“This album took three years to make, and over the course of that time I went to hell and back within myself. I grew up and evolved and now I’m finally ready to put my album out,” says CLOVES.
With One Big Nothing, her debut album, CLOVES demonstrates a musical assurance and maturity far beyond her years; an impressive progression from her acclaimed 2015 EP XIII, which landed her slots at the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals and a track on the soundtrack to the 2016 film Me Before You. But as CLOVES started work on a full-length album—and toured extensively, including a run with Ivor Novello award-winning Michael Kiwanuka—her ambitions were changing, her palette expanding.
“The EP was basically demos,” she says, “songs we recorded in a day, without any real thought behind what the songs needed. It’s funny to me how much simpler of a time that was, because I would never release something so off-the-cuff like that now. I’ve become much more methodical in the recording process.”
“Bringing the House Down” was the first song CLOVES wrote that wasn’t a ballad. “That song is very self-assured,” she says. “It’s about a break-up, but your subconscious is saying ‘Something’s not right, but it’s not me.’ It brought up the question of what are the sonics, what can we do with it, how do we bring in more rhythm? After the EP being very acoustic, this was a shot of wanting the album to be something else, and figuring out how to translate that.”
She credits producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who has worked with Adele, HAIM, and Vampire Weekend) with helping “House” find a direction. “Ariel was incredibly open to my ideas and opinions,” she says. “It was all very collaborative, never negative, and that made it really easy.”
So began the long journey of the One Big Nothing sessions, which also includes production by Ed Swinburne, Ian Barter and Starsmith. “We worked on the sound every day for two years, it was an experimentation process, a process of elimination.” says CLOVES. “Going into the album I was a bit of a mess. Being in the studio gave me anxiety. I often felt I wasn’t good enough and that I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was a constant struggle to stay on top of my own thoughts. I’m one of those people who can be so in their own head that I can easily lose perspective, and it was a constant challenge for me to fight my insecurities and make progress,” says CLOVES.
The song that became the album’s title track proved a critical turning point. “About a year in, I let some pressure go and let creativity take over. ‘One Big Nothing’ was the point where I stopped trying as much and became more experimental—it’s much more arrangement based, and I really started looking at what could I do differently, structurally and rhythmically. I gained confidence, one step at a time.”
From there, the album took on more dimensions and directions. “I’d never really fully utilized the studio before,” says CLOVES. “I gained so much confidence as we went on, and that just continued to progress. Songs became more arranged and produced, got even more intricate. You get bored of the same old tricks, your influences change, and you come up with new ideas.”
But challenging herself and advancing her music is what the Australian-born, London-based singer-songwriter has been doing for almost all of her life. Born Kaity Dunstan, she can’t remember a time before wanting to make music; when she was seven, her father setup a small area in their garage where she would pretend to perform for a crowd.
She wrote her first song when she was 11, and began playing with her sister in Melbourne bars at age 13. “When I first started making music, I was obsessed with Carole King, Nina Simone, James Taylor, I was all about being a great songwriter,” she says.
Dunstan dropped out of school at sixteen. She explains, “I was never really understood at school. I had friends but I never felt like I wanted to be there. I found classes difficult and the teachers frustrating. I’m also dyslexic which definitely didn’t help my confidence. Ironically music class was my least favorite because it was so restrictive. Education is obviously very important, but school can really crush kids creatively by being too restrictive. The music teachers would reprimand me because I wasn’t singing the song exactly how it was written, and that always really annoyed me because my singing was stylistically very different.”
Dunstan worked a few jobs, but never left her music. A failed early production deal left her disappointed, but even more committed to her own vision. She went to Los Angeles to write, but after a month of the music industry shuffle, she felt that London would be a better fit for her creatively.
CLOVES says that her adopted hometown had a major impact on the tone of her lyrics. “I’d always wanted to go to London to write songs,” she says. “London is very blunt; British people are almost cutthroat, in a good way, and it brought a lot of grounding to the songs. I spent such a long period of time writing that I kind of melted into the city, and it brought a moodiness to the album that I really like.”
Of her moniker CLOVES she explains, “ I chose the name whilst in Bali for a week. I was 18, smoking a lot of clove cigarettes. Without too much thought I chose the name because It had a nice mystique to it and I liked how it looked on paper, so I stuck with it, deciding to make its own definition by what I do with it.”
During the course of making One Big Nothing, CLOVES played virtually all of the album’s ten songs on stage, which also affected their final shape. “Playing live and making the record went very hand-in-hand,” she says. “You can really tell if a song is any good when you play it live—it shows what a song has to offer, and you really find all its faults. So in a lot of places, we went back and changed arrangements, or built up a section if it felt too small.”
She points to several tracks that illustrate the range of moods on the album. “Wasted Time,” she says with a laugh, “sums up my brain on most days—a lot of the time I feel anti-social. The chorus lyrics are ‘I’m wasted time why do you waste your time.’ I feel like that a lot.” From another direction, “Up and Down” is “very blunt, honest and sad in sections.” (“That one is a bit of a sleeper,” she adds, “listen till the end it’s the best bit.”)
Another new territory for CLOVES was filming the music video for “Bringing the House Down” with legendary director Sophie Muller, known for her work with the likes of Beyonce, No Doubt, and Coldplay. “Sophie brought out a confidence in me that I’d never had in front of the camera before,” she says. “I used to feel that making videos was a little self-indulgent, but she made me see that if you want to get your point across, you have to be as honest and blunt on camera as you are in the songs.”
The marathon recording of One Big Nothing could leave an artist feeling frustrated or uncertain, but CLOVES expresses a sense of completion, and an eagerness to apply the lessons she’s learned as she moves forward. “I have a love/hate relationship with making music. I love making music but sometimes hate how it makes me feel about myself, but I’m working on it everyday to not let that get the best of me,” she says. “I am extremely proud of this album and the work that’s been put into it. I’m ready to put my last three years of work out there and I’m ready for what’s next.”