It’s been a remarkable progression for twenty-three year-old singer- songwriter Dominique Dillon de Byington, from teenage YouTube phenom to her theatrically intimate debut This Silence Kills, a record forging instinctual composition to the exquisite electronic production of her collaborators Thies Mynther and Tamer Fahri Özgönenc.
D. Strauss: Dillon, the germ of your songs is usually built around whatever comes out of your mouth when you sit in front of a piano. It’s as if you’re attempting to capture sense memory—the physical sensations of emotional events. Within the German songwriting landscape, that’s pretty uncommon.
Dillon: Well, I am Brazilian. And not very confident in my Portuguese. I was talking to my mother this morning and I told her that if I had felt the need to clearly give shape to all the events that took place in my life, I would have become a writer. But what I do is very abstract. I’m just speaking my memories out loud, and that’s all I am doing. Very often I have fragments of lyrics or two word lines in my head and I don’t write them down. I just let them swim around and see if they sink or come together to form a whole.
Your parents are proper Brazilian or shady German Brazilians?
They’re just Brazilian Brazilian. I mean, I think I know my great, great, great ancestors came from England and Ireland, which is why I have a humongous British surname that no one understands. But my first name is French but I am living in Germany and everyone is pissed off because I’m writing in English.
I was surprised to learn that you did most of your schooling in English.
I didn’t really speak English until I was eleven, just a little bit. But I went to a British school in Cologne, so I did my A-levels and I learned everything from algebra to biology to physics in English. And I don’t know it in German. But I would have never even dreamed I would actually be thinking or dreaming in English.
That sort of early mixed linguistic exposure can lead to unusual connections in one’s brain.
My brother is dyslexic. He doesn’t look at words and see how they’re written—he remembers the shape of them and from that, either knows how to spell it or he doesn’t. He struggled the moment French came into it: it was English and German at the beginning and then in third grade you start learning French, so if you’re dyslexic, actually, you’re kind of screwed.
There’s a great experimental film by Hollis Frampton called Zorns Lemma in which he spells out the alphabet, a word for each letter. The words are eventually replaced by images which ultimately resonate back as letters.
That’s exactly what I remember before we knew that he was dyslexic: He was in first grade and I would go, “Come look at the word, you have to remember it.” And he would look at the word and close his eyes to memorize it, and I would go, “Are you kidding?” He is literally memorizing tens of thousands of words in three languages.
Your songs appear to be rooted not just in specific experience but also in the physicality of your perceptions. They have a exceptionally strong non-verbal element.
I always think of my music as a monologue; basically, I’m talking so I can hear myself. I know that I didn’t have any actual inspirations when I first started making music because it was very irrational. I just sat down at the piano one day and it burst out of me. I had to write it down because I wanted to understand it, so I would write it down and then I would read it. And then I had to sing it so I could hear it. I don’t think you can do much more with words. I mean, you can eat them—you can eat the paper—but I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them. And now I can listen to a song and still identify with it without necessarily having to think about why I actually wrote that song.
So you encounter your music the same way a listener might?
Well, when I sing, yes. Every time I perform that’s basically what I’m doing. I turn into myself and I listen to myself. When I played in Paris in November it was during ‘The Undying Need to Scream‘ that I was screaming and . . . I just continued screaming. And then I broke down crying. I don’t know what happened but obviously something happened. I mean, I have no problem with crying if something moves me, or with getting very angry or even smiling and laughing—which I think many people have problems with when they’re trying to be the sad, depressed musician. But I was shocked by the power that it had on me in that second. People were like, ”What the hell is happening?” And I was, like, “What the hell is happening?” and Tamer who plays with me was, like, “What the hell is happening?”
Is there more pressure on you on these days? When you started out you were posting on YouTube just to let people know what you were doing, and now you’re on Ellen Allien’s label, BPitch Control and selling out venues left and right.
I don’t feel more pressure in that aspect, no. I think I have always been an angry person, an angry child with a lot of rage. But that’s why I need to find ways to vent and channel it. Otherwise, I just get sick. I listen to angry music. I’m really into Death from Above but also older bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Atari Teenage Riot . . . I used to run in the streets to them, and bike too. I like some Japanese noise, like Merzbow. I also like being in the mosh pit.
Would you say you were a serious child?
