Interview: Dagny Talks ‘Strangers / Lovers’ & Quarantine
Since breaking through with “Backbeat” in 2016, Dagny has put together one of the most compelling discographies in dance-pop. From the tongue-in-cheek naughtiness that is “Wearing Nothing” to the sugary pop perfection of “Love You Like That,” the Norwegian hitmaker never fails to deliver a toe-tapping rush of emotion. That description is particularly true of her debut album, Strangers / Lovers. The first installment arrived in late May and it ranks as one of the best pop offerings of 2020.
I recently gave Dagny a ring to find out more about the project. She explained that Strangers / Lovers tracks the life cycle of a relationship. The first half is about falling in love, while the second half (due in September) is about falling out of it. The 29-year-old also opened up about her experiences in quarantine and revealed how she found out that Katy Perry had sampled “Love You Like That” on last year’s “Never Really Over.” Get to know the pop powerhouse a little better in our Q&A below.
How has quarantine been for you?
You see the news and it’s frightening. I was worried, not for myself necessarily, but for my family, my friends and people I know. I know that it affects people very differently, that’s something that I’ve had in mind. At the same time, Norway was quite quick to shut down and take action. In a way, there was something peaceful about it. You’re forced to stay at home, which obviously in my professional life really never happens. Suddenly, I was forced to spend time at home, and it allowed me to do other things apart from music.
I was reminded that there are other things in life. I made a little vegetable garden, which is actually going insane right now. I didn’t expect them to be so big and so many. Then I started sewing a little bit, I was playing the guitar on my bed. I feel like we made the most out of it and managed to find some peace in it, which is obviously weird when you’re also, at the same time, reading the news and seeing how incredibly serious it is.
You also managed to release half an album during a global pandemic, which is a really big achievement.
[Laughs]. Yes, that’s true. That’s kept me busy as well. For once, I wasn’t two steps behind. So, by the time that COVID-19 hit, we already had done all the promo and the videos. I’m always asked I ever considered not releasing the album. First of all, my mind was so set on it, there wasn’t really any going back on that. Secondly, I just feel like people need music right now. In a way, it felt like a good time to release music because people need something to uplift them. I hope they find a lot comfort in music. It was never an option not to release the album.
What is the reason for splitting the album in half?
About a year ago, I was ready to just release a standard album. Over summer, I was going through all the songs and landed on a handful that I felt were relevant. I sat on a plane somewhere and played all the songs to my guitarist, who actually ended up being the executive producer. I said, “I think this is my album.” He listened to it and he said, “It’s really great, but it feels like you’re telling two sides of story.” I had to agree. He was like, “I really want to just live in the emotion and digest it, one side of the story at a time.”
That’s when I decided that it was going to be a two-part album because if I was going to just put all the songs together, it wouldn’t have benefited the story. I feel like this makes a lot more sense. You’re going into the summer, you’re going into a lighter period, so you want upbeat songs. Then the other half, you’re going into autumn and it’s getting a bit darker. That means slower tempo and heartbreak. It was just perfect for the whole of concept of the album.
From the first installment and the title, I wonder if Strangers / Lovers documents the life cycle of a relationship.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is. I’m so glad that you said that. On the first half, you’re excited about the start of a relationship. On the second half, you’re looking back at something that’s over. I think those two emotions, the sorrow after a relationship has ended and the joy of being in love, they are two of the most intense feelings. I find it so weird that you can meet someone and fall in love. Then, suddenly, they’re the closest person you have. They are the one that you always call and you know everything about them… and then it ends.
Suddenly, the one person that was the most natural to call, isn’t there anymore. You seeing them taking on this new life, meeting new people, going new places. Their life goes on, but it’s something that you don’t know anything about. So, you’re like strangers again. I don’t know, I think it’s brutal but then, on the other hand, it’s beautiful that you can meet a person and never know… maybe that’s your next someone. Someone that’s really important to you. That was the thought that I was playing with as I was making an album.
I really want to talk to you about “Somebody.” It’s so euphoric and loved-up.
I always wanted to write a song that celebrates the feeling of falling in love — that excitement, but also that feeling of being a little on edge, in a nice way, because you don’t know where it’s going. I wanted to capture the feeling of being 16. At that time, you’re full of hormones. You’re in the middle of your teenage years and you feel like everyone might be the one. There’s something naive and childish, but also something really beautiful and pure about that as well. The hopefulness and the intensity.
