Steph Brown’s conceptual indie-noir-pop group Della Lupa evolves quickly, having gone through several manifestations since its inception in 2013. She’s been vocal and pointed in the past about this being a broadly artistic, rather than purely musical, endeavour – a goal which quickly becomes clear from her songs, videos and live performances. We at Brightonsfinest thought we’d meet her and try to pin down the concepts behind the band, taking in some of its history along the way.
How long have you played with Della Lupa, and did you have a solo project or other projects before?
Well, Della Lupa is a complex thing, because it’s kind of a changing entity, in a sense. Sometimes it’s in band form, and sometimes it’s in solo form or acoustic form. So it varies from show to show, which is probably not the best thing for anyone trying to follow us!
How often do you change your line up?
It all started maybe two years ago, I guess. And I was pretty much on my own. I’d just met the producer Jag Jago, and we decided, 'let’s do an EP’, so we just went for it. We got some musicians in, which was a pretty chaotic affair. In truth I feel sorry for him because he got given absolutely nothing to work with – I don’t even understand why he did it! My position was, here’s some bits of good music, kind of decent music, but it was mostly undeveloped ideas, and he somehow managed to make some shape out of it.
So do you think the original Della Lupa was as much his creation as it was yours?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I guess Della Lupa didn’t start with the music, it started with a concept. Because I had a lot of stage fright, and I figured out that one way to deal with stage fright is to create a character. And so I just thought about all the things I like, for example female strength and power. And I had this name. I’m half Italian, and I had Della, which in Italian means ‘of the’. Next, my partner at the time helped me to identify the Lupa part, which means ‘she wolf’ – so out of this came a musical concept that’s quite animalistic, it’s intuitive, and yeah, female.
Your lineup is a bit unusual, particularly in that you don't have a guitar. Is that by necessity or by choice?
It’s really just the way it happened. There’s so much to do in a band to make it work, and I’m the one who drives the band logistically, and musically to a degree at the moment – although that’s changing. But there’s so much to do, that you just have to think necessities. I play and write the songs on the piano, and then the second most important is a rhythm section. Then after that, decoration. Sally and Becky approached me at Komedia last year, and they said ‘we really like your stuff, we could do some backing vocals.’ They pushed me, and pushed the organisation to make it happen. I was occupied with all this other stuff that we were doing and they pushed themselves on me, which was great and it just kind of worked. So all of our band makeup has just come about naturally, really, but it is how it needs to be.
Do you write their backing vocal parts?
No. I used to control everything in the band, and I think that’s why previously it didn’t work. I was trying to hold on too much, and the minute I realised, you’re working with these people for a reason and they’re great at what they do, so let them have their space, then everything just worked so much better.
You describe your native musical origins as ‘Italian-Vietnamese’. How can you incorporate different cultures into your music, aside from just using the odd Asian chord sequence?
Around when I was writing ‘Storm of Swallows’, I was realising I had this Asian culture that I’ve grown up around, which included Asian music. As part of this reflection and appreciation, I added various melodic devices into my music. I know it might sound a bit crazy, but I found it sounds quite close to blues, which I also love. But it was a way of doing it a bit differently. So in ‘Storm of Swallows’, some of the melodic lines, I’d make them up and naturally or instinctively go to a western blues feel, before actively deciding to be more diverse. It’s hard to describe it, because I don’t write theoretically, but it’s almost like there’s more space between the notes. As well as sound though, it’s feel and look. On my first EP’s design, for example, there’s aspects which are used in a lot of Asian texts. Visually, I hope this transmits some kind of culture.
You released your first EP in 2013 and then a single in 2015. How were the reactions to each one?
Well, my first one, I did it before I knew anyone on the scene. I used it mostly to get gigs, so I suppose the reactions were positive – but positive at that level. Later, with ‘Storm of Swallows’, I had a great reaction. I put on this event, this quite large event, and it was meant to be a night of visual art and music fused together. It was in a church and it was quite mesmerising and it was meant to be aesthetically very beautiful as well. I think it worked and it got a good reaction. There’s always a certain amount of criticism to grin and bear with as well though.
You said your second release was different to your first. Do you base that on musical ability, or more on style and concept?
I think that I’ve become more of an artist as I’ve got more into it. My first EP was… more half-assed I guess? I wasn’t really sure at that time what I wanted to do, I didn’t even really know if I wanted to do music. I just went: ‘here’s some stuff, let’s see what comes out’ – and it organically grew. My second single, on the other hand, ‘Storm of Swallows’, was very much a vision, when I wrote the song I saw the video. The video took a long time to make because I had to find the right people to put the vision together. Choreographers, for example, and the director and I had to make the costumes, etc. I was more critical about it and more like, ‘it has to be right.’ And I guess that’s more about the art then anything else.
