There’s something truly electrifying about a singer/songwriter poised at the piano. Guitarists bring the heat, horn players the punch. But pianists bring the dazzle and, very often, the soul.
Witness Dahlia Fernandes and her extraordinary new EP Shift, released under the name DAHLIA. Over five effervescent, adroitly constructed songs, Fernandes manages to break your heart and send it soaring in about equal measure. As she notes, the EP is “an alternative indie-pop record that thematically revolves around love, pain, and hope.”
Fernandes’ position as one of the most versatile songwriters on the scene is firmly established via collaborations with stars including (but not limited to) hip-hop head Rich Kidd (Drake, Busta Rhymes, K-os), R&B writer/producer Roy Hamilton III (Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, N'Sync), and America's Got Talent finalist Stacey Kay.
Yet as impressive as those marquee connections are, the big story is the two-years-in-the-making Shift and Fernandes’ thrilling performances on songs like the exquisitely sorrowful “Broken” which wraps the singer’s iridescent voice around a shimmering chronicle of shattered love.
At the other end of the spectrum is the cartwheeling, propulsive “Dreamlova,” which bobs along on a flotilla of saxes before giving way to Fernandes’ winsome whistle which sounds as though it was recorded for a 1950s-era romantic comedy.
Breezy first single “Back to The Days,” meanwhile (co-written by Fernandes, Steve D’Angelo and the EP’s producer Nick Name) is a giddy, knock-kneed, piano-goosed cut of pure pop buoyed by a dynamic string arrangement and hand-claps. Listening to the song, you’d never know it was a tricky one to write.
“We had four songs and were trying to make a fifth song fit,” the ebullient Fernandes confirms. “And it just wasn’t happening. Me and Steve (Emmy-winning partner and composer at Toronto music supervision and composition depot Eggplant Collective) kept re-writing it. We finally asked Nick for help and he brought the hook and brought it home.
“By contrast ‘Wash Away’ wrote itself,” she continues. “My ex-husband and I had just finalized our divorce — it was a very tumultuous relationship — and I went into the studio with Roy Hamilton III (grandson of legendary Chicago jazz singer Roy Hamilton) and that song just poured out. Swoosh! At the time, Roy and I were writing songs with the intention of pitching them to other artists. But when ‘Wash Away’ was done, I was like ‘I have to keep this for myself.’”
At Shift’s core is Fernandes, a self-taught pianist whose spiritual connection to notable others (think artists named Tori, Kate, Fiona, Carole) makes her music at once instantly accessible yet utterly unclassifiable.
Like raising your face to the morning sun, hearing Shift brings warmth, light, and innate joy. Also, astonishment that one musician could conjure so many moods and sonic textures in a five-song span.
“When we finally felt the record was ready, we went to the king of mastering, João Carvalho, who thought it sounded pretty close to mastered already with only a few tweaks remaining. Hence the shared credit on the EP with Nick Name.”
Fernandes is quick to credit others for Shift’s breadth and style, notably producer Name who had a hand in almost every aspect of the EP’s creation from writing to mixing to mastering. More than that, Name helped Fernandes channel her wildly diverse inspirations into a cohesive whole.
“I have a lot of very old-school influences: Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, Paul Simon, Everly Brothers and, more recently, SIA, Feist, and Florence Welch. So, it was essential that I work with a producer who could make the songs sound relevant,” says the peripatetic Fernandes, who was born in Mumbai and moved with her family from Dubai to Toronto in the late 1990s.
She continues: “Nick was essential in that regard. For example, he put a hip-hop beat at the bottom of ‘Dreamlova’ and then we tracked real horns which gave it a throwback feel. Even so, I would expect to find this record filed under pop.”
And while Fernandes is a riveting performer in her own right, she insists her status as an in-demand songwriter-for-hire — one who writes chords and lyrics simultaneously, no less — has beneficial blowback on her own stuff.
“Collaborations help me become fuller and wider as an artist because I am able to live these different personalities,” she says. “I can write a country song without having to be a country artist but that influence on me is there. Similarly, I wrote a super-pop song that Ana Golja, the singer/actor from Degrassi: Next Class, picked up.”
That song, “I Feel So Good,” was featured in the 2016 young adult TV movie Full Out which aired on NBC, Family Channel, Netflix, and others. Other achievements to date include singing an original co-written song for dignitaries attending the Global Change Initiative at Toronto City Hall in 2015.
More recently, Fernandes inked a music supervision and licensing deal with the beforementioned Eggplant Collective where she joins a luminous artist roster.
“You always have more time to write when you’re gloomy,” Fernandes says. “When you’re happy, you are out cycling or walking on the beach. That’s why I have more sad songs in my repertoire. Sitting at the piano is therapy for me. But even my saddest songs have a hopeful twist.
“All the songs on the new EP talk about conquering hardship but they’re also about love. It’s a reflection of my personality,” Fernandes howls. “No matter how shitty things get, at the end of the day, it’s all good.”
Dahlia is currently enjoying her exciting musical journey and promoting her new release as well as her recent nomination into the "Best Singer-Songwriter" Category this year at The 13th Annual Toronto Independent Music Awards.