The universe of Denise Sherwood

Oct 05, 2020
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Denise Sherwood is a musician with a distinctive voice in British music and has a unique musical history. Daughter of Kishi Yamamoto and Adrian Sherwood of On-U Sound fame, she has grown in a sound system culture with a big love for dub and experimental sounds. Her childhood was around artists such as Lee Scratch Perry, Ari Up of the Slits and New Age Steppers, Mark Stewart of the Pop Group and The Maffia, Style Scott of the Roots Radics, Bim Sherman, Junior Delgado, Andy Fairly, and Skip McDonald of Little Axe and Tackhead.   

Denise reached her independence with Evergreen Recordings, and, with the help of her father, she is putting out her debut album, This Road. The LP is a journey of seventeen years and hundreds of versions of songs that will feature Mala, Lee Scratch Perry, Mark Stewart, LSK, Ed Thomas, and Vital Elements. On This Road, Denise mixes with ease hip-hop, dub, drum and bass, and soul music.

In the interview, we discuss family history, growing up, and having fun with legendary musicians, going to raves and clubbing on dnb, jungle, 2Step, dubstep, and garage, in London. 

Here are seven chapters in the life of Denise Sherwood.

Present & future family life

In the pursuit of balance and safety, I am continuing to record music in this context of my life, with my beautiful family, my husband Harry, and my son.

I think that This Road is the release of almost everything that came before my present family life. But there are some happy positive vibes on the album that are clearly the result of my current happiness and lightheartedness. I wanted to share on this document the battle between the dark side and the light side. My dad was always saying: "For fuck's sake, sing something happy!" Hahaha, it's not that I'm not happy, but I just want to try and communicate whatever is going on in my heart. And I am leaning towards the moodier side. I think we both struggled a lot with that. So, there are some bits on the album that are a bit lighthearted and up-tempo, because he really thought I would suit reggae, but actually, I prefer the gentle sounds of dub and folk - music with space, that isn't so up-tempo.

In marrying Harry Devenish (manager of Submotion Orchestra and Prince Fatty, ex-manager of Gentleman’s Dub Club) it was a huge change in my life. I was already in my early thirties, and everything became stable and grounded. That is what gave me the strength to put this album out. The reason why it took so long was all the anxieties I had. I didn't know if I liked it or if it felt like it was me. I had this state of mind where it felt I was trying to be someone else who has nothing to do with those songs. So, I didn't want to release it. Because Harry is a manager, he knew that maybe it's important that I and my dad just let it go, so that we can see it get out and celebrate it, and not let it hang over us. He really encouraged it, pushed us to put it out, he and my son have transformed my entire life into deep peace.

I never needed to be tamed, I'm wild and I'm free, and my husband allows me to be as I am. He is a wonderful man and a beautiful person, and I never imagined reaching this peace, normality I thought was far from me. Now I have a normal home life, hahaha. It's great, and I love it, he loves dub and reggae, he is a music head, and he has a studio. All our friends are doing music, and that world is very much around, and we function together very well.
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Kishi Yamamoto, the mother - role model

My mum is awesome. Her playing and artworks for those first On-U Sound releases are extraordinary. She is creative, but she is also the one who organized and held all the chaos together. She managed to run On-U, and, without her, in my opinion, it wouldn't have had the success it did, not to take anything away from my dad. She managed the business side of it, she worked with the artists, and they all respected her massively. Nobody messed around with my mum in terms of work. She dealt with everybody, she was and still is, very straight up. She is reliable, honest, and does what she says. She is incredible. I don't think I’ve ever met a stronger, able, and more grounded person. They both got very different skill sets, and together they worked very well. She is also very open and non-judgmental and enjoyed being around people. She really held everything together. She is a rock. Her presence was anchoring everything, and that meant it could all happen in a functional environment. The plummeting creativity and the obscure nature of the music industry were translated into ridiculous late hours and drink. So, there was a lot going on. Sometimes it can get very chaotic, people's characters can be very turbulent, up and down, wild sometimes down, sometimes very high. Growing up around it, there was so much energy and she contained that with absolute grace.

My mum and dad met because she had her own magazine with her Japanese friends, and as a photojournalist. From my childhood, I remember her going to the darkroom and working. My parents were always playing instruments and exploring stuff. It was all very creative, and, obviously, the artwork she did was reflecting the experimental music.

For example, the Annie Anxiety collage covers with the angels were my toys juxtaposed with my mum’s portraits of Annie. She took and collaged objects from around the house. Now, I think she moved away from that world. My parents split up when I was nine, and she moved away from that world. Her artworks and all her pictures are part of an archive now. She never exhibited them as a retrospective or something like that.

Denise Sherwood (baby) & Kishi Yamamoto

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The reason is that putting art out, the way you frame it, and what it means to you, the whole dissemination is very different to my mother than to my father. In the art and music world, I have seen a lot of ego, narcissism, arrogance, a lot of artists that think they are important because they had some success. My mum is the opposite of that. She is pure humbleness. There has to be a better word than that for her. She doesn't want people looking and talking about her work in such appreciative terms. She's a strong and she is still creating, painting, and making jokes about it. As she is very creative, hopefully, she will find the proper moment to do an exhibition or a book.

