We catch up with Hyphen ahead of the launch of his new single “15 Years”…
We recently had the pleasure of chatting with an enigmatic rising star of the British Hip Hop scene, Hyphen, who offered a refreshingly candid insight into his art – as well as a superb performance with his highly skilled band.
Fusing together soulful grooves with infectious beats alongside a delightfully woven lyrical narrative, the man has a knack for dropping tracks that linger long after you’ve heard them.
Not only that but he definitely knows a thing or two about working the crowd, as exemplified during the performance we caught at BBC Music Introducing LIVE 2019.
Dawsons: Can you give us a brief introduction into what inspired you to make music?
Hyphen: First – off thanks for interviewing me! Was great to meet at the BBC Intro event.
Music started for me 6 years ago when I was working a job in finance I hated. I was working unforgiving hours around people I did not like. I was drinking too much, not sleeping enough and was ultimately more depressed than I knew was possible. Hungover and lacking inhibition, I randomly started scribbling some notes in a notepad I had my ‘to do’s in. It felt like this eureka moment – this was what I needed to do more of.
The more I got into writing poetry/raps – the more I fell in love with artists like Kendrick Lamar, who were incredible performers and communicate their passion/angst so well.
Dawsons: What drives your creative process and where do you draw your influences from?
Hyphen: I feel that consistency is key – I don’t think I get strikes of lightning where I write my best work. I’m always writing, listening to music and deconstructing it to try figure out how it works and making songs. I will make loads of material I don’t love, but by being consistent I tend to come across and start songs I do love! I also write loads of stuff that I know I will never use to make sure the sword is always sharp.
My influences in terms of content are my own life – that’s the best way to make unique music! Make it as true to your own life as possible.
Dawsons: You manage to avoid cliched lyrical subject matter and don’t shy away from topics such as alienation, depression, and vulnerability.
How has your process for composing lyrics and music matured as you’ve developed as an artist?
Hyphen: Great question – I think I’ve gotten a lot more confidence because I’ve scaled my expectations appropriately. When you start, you think you can write something that absolutely everyone in the world will love because you think that’s a realistic standard. It’s actually quite nerve-wracking when you write anything.
In reality, David Bowie, Jay Z or whichever other legend you think of, they have people who think that their material is rubbish. When you realise that, it’s a lot easier to be true to yourself. There are loads of people who will hate what I do; there are hopefully people who love what I do. All I can do is keep honing my craft, finding my audience and being as authentic as I can be.
Dawsons: Is there anything along your journey as an artist that significantly influenced or changed the way you approach songwriting?
Hyphen: I wouldn’t say there was one particular event, but I think over time I’ve developed a little bit more faith in my process. I’m always trying to improve – but I think now I’ve got a half-decent skill set. Having that faith means I’m willing to try new things, whether that’s song topics, instrumentation choice, rapping techniques etc.
Most of the new stuff you try won’t work but being comfortable ‘failing’/iterating has been a big change in the way I work. Before I felt everything had to be perfect straight away, and I would try do everything in one take. That’s unrealistic and a silly expectation to set.
Do you have any advice for those who may be struggling to find their voice?
Hyphen: Have faith. It might not feel like it, but it’s a 100% guarantee that if you keep trying, self-reflecting on what you can do better and working on that – you will definitely improve. Whenever I feel down, I look up ‘famous failures’ videos on YouTube. They show how all these incredibly successful people failed spectacularly.
I also think it is important to not have an ego, admit you have weaknesses and realise that if someone is doing amazingly well in music, it’s probably for a good reason. You should try and understand that reason.
I feel like really often, people focus too much on something they are good at, and then get bitter when that thing they are good at isn’t giving them the success they want.
For example – you get some people with an incredible voice, who aren’t doing so well in their careers. Rather than looking at other artists and saying, ‘I wonder what they are doing right’ – even if they are not quite as accomplished singers – they might say ‘The world is unfair XYZ artist is rubbish, labels are evil’ etc, etc.
Dawsons: Instrumentation on tracks like ‘Ice Cold’ juxtaposes the vocals with introspective lyrics set against a breezy, jazz-inspired backdrop.
Are your songs informed primarily by lyrical content or musical ideas – or is it a mixture of the two from inception to finished composition?
Hyphen: I feel like the ‘soul’ of a song is often just the main chord progression. So, I always start by trying to play around with chord progressions which make me feel something. I may not always know what it makes me feel, but if it stirs something in me, I know we’ve started in the right position. From then, it’s exploring what that feeling was. Sometimes I will start writing something and it feels like my lyrics match that feeling I had, which in turn matches the ‘soul’ of the song. Sometimes it doesn’t, so I will try a different approach until it feels right.
