Sitting on a sunny café terrace in a hillside Sicilian town, Youngr is a picture of contentment. He’s just finished soundchecking ahead of his evening slot at Ypsigrock festival, and despite having jetted in overnight from New York – “I got home at 11pm yesterday, then we had to leave again at 1am,” he says casually – he’s on bright and engaging form. The artist – real name Dario Darnell – has had something of a stellar year; after winning an EBBA at January’s Eurosonic Noorderslag festival, he’s released five singles and been booked for festivals all over Europe. An EP is up next, followed by US and South American dates – including a huge headline show in Mexico City – and a post-Christmas plan to record “a proper album”.
It’s all a far cry from the frustration he felt just a few years ago, stuck on a label where he “started putting my trust in suits” and losing direction. Darnell, now 29, grew up obsessed with the drums, and has been in bands “my whole life – ten-piece bands, pop bands, rock bands; it was all I ever wanted to do.” You might not have come across Picture Book, the electro-pop duo he formed with his brother Lorne a few years back, but you most certainly will have seen one of his famous Bootleg videos, a series of him giving various dance and indie hits the one-man-band-remix treatment. He’s since moved on to Monday Mash Ups, which resemble a crazed, live instrumentation take on what 2 Many DJs made famous in the early aughts.
Then there are his own compositions, the sort of dance-heavy pop that’s made stars of the likes of Disclosure, MNEK, and Mura Masa. “Dark euphoria” is how he describes the four tracks that make up new EP Obsession, the result of transatlantic writing and recording sessions and a desire to “find the pop song in a big dance banger”. When he takes to the stage a few hours later, there are plenty of feel good vibes; uplifting and infectious, a rich seam of joy runs through what he does, and he seems genuinely touched by the rapturous response.
“Everything is a journey,” he reflects. “And I’m very happy where I’m at right now.” As we chat, a group of giggling youths pluck up the courage to approach and ask for a photo. Darnell obliges, happily posing and chatting for a few minutes before they drift off, giddy with excitement. “That always makes me feel nice,” he says. I’m sure those kids think likewise.
DiS: So you’re doing an EP next, not an album?
Youngr: To be honest, I’ve had loads of questions about doing an EP next. I’ve only done singles over the last two years and it was fun, but I’m at a bit of a crossroads where I want to make a musical change and you can’t do that with a single. I want to put out a body of work, so it’s four or five tracks, which are just going to be an EP
What is this different musical direction? A bit rockier? A bit poppier?
It’s a bit dancier. I’ve learned a lot from our live shows because I’ve put out pop tracks within the limits of dance, but they were very pop orientated. My live shows gravitate towards these bootlegs that I do, so now I’m trying to find the balance of my own song in the bootleg. Finding the pop song in a big dance banger.
I’m very influenced by early Groove Armada, Fat Boy Slim, and Basement Jaxx, and at the moment I listen to a lot of guys like The Prodigy. They headlined Positivos Festival last year and I was just watching them going: “Ah, this is so great!” I’ve always known they were, but I’d never seen them live. I’ve been very influenced by those kind of acts, so it’s less poppy. I’m calling it ‘dark euphoria’.
How did you feel about getting the EBBA award, and do you think it made a difference in terms of your exposure in Europe and people finding out about your music?
I honestly don’t know. For me, it was just an amazing thing, like the universe giving me a little pat on the back saying: “All this hard work you’ve done, it’s paying off, but keep going; keep going on that route.”
I come into my studio and look at it and go: “Oh, that’s nice!” As for exposure, I don’t know. Maybe? You never know what the link is. Like Armada, this Dutch label, contacted me to do a remix of ‘Turn Around’ by Phats & Small, so maybe that’s how they heard of me.
Because that whole thing is about breaking borders and trying to get music out there, crossing over into different markets and audiences.
One of the places on Spotify that has my most listens is The Netherlands and all those areas, so maybe it is. Maybe the radio stations are playing a few of the tracks; I’m not there, so I don’t know. But it’s definitely a good thing that it happened.
Off the back of Eurosonic you got booked to play at numerous festivals, including here at Ypsigrock. How has the reaction been from festival crowds?
Weirdly amazing. I keep saying to people: “I don’t know where all these people are turning up from.” I played Main Square in Arras, France, Croatia at Beats For Love, and Barn On The Farm in Yorkshire; and the crowds were full! Croatia was like twenty thousand people and Main Square was like ten thousand and something. I was thinking: “Maybe I’ve just been billed in a really good place; this is a coincidence.” I don’t question it too much. They were there, they enjoyed it, the feedback was amazing, I had an amazing time, and the festivals this year have been incredible.
