Image: Madeline Bradley / supplied
Image: Madeline Bradley / supplied

MediaJuly 10, 2020

Deryk is her name. Will the world know it by the year’s end?

Image: Madeline Bradley / supplied
Image: Madeline Bradley / supplied

A new EP from an unknown Auckland singer ignited a bidding war before she’d released a single. Today ‘Call You Out’ is released, with eerie parallels to Lorde’s rise. Duncan Greive meets the artist known as Deryk.

Madeline Bradley wasn’t expecting a lot. She’d been to dozens of these meetings over the past four years – only 22, yet already near washing out of the music industry, her confidence lost, unable to get the songs in her head onto tape.

Justyn Pilbrow felt much the same. He’d returned to New Zealand from LA six months earlier, having been achingly close to some huge projects as a producer, but never quite finding a perfect foil. He’d come home for noble reasons, to look after his unwell father, but it still felt like a kind of failure. 

“We were both in this weird place and just a bit on the low side,” says Bradley. 

Pilbrow reluctantly agreed to the meeting, held at a bland inner city cafe, but took care to manage expectations. “Look, I’m not going to promise anything,” he told the label. “I do weird shit. It’s probably not going to work.”

They liked each other though, and found a shared musical language, so agreed to give writing a try. When they met again a few days later, Pilbrow picked up a guitar and started playing some haunted chords. By the day’s end, they’d written and recorded a demo of ‘Call You Out’, which ultimately became the first single by Deryk (stylised as deryk, all lower case), the name Bradley now performs under.

What went into the WOMb EP (photo: Duncan Greive)

The song came out in response to a series of events in her personal life during the first half of last year. Her partner, who is Sāmoan, experienced a racist remark in his own home, the aftermath of which added to a powerlessness she felt in other areas of her life. The episode left Bradley frustrated and seething, replaying scenarios in her mind and imagining what she might have said had she been able to find the words.

“I clearly had a problem with telling people what I thought because I never would say anything… I just kept feeling gross about it.”

She was unable to stop fixating, until ‘Call You Out’ spilled out of her in that first writing session with Pilbrow. The song that emerged is a slow, sinister anthem, Bradley’s vocal a whispered threat over loping trip-hop percussion and a chorus that raises the stakes with each iteration. By the end it verges on industrial intensity, with harsh textures scouring across the initially pretty hook, exposing its inner brutality. 

Released today, it still has the scratchy looped guitar Pilbrow laid down that day, but has swollen to become what is likely to become Deryk’s signature song – her best shot at a breakout and that relatively rare single which feels like it captures some of this cultural moment. 

Those who have heard it see the potential for it to break out. Deryk signed to Universal New Zealand for the world, before a bidding war ensued for regional rights, and is now licensed to EMI/Virgin in the UK and Republic in the US. “Very rarely have I heard a debut song from an artist be so strong and gripping,” Ben Adelson, head of A&R at Republic, told The Spinoff. “She has such a level of maturity for such a young artist that it was no question we wanted to work with her.”

While this is the first time around for Bradley, Pilbrow’s been through the ringer of big dreams before, and knows to treat them warily. “I was really surprised that they were going to release it overseas without seeing how it does here first,” he allows. But his general air of circumspection prevails. “Don’t let me discourage you,” he tells Bradley, “but I’m still sceptical as fuck.”

The long shadow of Lorde

In 2020, while Pilbrow is still right to be sceptical, there are reasons to view New Zealand as a plausible location from which to launch a pop career. Two huge breakouts have come already this year: Jawsh 685 is a teenager currently at number one on the UK charts, while Benee’s ‘Supalonely’ has over 300m Spotify plays. Both are global hits pulled off with their authors effectively trapped at home, while the world grapples with the worst pandemic in a century. Each has also been massively helped by social media platform TikTok, a phenomenon which grips the contemporary music industry while causing its veterans to despair.

Photo: Madeline Bradley / Supplied

For all those artists’ success, it’s the shadow of Lorde which is unavoidable on the Deryk project. There are several uncanny parallels which, when stacked together, feel hard to ignore. Like Yelich-O’Connor, Bradley spent years on a development deal before signing to Universal New Zealand. She has been overseen by a contracting English A&R, Simon Banks, as Yelich-O’Connor was with Scott McLauchlan. Each arrived with a somewhat cultivated air of mystery. Lorde initially had only an illustration available as an image, while Deryk’s first photos are distorted stills from her somewhat extraordinary videos for ‘Call You Out’ and the as-yet-unreleased ‘One Star’, each shot in lockdown. Both artists debuted with a five song EP (Deryk’s is called WOMb) and a very strong lead single, both licensed to Republic for the US. 

