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Demon Days’ Bella Nicholls talks Perth, jazz and social media

Dan Webb
Demon Days is an independent five-piece jazz/funk/neo-soul collective from Perth, Australia. In the brief time since their formation in 2016, they’ve performed on festival lineups and received several WAM and NLMA award nominations. We caught up for a chat with their vocalist, Bella Nicholls.

I understand your band’s called Demon Days because you already had that as your personal Instagram username. As an independent band, what role does social media play and how crucial is it to stay active on it?
Yeah (laughs). I wish it wasn’t as crucial as it is. But you know, in this modern age you have to keep with the times and unfortunately lots of people find their music through social media and different platforms. Like, that’s kind of your biggest marketing tool so you gotta make sure that you constantly have an online presence. Which can be challenging (laughs).

Would you say that one is more effective than the others, or do you have a preference?
I personally prefer Instagram because I find that on Facebook if you’re making posts they can get lost a lot easier, like along a person’s feed, but for some reason Instagram just kind of is always there. There’s not as much foot traffic (laughs).

What’s more important to an independent band in 2019? Song streams or radio airplay?
Oh, that’s a really interesting question actually because with radio plays – I mean, either one of them, it’s not about making money because you’re not getting that much money from radio plays or from online streams, so that’s kind of just out of the picture. It’s more looking at the listenership so how large is the demographic going. So for online streams that’s probably the best because it’s covering a larger area whether, you know, not just Australian listeners but the rest of the world. Where radio plays can be kind of isolated to an area at one given time.

Perth’s probably best known for its indie and psych rock scenes. How receptive are local punters to funk, jazz and neo soul?
They actually really like it. I think they didn’t know they liked it cos they hadn’t really been given the opportunity to be exposed to it. But people of Perth are awesome, like they will give everything a go and be super supportive of whatever you’re trying to do so I feel like we’re really lucky in that sense. Um, yeah. They really enjoy it. People love to dance, in any area. So why wouldn’t they like it? (laughs)

Perth’s obviously a long way away from other Australian capital cities, making it pretty expensive to tour. How difficult is it to raise money to tour?
Well I feel like we’re very lucky here that we have a lot of opportunities to play lots of shows. So you can kind of start collecting money and saving to be able to tour. You can apply for different grants and stuff but that can always be difficult depending on how well of a writer you are (laughs) for your grants. It is definitely challenging for people in Perth but I feel like that is also our greatest strength is that we’re so isolated so we can kind of make our own music and not be distracted by other things and other influences.

I think that’s a great way of putting it actually, I’d never thought of it that way.
Yeah (laughs). We’re optimistic cos we’re so overlooked.

Our greatest strength is that we’re so isolated so we can kind of make our own music and not be distracted by other things and other influences.

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Your debut EP Magic Eye (2018) was produced by Nick Herrera, who has quite the neo-soul CV, having worked on releases by Hiatus Kaiyote, Nai Palm, 30/70 and Allysha Joy, to name a few. How important was it to you to work with Nick?
It was an amazing opportunity that we were extremely stoked to have been given. But um, I mean, we obviously admire a lot of Hiatus’ work and 30/70 and the Melbourne neo-soul scene is really killing it at the moment, and you know, we definitely look to them. So it was awesome to work with someone that knew what they were doing. Especially because we are quite a young band and quite young people, it’s good to have a little bit of direction and also kinda security in what you’re doing. Like someone telling you that your choices are good choices. Because you can have a lot of self-doubt as a musician.

Do you find it weird that one person is kinda shaping that whole sort of sound or scene?
Ah, I wouldn’t say that he had a lot of influence in the actual sound. I mean, at the end of the day the musicians and their style of playing will always resonate. But I think just that sound at the moment is an iconic sound, but it doesn’t even start from Australia. Like, you know, there’s a bigger picture, bigger bands that have been doing it for a lot longer and that kind of LA scene, they kind of are the big guns (laughs) that has started it, so I feel like we’re just kind of following suit. But, you know, under the umbrella of neo-soul.

