Interview and Photography by Joana Meurkens
Dwany, is a first generation American-New York born singer/songwriter who is ready to introduce himself to the music world. Coming from a background of acting and musical theater, Dwany is an artist whose voice carries the emotion from the likes of Whitney Houston and Frank Ocean. Dwany and Artistic Director Joana Meurkens, sit down and talk about the relationship between spirituality and music and how isolation during quarantine inspired creativity and emotional freedom. His upcoming EP, “The Illuminated Man” which he wrote and co-produced is set to release in January 2021, the first of many projects from this inspiring artist.
Tell us your name/age/where you’re from…give us a little introduction!
My name is Dwany and I am eighteen years old. I am from New York City, specifically Washington Heights/ The Bronx. I am a singer/songwriter and actor, and I am releasing my first project, period.
What’s your cultural background?
I’m a first generation American and my parents are from the Dominican Republic.
How does your cultural background influence your art?
I think my cultural upbringing influences my art in the sense that Dominican culture is very musical and communal. When you’re at a Dominican party, it’s just a straight vibe. From a young age I’ve had a sort of freedom when it comes to approaching singing, acting, and dancing because it was never taken so seriously in my household, but it was very much appreciated which made it a comfortable space to explore.
Would you say there is a genre that you feel represents you as an artist? Or do you think you’re moving through the motions of exploring different ones?
I’m for sure moving through the motions. When you upload music you have to pick a genre so they can categorize it and I find that to be the hardest thing to do. I usually end up picking pop and R&B because that’s the most blanket statement genre. When it comes to making music, I think I make what I’ve always wanted to hear. I’ve always been really interested in big intense harmonies and how to play with that. Whenever I make music I really want to milk those harmonies and make them shine.
Who is “The Illuminated Man”?
The Illuminated Man is you, me, and everyone. I had specific people in mind when I was writing it, but since it’s a story about heartbreak I didn’t want to villainize anyone because I felt that would’ve only kept it in my perspective. As I was writing and I saw the things this person had done to me that I didn’t like, I realized that I had done similar things to other people. I wanted everyone to identify with all people in this situation, because everyone has had their heartbroken, but there is a lot that goes into that.
For those who don’t know, we know each other because we grew up doing theater together. We grew up in this very intense environment. Your music sounds very theatrical in the sense that it is asking for large orchestrations and there are so many rich harmonies. Do you feel like theater and the acting that you do influences your sound?
100%! I think it’s way more subconscious then I would have imagined. A lot of my theater training is muscle memory. I have a habit of doing certain things when it comes to making art because of the way I was trained. I don’t think I would’ve done this project if it weren’t for my theater training because my training opened me up as a person and therefore opened me up as an artist.
Your album isn’t at all musical theater, but it is interesting to hear the drama of it all. I can hear the need to express and the deep rooted storytelling within all of the different styles of music that you bring into this album. There are many different styles of music in the album that are clearly a part of you.
The biggest thing I thank my theater training for is my ability to tell a story. There are so many singles and fast produced music that don’t really stick emotionally. Even if something is lit as fuck, it’s much more powerful when you can feel the artists emotions in the music. My theater background helped me not just focus on the production elements, but figure out why I wanted specific notes to be incorporated into the music and what the music added to the story. I owe all that to my ultimate theater brain.
You recently turned eighteen. Do you think there is a connection with you having that landmark birthday/ coming of age moment and the creation of ‘The Illuminated Man”?
Absolutely! 2020 was crazy for everyone and my birthday was in quarantine. The first 2 months that we got in 2020 were life changing, and the big events that inspired this album happened in those two months. And then lockdown happened, I turned 18 and I graduated. So much was happening at the same time and I had such strong feelings about these drastic changes in my life. There were no real answers to what I was doing. The Illuminated Man was my outlet for this weird time of transition and limbo.
“Spirituality is my music making process. It almost feels like when a song is genuine, like Azrael, it felt like I didn’t write it. It felt like I channeled a message.”
Back to influences…. I love hearing voicemails on albums (which is done in Track 6, Arielle’s exit). If it’s done well and with purpose, then it really brings a beautiful personal element to the music. I feel like that’s a super SZA thing, and I for sure heard that influence in this album. Were there any other artists that you found yourself pulling influence from?
My first one is Jill Scott. She has a chill vibe that I wanted to portray for the song “Still with the Team”. My two overall major influences are Frank Ocean and Brent Faiyes. For my entire life, I always felt more connected and drawn to female musicians and their energy. And I think that has to do with the amount of freedom that women were allowed to have in their music with their femininity. But when I hear Frank Ocean or Brent Faiyes, those are two men that I feel I can genuinely relate to.
