A 24-year-old vocalist, composer, and producer from Medford, Massachusetts currently based in Brooklyn, Claire Dickson makes music that weaves together elements of avant-pop, electronic music, and jazz while blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Having grown up in a musical family, she was encouraged to pursue her love of singing and music at an early age, citing her obsession with Ella Fitzgerald as a gateway to jazz and improvisation. In 2019, she graduated from Harvard, where she studied with the likes of Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding, with a degree in Psychology and Music. Upon graduating, she was able to attend the Arctic Circle Artist Residency, where she began recording her enchanting debut album, Starland, released earlier this month. More than just a majestic evocation of an otherwordly landscape, the album stands out for the way it filters Dickson’s experience through her unique artistic approach, which zones in on what is beyond our direct line of vision and reaches for the ineffable. On ‘I Need More’, her character attempts to tell the person close to her what’s in the sky, and her words tumble into a disorienting abyss of yearning. What emerges is a voice as fascinated by what there is to – and cannot – be said as it is with inventing new ways of saying it.
We caught up with Claire Dickson for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, studying with Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding, the creation of her debut album, and more.
I know you grew up in a musical family. What sort of memories come to mind when you think about your upbringing?
Yeah, my dad is a professional musician and my mom sings, my younger sibling plays instruments, my older siblings play instruments and sing. One of my earliest memories is of singing with my mom in our living room because we were in this family chorus together. It kind of felt like the focal point of my life very early on; not only singing and music, but even just being on stage. I really loved the energy and the rush and the spontaneity of that experience early on, and it felt very natural to me, all of it. I would go to a lot of open mics with my older siblings because they were doing kind of a singer-songwriter thing, and I remember becoming friends with one of my brother’s mentors and learning his songs and singing with him. And of course, singing with my dad’s band. These were all things that felt like a really important part of my experience early on.
For a lot of musicians, songwriting often comes first, and then they get to experiment more with sound and go in that direction. But from what I understand, for you, jazz performance and improvisation came first, and you focused on songwriting later on. Why was this the natural trajectory for you, and did each outlet serve a different purpose?
That’s a good question. I think songwriting and experimenting with the voice and with sound are kind of the same thing to me when you get right down to it, and I guess some people find their way in through the songwriting aspect. I think a lot of my music and my songwriting starts from that place of improvisation and experimentation and kind of this momentum that is built through the experience of being in the moment that can then turn into something more whole. Capturing sounds is like taking a photograph, that’s kind of how I think of composition. And I think that all music is kind of childlike or has an innocence to it, but if you’re starting music so young, it makes sense to start from that place of just curiosity about sound and just the joy of music.
Starting so early on, did you feel like you wanted to separate yourself from music as a sort of group activity, to use songwriting as a way of forming your own musical identity?
Definitely, yeah. I started writing music a little bit in high school but more in college, and even before I was writing songs, I was very interested in developing originality. I thought that that was kind of the most important part of making music in the first place, and that’s why I love jazz so much and improvising and building an identity in your sound. And at a certain point, I realized that the way to really push that and stretch that is through songwriting. And then I also realized that the way to push that even further is through producing. I guess jazz takes place within an idiom, so I really wanted to step outside of as many preconceived parameters and try and unlock what’s in my sonic imagination.
You mentioned college, and there’s such a wide range of musical experiences that you had there that aren’t just limited to jazz and improvisation, including getting more into writing music. What are some of the things that changed the way you approached music during that time?
I think one of the bigger things that caused a shift was just meeting peers and mentors and collaborators. I feel like I learned so much from a lot of my classmates right off the bat starting college, just people coming from different places, different backgrounds, had listened to different music. They weren’t all just trying to get really good at their instrument; maybe they were concerned more with what they were doing conceptually with their music, or they actually didn’t know if they wanted to do music and they were studying physics and kind of wrestling with what it means to be a musician more. I think being in that environment definitely spurred me to want to prioritize originality in my work. Maybe the craft aspect of it had to be more self-generated, but I think that that experience definitely shaped where I ended up going musically.
Can you give me an example of someone who had a great impact on you in terms of your musical education?
Yeah, definitely the classes I had at Harvard were really impactful. My first music class at Harvard was with Vijay Iyer. His teaching style is very non-judgmental, which I think was really important for me at that stage. I think he’s very good at meeting people where they’re at musically – and I don’t mean that in terms of skill level, but just in terms of interest in like, texture, sound. He’s a very curious teacher and wants to pull as much out of your quest for originality, to push you on that journey as opposed to some ulterior idea of what good music is.
Definitely, Esperanza Spalding’s songwriting workshop was really key. She introduced this method of songwriting to me that I use or at least reference in all of the music that I make. It’s a very serious approach to songwriting in that it takes the craft of songwriting seriously and teaches you to be careful in your songwriting, that it deserves a meticulousness and a dedication and a contribution that has to come from deep within you – like, the whole point of songwriting is to try to emote that.
You graduated with a degree in both music and psychology. Where do those two things intersect in your practice?
It definitely is connected. I majored in psychology because I was kind of interested in it before as opposed to being in college and discovering that passion. That’s kind of how my brain works in a lot of ways – I think about things in very psychological terms. When I’m songwriting I also think about things in psychological terms – that part of my brain is activated when I’m doing many different things, so music is one of them. Beyond that, whatever I’m reading always makes its way into my music in some way. And whether that’s science fiction or a novel or nonfiction, like a book on psychoanalysis, sometimes I’ll be really fascinated with an idea or a story that the book kind of sparked in me and I want to explore it more in songwriting. That impulse to dissect and to go deep and also to communicate without words, I think that’s a link between my interest in psychology and my interest in music.
In a way, I see those things coming together in your debut album. You created it partly on a boat in the Arctic Circle during an artistic residency. What was that expedition like?