I guess that pretty much answers my next question. Feel free to use that as your response, but what would you say to cynics who might dismiss your music as simply copying the likes of Hiatus Kaiyote?
See, I just don’t think we personally sound like Hiatus that much from a musical standpoint. I mean, they gravitate a lot of influences from different world culture instrumentation. So there’s a lot of kind of, Latin influence and a bit more hardcore jazz. Whereas I would say we’re more leaning towards the kind of synth pop route. But it is definitely easy to listen to bands and just say they sound like someone else because of certain, you know, stylistic similarities. And that’s fine, like that’s gonna happen in any genre, with any band. But I think it’s important to – like we try not to listen to a lot of neo-soul music as to not kind of sway our perception and writing periods. Like I personally listen to a lot of indie pop, or just traditional jazz, and I find that helps with the writing periods (laughs).

I understand your grandparents were into jazz?
Yeah. So my nonno would constantly just play jazz albums throughout my childhood and then I realised I could actually kind of sing it not too bad, so I joined jazz bands and jazz choirs and stuff.

What are some of your earliest memories or jazz? Do you have any particular albums that stand out in your mind?
I listen to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald. She’s great. Or a lot of um, Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra. A lot of singers as apposed to kind of instrumentalists I think, which obviously helps since I’m a singer (laughs).

So would you say that those people that you just mentioned are some of your favourite singers in general?
Oh for sure.

Are there any more to add to the list?
Let me think. Ella Fitzgerald’s definitely my biggest influence and will always probably be one of my favourite singers. Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, um, ugh. Trying to think on the spot here (laughs). I definitely gravitate to more female singers, just cos they’re great and I respect that they were able to achieve so much in their time period that was not as supportive of females.

Yeah, I imagine it would have been particularly difficult for black female singers.
Yeah exactly.

I like to think that I write in quite a vague manner so that people can kind of see the themes but not the details, and then they can interpret how they please.

You said in an interview last year that all of your lyrics are autobiographical. Did that come naturally to you, or have you ever had any hesitations or reservations about revealing too much of yourself through your songwriting?
I think because pretty much growing up my whole life I’ve always been a journaler, I’ve always found comfort in journaling my feelings, you know, what’s been going on throughout my day or my week is a nice way to kind of let off steam. So when I started to write lyrics that kind of process just felt natural as I’ve been doing it for so long. And it’s a lot easier to write from a place that you know than from a place that you don’t. Cos I am a sensitive and emotional person (laughs) it’s a lot easier to express throughout that way and I guess I’m not too worried about telling people much about my personal life because I like to think that I write in quite a vague manner so that people can kind of see the themes but not the details, and then they can interpret how they please.

I was listening to your latest single, “Daria’s Smile” earlier, and it really struck me how as a band you allowed space for a bass solo. What role does space play in your songwriting?
I think space is important to allow everyone to have their moment in the sun. Cos you know, at the end of the day we’re a band, it’s not me and my backing band, it’s a collective band and we all have equal effort. And it’s important to have space, also to allow that kind of release and tension in the music, which is such an important element. You know, you can’t have like a constant state the whole time. People need moments to breathe. Um, so yeah space is very important and we – actually that section is really funny because our bass player came to us one day with that riff, said “I really wanna put this in a song,” so we decided that “Daria’s Smile” was the perfect song for him to kind of have that breakdown section for him. And I think it works really well. Yeah.

Can we expect a full-length album anytime soon?
Oooh (laughs) um, next year. That’s all I’m gonna say. Next year.

Can you paint us a picture of what your ideal creative space would look like?
Ah, I think speaking for myself, not for the rest of the band as we all have very different tastes, but I personally like to write outside. I like to be in nature and I like it to be kinda quiet but you can still hear movement from everyday life. So I tend to do a lot of writing in parks or like that kind of isolated sections of parks. Or kind of forest, woodlands kind of vibe. I just find it a lot easier to concentrate and get inspiration.

Alright well I’ve got one final question for you. This one’s probably the most difficult.
Come on, it’s a Tuesday morning (laughs).

If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
Okay the first thing that pops into my head was Daft Punk. Purely because the band and I included are just very big Daft Punk fans and have grown up listening to their music from a very young age and, like, I would love to collaborate with them for something. Like if they could help produce an album I think I would cry because they’re so talented (laughs) and I just think that the work they’re doing is really amazing.