Sculpting air with HYD.
Talking to Hayden Dunham is like convening with a higher power and through their music they’re sure to convert many more into dedicated disciples. Dunham is the multi-hyphenate artist behind Hyd, an alternative pop project rooted in self-made mythology, a love of fire (and the many ways in which it can be extinguished), and the unusual way in which they process sound. Coming into full view on their debut album, ‘CLEARING’, it’s a master work which features collaborations from experimental superpowers like Caroline Polachek, A. G. Cook, Jónsi and the late SOPHIE, among others.
Dunham’s first taste of music bubbling up into the spotlight was with the release of effervescent energy drink QT and its counterpart single “Hey QT” back in 2014. Co-produced by Cook and SOPHIE, it paved the way as a key influence as hyperpop expanded and began to infiltrate its way into more mainstream pop arenas. While only one track was ever released, leaked demos and other material from around that time have surfaced online.
Now signed to Cook’s influential label PC Music as Hyd, this summer Dunham took to London’s KOKO as part of their Volume 3 compilation takeover. Alongside labelmates like Namasenda, Hannah Diamond and felicita, Hyd played a three-track set including “The Look On Your Face” (a standout from their self-titled debut EP), album closer “Afar” as well another track, “Makeover”— a demo of which has been floating around online for years and wouldn’t sound out of place in the QT universe.
While “Makeover” is unlikely to see the light of day as part of an official release, Dunham’s performance was an emotional one given their bond with SOPHIE, who produced the track, and the fact that SOPHIE’s brother Ben Long was the DJ for their set.
Like all of Dunham’s creations, Hyd began as a seed — something which needed to be nurtured, something which needed to grow. A theme which has deep roots within the album, and the 40-page manifesto which Dunham created as a guide for their label and collaborators to understand the sheer scope and complexity of their vision for this record. ‘CLEARING’ is the product of a meticulous and singular mind and the result is a final product enriched with layers of meaning that gradually reveal themselves to the listener, even without Dunham’s impressive PDF.
Over a Zoom call, Dunham reveals they’re on day two with no phone, having lost it on a rollercoaster. While reluctant to be referred to as a “coasterhead”, their love for theme parks comes from the feeling of fighting gravity and the pressure from the free-fall. As they discuss the story of ‘CLEARING’, we dive into their childhood relationship with music, their desire to create something new and the inner workings of the concepts they poured into this album. We come out the other side feeling healed and hopeful, a similar effect to listening to the record.
Do you remember being creative as a child?
I always loved opening up systems and getting to understand them and then reorganising them. That was a huge part of my childhood, even taking apart power tools or different machines or things like that. I was really into inventing things, like making new materials from liquid mixtures to other materials. I didn’t think about it as making artwork, I was just excited about what can happen when you combine different materials and you make something new.
That process of putting things together, of alchemy, and seeing who gets along with who really lent itself to this practice that I have now — in a physical way and also in an audio-sensory way. I have always been really sensitive to sound. I have a special way of hearing sounds like audio processing differences. So it’s something that has been really integrated into my experience of being human. I really like how all of this is building a language system because so much about making music or circulating music involves holding a message and a frequency, things that can’t be explained with words. You can make a new sensation in this process of making music and making songs. I get really excited about that.
Before you started experimenting with music, what mediums did you work in?
I started off working with liquids, vapour, silicone, a lot of synthetics and new materials. I also made my own, one that is called DD and another one that’s called H+. It’s been many years of working in these materials, but the thing that is most exciting is when they are catalysts within themselves for holding something beyond their physical matter.
Do you feel like you’ve had that experience with one of your creations?
Absolutely. All of them, but if you see it then I probably feel that way about it. So much of my practice has involved failure over and over again. When you’re trying to make something new it doesn’t exist before you make it, so failure is a huge part of it. Every time I approach a sculpture, I integrate taking huge risks into the process of making it. For many years, I worked with minerals like silica, lithium and magnesium, minerals and elements that are explosive by nature.
When did you start working with sound?
Sound was a major fixation in my life, because I couldn’t understand people until I was much older. I learned how to hear people by reading lips, so the way I process sound is first visually, with shapes. I have always had a relationship to sound that was specific to me. Having to hyper-focus on the shape of sound, the way that the sound moves through a mouth has been an everyday practice of mine. I feel like for the last 10 years I have worked with air as a sculpted material. Now I make sculptures with air, through my mouth. So when I started songwriting and working in pop music, I was thinking about how you can hold really complex ideas and really simple soundscapes that then can be circulated on a global scale. Music can really transcend space and time. It can move really quickly.
How does it feel to be putting out this body of work?
It’s been many years. It’s a whole world of research in this one album, ‘CLEARING’. And within that, there are many worlds that have moved through time to be here, in this form. For me, this body of work feels really expansive, because it has moved through so many time continuums and continues to. With this album, it’s a bit like I made three albums and then I held them. They’ve been underground, just literally planted under the ground, and held by a container of darkness for many years. They are coming through the surface and it’s really moving to just be with something for this amount of time and to care for it. So I’m very curious about what is going to happen and what they will become outside of me.