The part which feels most on the nose is the fact Pilbrow was the producer who unlocked her sound. Like Joel Little, who produced Lorde’s Love Club EP and debut album Pure Heroine, Pilbrow is a veteran of New Zealand’s briefly exhilarating pop-punk scene in the mid-’00s – his Elemeno P toured with Little’s Goodnight Nurse. 

‘Royals’ is a song which changed pop music, dramatically slowing its pace and birthing hundreds of soundalikes, while clearing the lane for singular artists like Billie Eilish. Could ‘Call You Out’ do the same? Like ‘Royals’, it goes against the prevailing grain of Spotify-era pop, much of which sounds like the product of machine learning and big data, engineered and micro-targeted so as to let an infinite feed flow by without challenging its listener. For all that, pop music has always thrived on staying in motion.

Still, hits are rare, hits which re-angle pop music are much rarer still. At this specific and charged juncture in Deryk’s trajectory, it’s impossible to tell whether lines pointing to an earlier New Zealand success story are portentous or simply cute. But they are too numerous to ignore.

In the beginning

Bradley was born in the UK in 1996, and moved between the suburbs of London and other southern English cities. “I was always pretty away with the fairies as a child,” she says, attributing it to her ADHD diagnosis. Her relationship with music was cultivated in a distinctly unglamorous way – listening to free CDs given away with red top tabloid The Sun on long drives to the car ferry, so the family could shop at the giant and very cheap hypermarkets in Calais.

She had a discman, and fell in love with soul singers Johnny Nash and Bill Withers on UK motorways. But aside from some brief percussion lessons at the age of five, it was a one way relationship. They played, she listened. 

The family moved to her father Mark’s native New Zealand in 2004, when Bradley was eight. They landed at Taradale in Hawke’s Bay; her mother Deborah was a receptionist at a doctors’ surgery while her father worked as a builder. Music came soon enough. A friend she met at Napier Girls wrote short stories, and Bradley followed suit. 

“One day she just started playing something she’d written on an electric piano and I remember thinking ‘I could do that’,” says Bradley. “‘I could fully just put some of these stories to song, to a melody’.”

She followed the interest deeper. A colleague of her mother’s had a son who played guitar, and on Thursdays she would head to his house to write and play. It led to experiences typical to many studious-but-creative teens in New Zealand: Rockquest and Play it Strange and Young Shakespeare. She had a term-long exchange to Hiroshima, and spent time at The Globe in London. There’s a song credited to Madeline Bradley called ‘That Feeling’ on 2013’s Lion Foundation Songwriting Competition, Vol. 10. Few musically-inclined New Zealanders in this era can escape high school without digital echoes.

After leaving school she tried her hand at design at Massey University in Wellington, but after a year abandoned it to drive north, determined to pursue music. In 2015 she uploaded a Spooky Black cover to Soundcloud, then headed to Auckland to enrol in an electronic music production course, listening to Chelsea Jade’s ‘Night Swimmer’ on repeat on the way. Something about the song spoke to her – but it would be four years before she’d meet its producer in Pilbrow, and finally unlock the sounds in her mind.

The Spooky Black cover gathered over 100,000 listens, and got her invited to play a showcase at Backbeat Bar, a small and quite corny classic rock venue off Auckland’s K Rd. There she played well enough to attract the attention of Simon Banks, manager of KT Tunstall during her awards-laden ‘00s years, and now manager to Bradley. He had moved to New Zealand in 2015 and signed Bradley to a development deal, essentially agreeing to help her find her way in the hope it might lead to this moment. 

Photo: Madeline Bradley / Supplied

Then, for four years, a typical grinding slog at the fringes of the modern music industry, writing music and studying production, first at SAE and then at MAINZ. “My logic was that I would go there and learn all the jargon and understand how it works, so then when I went into an environment, I could talk about it properly and not feel like I was just getting pushed aside because of my gender,” she says. “Because that was real obvious that that was probably going to be the case.”

She worked first at Recycle Boutique, then a fitness nutrition store in Les Mills, living the kind of precarious life common to young musicians. “I had to be really careful about money… I could never take an Uber or anything like that.” 

