Atwood Magazine catches up with the quirky and charmingly fun artist-to-watch Josie Dunne, an exciting beam of light on pop music’s horizon.
Stream: “Ooh La La” – Josie Dunne
The first thing to know about Josie Dunne is that she’s just as infectiously bright and bubbly as her music. Hailing from the Chicago suburbs and now living in Nashville, the 22-year-old embraces authenticity in songs, which for her means being light and fun, while telling a meaningful story.
After highlighting her as one of our 2019 Artists to Watch, Atwood Magazine finally caught up with the Atlantic Records-signed pop artist on a hot summer day in New York City. Dunne was in town for a show supporting Phoebe Ryan in Brooklyn, and promoting her latest single, the intoxicatingly feelgood singalong “Ooh La La.”
“[If someone’s just discovering me,] I would have them listen to “Ooh La La” first,” Dunne says. “I think it’s a good representation of my music because it’s so bouncy and fun while also having hints of the Motown sound. I think that description of the song is also a really good representation of my personality, too!”
Dunne’s music has been charismatically quirky from the get-go; her 2018 debut EP To Be the Little Fish established her uncanny ability to write catchy, memorable, and in-depth material without dwelling in darkness. Even her haunting holiday song “Cold in December” (featured in Atwood’s Mistletones 2018 special), described as a “poignant, moving piano ballad full of heartwrenching beauty,” managed to send shivers down the spine while shining like a beacon of light with sweetness and love.
Never worn a dress like this before
And now my heart is on the sleeve
Walking through the people to the door
‘Cause across the room you’re leaving me
I didn’t know I’d need my coat
Was it just warmer together?
Without you here this time of year
I honestly didn’t remember
Is it always this cold in December?
– “Cold in December,” Josie Dunne
Dunne has so far released three songs in 2019, all of which are featured off an upcoming sophomore EP. Her flirty make out anthem “Mute” is a sweet n’ savory PG outpouring of desire that “captures the urgency of lust while toying with candid wordplay and clever poetry.” Meanwhile, the groovy “Same” is a deep R&B and Motown-inspired number full of passion that highlights another side of Dunne’s well-rounded artistry.
Now, we’ve already said everything, everything
It’s time to use our lips for better things
Can we hit mute, hit mute
And let our bodies do what they do
Baby, can we hit mute, hit mute
No not another word outta you
Baby, can we hit mute?
Baby , can we hit mute?
– “Mute,” Josie Dunne
Throughout Dunne’s music, there can be felt an injection of warmth, love, and light humor. “I don’t take myself very seriously, I think, and I don’t want my music to take itself very seriously,” she explains. “I think it would be really weird if I’m just like a goofy kind of person, and then my music was really heavy; it just wouldn’t match.”
Above all else, Dunne says she values a song’s storytelling quality. “I care a lot about lyrics, so I always try and tell a story in what I do. I think stories are the reason that I like listening to songs,” she shares.
With the recent addition of “Ooh La La” to her budding repertoire, Josie Dunne is an exciting beam of light on pop music’s horizon. Her music, which this writer has previously described as “hipster Nickelodeon” with a “nerdy charm,” continues to inspire joyous smiles in her listeners’ faces, and her upcoming EP promises to be a wealth of lively, fun, and meaningful pop. Get to know Josie Dunne through our interview below, and stay tuned for more from this dynamic artist-to-watch!
I don’t take myself very seriously, I think, and I don’t want my music to take itself very seriously.
Watch: “Ooh La La” – Josie Dunne
A CONVERSATION WITH JOSIE DUNNE
Atwood Magazine: Hi Josie, how are you doing today? Enjoying the warmest day in New York City?
Josie Dunne: Oh my – it’s a steamer! It’s so humid, too. It feels like I’m back in Nashville. It’s hot! Bringing the heat.
Wonderful! So, we've covered you a few times in the past year, and I want to start off by asking you, how did you get started in music? How did you get into being a musician in the first place?
Dunne: I grew up in a really creative family, so like all of my siblings did some kind of art. I think it just kind of fell in my lap a little bit. That’s a lame story, but I was always, always around music and always around creativity and art. It was like kind of the obvious thing. When I was in middle school and high school, I wanted to take it more seriously and I wanted to start booking gigs and kind of be like the music girl in town, you know what I mean? So I called every restaurant – anybody that I knew that like planned events in town – any bar or whatever, and I just cold called them and was like, “Hey, my name’s Josie Dunne. I’ll play anytime you want, for as long as you want, and just let me know and I’ll come play at your restaurant.” That’s how I started playing shows and figured out my thing a little bit more. That was the first real step I feel like I took in being like, this is my thing: Music is what I’m going to chase, and it all evolved from there.