Is it exciting for you as an artist to watch that process of listeners having an emotional reaction to your music?
In so many ways, the album is an emotional toolkit and I think that different songs will have different resonances. For me, there is the cycle that is presented within the album which has to do with destruction, chaos and immense loss. Then moving into an ash state of being, which is like going underground — kind of like rest, and maybe even repair. Then moving into emergence — you being a tiny seed and pushing up through the darkness into the landscape where you will receive rain, where you will receive sun, where there’s a lot of harsh materials, but your root system is really deep and really strong, despite you being very soft before coming into a really full flower. But it doesn’t leave off with the full flower, it really moves into air and what is possible in this airscape.
Fire is an incredible catalyst for transformation. If you bring a flame to oil, it generates energy. If you bring a flame to fabric, it ignites it and causes it to completely change forms. There’s this reality of transformation, changing forms and moving into new states of being that I find really exciting and compelling about music, but also specifically about this album. It makes me hopeful and fully energised about the future because it means whatever state you’re in, wherever you find yourself in this moment — you might feel surrounded by darkness and in a place of unknown —this album offers that there are seeds and ashes. Inside the burnt parts is new growth, and something else will come through.
So biding your time and knowing there’s a light after the darkness?
It’s trust. There’s a song on the album called “Trust”, and this song is really an inflammatory song: ‘Sparks in the air tonight burns red like dynamite / Secrets fall from the sky sets fire to all of your lies / I knew I could break from the chains wash them away in the rain / You thought I could be tamed, all it takes is a flame…’ But the underbelly is that it’s very hard to trust that in these moments of immense loss and fear, that there is another presence caring for us somewhere, embedded into our ecosystem.
You can look to the cycle of a flower for support, you can look to the sun and the moon for support, you know that even in a landscape of total darkness if you wait six hours, the sun will rise. There’s so much listening that we can do here in terms of transmuting from one state to another, transmuting one feeling to another feeling. I really think that flexibility and mutability are going to be incredibly helpful materials in navigating this next terrain that we’re entering, emotionally, physically and environmentally.
Tell me about some of your favourite research you’ve done for the record.
I really loved learning from firefighters. One of the questions that I asked them is ‘How many ways are there to put out a fire?’ And it was incredible to just hear their experience and all their different specialities, from creating new materials, like fire suppressants, to using mud or dirt and using fire to put out fires. So when I was working on the video transmissions, of which there’s one for each song on the album, they all involve a way to put out a fire.
How did you decide on the album’s title?
I love communication systems that are not from this world. And I feel like a lot of people connect with numbers through seeing repetition, through synchronicities and things like that. And I have my own ways of listening. I saw [the word] clearing over and over again. Countless times. It just kept appearing. I didn’t understand what the communication was initially. And then I figured it out.
A clearing is a space where there was total loss, where, at some point, it was a full forest and a very alive garden. And now it is full of ashes and seemingly without life. But the reality of a clearing is that all of life is held within the ashes. So ‘CLEARING’ is a space where you can feel the potential of growth, but you can’t see it. You can feel that something is about to move beyond its form, but it’s not physically present. There’s something in the stillness of a clearing that I find really compelling.
In addition to that, there’s the process of clearing, where things settle to the bottom so that the water is clear. Where there was once so much commotion that you can’t see through something, and you have to wait for it to clear, the process of it clearing is one that involves trust. Trusting that those particles will rest so that you can see through the water. Clearing holds release, it holds loss, but it also is actively present. It’s an action of clearing something.
It’s this word that has this illusion of absence, but for me, it holds this incredible presence of something becoming, of what is coming through in its next form.
Is there a song on the album that resonates with you the most?
“Only Living For You” is one that’s really close to my heart. It’s so hard for me to listen to that song, still. That one feels like you are a bird and you open your wings for the first time. It’s cold and there’s that feeling that it’s really sensitive. I feel that way about “Oil + Honey” too. That song came in the most organic way, working with Jónsi and Alex Somers and it also has a childrens’ choir. That was a birthday present to me, Alex asked the childrens’ choir he was working with to sing that one.
There’s just so much love embedded into the songs for me, interpersonally, and I hope that extends outward and other people feel cared for. Listening to it feels so vital for me. It’s such a recharge. And for a long time, it was extremely difficult and it was really scary for me to listen to. Now, I feel really held by it in a way that extends beyond this time right now. It involves past versions of me, future versions of my girlfriend, my best friend, people that I love and feel inspired by. It’s a real amalgamation.
Was there a point when you thought it was too scary, too much for you to share this with the world?
Definitely. It’s about the work. I feel like I’m a guardian of the songs. I take care of them. I’m their caregiver. They really came through for a reason. And now it’s up to me to circulate them and set them free. That’s a practice that I’m in, in general. How much can I release? In a literal way and also in an emotional way.
How present can I be? How much can I let go of in this lifetime? The songs have been really transformative for me. So I think that it is time to also share them and really turn them over and turn them out through my fingers.