Um, yes. Very angry at times and serious. It’s just that when it comes to art or music or writing, it’s never that light side of me that feels inspired. It’s not something I choose.
So you’re saying you can’t write a happy song?
I haven’t been able to do it yet.
What process do you think will allow you to get there?
To write a happy song? I guess I’ll know when it happens.
Don’t you ever sit down and think flowers and clowns and jelly beans and . . . nothing?
I can enjoy humor and I love being light and everything but when it comes to my art, it just doesn’t work. It’s not so much about the world, I guess, but more about interpersonal relationships: how people treat each other. But I am absolutely not interested in writing any political songs. It’s definitely something that does concern me but I guess I am more private about my political views than about many other things.
Political art is often one-dimensional.
It’s just if you want to make a statement you should one hundred percent know what you are talking about. When somebody starts talking about the clichés, say, about gays in Turkey, and you’re not Turkish. I mean, what the hell do you actually know about that?
In my experience, in Germany, when people are attacking the way gay people are treated in Turkey it’s more about attacking the Turks than defending the gays.
Exactly. And I think it’s like that with many, many things.
We’re in liberal, anything-can-happen Berlin, but do you think there’s a hypocrisy here in the way that people are more conservative than they let on?
I think a lot of people are. A lot of people say they are very open- minded and they are very respectful of everything and then five sentences later you hear, “Oh, but normal people, not gay.” And it’s just five seconds earlier they were talking about equality.
Really? Because one thing I haven’t seen too much of here is homophobia.
Not necessarily homophobia; any sort of sexism, racism. I mean, you have to be very sensitive. But there are certain words I would never use, even if my gay friends use them, because I’m not gay.
What is it in German? “Schwuchtel”? It’s like “fag”. I would never say “fag”.
Is there a lot of sexism and racism in Berlin?
Everywhere, I guess. As a woman, there’s always a difference between the way men talk to women on the street and women would talk to men on the street, for example. I mean, what gives you the right as a man to talk to a woman like that? Just a look or a whistle or click-click [clicks back of teeth] is enough sometimes.
Gender plays a role in the power dynamics of two people talking to each other.
I’m sure in certain places more than others. The social environment that I was brought up in and the friends I have are just totally open-minded and supportive of each other’s existence and sensitive to each others insecurities.
Then I wonder where this anger comes from.
Well, I’ve seen a lot of things, been to a lot of places. One of the subjects I’m continually discussing or trying to process is a sense of isolation and a sense of loss. We’re sitting here right now—this is a situation. The moment you leave, am I going to meet somebody else or should I also leave? Are you going to be open to different encounters because somebody has left a space? Most people make the same mistake again and again and don’t take any time to process anything.
People are continually disappointing you.
No, but I do have a very, very, very select few people around me, those who are really close to me. And they’ve been close to me for years now. I don’t exactly let people come close to me so easily.
Well, Berlin sometimes seems based around the social sideshow.
Isn’t that just the world? I mean, the world is so bloody small. You will meet people here from New York because they lived with your ex-roommate’s girlfriend. I don’t even know why it still surprises me, that if you end up getting to know somebody from around the corner, you’re obviously going to meet them in the desert in India.
If they can afford to get there. One thing about Berlin is that everybody is on the dole and everyone works for free.
It’s difficult to actually pursue your original plans, I guess, for many people. I’ve seen a lot of people come here and leave again because they weren’t doing anything but going out, socializing, taking drugs and just getting lost. They weren’t experiencing things to process and consider. They were just drowning.
Interesting, creative people often seem to tighten into a spiral.
I’m not that sort of person, but I also haven’t been since I moved to Berlin. I’m not that social and I’m not that good a drinker.
You’re not fond of it or you’re just not good at it?
I’m not really interested.
So you’re not really into doing the whole KaterHolzig/Berghain thing with your friends and associates?
Sometimes, but rarely. It’s not like it’s a routine. For some people it is a routine, like going to the office.
Partying is their job. You think then that people aren’t really wasting their talents because if they had the talent then they’d be truly doing something with it.
It’s not necessarily about having the talent, it’s about recognizing what it is. I didn’t start writing music or singing until I was eighteen.
Before that you were dealing with the non-verbal language of photography. I know you shot the cover of This Silence Kills, which, again, suggests a more elaborate image of you than your YouTube videos.
