SOUND & DRIVEN | Road Listening with Victoria Monet and D’Mile
In an age when artists are refining musical tracks with swiftly uploaded samples on digital tools, Californian singer and songwriter Victoria Monét is more moved by the anima of live instruments and how the listener can sense the human within them. “I’ve always been drawn to strings and horns and just things that feel like there’s a spirit behind them playing.” She would know as she was surrounded by side table harmonicas and relatives playing live music at family gatherings. Her Sacramento childhood consisted of afternoon BBQs replete with sessions of grandpa on saxophone, though she also credits her mother’s taste in music for developing her own. “She had a very diverse palette of music. She was listening to everything from [Puerto Rican singer] Elvis Crespo to Mariah Carey Christmas albums. Like it was just all over the place,” she laughs.
Victoria’s frequent collaborator, blockbuster Brooklynite songwriter and Producer, Dernst ‘D’Mile’ Emile II, similarly recalls his own family’s tradition of music. “Whether it was my mom listening to some soul or even Caribbean music. Or my dad heavy in jazz and me growing up during the rap era, music’s been around me like all my life. My dad and my mom are musicians, and my dad still teaches.” His debut production was on Rihanna’s 2005, Music of the Sun, for which he also co-wrote the Song, “That La, La, La”. With a debut like that, he would go on to produce songs and albums for a trajectory of luminaries. Among them, Mary J. Blige, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberland and Justin Bieber.
Victoria and D’Mile met up with our Sound & Driven team to talk about their collaborative music making while driving —and listening— in a Porsche Taycan 4S Cross Turismo on a shining autumn day. While they were getting comfortable and tooling with controls, they talked about their affinity for working with one another. Was it instant chemistry?
“I think the way that whole thing started off, that first session we ever had together, that was the beginning of the rest of our lives, if you will,” D’Mile heartfully chuckles. Before Victoria adds her own thoughts about what makes their professional relationship tick, “I love working with him because he’s a musician and his ear is perfect. Whatever crazy idea I have, he’s willing to try it. And the things he wants to explore, I’m willing to try.” Their creative methods are obviously productive, but they both also credit their respective faith in divine inspiration. Victoria explains, “I honestly feel like for me, the whole studio process is pretty spontaneous. I come with a blank slate. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It just kind of allows for, you know, it allows for God to speak through me.” When describing his musical journey, D’Mile similarly defines it as “really God’s work, like he’s really just had my back through it all, you know?”
Los Angeles boulevards breeze past when Victoria’s track, “Moment” from her EP Jaguar comes to life on the Porsche speakers launching them into a reverie about recording the song. “When we worked on “Moment”, there were a couple of us in the room. Me, Victoria, my boy Tim Suby, who co-produced, and we were just kind of putting ideas together. I remember Tim playing a little loop that he’d made, and I was instantly like, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ I started picking up instruments, he started adding stuff and then this thing that Vicky does every time the juices are flowing happened. She starts pacing back and forth.”
Pacing. That doesn’t normally bode well. But D’Mile is quick to expound on Victoria’s artistic bent.
“When you see that, she’s writing. She writes in her head. Like I never see her write anything on paper. So, while we were working on “Moment”, I saw her pacing from the corner of my eye and I knew we were on track.” It’s the kind of psychic connection you read about in band biographies. One can feel the filial energy over the booming bass as D’Mile explains their ongoing connection. “That’s my fam. That’s like my sister, you know. Me and Vicky have known each other for years. I’ve always been a fan. I’ve seen her grow and we’ve worked on and off pretty much since the beginning.”
While the chatter continues at an admirable clip, it’s barely audible since the car test is in full effect. As the sun begins to set over the Hollywood sky, they discuss the car test which is of course, well-known to them both. Victoria explains her relationship to the infamous rubric. “At the end of the day (or night, whenever you’re in the studio), the engineer will give you a bounce, which is the mp3. When they give you this bounce, you connect it to your car on Bluetooth and listen on the drive home. That’ll tell you everything you need to know. When you’re in the studio, in that environment maybe people are hyping you up, like you’ve created a masterpiece but then when you get in your car on the way home, you’re like, ‘Ugh, I don’t know, maybe not,’ but if you love it and you run it back a couple times, you probably won.”
That is one of the best things about the car test: being able to run it over and over. Whether it’s because you just can’t get enough or because you need to sleep on it. D’Mile makes the point that often a musician’s senses are too fatigued after hours-long recording sessions. “Your ears get tired. What I like to do is maybe wait a day. One to see if you still like it, and two to see if it feels good. A lot of people listen to music, maybe for the first time in the car. I do it all the time. Like I blast my music in the car,” he laughs before adding, “but I listen to it on every level, mix-wise, from every speaker, for how it’s hitting.”
It’s that kind of precision that keeps musicians clamoring to work with him. But Victoria speaks to her personal reasons for keeping him close on her projects. Is it the fluency with instruments? Or his knack for knowing the exact right person to get into the studio? “It’s the results,” Victoria tells him. “There are so many reasons why I like working with you and one of them is the final product. Another is your taste. There are a lot of musicians in the world and so many talented people, but there’s something about your taste. I feel like you have the whole checklist, the whole package.”
Theirs is a friendship and creative relationship that makes it feel as if they never really have a day of work. “I love just how easy it feels. For me that’s important because once I start feeling like work, then…” They both break into a knowing laughter before their other track, “Ass Like That,” picks up and it’s back to listening while reminiscing. “Honestly, I feel like there’s some connection with me and volume and speed,” says D’Mile. “We never really drive in the car together or do the car test together,” he notes.
“Blast it. Yeah. Blast it!” they alternately direct before D’Mile concludes the Porsche Taycan 4S Cross Turismo listening trip.
“Yeah. It definitely passes. Fire sound.”