Louis Dunford

SUNDAY 29TH MAY 2022

For as long as he’s been setting words to music, Louis Dunford’s songs have started life in a series of customised notebooks: tatty and dog-eared but unique and, to Louis at least, priceless. And it was one of these careworn notebooks —leather-bound, bearing a duct-taped label onto which TUNES had been scrawled in Sharpie — that Louis accidentally gave away last December. Working in his dad’s Islington bookshop, Louis had absent-mindedly bagged it up with someone’s Christmas shopping. She was long gone by the time Louis realised. “I tore the shop apart looking for that book,” he remembers. “But I knew it wasn’t there. I just had to accept I’d given away my songs. I was bereft.” As the weeks ticked by Louis attempted to convince himself that perhaps this was an opportunity for a clean slate, then two agonising months later the book reappeared. The customer had realised it was “some sort of diary” and offered her assurances that she hadn’t read it. “Just as well,” Louis says. “It really is a glimpse into my unhinged brain.” The notion of lost and found is not new to Louis. It runs through his music in songs that are frank, emotive and revealing, with smart observational songwriting about real people, real life, and the humour and tragedy of what it is to be young and what it is to be human. “I’m obsessed with finding sense in time that’s lost, and people who are lost,” he says. “My songs are about nostalgia for times that are no longer around and things I can’t get back: times in my life, people in my life, the innocence in my life.” Louis was 14 when his family moved house and were surprised to discover a bashed-up piano, left behind by the previous resident. Louis took a shine to the eyesore but his dad wasn’t impressed. “He gave me an ultimatum,” Louis remembers. “Use it, or it’s getting chucked in the skip.” Louis had never picked up an instrument before but he found some YouTube tutorials and taught himself the basics while his mates were out and about engaging in some rather less wholesome pursuits. Later on he’d do the same with a guitar, separately continuing to write the poetry he’d been scribbling in notebooks from a young age. One day, eventually, the penny dropped. “There was an epiphany: I’d been learning how to play the piano and I’d been writing poems, and when I put the two together it all fell into place.” A lot of those poems and songs were about his mates, his family and the people he’d encounter in Angel, north London, an area where his family had lived for generations and whose pre-gentrified state Louis can still just about recall. Thanks to ventures like running the bookshop his dad was well-known in the local area, as was his mother, the actor Linda Robson. “I felt a huge sense of community growing up: it was like a little village where you’d go up the market or the high street and my mum and dad would be chatting to every other person,” Louis reminisces. “I was surrounded by people I knew the entire time.” He also inherited some of his parents’ musical taste — Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Queen, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill — but felt intimidated by those artists’ star quality: “It felt like they lived in another unobtainable world I couldn’t access.” Digging deeper he found alternative voices. Storytellers who sang about real life and sounded like real life too: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, The Smiths, The Clash. “Those artists had a profound influence. They sang in their own accents and they wrote about everyday people. They brought the mundanity of everyday life to life. I thought: ‘Oh, you’re allowed to do that.’” Another penny dropped. “Then I thought: ‘Maybe I could do that.’” The subject matter in some of Louis’ earliest songs was inevitable and, to a kid in his teens trying to make sense of life’s cruel twists, necessary. At age 16 Louis’ close friend had been stabbed in an unprovoked attack, and died in Louis’ arms. Louis’ private grief collided with Ben Kinsella’s name making national headlines. “The world, all of a sudden, got very dark for me, my friends, my family and the entire community. When I look back I can hear the naivety in the lyrics, it’s almost like someone else wrote them.” Unbelievably there were added dark times ahead for Louis when another close friend, Henry Hicks, died in a moped accident and understandably Louis’ songwriting became a space in which he could relive less troubled times, leading to songs like When We Were Hooligans, London’s Requiem and Ballad Of Benjamin. “People who say ‘songwriting is my therapy’ generally haven’t had proper therapy,” he says today, “but music allowed me to come to a certain understanding. It helped me explore the time before my youth, and all our youths, were snatched from us. From a distance I can see it as an idealised, Utopian idea of youth because in reality we were just being little shits on the estate, but in my head there was a perfect period of my life in my head, before all that happened.” When Louis played songs to his friends they urged him to put them on YouTube. He’d initially felt that his music might feel too personal to find an audience but Louis found that the more personal his songs were, the more their emotional depth resonated with others. SBTV’s Jamal Edwards was one of the first to notice Louis’ uploads, and he reached out. “I didn’t even know what SBTV was,” Louis laughs. “But Jamal said: ‘Can we come and do an A64?’ My music had felt like a bit of a secret for a while, but that kicked something off.” There was a flurry of interest and Louis started working with producers but when Louis felt that things were happening too quickly, he made the decision to put music on hold. Understandable, given the turbulence of the previous few years, but still: calls went unanswered, sessions were pulled, songs went unfinished. Louis ghosted the entire music industry and got on with his life, but behind closed doors he carried on writing songs. A year or two later Jamal Edwards reached out again out of the blue. “He said: ‘It’s such a shame you won’t put these songs out’,” Louis recalls. “I told him what had happened and he just went: ‘There’s no rules, mate. You don’t need to have meetings with people, you can just put songs out yourself and have a laugh.’” His first step was to reconnect with Jakwob, one of the producers he’d ghosted back in the day. “Luckily, he’s the nicest person in the world,” Louis laughs. “We met for coffee and decided we’d finish those songs.” They pair ended up forming an incredibly close bond, taking two-hour walks around north London where they’d discuss music but, just as often, everything except music. As suggested, Louis put out the songs himself: first Hello Depression, then the affectionately humorous Bossman the following year. Through a series of low-key shows he was quietly building up a small but very loyal fanbase who’d travel from around the country to see him perform, going on to sell out his first headline show in December 2019, then another in February, with more sold out dates scheduled for later this year although, well, use a pencil if you’re putting them in your diary. “When lockdown hit I thought: ‘Fuck me, it’s all going to come crashing down’,” he reflects. In fact, he signed his deal with label over Zoom. “If I have kids and they ask me what I did during lockdown, I can say: ‘I signed a record deal.’ It’s been quite historic. Lockdown, that is, not the record deal.” Louis’ first two EPs are something of a story-so-far affair, including new versions of London’s Requiem and The Ballad Of Benjamin finished years after they were first written but still capturing the rawness and the passion of those moments. “When I sing those songs now, it’s like looking back at myself,” Louis says. “I tend not to feel sorry for myself generally, but I really feel for that 16-year-old kid going: ‘What the fuck is going on?’” There was a point when Louis felt tempted to spruce up the songs; to rewrite them from the perspective of who he is now. That temptation soon passed. “They’re like diary entries,” he reasons. “That’s how I felt at the time. You can’t edit the past, no matter how much you might want to.” With a knack for finding light in the darkest places, Louis Dunford is something of a rarity in the musical landscape: a storyteller with stories that need to be told. Things are happening quickly again for Louis, but this time things feel different. This time it’s all happening on Louis’ terms. This time, it feels right.