NTS WIP artist Lauren Duffus on making things sound bigger
Words: Morna Fraser, Images: Joseph Marshall
When the world was experiencing a series of stringent lockdowns in early 2020, many of us – or at least those lucky enough to be furloughed or working from home – sought out new hobbies and ways to pass the time. Lauren Duffus, then 23 and between jobs, was no different, retreating to her bedroom in North London at the outset of the pandemic, and downloading a trial version of the music software program Logic Pro.
For some of us, the lockdowns led to a new ability to garden, cook or bake. For Duffus, they yielded SULK, her debut three-track EP. The project is a raw meditation on grief, marrying catharsis with clarity, through chopped and pitched choral samples, wailing synths and dotted rhythms. Since its release last year, Duffus has caught the attention of Resident Advisor, The Wire and recently, DJ Benji B, who invited her to do a segment on his weekly BBC radio show. “I enjoyed making music from the start,” she says. “But the feedback that I got from some airplay on Hotel Radio Paris and a mix I did on Martha's NTS show made me realize I could actually pursue this.”
Music was always a part of Duffus’ surroundings; she played piano briefly as a child and recalls messing around on GarageBand, a free music software application, at school. “I’ve always had a musical ear,” she says. “My mum introduced me to bands like Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk, and I have memories of the house shaking on a Saturday because my dad would be playing dancehall and reggae on his sound system. When I was growing up I didn't think I took much influence from them, [but] interestingly, some of the rhythms in my songs definitely come from these sounds.”
As a teenager, Duffus discovered she was drawn to darker styles like black metal and witch house, a late 2000s genre predicated on pitched-down vocals and droning soundscapes. “Unless music makes me feel sad or uncomfortable, I get bored,” she says. “I used to listen to a lot of Chief Keef because the chords and instrumentals sounded sad. Even with gabber, some of it makes me so happy that it’s almost sad. Maybe it’s that mix of mania and nostalgia.”
This relationship between sound, emotion and impulse heavily informs Duffus’ own music: “Some people might go into making a song with a story in mind, but I think my music comes out of something more subconscious. I’ll be feeling a certain way and end up making something that mirrors that. I don’t plan it.” This instinctive process has helped guide her through grief and loss, after her father’s passing in 2018. “For the first few years, I acted like it didn't happen and was in a very bad place. Making music has really helped: The process of playing chords that trigger me and make me cry, because it leads me to having a moment of reflection. For the first time, I feel like I'm realizing I’m specifically upset about the passing of him. I’m thinking about it and being present instead of masking my emotions. Music’s been like therapy for me.”
“Soho Road” on SULK, which opens with a fragmented crying sample and funereal organs, embodies this catharsis. “It goes into a chaotic break in the middle, which I did have when my dad passed away, and ends with the crying played out in full like a release. The end of the end. More processed and complete.”
Recently, Duffus was accepted into the NTS WIP artist program, a development initiative for emerging musicians. As part of the program, she and fellow 2021 artists were given the opportunity to stay and record at the idyllic Real World Studios in South West England, an artist retreat founded by the British musician Peter Gabriel that also functions as a recording, mixing and post-production space.
There, Duffus recorded “Habits”, a song which closely illustrates her love of film scores. Echoing more expressive, classical compositions at the beginning, it swells and sinks with harp plucks, deep double bass, and for the first time, Duffus’ own dreamy vocals. “It's not a rhythmic song as such. It pauses, stops and starts,” as sharp, unintelligible dialogue samples punctuate a melody in crescendo, as if following music cues in a film. She also applies this filmic mindset to her monthly radio show on NTS, which debuted in January of this year, and which Duffus describes as “feeling like a score but you’re not watching anything. Like hour-long scenes where sometimes you’re listening to distant noises or people talking.”
From making music in her bedroom to scaling things up at Real World and setting her sights on the world of cinema, despite the inherent melancholy of Duffus’ music, she strikes an optimistic note on her future. “I was thinking about where I was three years ago, just so hopeless and sad, so I'm excited to work on myself and get to that point where I can really make use of these opportunities,” she says. “I want to develop my technical knowledge, to be able to think of a sound and know exactly how to make it. I want to make things sound bigger.”
This feature was taken from WIP magazine issue 06, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.