Louis Dunford : "I knew that writing would be therapeutic, but it was also upsetting and opened old wounds"
Alice Gee | 29/9/2021
I meet Louis at The Hemingford Arms in Islington, a slight change from the last time I saw him performing his first gig back post-COVID lockdown, the week before. As we grab a drink I get the chance to gush about his most recent performance, at a very packed, even sold-out, St Pancreas church in the heart of King’s Cross. The Louis I meet today appears to be the three C’s; cool, calm, and collected, whilst admitting he’s a little nervous for the interview. After seeing his confident performance the other week in a room filled to the brim, I thought I’d be the last person he’d be nervous about speaking to.
After over a year off seeing live music, especially in a non-socially distanced venue, I was ecstatic yet nervous to be back in the live scene, yet the moment I arrived at the venue to hear his opening song, I found myself instantly transported by his angelic acoustics and talent for storytelling. As we catch up, we find ourselves, as you’d expect, covering ground about our pandemic lives, with me explaining my newfound love for comfortable clothes, even admitting the extent of wearing pyjama bottoms out of the camera with previous interviews over zoom, (which lucky for him is not the case that afternoon) whilst his news of being signed to Sony in the pandemic is just so slightly more exciting.
Having worked full-time in a range of roles over the past 10 years to support his musical career and dream, Louis is just as modest when it comes to the beginning as he is about his signing. As he recounts how he learned to play the piano, after moving into a new family home at 15 with an out of tune piano, being told he had a month to persuade his parents not to get rid, he found himself in a change of routine following his signing, including some hard and testing moments when it came to writing daily in more of a 9-5 role. “It’s not what you prepare yourself for in any way shape or form, becoming a nine-to-five threw me off completely. When you’ve spent 10 years, clocking off work at seven, then going home and doing the thing you love it’s completely different to writing when waking up from nine o’clock in the morning, it’s been really weird.” I love the fact he’s honest about it being a big change. So often you know or imagine the romanticised version of people’s dreams coming true without the honesty involved with such an overwhelming change. Saying that It’s not every day you go from realising you can sing in a karaoke bar in Cyprus at age 10, working any job in between to finding yourself signed to Sony.
With a strong north London accent, elements of your typical North-London boy, he is anything but. As we saw him enter stage left on his first night back performing in what I can only describe as the heatwave from hell (yes, you should believe he was in knitwear), looking pretty relaxed and ready for a room packed with fans, he tells me he was anything but on the inside, “I was so anxious! I had had so many people text saying they couldn’t come due to COVID that I was genuinely worried that the church would be empty.” Much to his surprise, he was welcomed to cheers and a room of applause from people who’d travelled from all over the UK. “A couple had driven 11 hours from Glasgow, people from Yorkshire, Bolton, Manchester, Birmingham. I was like sorry, this is f*cking crazy. It almost made me cry. I’ve got all my lot there, my friends and family but we live from a three to five-minute walk from Kings Cross. It just blows my mind that people would come all that way, and then for them to not be disappointed was something else.” It’s astonishing to me that he would even question the idea that anyone who came would be disappointed, as although many are keen and ecstatic post-lockdown to be out and about, from where I was standing all I could hear were people singing at the top of their lungs to his songs.
With the ever topical pandemic still having an effect on the music touring industry, I wondered what Louis’s plans were when it comes to touring and performing, the venues he’s got his sights on, especially from being on the roundabout of booking and cancelling shows due to the pandemic. “Weirdly big venues aren’t my ideal gig. I’ve always wanted to play Union chapel.” As Louis mentions another church, having just played St Pancreas Church, we end up laughing about the fact we both feel we should burst into flames when entering, with Louis highlighting the fact some of the language and stories of his songs are a tad explicit for traditional concepts of a church. “It made me think of my Nan, who was an Irish traditional Catholic, I was up there singing these songs, thinking in equal parts that she would be very proud but also mortified about the contents of some of the songs.” But there’s more to the reason behind Louis being drawn towards playing Union Church, “I feel it’s sort of poetic because the pub across the road is the first gig I ever played live. It would mean so much more in a way than something like Brixton Academy.”, with that being said he laughs, making it clear this is not him turning down Brixton Academy.
Having gained quick notoriety a couple of years ago after being picked up by Jamal Edwards from SB.TV. for several recorded and filmed YouTube Sessions, Louis tells me with a small amount of disbelief how writing songs in his bedroom, about his friends often simply to ‘take the piss out of them’ became something much bigger. “I just wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write either poetry or a book. I have always been fascinated by the people behind them. I remember when I was little and I found out that books and songs didn’t fall out of the sky how fascinated I was. I’d never thought of myself as like a serious songwriter.”
Having chosen to take a brief break due to not feeling ready after his debut with SBTV, he took time to hone his craft and the things behind it. “it all sort of stemmed from that I just was writing things about everyone in my community. I had been persuaded to put my music on YouTube and it was then that I thought okay, maybe this is something that I could try and do professionally.” But it’s whilst I interview him and understand the passion behind his music, that there’s so much more to it, that for him it’s a way of telling stories, from the good and the bad to the loss and trauma he and those around him have experienced.
“What I realised is if I do write about something it normally means I’ve come to some sort of terms with it. Whereas when I write about anything like relationships or romance when I’m not in a good place I feel it’s kind of screwed up. I like to take my time to write an accurate account of what happened, which I have always found more interesting. There have been times in my life where I’m like, ‘Oh, I understand it now and then I’m like, ‘oh, no, I don’t’. When I write about something, I think it symbolises that I’ve gotten to a certain point where I’m more comfortable with it.” I wondered whether he had found solace and comfort in writing his music: “I knew that writing would be therapeutic, but it was also upsetting and opened old wounds. I knew putting them out there to members of my audience would show parts of me and how I feel about things. That’s been a bit tricky to navigate because you can’t control that wiggly line and people’s perceptions of the songs which mean so much to me. Most of the time I feel fine talking about my mental health or past experiences. There are days where I feel capable of those conversations but there are other days I can’t, so writing and navigating through this is my job but has had its difficult moments. At the end of the day how others form opinions over them is out of my control and I’m ok with that.”
The openness I feel from his honest account behind the songs most from a vulnerable place and personal loss, which he sang so boldly and beautifully at St Pancreas church, is something I can only commend. To be a place where he finds peace in the music he writes whilst staying true to not only who he is but what’s best for himself is something more people should take note of. His story is something so many hope for but never get the chance to experience, one which includes both highs and challenges, modesty and I sense even an ounce of surprise, and although Louis is extremely talented (not that he seems convinced at times) it is sure to be the thing that takes his career to the next level.