I want to hang upside down in a trapeze and play guitar. I don’t want to just walk around, I want to do things with height.
I’m an air sign, I’m double Libra with a bunch of air, and I have no water in my chart which is really weird. I think it’s my overcompensation, I need aquatic themes and I think about the ocean a lot but I’m not made of it I guess. I want to just float all of the time.