One of the things that makes Frank Ocean such a great artist is his ability to capture vulnerability, which is something relatively uncommon for male artists. I think he is a contemporary icon for this reason. Especially in terms of sexuality and gender expression, Frank Ocean really gave audiences something that was missing in the mainstream for Black men.
One reason I didn’t make music for a long time was because I feared lack of originality. I was so scared that people would think I’m a copycat, but I think that all of these people influenced me in finding my honest sound. All of a sudden I was making music very innocently and honestly. I remember the moment when I found my sound and I realized that I didn’t really sound like anyone else, and that moment was really important to me.
“I spent so much time making other people’s art that I didn’t know how intoxicating and exhilarating it was to make your own shit and express yourself fully.”
Growing up around people who do really amazing art can also add to that fear because there is this voice in the back of your head being like “oh damn what if people think I’m a poser,” even though it’s not true. I also think that being young, finding your own sound and being confident in that is really powerful. It takes a really long time for people to find that, and now it’s just a matter of putting all of those external pieces together to support that sound. Now it’s all about collaborating to elevate your ideas, which is very exciting.
Yes totally! When it comes to this project, the way that I approached making it was that I wanted to teach myself how to literally make music on my computer. I was using all of these draft songs that I had already written and I started mixing them then all of a sudden it became this whole thing. One thing I’m really proud of is that this is my first time producing and mixing vocals. It’s weird because I had never done any of that shit and I absolutely loved doing it. I unlocked a new level of myself in this process. I spent so much time making other people’s art that I didn’t know how intoxicating and exhilarating it was to make your own shit and express yourself fully.
Being a theater trained actor can break you sometimes because it’s such a tough world to exist in, especially as a Black person. It can be very draining to be so heavily involved in other people’s stories and having to make it so personal while making it honest and authentic. So to be able to put all of that energy inward and think, “who am I as an artist?” is something that can be very hard to do as an actor. It can be really hard to know who you are as an artist versus what you bring into a room.
It’s a maturing experience. The relationship between being a healthy mentally sane person and being an auditioning actor is very difficult.
In your album I felt a lot of themes of spirituality. How does spirituality, in whatever sense, influence your artistry and your process?
Spirituality is my music making process. It almost feels like when a song is genuine, like Azrael, it felt like I didn’t write it. It felt like I channeled a message. It was flowing through me and I was just writing a bunch of shit down on a page without really being present. When I experienced that it was something so spiritual, I felt like it was coming out of thin air and I could claim the words as my own because they were. After that first experience I started getting more intune with my spirituality in terms of music. I wanted the emotion to be tangible in my singing.
You have that power in the timber of your voice. Your voice carries so much emotion already and I feel like harmonies (that are all you) really channel the emotions. Your voice carries through.
Since the EP can get very sad very fast, I didn’t want the audience to be left with a sense of sad uselessness. I wanted to have some kind of message of hope. My way into that was through spirituality because that is what I am the most connected to.
Who are some artists/musicians that have influenced you throughout your whole life?
The top two are Whitney Houston and Beyonce because, duh. When I was little my father took me to a record store and bought me a bag full of albums that he thought I needed to know as a functioning human. In that bag was Whitney Houston’s greatest hits. I listened to it so much that I actually burned the CD and I couldn’t listen to it anymore. Her power and voice is just so amazing, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to be. When Beyonce started coming into my life (it was around the 4 album), I felt that power again but it almost felt more relatable because she was dancing and really doing her thing. She made me feel like I could really do it all.
Currently I’ve been really into Doja Cat, Mac Miller, Blood Orange, The Smiths, and Rosalia.
Are there any artists (non-musicians) that influence you?
I came up with The Illuminated Man, after I went to the JP Morgan museum and saw a painting called “The Illuminated Man” by Duane Michals. In this photo his face is completely over exposed, as to be a ball of light. It was like the entity that you would imagine God or the universe to be. I was so blown away and also confused because I was so drawn to it. I started to think about his relationship to me, which is when I connected it to what I was going through in my life. When I saw that portrait I was like, who is the illuminated man to me and why do I feel so connected to him? Once I figured that out, it was done from there. That image was the pure inspiration behind The Illuminated Man.
Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
This time has taught me so much and I think that without quarantine I wouldn’t have done it because I had so much time to think and process. I’m really looking forward to the EP being released and the opportunity to work with new producers to bring the production quality to a new level.
Listen to “Azrael” here:
“The Illuminated Man” will be released in January 2021.
Connect with Dwany: https://www.instagram.com/dwanyyyy/