We often use an artist’s discography to map out their personal and creative evolution, and if we see an emerging artist encounter one of these pinpointed milestones in real time, it almost feels like we’re growing alongside them.
This is especially the case of Denton artist Dahlia Knowles, who performs under the moniker “Lorelei K.” Knowles released her sophomore full-length album, Lightbender, in late October, and it is her first project since her 2017 debut Be the Doll.
“Every time I tried to describe [Lightbender], it was different,” says Knowles. “The only thing I could really say is that it’s an extreme departure [from Be the Doll].”
Indeed, Lightbender is dark both thematically and sonically, and the experimental instrumentation and atmospheric production are just some of many left turns from her synth pop-influenced and comparably pristine debut. The album was also nearly two years in the making, and in that interim, personal and professional developments had drastic influence over her creativity.
After playing a long string of shows in support of the album, Knowles, a transgender woman, opted for another round of surgery. Following this procedure, she spent most of January 2018 in a rather reclusive state and under the influence of painkillers. Knowles was socially stagnant, and bouts of gender dysphoria came in waves. She had also just encountered a breakup.
She was in a dark place, and she wrote equally dark songs during this period of dormancy. This phase ended following her birthday (Feb. 25), and once it did, she went back into the studio with producer Michael Briggs and began recording.
Many of the early renderings were skeletal blueprints, but Knowles incrementally built on them in the following months. Inspiration for the subsequent add-ons came when she began further integrating herself into Denton’s noise and avant-garde scene. She met weekly with Denton experimental artist Sarah Ruth for vocal coaching, and when Ruth added her onto an event called “Improv Lottery,” Knowles was paired up with local music veteran Paul Slavens. Knowles and Slavens subsequently started a collaborative improvisational project under the name Kill the World, and the experimental duo released an EP in January 2019.
The following month, Knowles found her big break in touring with then-reunited post-hardcore outfit The Sound of Animals Fighting. It was her first tour ever, and she played to thousands of people on each tour stop. It was, in fact, a stark environmental change for an artist accustomed to shows at local DIY spots to be put onstage at legendary venues such as The Wiltern in Los Angeles, but she saw it as an opportunity to test out some developing cuts from Lightbender.
“I’m not embarrassed by it, but I don’t think it was my strongest. It could have been way more dynamic, especially for the occasion.” she recalls of the tour. “The biggest stages I’ve ever played, the biggest crowds I’ve ever played [to], and I look back and think, ‘Wow, those things should have been different.’”
As nerve-wracking as it may have been, Knowles obtained a newfound confidence following the tour, and this leap in trial-and-error further inspired her to put her best foot forward. Knowles took initiative in being a co-producer and commissioned the musical chops of fellow artists Ruth, Ava Boehme (Starfruit), Leoncarlo Canlas (Leoncarlo), Parky Lawson (Two Knights) and Garrett Wingfield (Octopod). Some of these artists have even performed alongside her in live settings.
“It makes me feel optimistic that literally the moment I dropped [Lightbender], people were ready to listen,” she says in a tone of relief. “There’s a harsh brightness to my vocals on this record that I enjoy a lot, but I can also recognize that it makes it a less consumable record, in some ways.”
She laughs, “It gets pretty violent.”
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It’s a bold record, indeed, but one that also shows an astonishing maturity. Knowles proves the extent of her vocal prowess and channels Kate Bush in the process. A dark ambiance consistently lingers over the course of the record, and it is conducive to these volatile, dynamic changes and occasionally dissonant instrumentals that evoke a sense of gloom. While the piercing and abrasive wall of sound can admittedly be a tad cumbersome at times, the gall behind such production makes the record even more audacious.
Ultimately, the blood, sweat and tears that were put into the album have paid dividends. Knowles’ fans were incredibly receptive to it, and the streaming numbers far exceeded the expectations set forth by her and Briggs. Plus, Knowles’ worst critic is herself, and even after the dust has settled, she can look back proudly at what she and her team accomplished.
“I’ve had so much time to sit with it and criticize it,” Knowles says of her new work. “I can acknowledge the flaws in it, and still say that it’s the best [work] that I’ve done.”
Lorelei K is nominated for a DOMA in the category of Best Pop Act. For tickets to our showcase on Dec. 7, or for more information, visit dallasobservermusicawards.com.