So your upbringing was playing in the smaller suburban cafe spaces, stuff like that.
Dunne: Yeah, totally. Every once in awhile I’d try and book a show downtown, but it was mostly friends of my family letting me play at their kids’ birthday party – kind of vibe.
What was your first instrument?
Dunne: First it was piano. I only took lessons for a couple months, but the real instrument I think that was my own was ukulele. I wanted to play the guitar so bad, but I have really small hands, so they couldn’t wrap around the guitar – and so I learned how to play ukulele.
I get how your musicality began on ukulele, because I feel like the ukulele is such an uplifting instrument!
Dunne: Yeah! See, actually it does kind of make sense when you say it like that. And it’s easy, so you can kind of mess with it and figure out how to do weirder chords. I think that was also really cool, because it’s so easy to do the straight-up chords, that just to play a C, all you have to do is hold down one note. So for me it was fun to be able to mess with it, and try and find weirder ways to play the same thing. You know what I mean?
Finding weird ways to play the same thing: The story of Josie Dunne.
Dunne: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.
I've got to admit, I've been describing your music to friends as “Hipster Nickelodeon.” How do you talk about your “style”?
Dunne: (laughs) I say like, “Motown pop.” I love pop music, but I grew up on soul and Motown. So I always try to incorporate little bits of that in everything that I do. I love hip-hop and folk music too; the songwriting in that has always been really inspiring to my music. I just care a lot about lyrics, so I always try and tell a story in what I do. Even in music videos and stuff, I always try and tell a story, because I think stories are the reason that I like listening to songs – for the lyrics. So weirdly, I kind of lean on that for inspiration.
One of the things I love about your music is the storytelling element you so easily inject into each song. How did you learn to tell stories, and did you have a mentor or learn from any artists in particular?
Dunne: That being what I pay attention to in songs, it came pretty naturally. My mom was also a really, really gifted writer; she just would write for her own enjoyment. I think I learned a lot of that from reading what she would write, and reading with her. Reading stories and watching stand-up comedy, you learn how to deliver and how words affect the message. I think it’s from all of those things, and co-writing for sure. I started going down to Nashville when I was in high school and I was learning how to write songs alongside my heros in the songwriting space. I haven’t had one mentor, but it’s definitely been a list of people that have been super, super helpful in just teaching me little tricks in storytelling.
I think that's even better than having one person. You mentioned standup and books; are there any specific comedians or books that continue to resonate with you today?
Dunne: My favorite standup comedian is Mike Birbiglia. I think he’s so funny! He’s just really clever, and it’s all kinda like one conceptual story. I also love Ellen DeGeneres, especially old Ellen back in the day. It’s all wordplay and just really quick, dry humor. So I love her too.
One of the things about your music is that there's a quirky kind of lightness in it. There's certainly an injection of light humor.
Dunne: I don’t take myself very seriously, I think, and I don’t want my music to take itself very seriously. I think it would be really weird if I’m just like a goofy kind of person, and then my music was really heavy; it just wouldn’t match. It’s just the way I naturally view things, I think – and so that’s just kind of come out in my songs. That is like the greatest compliment, that you can hear that, so I really appreciate that.
You're very welcome! To go back to your music itself, I remember stumbling across To Be the Little Fish, your debut EP, last year. What lessons did you learn from making that record, that you've brought with you into this year's songs?
Dunne: I think to me, those songs were the lessons; the songs were me kind of blindly throwing darts at the board and seeing what stuck. The songs that we came out with were like, “Oh yeah, this could be the direction, this can be the direction, this could be the direction.” In that first process, I learned so much about what I like about the songs – like, what in the song made it me. I think that this EP was me being able to fine-tune that. It was so much more natural and I think it’s even more a representation of me. I just feel like I kind of figured out… To Be the Little Fish was me figuring it out. This next EP is, it’s figured out now: This is the thing!
Is there something that you can pinpoint as being the “you”? Is there a certain element that we can kind of suss out of there?
