Interview: d4vd on Art and Love in the Past Tense

d4vd, the accidental breakout star, talks grief in his hit tracks ‘Here with Me’ and ‘Romantic Homicide’.
Photo: Universal Music Group

In the chaos and electronic slush of today’s music industry, it is not exactly surprising how often music and games collide. In 2019, Marshmello performed a live concert in the video game Fortnite, and so did Travis Scott in 2020. In the up-and-coming crowd, there’s d4vd, seventeen-year-old American Twitch streamer turned accidental breakout star with his stunning new single ‘Romantic Homicide’, which peaked at number 33 on Billboard Hot 100 in October. Slow and blistering in its intensity, with a laboured beat like a fading heartbeat, its lyrics, delectably spiteful and ferociously honest, cut the throat of a relationship of could’ve and should’ve’s without hesitation or remorse. It is the antithesis of nostalgia and the bloodstained yardstick of romance. 

The pleasure in listening to d4vd came in hearing a man lashing out so beautifully against sorrow and heartache, bashing away with rare and terrible honesty that I did not even know was possible before encountering him. Listening to his music is like playing tennis without a net: as usual parameters like choruses or bridges are abandoned, it’s hard to predict when the song will begin or end. No one’s keeping score or bothering about rhymes or rhythm, which sounds like a pipeline to a messy and disorganised song, but it works, paradoxically because no traditional musical parameters are followed and so coherence is undefinable. This is the artistic and commercial genius of d4vd’s music: a firm grasp of what makes a replayable song tick. 

Photo: Universal Music Group

Despite the initial impression of being just a moody breakup song, d4vd rises above the slush and swamp of hazy romanticism that majority of musicians lazily inhabit: he’s infinitely more attentive to the feelings his songs invoke in his listeners than those expressed in the songs themselves, a quality that may have catapulted his ‘Romantic Homicide’ into deserved fame. Listening to music, at least to me, is to chart unmarked emotional territory, the dust and murkiness of which is cleared away by the clarity and invigoration of a unique song; I find out more about myself through my responses to them. 

But if there’s anything I find new about myself through ‘Romantic Homicide’, it is after – or through – being overwhelmed by my own initial response, which is to weep. “I tried not to make the focus on the instrumentals – or the vibe of the song,” he told us in an interview over Zoom in November. “The feeling, overall, is something universal, that everyone feels heartbreak, one way or the other.” 

Photo: Universal Music Group

At the time of the interview, it was 10pm on his side of the globe. Despite the odd black shower cap he wore and the uncanny impersonality a Zoom interview casts on its participants, his gravitas felt palpable in his silent moments of thought and careful words, a man of gentle dignity that isn’t just reserved for his songs, shower cap forbid. Whenever I interview singers or listen to recordings, it always strikes me like an axe to the skull how I am listening to the actual voice behind the art, like watching an artist’s hands write; there is a certain holiness and awe in ordinary conversation that remains unparalleled.

But I digress. You’ve probably heard the slander that songwriters who write about love can’t rise beyond their angst, that they have no originality as thousands of songwriters before them have already done the same. Don’t be bothered by the falsity of it – be bored by the inanity of it. d4vd is a shining example of how a songwriter can act as a proxy for our own emotions to augment tragedy. 

“Grieving is such a universal emotion,” he admitted. “It’s like, when something happens to you, or a loved one, or a relationship, you immediately feel regret… But I tried to – as well as I could in the song – to
move on, not even crying, not even grieving.” “In the back of my mind/ you died/ and I didn’t even cry, no/ not a single tear,” he sings on a particularly heart-wrenching note. In ‘Romantic Homicide’, there is space to recover in the absence of regret. “And I’m sick of waiting patiently/ for someone that won’t even arrive.” For a songwriter just starting out, he’s astonishingly impervious to cliché. 

d4vd’s work is impossible to turn away from: the gravitational pull of a voice that effortlessly drops and rises to dizzying heights in the same breath, the nuanced and conversational tone he employs in his songs – easier said than done – and the rich, hypnotic rhythms that lap like ocean waves at the shore of one’s senses before retreating in a tsunami. In his lyrics, there is an impression that the words arrived on the page by osmosis, unencumbered by the knee-jerk curatorial reflex that dogs every artist. It is rare that lyrics can be substituted seamlessly in a conversation without breaking any finer threads, but what else to expect from the wild card that is d4vd? He tinkers with indie pop the same way a born artist tinkers with colours and textures. 

His latest single, ‘Here With Me’, has the same steady, slow beats as ‘Romantic Homicide’ with none of the tension. It’s a sweet little song on love that displays his versatility with emotional registers – although ‘Here With Me’ is often mentioned in the same breath as ‘Romantic Homicide’ when introducing d4vd, it takes a pole to vault from his latest song to the moody ballad.

No one has ever, on opening Spotify, said to themselves: ‘You know what we need? More musicians.” Like any other creative medium, the escalation of discovery that anyone can write, draw or sing comes with the devaluation of the product required. Decades ago, a song would call for instruments and a studio, now, instruments and a studio call for a song. d4vd, in the wake of the violent success of ‘Romantic Homicide’, who recorded his songs in his sister’s closet, has cemented his creative process in the former. ‘Romantic Homicide’ peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Hot 100, proving that art and commerce can indeed be bedfellows. 

“The art! The pride is in the art. I just keep making new things, new ideas, new sounds, every single day – I try to beat the next song in terms of the evolution of the music itself rather than how people are going to receive it.” How often do you hear this, in this era’s ruthless commercialisation of art and its artists’ adultery to the sheer possibilities of their mediums? ‘Here With Me’ and ‘Romantic Homicide’ has proved his worth and nettle, and time is on his side. 

In the music video of ‘Romantic Homicide’ released in September, he conjures a dark world of rain and barbed wire, with himself, blindfolded and wandering aimlessly, in a tuxedo dotted with scarlet. If melancholia is the undercurrent of his work, then panoramic, searing visuals encompasses it. Like how a shadow is light in the past tense, love, in d4vd’s work, is grief in the past tense. 

I don’t play video games apart from the occasional half-hearted sojourn to Animal Crossing, but if d4vd ever hosts a concert on Fortnite, I’m game – pun not intended. The accidental breakout star’s musical talent is only emboldened by his gaming skills, not degraded, and even his harshest critics will have to admit that. 

Listen to ‘Romantic Homicide’ here and ‘Here With Me’ here.  

Original interview by Afikah Azlan, article by Dorian Oon.