The key for me is making sure the lyrics and instrumentation work together to tell a story.
Dawsons: My reason for asking the previous question is because such introspective lyrics could have tended toward a much broodier or downbeat sound, whereas ‘Ice Cold’ is much lighter-sounding, and in my opinion, far more engaging for it.
So, was it a conscious decision to make the music more uplifting to contrast with the lyrics?
Hyphen: It makes me so happy you ask this stuff – no one else picks up on any of this!
Everything I do has a melancholy feel to it. I think that’s because it’s truer to life – even when people are depressed, they have their brighter moments and vice versa. The realistic experience of emotions is nuanced and varied. Ultimately, I want my music to reflect that nuance – so almost all my songs have that kind of ‘twist’ in it – whether it’s a beat change at some point in the song, or a blend of more introspective lyrics over something more upbeat.
In this case, the song is about feeling lonely at fancy but vacuous parties. So, the lyrics reflect loneliness, the beat reflects those types of parties.
Dawsons: What method(s) do you use to capture song ideas – i.e. voice notes, hand-written notation, etc?
Hyphen: It depends on the song – Ice Cold was most freestyled i.e. I didn’t write it down, I just repeated takes until I came up with lyrics I liked. I try varying my tool kit with different beats to get interesting results.
Dawsons: What instruments do you turn to when it comes to composing song ideas?
Hyphen: The piano – I feel like the ‘soul’ of my songs (as I explained above) is always a sexy piano riff. I feel live my voice works really well with a piano, so that is always the starting point.
Dawsons: Once you have the shell of a track down, do you prefer to incorporate collaborators early on to help flesh out the track or do you tend to work toward a finished composition in isolation before presenting it to others?
Hyphen: It really depends, sometimes it will be very obvious e.g. ‘I need a trumpet at a certain point to give it the lift I want it to.’ Sometimes it will be less obvious and bringing in a music collaborator is more away to prompt ideas, even if you lose very little of what they laid down. That’s not to say the contribution was not very helpful. Sometimes, one simple guitar riff will massively help and make it clear where to go, whereas before it wasn’t obvious.
Dawsons: In the studio, what software do you use to record, arrange, and mix tracks, e.g. Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools?
Dawsons: What influences your instrumentation choices e.g. budget or stylistic reasons?
Hyphen: I always want to have a live feel to my music – mainly because I love performing. That stylistically means I tend to stick to instruments I feel I could translate live.
Dawsons: Do you prefer to utilise new gear at every opportunity when writing and recording or do you favour familiarity with tried-and-tested favourite pieces of gear?
Hyphen: Personally, tried and tested.
Dawsons: Your latest track “Feels Right” is evocative of the performance we saw at BBC MIL: confident, jocular, and bouncing with energy.
Comprising instrumentation across drums, guitar, trumpet, and keys alongside samples, it is a heady Summer song lifting us out of the gloom of these long nights – pretty much as the performance at BBC MIL did for so many who crammed into the intimate space!
How do you manage to transfer the masses of energy that you produce as part of your live performance into the studio environment?
Hyphen: First off – thanks!
Secondly – I think the fact that most if not all the instruments are played live when I’m in the studio (e.g. I work with a guitarist/trumpet/bass player) makes it a lot easier to go from live to studio and vice versa.
That means that if I’m trying to do an energetic vibe in the studio it will translate to energetic vibe live.
But more than any of that, it’s the people I work with. I wouldn’t be anywhere if I didn’t work with some seriously talented musicians. We have a good relationship which means we can say what is or isn’t working and get to a composition for a song that works.
Dawsons: When you write a track like “15 Years” do you always have an eye on how it will translate live as well as how it sounds in the studio?
Hyphen: For sure – I tend as a result to slightly avoid production choices that would be impossible to do live given the set up I currently have.
Dawsons: Where can we grab the new single for ourselves?
Dawsons: What are your plans for 2020?
Hyphen: Loads of music! I’ve got three singles I’ll be releasing in the first few months of the year. I’m also not allowed to say the details, but I’ve been shortlisted for a few things which would be hugely excited if I got.
Ultimately though, my focus is always trying to make more music that’s better than anything I have done before.
Where to find Hyphen…
Catch the man whenever and wherever you can in 2020!
Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.