Dunne: I think it’s kind of like what we’ve talked about. It’s a quirky kind of light, fun, lyrics that tell a story… With drum sounds, I think with this EP, I’ve definitely leaned a little harder into what I listen to right now. It’s got heavier bass sounds, and it’s got experimenting with trap hats, and doing stuff that feels more modern – because I love hip-hop, and I don’t feel like I got to mess with that as much in the first EP. It still is pop, but with a little bit of influence and Motown and stuff – in terms of melody, instrumentation, and stuff.
One of your best songs, I think, is your wintertime release “Cold in December.” We actually featured that song in our Mistletones features. There's more heart in there than in many of the songs coming out around that time these days, and I can only hope it gets more attention in the years to come. That's also one of your more somber, sadder songs.
Dunne: Yeah, it definitely is. I haven’t told us in any interview ever, but, and it’s kind of sad, but – well, it’s really sad. I wrote that song and we had done the video and it was coming out that week, and my grandpa started kind of spiraling down with his health. And so it was the last song that I got to show him, and he just was like, “Play it again, play it again, play it again.” And so now whenever I think of that song, I think of him, so it even adds more meaning to it for me now. That’s kind of his song now. [chuckles] It totally changes the whole song, doesn’t it?!
It just makes it that much more poignant and real. So do you notice any difference in your musical approach to writing ballads like that, and the more uplifting songs you've released recently?
Dunne: I think it’s just a different mindset. It’s easy in the wintertime to get like a little blue. Now it’s summer, so I just am like, “Let’s play fun songs!” I think that there’s a time and place for both. I think what I’ve tried to do is keep my mindset the same: Be as real as I can get lyrically in the fun songs, and still have something to say within those, that will be as impactful in a different way than the ballads. I think that’s the mindset – and it’s harder to do! It’s way easier to write a ballad because there’s more to say that hasn’t been said. There’s just more angles to say one thing than like, “I love you” – there’s kind of only so many ways to say that. So weirdly, it’s a harder thing to write happy, fun songs.
I get that! At the same time, that's what you've been doing more and more recently. What is it about positive sounds and this lively energy that makes it so attractive for you? What's do you think is pulling you toward this style of music?
Dunne: To be honest, I think that I’m just really happy right now. I’m in a good place, and I love what I do. I’ve been getting to tour, which I think is so much fun, and it’s so much fun to play happy songs on tour! Being on tour makes me happy. I think that, that has been super, super influential to me wanting to write happy songs. Also, I think that’s just kind of my default setting. I know a lot of people that, their default setting isn’t [happy], you know what I mean? But, my baseline is, “Life is good. I’m smiling.” People want, I think, a more tinted story and more darkness, but I just don’t have that; it’s not something I was born with, and I’m super fine being really happy! I think that’s just kind of where I’m at in life. I guess it’s just kind of like who I am to write happy songs, you know?
People want, I think, a more tinted story and more darkness, but I just don’t have that; it’s not something I was born with, and I’m super fine being really happy!
Well, I think if we're going to go down this route to talk about the music in particular, there's nothing that says this better than the songs you've been releasing this year. I was honored that we got to premiere the music video for “Mute,” your first single of the new year! How does this song differ for you from last year's music?
Dunne: I think I’ve just kind of fine-tuned exactly how I word things and exactly the way that I say things and the sounds around that. To me it’s a cleaner version of what I did last year. It’s an even more authentic version.
One of the things I love about this song is that it completely tells its story, and it provides us with emotions to complement the story.
Dunne: Oh, that is the goal. Oh my gosh, that’s the greatest compliment ever. Thank you.
“Mute” is also a little more grown-up than a few of the past songs, which I appreciate.
Dunne: Yeah, that’s right! The truth is it took me so long to write the first EP. I think that’s probably the other big difference with the song. I was like 17 and 18 when I wrote the first EP, so the songs to me… It’s all about my high school relationships and stuff, and it sounds like that I think, which is cool! That’s great, and that’s actually what I went through, but now I’m 22 and my relationships look different than they did when I was 17. I think you’re spot-on that the lyrics are probably a bit more mature.
To keep going, your second release of the year, “Same,” is a deep and groovy R&B song full of passion. To me this song is such a contrast to “Mute.” It's more Carly Rae Jepsen and '80s pop inspired than a lot of your other stuff. This song to me is also more a taste of the Motown sounds you were talking about; is this the alternate side of your music? There's a big pop element to your music, and I feel like this has kind of a more rhythmic inspiration.
Dunne: Yeah, oh absolutely. For me it’s been fun because there’s so many different sounds in Motown. There’s so many different styles of song that you could do. Getting like a little inspiration from a more groovy thing as opposed to a super uptempo kind of thing, that’s totally spot-on.