Musically, when I was living with her, we made songs together, demos. We tried some bits, and we played with some lyrics by poets like W.H. Auden and Keats, and she took on a strange alias as a producer, an Albanian moniker, Gjerky Berisha. Both of us played on keys and then just had fun recording it. Nothing came out of it, but maybe I put them on MySpace to test people’s reactions.

I don't speak of her enough, but she is fundamental in the On-U Sound catalog, and in my father’s career. She is my absolute rock and inspiration. If I could be an inch of her strength, I would be very happy.

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Adrian Sherwood, the father figure - role model

My father speaks very highly of how his career was launched by John Peel. He must have been a very good man, helping so many artists. The Slits started to be known because of him, too. So, we had this approach of promoting female artists equal to men. He was a bridge between underground bands and mainstream success. He has a great legacy.

I was born in 85, and I think my dad was very successful then, more in an underground sense. He had a strong community following, and he was creating new and interesting sounds, putting out special albums, and working with creative artists. Yeah, that meant my house was a 24 hour, seven days a week studio. My mum and dad were running the label together, and they created a special and unique home environment to grow up in. He is very open, the least judgmental human being I've met in my life, which is the best quality about him. That was why my house was always filled with so many people. Artists coming from all around the world, people who had money or were broke, people from all classes and walks of life and races, they were all welcomed in our house. It was all-encompassing, and that is the highest education I have received from him. He trusted people, showed respect, and loved everybody in a positive sense. It was wonderful. So, I was growing up with creative people, and that definitely moulded me in an unconscious sense. Now, being older, I can reflect on it and appreciate it more deeply.

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Adrian Sherwood & Denise Sherwood
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| This Road – debut album

It was like a mad journey. My album was made with my dad, Skip and Dougie, Style Scott, Mark, LSK, and Lee. All these people I’ve always looked up to and who know how to do their thing. Working with them didn't help my confidence, because actually trying to get to know who I am among such strong characters has been musically challenging. I am 35 now, and I feel this moment is just the beginning of my career, and This Road, my debut album, is that long, long journey. It feels strange that Side A is very close to me, and Side B feels far away. There is a lot of history there, a very personal and complicated, painful, and beautiful journey.

| Music Shall Live, the first single - a drum n bass song 

When I was a teenager, I was going out dancing to drum n bass and jungle. So that right there was my first love. That was all I was listening to as a teen when I was 13-14. Then I got into UK garage and 2step, and then I've always loved dub. I am also a big fan of grime, UK rap, and dubstep. 

Music Shall Live was originally called Dum Dum and was an amazing dub loop. There are 15 versions of every track on the album, and so many people went "you've overthought it, you should have released it ten years ago". So, I don't know if it is overthought, or too stripped, but the Mala song made it.

I met Mala when I was young, and I was a massive fan of Deep Medi and what he was putting out. The Digital Mystikz sound was wicked. I love that our friendship turned into a musical collaboration too. He has produced a track on my album - Sweet Love, the last song. I wrote it about my first serious boyfriend from when I was 19. I didn't ask him to work with me musically, as I just did a degree in arts and cultural management, so we were talking about business. But all of a sudden, he just said, "I love the track, I am going to work on it!". Wow, that is so cool! 

My album was started 17 years ago, and the technology changed, the music industry changed radically, and so did the loop that Mala started on Cubase originally. In the time I spent with this LP, I've witnessed radical changes like CDs disappearing and a lot of the other formats dying. So, I've sent him what I began working on, and it took him three years to get something out of it. Everything was very relaxed, no fixed deadline, doing bits now and then. Practically there must be hundreds of tracks that did not make the album, a lot of ideas and moments of leisure. Mala eventually send something back, and we lost some parts. The formats were changed, and we couldn't finish the song. Trying to put Cubase into a new version of Logic, and then Reason was obviously crashing. But I've hanged onto that, it was a keeper. Sonically, out of everything on the album, there is a bit of crackling, and it doesn't sound like everything else, but I have so much respect for Mala, and the tune means a lot to me. 

The sound changes when you work over a very long time. Too many layers amass in a song, and it starts to diminish its original raw energy. Maybe it is too polished, but I am happy and proud of this album – my 17-year-old debut. Hahaha.

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| Lee Scratch Perry, the dub master

I got many memories of Lee Perry, and one of my earliest ones is with him. I still remember it clear he had set the lights so he can entertain me with shadows on the wall made with his hands. He absolutely terrified me. He was a monster on the wall. Those cool pictures of me and Lee in the eighties in the studio, there were actually in our house. The studio was our home. He and my father would work relentlessly on music and albums, and it was all in one big room in Eastham. We had a tiny kitchen, a big living room area, and as a kid, I was falling asleep in the living room, where the studio was.

Years later in the nineties, I remember Lee burying himself in my dad’s garden, one night when we went out bowling. He got all my brother's toys and surrounded himself with them as he preached to them. He wanted to bury the TV set too. 

And then, obviously, he is an important figure in my life, so he is featured on This Road. When my dad went to Jamaica to make Rainford with him, he heard one of my songs, and he loved it. I think that his words on Music Shall Live are fantastic. 