She worked with visiting producers through Songhubs and flew to Sydney and Melbourne for intensive writing sessions. “Nothing fitted,” she says. “Everything felt so forced and false.” Like so many women before her, she felt restrained from expressing her vision, instead creating the kind of slick but insipid songs from nowhere which are so often the result of such fast collaboration. While she forged strong working relationships with artists like SJD and Buzz Moller, locating her own sound eluded her. 

As the years ticked by, doubt seeped in. Then she met Pilbrow at that fading cafe in central Auckland, and suddenly, things clicked. 

Searching for a song

When they met, Pilbrow was in a similar funk, back home from the US having grazed some very successful projects (Halsey, The Neighbourhood), but without having found an artist that really hewed to his vision. While in Elemeno P, he DJed in a pop trio called Sound of the Overground which prized the likes of Sugababes and Rihanna over the era’s critically acclaimed MIA and Klaxons. 

Since then, the trajectory of music itself puzzled him. The rise of streaming brought with it a smooth, borderless pop aesthetic which should have suited him, yet much of it sounded safe and sexless, lacking in the electric qualities which had always drawn him to the form. In his own work he started playing around with samples of tapes he got from op shops, muddying up strong melodies with distortion and noise.

He describes where his sound went as “a little bit experimental. There’s weird sounds, drones and all these wacky things. But the structures, the melodies, the chords are actually still the same.”

Living in the US, labels knew he had an original sound, and sometimes sought him out for it. Often when people got in a studio though, they wanted something more conventional. He was disillusioned with the industry and his place in it, over 40 and wondering where he was going when he returned to Auckland to care for his father. Then he met Bradley, and they found what they’d been missing in each other.

Four days until ‘Call You Out’

At lunchtime during the first bitterly cold streak this winter, I headed across the Auckland Harbour Bridge to Pilbrow’s home studio. Bradley sat on a daybed and idly sorted through a folder of imagery, Pilbrow sprawled on a swivel chair next to speakers, a monitor and a dinky little keyboard. Between the two sat a low table with some of Pilbrow’s op shop cassettes on it – Creatively Managing Pain, Sanctuary by Ana and Norval Williamson. Beyond that a table covered in mixing desks, keyboards, pedals and hard disks. Below that, more gear. Everywhere the detritus of musical life.

Some of Justyn Pilbrow’s recent discoveries (photo: Duncan Greive)

It was four days out from the release of ‘Call You Out’, but the pair seem relaxed. We talked for nearly two hours, with Bradley telling me her life story and traversing the road of disappointments that made connecting with Pilbrow such a breakthrough. They have an easy chemistry, each open and unprepossessing. Unlike most musicians, Bradley has no front. Small acts of kindness seem to floor her, as when she found herself unable to write due to the stress of a long-expired warrant and rego, before Pilbrow drove her up to the shops and paid for them.

“No one’s ever treated me like that before,” she says, sounding almost awed, her accent caught between her country of birth and the one she’s lived most of her life in.

For all the romanticised cliches about the construction of music, this here – two relative strangers, figuring it out between the analogue and digital – is how it’s mostly conducted now. Bands of friends sweating it out on stages, growing into something more, that was fading long before Covid-19. Pilbrow and Bradley’s version is exchanging muffled sound files they record onto their cassette dictaphones. At one point she plays me a recording of the automated Covid-19 announcement which played at the airport when she flew home to see family recently, one she’s considering placing into a future song.

The weather breaks. Bradley and I walk down towards the choppy grey sea nearby, a regular trek she made during the WOMb EP’s recording between May of last year and January of this one. Recently, sitting by the water, a sparrow flew down and perched on her hand. It called to mind her maternal grandfather, Derrick Baddeley, who had a bird tattooed on his arm. She was very close to him growing up – he was an accomplished accordionist, which seemed magical to her, and was devastated when he passed, not long after she moved to New Zealand. Deryk, the name she records under, is a tribute to him.

We walk back up to a simple weatherboard house alongside a church on an unremarkable street on the North Shore. For the past year it’s had strange, scratchy but sharply melodic music seeping out. Today that music ventures out into the world for the first time. The odds remain stacked against it, but the pandemic flattens all plans, and means releasing from Northcote is essentially the same as from New York.

Deryk is stuck here for now. Whether her songs can travel will be revealed in time.

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