It's also fun to have a dance number. You've been playing more live shows; is the live setting affecting the kind of songs you're putting out that you want to get into onstage?
Dunne: Totally. I mean it’s made me want to write fun songs, because like I said, it’s so much more fun to play fun songs. People want to hear fun songs, so it’s been really inspiring. I think my show has really, really influenced my writing in a lot of different ways. Onstage, people get bored more easily of the song than if they’re listening to it on their headphones, so you have to find ways to switch it up! Like, do something weird for the second verse or in the chorus, put a hit or something. There’s little tricks that you can do, and that’s definitely influenced my writing because now I try and put that into the songs instead of just writing like an 8-bar loop of some chords and a drum groove, and then making the whole thing build on that. I try and write different sections that I know will translate live better, because it’s music for people with ADD like me, you know?
(laughs) Me too. I love that! These three songs that we've heard so far, they are so different from one another. They're this really elevating element to them, and this brings us to your latest song, “Ooh La La,” which is easily one of your catchiest songs yet!
Dunne: (laughs) THANK you!
What inspired this song?
Dunne: Actually, I wrote the chorus when I was in a hotel room and I was like super, super bored. I had a writing session later that night, and so I was just waiting for it to start. I started singing that melody – like, it just kinda got stuck in my head. It was from there that I started to attach lyrics, and I was like, “I’m just going to write honestly the dumbest chorus I can write.” Like, “What’s something that nobody can screw up singing along?” I then brought it to my friend Andrew, and we reworked it and wrote the verses and everything. Yeah, that song was honestly born out of boredom in a hotel room.
I think that's awesome. I mean that's exactly what you want to be able to do, is to take everyday experiences and elevate them. I guess in this case, it's taking an everyday moment and saying, ah, what am I going to talk about? “Ooh la la”!
Dunne: Yeah, I know! Literally – and being like, “What’s the weirdest thing I could say here? Well, what if I just keep repeating ‘ooh, la la, ooh, la la, ooh, la la,’ then – I don’t know! Let’s see if it works.
And the joke’s on them: Everybody's singing it!
Dunne: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
As a songwriter, do you ever challenge yourself by getting the name first and working backwards from there? Or do you really try to tell a story from a place of sincerity?
Dunne: I mean, sometimes: It depends. It’s hard; there’s only so much life to draw from, I think. And so as long as it comes from a place of authenticity, I think, within the meaning of it and less of the details. But I think that if you can get the details spot on, that’s the ultimate goal. But also, if you can just take from a real, authentic emotion, then I think that’s just as good sometimes. If you have to write so many songs a year, it’s like, you know, you got to get out a lot in order to write. Sometimes people will say stuff and you’ll be like, “Ooh, that’s a cool way to say it!” And I write it down on my phone and save it for later.
You've said that you're focused so much on the lyrics and they're such a big part. What has been one of the hardest songs for you to write?
Dunne: That’s a good question. They’re all tough in different ways. With “Ooh La La,” we just tweaked things for maybe six months. My friend Andrew DeRoberts, whom I wrote that with, we got back together probably six times to try and rewrite that, and work on it and rewrite it. We spent a lot of time doing that, so I think that one was actually really hard because we just would change little things. The whole idea of it came really quickly, but then tweaking it was really hard. If it wasn’t that, it would probably be “Saying Goodbye” off my last EP, just it being really, really raw and real to me. It’s a ballad about my first heartbreak, and so I think that was also hard to write. You just have to be cool with being super honest, you know what I mean?
You're in the process of making your second EP now, and if these songs are any indication, the second record will feel a lot more bouncy and lively than the first one. Have you taken a second to step back and see where your trajectory is going? What's getting you excited right now, and what's inspiring you as you keep on moving?
Dunne: Yeah, I think that’s super fair to say that this next EP is definitely going to be more lively. I think what’s inspiring me moving forward is, there’s so much cool music coming out right now. Especially, I think young girls right now are doing really, really cool stuff. Billie Eilish is so cool, Sigrid is so cool. Julia Michaels, whom I got to just go on the road with – she’s doing really cool stuff in pop music. As the genres are blurring, there’s more of an opportunity to really let any influence that you have play more of a role in your music. There’s no rules anymore! So, it’s been fun for me because I feel like I’ve gotten to just experiment more with this EP, I guess, and then with whatever I’m writing right now!
Thank you so much for everything today Josie!
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