Lee "Scratch" Perry, Adrian Sherwood, Denise Sherwood

When I was working with him and dad on his Rainford song Let It Rain, I was pregnant, and he gave me a blessing. We had a baby ceremony, and soon after, we moved into the studio, where I began playing percussion. It was completely organic. We then went to the beach, where he found some seaweed and put it in my head - again with blessings and prepared me to go into space with him.

He is such a fun person, and he sometimes is talking absolute nonsense and irritating my dad who thinks they should concentrate on the lyrics. For him, there is no overdubbing, no writing words. He is channeling something from I don't know where. He is not even a human being. He floats around in this ethereal way and always giggling like a little boy. His energy in my life is like encountering something alien. He is in a vehicle, and he entertains himself in it. He is 85, always standing, he never sits down, his back is so straight, he’s got an amazing posture. Sometimes he’s just bonkers and inappropriate.

| Ari Up – wild creative energy

I don't have any memories from Ari Up of New Age Steppers and The Slits from the eighties, but our relationship began when I was older in my teens. Yeah, we became very close. We have done music together that wasn't released either, but those ideas might come out sometime. We did a few tunes together, and she asked me to join the Slits, but I refused. At the time, I was in a very difficult place coming out of school, grown a bit fast, too much partying, and I thought if I go into the music industry, I lose my mind. I thought of my anxiety, my fear of singing in front of people. So, I decided to go to university, create some structure, and get my life back on track. I turned Ari down for college, and she understood - she was very supportive. She said it is a massive shame as I have a voice, and I should sing - it’s my destiny. When she passed away, it was very sad, and it impacted me a lot, I was traveling in the States and hoped to see her, but by that point, she was very sick and wouldn't see anybody.

It was very sweet to be part of the New Age Steppers Love Forever album that my dad and his collaborators put together after her death. I loved singing on those songs and grateful to be in the presence of those music artists. Also, I was so afraid and unclear on who on earth I was, and what I wanted to sing that I felt I haven't contributed to that album. I’m singing on it but in a very restricted parallel space. When I listen to those songs - Love Me NightsThe Fury of AriThe Worst of Me, and Silver Words, I think they are cute and a blessing, but I sense my fear there, less my presence and more uncertainty. But I was definitely present every time I danced and spoke with her. Ari and all the other great talented people who are dead now, I have very cherished memories of our time together - Style Scott, Junior Delgado,

Denise Sherwood

 
| Mark Stewart of the Pop Group and Maffia fame – disruptor, poet & creator

I've known Mark my whole life, and I love him. He’s brilliant. He also contributed to my album, apart from me, he has written most on the album. And Mark is bonkers, I love him, but he does my head, he is like a child sometimes, an overgrown five-year-old. I can give you an example, I was on tour with Tackhead, Junior Delgado, and Mark & The Maffia. We were touring Holland by bus, and everybody moved to the back. I thought wow this is great, loads of space. Then I realized why everyone was moving as far away from him as possible. He doesn't stop, he can’t stop taking a piss out of you. Even if you get desperate, he is something else and very funny, but annoying. We used to go to charity shops together when I was a kid. I used to spend a lot of time with him and his mum in Dorset. I love his humor.

With that in mind, working with him is funny because he is such a serious writer. He came to the studio with a ridiculous pose of seriousness, and I wasn't used to that. I was always asking him - are you joking? But he brought in a lot of beautiful poetry. I love his style as he puts down words and phrases that stand out. As we listened to the sounds, he would just collage out these words and phrases from his favorite writers. It was like madness of words all over the place. We then pieced the final versions together - this really works with this and that. He wrote the tracks, and I wrote the melody. He is completely tone-deaf, but he and my dad together, they'd be hurling these words down on me. I can’t keep up. Ghost Heart, for example, they were shouting me the words to find the perfect melody - Tales from nowhere, if tomorrow ever comes. It’s a beautiful picture there, but he was going at it with a shout. Line by line like that, over a day. My dad was cooking and coming in and out of the room and also chanting it. 

Other tracks we tried, he made me rap and scream, connecting with a certain type of energy. Working with him was special, and we made the songs Ghost Heart and Amnesia Moon from ”This Road”.

His style is to throw a lot of stuff in, and my dad, or the producer he is working with, to catch it. If they don't, he gets irritated. Like his first record with my father Learning to Cope with Cowardice, back in the eighties, he was actually singing then, and when you see him live, WOW. He is amazing live, and he looks beautiful on stage. Usually, I would hassle him - you look like an ugly pig!. We curse each other. But several times when I saw him on stage, he made me cry. He too lives in a universe of his own, I remember me and him and Shane McGowan went out one night, to Cristal Club, if you can believe that. Shane is a massive fan of Marks and he was very high and they danced together - took over the dancefloor, that was very very beautiful, they were taking each other very seriously. 

So, like Gaudi and my dad said it, when you are focused too much on melodies, chords, and musical structures, it is ruining the vibe. But I like being sensual, emotional and get a perfect pitch. That’s when my dad and Mark come in - boring, get on with it!

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