“Come Over” evokes a similar feeling of being at the start of something.
Definitely, but it’s even earlier. Being in love comes with a lot of freaking out, but “Come Over” is about that point where you’re just like… I always call it the meet and greet stage of the relationship. It’s when you meet someone and you’re super curious, but you haven’t reached that point yet of being certain that there’s something there. I got a review saying it was the “horny” opening of the album. I guess you can call it that. [Laughs]. I didn’t ever think about it like that, but I guess I’m bringing someone over, so you never know!
“Paris” and “Let Me Cry” seem to convey a deeper connection to someone. There’s more at stake.
Yes, that’s true. I wanted the tracklist to reflect how a relationship develops. “Come Over” and “Somebody” are about the initial euphoria. “Paris” is part of that too. You know when eating pizza on the floor of your apartment with someone is equally as exciting as traveling to Paris, for example. Then, there’s something liberating about “Let Me Cry.” As you get closer to someone, it’s inevitable that you show your less good sides. “Let Me Cry” is a celebration of that because you can’t have a relationship without opening up.
It’s not always pretty, but it can be beautiful because, at least for me, there are not a lot of people that I open up to. Then, when you come to “Coulda Woulda Shoulda,” that’s when you’re really starting to be practical. Things aren’t necessarily always great, but you can still decide you want to be with that person. You just decide to take it for what it is and enjoy it. I felt like that was the natural way to start leaning into the second half of the album, which is obviously not as happy-go-lucky.
We almost end on a cliffhanger with “Tension,” which is one of my favorite songs.
I’m so happy you said that. I was a bit curious about how people were going to react to “Tension,” just because we did things a little differently. It’s been really nice to see people connecting with it. I felt like it was a good way to end the album, because you’re taking it back to the beginning. You’re at the stage where you have to make a decision. You can’t really stay in this tension of not knowing where it’s going. Once you break that tension, then you also have to start making compromises.
There was quite a long gap between Ultraviolet and Strangers / Lovers. What happened?
I don’t release anything unless I’m a hundred percent happy with it. In the past, I didn’t really have a strong sense of what the album would be like. I could have just put 12 songs together, but would it make sense? In those years, 2016, 2017, 2018, I was constantly on the go, constantly traveling and working with all these different people. Making an album is a very time-consuming project that takes a lot of focus. You need space to be able to do it. I didn’t really have that.
During that time you also provided a little inspiration for Katy Perry. How did you find out that she was sampling “Love You Like That” on “Never Really Over”?
It was a phone call that just came in. They were like, so Katy Perry’s releasing a new track and it’s inspired by “Love You Like That.” My first reaction was complete surprise and then I was like, “That’s probably not going to happen.” I didn’t really believe it until I was able to download it on my streaming service. That’s when it hit me that it was real. I love for people to be inspired by my music. It’s a really nice compliment. It was also nice that they called us because they could have so easily not done that.
What was your initial reaction to the song?
My first reaction was actually, “Wait… this doesn’t sound anything like ‘Love You Like That.'” Then I was like, “Oh my God, people are going to feel like I fooled them.” Because at the time, the Norwegian newspapers had written about it and I felt like I had misled them. But I heard it again, and then I was like, “Oh, okay.” I could hear “Love You Like That” in the melodies and in the production. It was cool for “Love You Like That” to be part of another journey. I think it’s really good. It’s one of my favorite Katy Perry tracks and I’ve been a fan for a long time.
Do you feel it like upbeat, dance-pop is becoming more niche?
I think that’s a cool way of putting it. Sometimes I feel like what I do is almost old-fashioned in a way. I feel like, “Should I be doing this right now?” Everything is so minimal, but I wanted big productions on this album. I’ve done some minimal stuff before, and I loved that too, but that’s not what I wanted for this record. I felt like I was taking a little bit of a risk… maybe not a risk, but I thought, people would be like, “No, this isn’t how we do things now darling.” Looking at it as a niche thing is cool because for the people that do like my kind of music, they really need it and they really like it. It might not be for everyone and that’s okay.
What’s next for you?
First of all, I just have to get out the second half of my album and then I really want to tour. I’m just waiting for the moment where the world allows that and then I’m on the next plane. That’s what I’m excited about and what I look forward to. Just imagine when we can finally go to show up again, people can meet up and sing, and we can play and I feel like we’re going to almost have a different appreciation of it now that we’ve experienced what it means to not do it.
Thank you so much for your time.