Now you’ve just crowd–funded your third release, so how will it be different?
I want to put more energy into the music. I’ve found that after every show people would walk out almost in a daze, which is great, but I want a bit more to it. I want to inject some energy, make people feel more exhilarated, like they might need a cold shower.
Do you have anyone in your sights for future collaboration?
Well there’s my next music video, which is probably the most ambitious and stupid thing I’ve ever attempted to do. I don't want to give too much away, but it’s about the Brightonian subculture that people see, if they’re lucky, around the city. I want to do a video basically following them around Brighton, and I want it to be a video that documents how different and quirky Brighton is, and all the reasons we love it here.
You just successfully crowd-funded a new album, to be recorded at Brighton Electric. You obviously have a fan base that are willing to fund you: with that kind of following, isn’t being signed on the cards?
I've had a few things, the occasional email. But I can’t help but feel when I look at people who want to help me out, that if I could do what they’re offering myself, I might as well do it on my own; there’s a very small pie with not enough slices. Most musicians can’t make money, even if they’re signed, you know. It’s very difficult to make a living from it, and I’m very pleased to say that through the business I’ve created, I’m able to fund my music and live off doing music every day, every single minute, and night.
Is the use of crowd-funding campaigns, which are becoming more and more common, a response to change in the music industry?
Oh massively, massively. I don't understand how a label can even survive, off the back of a band, if the band themselves can't survive. And I feel sorry for everybody involved, including myself – it really is a tough time. But, on a positive note, I went to an art exhibition, maybe about a year ago, and this artist said something that really stuck with me. She said ‘we’re in a kind of renaissance right now, where art has completely changed because of social media, because of downloading, because of accessibility, because of saturation. The artist is trying to find their way, and what is coming out is different art as a result of that process.’ So it’s quite exciting, and I really do believe that in some ways, business is creative, as well as art. But it’s quite hard to go from the cultural mentality of ‘the artist is the artist and the label is the label and the manager is the manager’, to one person having to do everything. In a way, I wonder whether we’re losing an era where artists were supported, and we’re losing those stars that were nurtured, and whose art was given what it needed to do to grow.
Lets go back to the gig at the Hope & Ruin, where you showcased some of your new material. How do you feel it went down?
I really loved it – it was my favourite event that Della Lupa has curated so far, as an event and as a performance. As I said before, recently I wanted more energy, and I’ve been writing correspondingly different music. Honestly I was petrified, thinking ‘oh God, what if everyone is dancing a lot and then when we go on it’s just standing still, being enveloped by the music again?’ Which I’m willing to accept is part of our music, but happily it didn’t go down that way. Actually it really worked, and the idea, or one of the ideas, was all the dark sides of pop. And I felt a real excitement from people. Maybe it’s because I was curating it, but I felt this kind of, real buzz, and I thought, ‘this is great, this is just how live music should be and just how exciting going to a show should be.
How about your past concerts, high points?
Yes, the ‘Storm of Swallows’ launch was amazing. I was working with a visual artist, Beth Stedden, and we made all these paper origami birds, which when you shone light through them created shadows, and we hung them all over the venue, One Church. They don’t often do events up there, because you have to bring everything yourself. It’s kind of like a festival in that sense, it’s now a community hall, but it’s beautiful inside, and has this sense of decaying beauty which I love. Well, Beth hung all these birds off the lights, and up against the stage, and it was a very atmospheric event. People came and absolutely filled the hall, it was like a carpet of people. We had the dancers from our video for the single there, and they did a surprise performance at the end, and they came out of the audience with no warning. it was special you know, it was really special.
Do you have any big concerts coming up, or anything planned?
Our concentration is to record. We’ve got some gigs lined up that I’m excited about in Brighton, but I’m not going to announce them yet.
Do you have a provisional date for your next release?
Not exactly, no. I know I have to release it soon, but I don’t want to make the product suffer, you know? I used to put deadlines on everything, but then it becomes more about the deadline than about the actual work itself, and I’m taking the ethos this time that it’s all about the creations. But we’re aiming for late spring, although we want to release a video at the same time as the music, and the videos have to be filmed in certain weather conditions due to what we’re trying to do. It is, as I said, the most ambitious project that we’ve attempted. filming is just so difficult. Still, it’s worth it, I’m working with a director called Ben Salam from Sound Supreme Media and they are excellent, really cinematic – they did ‘Storm of Swallows’. A really talented young group of male directors. I literally say to Ben, ‘Ben, I’ve got an idea, I want to build a castle with a stick and some glue and he goes, ‘yeah ok, this is how we’re going to do it.’