Tomorrowland has been on the bucket list for a while, so to play that, even though it was quite early on…It was 38 degrees when I was on stage, and the crowd weren’t shaded, they were in full sunshine. But they were jumping, they were fucking having it. Maybe they were still high from the night before. [laughs].
Was it always the plan to perform just by yourself, building the loops and playing everything? And adding live drums and singing over the top of it all?
You know, that came about through economics and money. Expensive touring versus cheap touring. Ableton decided that for me. I used to use Cubase and Ash, my brother, was like: “Yo, you need Ableton to change that.” I’ve been in bands my whole life, and I never wanted to do a solo thing, ever, but when I did this it just happened this way.
Do you think at one point you’d want to change that?
Yeah. Big time.
I can imagine there are certain limits with having to do everything yourself and you’re thinking: “It’d be so much easier if I had a bass player and a guitarist or someone on keys.”
You’re just speaking my mind right now! You know when you do a drum fill and you turn around to the guitarist and he goes: “That was sick!” I can’t do that. But where I went wrong was, I got the band in too early, whereas what I should’ve done is build the show, production, the team, the techs and all that, then when it gets to a bigger stage, you bring in the songs where you want a guitarist, the songs where you want a drummer or bassist, instead of going: “Oh, I’ve got a different show on where you can sing live; it’s a rock show.” Instead, it’s still the Youngr show, but on certain songs I have guest people coming on; even guest singers singing a hook. I tried to force my love of the band too early, I think. But there are plans!
You’ve been working with producers in New York. What're your criteria for finding people to work with? Does it come down to personalities, or more about their previous work?
Previous work? No. It’s nice to know, but it doesn’t matter because each collaboration is so different. I always base it on how comfortable I feel in the room, but you don’t know instantly. It took me three sessions with them to find out. The first one you’re trying to impress each other, trying out new things. The second one you’re working on the first song you did, and the third one you’re like: “Fuck that, let’s do something new.” That’s when we went: “Oh this guy actually gets it.”
And it was the first guy that really cared about what I did, instead of trying to make a hit or be like: “I’ve got to get this for my publishing deal.” He’d watched all my videos and listened to my stuff, and it’s really refreshing because to do everything myself… It’s nice to have a second opinion and someone to bounce ideas off.
I guess the temptation with a lot of modern pop and these super producers is: “I want this to be super catchy, I want this to be on the radio.”
Someone once said, I think it was Quincy Jones, that “as soon as money comes into the room, creativity leaves.” And I love that because it’s so true. You start talking about: “Oh, we’re going to have a quick intro for Spotify because people click off,” you think about streams, you’re thinking about numbers, and you’re not thinking about the art that you’re making.
It’s important to do the thing you want to make and then let the manager or the suits say that, but I try and make it pure. Also, it’s 2018 man, no rules apply anymore. You hear hits and you think: “What?” What are hits? Spotify top ten? Radio top ten? Download?
I don’t know. The rules have changed, haven’t they?
The rules have changed, and that is why I’m not following these rules.
I haven’t paid attention to any charts for years. Do they still exist? I suppose so, but I couldn’t tell you any recent number ones.
Exactly. So I’m just obsessed with writing music that I absolutely adore and want to share with people. It makes me feel a certain way, instead of being like: “This could be a hit on Spotify.”
In terms of where you are with your career, is this where you imagined you would be in the path? Are you happy with your progress thus far?
I am you know. It’s very rare you get a chance to reflect and go: “Wait, am I happy today? Is what I do making me happy?” I like to just pinch myself every now and then and go: “Yes, it is!” And if it’s not, you should do something about it!
I think the past two years, when I signed to Island and started putting my trust in suits and people that didn’t necessarily have my best interests at heart, that’s when it went a bit skewiff. But without that, I wouldn’t be here. I just like to stay as positive as I can and not get hung up on regret or anything like that because it’s just poisonous. And poisonous is a bad circle to get into. Everything is a journey, and I’m out here now, writing this music that I’m super proud of, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without those two years of shows that I’ve done.
So what are your next goals? What’s the plan for the rest of the year and 2019?
Well, I’ve got a South American Tour coming up, which I’m so excited about. Then I am headlining a show in Mexico, which is fucking cool. There are like six dates in South America and seven dates in the US, then Europe is in January. And I really want to work towards an album – finally! Do a proper album. For the middle of the year next year, or maybe March, April time.
But I’m excited about the music I’m making. It’s not like I wasn’t excited before or anything, it’s just there’s something to this now and I don’t know what it is. Some “je ne sais pas”, you know? So I just want to build up a show, spread positivity and love, and make people feel good; that’s my aim.
Obsession is out now via Universal Music. For more information about Youngr, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit his official website.