Yeah, everything is coming from me. I shot the cover myself and I shot the press photos myself. I mean, you also hadn’t seen me two years ago. I’ve looked like this for years, it’s nothing new. I think it can be confusing because, all of a sudden people are watching me and they have this idea of what I look like. Well, should I live up to that idea? If I want to play on the piano without a drop of makeup and a striped t-shirt then that is also what I do. Because for me, it is very important to keep honest to myself because I think otherwise you feel ridiculous in a couple of years. You don’t want to turn into a caricature of your own character, you know?
But the glamour of the cover certainly doesn’t suggest your day- to-day.
Well, sometimes it does, absolutely. I mean, when I went to art school I would have one day of the week when I would paint myself as an animal, as a fox.
You’d go to class painted as a fox?
Yeah, my girlfriend used to paint me.
What was the general reaction?
There wasn’t one.
Did you become “the fox girl”?
No, because actually the fox was only, like, once. And then a month later I did it again as a different animal, a mouse.
Were you trying to work through different identities?
It’s just a certain lightness sometimes I’m lacking and I’m trying to make up for it. At times I want to be light and I just can’t.
That sounds like depression.
Maybe not clinical depression, but something very heavy inside me.
When you came here were you still primarily interested in being a photographer?
I never consciously switched over until today. I was always just trying to do what fulfilled me, which I guess is very contempo- rary. A lot of people my age are doing that, not really limiting themselves to one sort of medium, but instead to a state of mind.
Who are your photographic influences?
Again, I don’t think I have many and I haven’t actually taken a photo in months, but Wolfgang Tillmans I adore. I think he’s my favorite. Jürgen Teller I also absolutely love.
Both photographers that have a certain glamour but also try to isolate the personal in their subjects . . .
Oh, and Nan Goldin too. This is what I am drawn to: what’s reality and what isn’t? Just because I take a picture now, it’s real. But then the moment changes and it stops being real? I think it’s the same with writing music and writing lyrics. I try to change as little as possible, but if I look at it again later on, there’s always the chance I’ll say “No, no, no, wait . . . ” And then of course I’m going to change it.
And by concentrating on the specifics of physical sensation, like in ‘Tip Tapping‘ for example, you don’t actually have to say anything specific about yourself or the world. You get to reveal and conceal simultaneously.
Yeah, but if I went to the movies yesterday and had a really lovely time, and I wanted to keep the memory alive of that experience, I’m not going to write about the film that I saw, because then, next time, I won’t be able to identify with it; it’s not the same film that I watched. And that’s what it’s about for me: to revisit that place and, on a broader scale, deal with the primal emotions and identify with that. Because I will definitely find myself in the same situation again one day, at least emotionally, even if it’s not with the same person or in the same place.
To make the metaphor more concrete: Your song ‘Hey Beau’ is like a real-time description of the action in an anime film about pirates. It comes across as absolutely psychedelic.
I love pirates. I also have pirate tattoos, like I got them when I was out at sea. Somebody did them with a knife. Well, not really, but it looks like it. I have a few of them actually. Here’s a crown, and this one on my finger is a comma. It’s actually this typography [points at her album cover].
Now you’ll be stuck with the same font for your entire career, like Phil Collins.
My little brother thinks the comma is a seven.
The comma implies a pause. Your ring finger is your pause finger.
Hopefully not when I’m engaged or married.
Well, the ring will just cover it up.
Or I won’t get married.
You could do that too. Then your life would be on permanent pause. But tell me more about ‘Hey Beau’.
What am I supposed to tell you? That I was on drugs and wrote this song? It’s based on Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.
What is it about pirates that you find so appealing?
In my mind, I like the roughness of it all. Man, woman, humans are not supposed to be on a piece of wood out at sea. At least, that’s the idea I have in my head—I have never actually met pirates.
Kathy Acker’s Pussy, King of the Pirates also aligns the pirate trope with feminist liberation.
A pirate is both someone who is against society and apart from society. You have two choices: you can fight against mainstream society or you can just get on a ship and float away, and the pirate combines those two impulses. Although, I mean, the Somali pirates aren’t so cool.
Three hundred years ago, the regular pirates probably weren’t so cool.
I could be a pirate someday.
On the Spree?
I would just stay in my apartment in the bathtub. ~
All photos by Eva Beth and Torsten Oelscher / black flamingo.
Published April 25, 2012.