I started threads of a lot of the songs during the residency, but on the residency itself, it was mostly fragments. Some of it I actually ended up recording there – I had no idea when I was singing into the microphone in my bunk that it was going to make it onto an album. But to me, a lot of the album is about being in this world, this undisturbed landscape, this place that isn’t populated by humans and hasn’t really been impacted, at least directly, by a human population. Just the experience of awe, and really the sublime experience of being there. A lot of the album is about the challenge of communicating that experience.
I went on that expedition and I spent a lot of time there just observing and taking it in. I approached my interaction with the place very cautiously because as soon as I got there, it felt so much bigger than anything that I could think or do or say. I spent so much time singing and observing and just being present. A lot of the album is about the experiences I had there, coming back to New York, and not really being able to communicate them to people or being challenged with relating those experiences back to this human, constructed world. The experience itself kind of became magnified when it served as a lens through which to see the city. I wanted people to understand and remember and realize the other possibilities of what could happen on this planet.
You mentioned the awe and the sublime experience of being there, and maybe even that doesn’t come close to describing it. Instead of asking how it felt, can you tell me what sort of things you observed that made you feel this way? You said you spent a lot of time observing.
Yeah, I mean, just watching the sky over the course of the day, all the colours that would be in the sky. Or even just at one time – in the Arctic, there’s so much expensiveness and you can see so much of the sky, so you really have like a 360 experience of what’s happening there. The glaciers… It has kind of this fantastical feeling to me, which is countered by the fact that it is more real, maybe, than anything else I experienced in my life.
On that note, something that fascinates me about the album is the way that you weave these sort of everyday images of reality with a sense of fantasy. I hear it in a song like ‘I Need More’, for example, and there’s even this line on ‘Golden Summer’: “You used to believe there’s a realness in dreams.” I get the sense that dreams and fantasy, just like music, are sort of like tools for communication for you.
Yeah, definitely. Thank you for listening so closely to the album. One of the powers of nature to me is its interaction with the imagination, and nature to me provokes the human imagination and dreams and these fantastical ideas. Imagining a person that is the scale of the mountains – somehow that would enter my mind. [laughs] Of course, anthropomorphizing everything around you is very human. But noticing how that plays out is something that was really interesting to me.
The album feels very much like a journey, but it’s also kind of ambiguous. All I had going into it was the short description on Bandcamp. Is that all you want the listener to know going in, to lead their imagination in that way?
Yeah, definitely. I want people to receive the music from where they are. And if the music is kind of a projection of my experience, part of the magic to me of sharing art is for other people to experience that projection and then re-process it through their experience. And also, I think that the ideas that I’m playing with, they came from this experience for me, but I think that they’re a metaphor for a lot of different experiences and things that happen in life. So I want that all of those possibilities to exist as well. I don’t want to say that the album is about anything, although it came from this place.
I love the way that you use your voice throughout the project to communicate what’s between the lines as well, especially how you manipulate your vocals, like on the title track. It just brings this new emotional texture and intimacy to the work. What appeals to you about applying your voice in such a manner?
I’ve always been interested in the way the voice can express without lyrics, and using all of these different effects I think is a way to explore that more. I kind of think of it as, the voice becomes this purely emotional force, almost, especially in that song. Emotional and timbrel force.
To me, the album revolves around this infinite moment that arrives on ‘Snowglobe’, and in the second half, the cosmic wonder of it starts to disintegrate as we’re taken further and further away from that memory, that place. There’s obviously emptiness and loneliness there that you reference directly, but there’s also a yearning for more – I mean, even just the track title, ‘I Need More’ – and a yearning for what is lost, like on ‘Golden Summer’. Do you mind talking about what is on the other side of of that yearning for you?
Wow, I’m so glad you thought of the album that way because that’s definitely how I think of it as well. Are you asking for me personally or within the story of the album?
I guess it could be both, whatever you’re comfortable sharing. Again, maybe it’s hard to put into words – is it just things that are left in between that you can’t really communicate, or is there something more to it?
I think that, in the album, there’s definitely both the loss of experience or the place of limitlessness and then also the loss of being able to connect with someone else about that experience. This attempt to communicate about that space and remind someone else that it exists and it’s possible and that they were there too and break the loop that I reference. I think that’s kind of what’s on the other side: if the experience is distant or it’s lost, the way to retrieve it is to share it with someone else, and I guess, almost begin it again.
So is it more about retrieving that experience, or is it also a craving for more than what was experienced, which might be fulfilled by sharing it?
Yeah, I think it’s both.
You said at the beginning of our interview that, with the release of the record, what matters has changed compared to when you were making it. I wonder if sharing the music is a means of reaching that connection, and if that desire has been fulfilled.
Yeah, in some ways. I think it’s also just it’s like a guide for me now, or a reminder even, to break my own rules, to reach for this space of limitlessness. That’s just one thing. Even just the gesture of outreach by putting out that album – if people connect to it, then that connection that I kind of long for on the album is in part maybe fulfilled. But even if they don’t, just the gesture feels important.
What do you think you’ll take away from this project that you might apply to the next one?
That’s a good question. Um… Nothing. [laughs] I mean, now that I’ve done that, I think the music I’m making now is in part reactionary. Like, what can I do that’s different? How can I stretch myself musically? I feel like I’ve moved on to maybe a new phase, a slightly new vocabulary, at least to my ears. But I’m not sure.
Are there any upcoming projects that you’d like to talk about?
I am working on another album – it’s almost done, actually. And I’m also working on an album with my band Myrtle. It’s a project with another singer-songwriter, we write all the music and now we’re producing this album collaboratively. That’s what I’m working on at the moment that I’m excited about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Claire Dickson’s Starland is out now.