Legendary Fashion Muse Daphne Guinness Talks About Her New Album
Apr. 27, 2016
“I had had enough of funerals,” says Daphne Guinness. We’re sitting in The Carlyle’s glamorous red-velvet-upholstered Gallery, and Guinness is, appropriately, conspicuously all in black. “I was coming to terms with everything – right, ok, this has happened, what are you going to do? Can you wallow in it, and go to more funerals, or can you turn it into something creative?”
The creative something she’s referring to is her debut album, Optimist in Black, a two-year project due out next month. It may seem like a bit of an unexpected turn to outsiders, but to Guinness, settling into music was a natural progression. “Music was always my life, I was always singing in the bathroom, I was always writing poetry,” she says. In a Burroughsian move, Guinness transformed her poetry into fourteen new songs, cutting lines both from her diary and old poems and tacking them to her walls, rearranging and rearranging until she found a good fit. “It’s great, because you’re not writing prose, and it’s not an autobiography, but it’s more difficult in a way, because it’s poetry, and music is even more difficult because you’re having to scan it into a musical line,” she says. Luckily for her, she was aided by the legendary producer Tony Visconti, who also fitted her with a backup band for authenticity. “Working with real musicians is a different thing. You want to have real strings. I prefer to have human people. I insist on everybody being real!” she says.
Though this is her album debut, it’s not her first foray into music. Four years ago, filmed by longtime friend and collaborator Nick Knight (who also shot the music video for “Fatal Flaw”, a single off the album), she performed in a series of operatic clips for Parisian grand magasin Le Printemps; in one such clip, she delivers a haunting rendition of “L’ho perduta, me meschina” from Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro accompanied by nothing but a piano, her voice reaching extraordinary heights.
While many artists delay delving into such deeply and openly personal material until later in their careers, Daphne Guinness is not one to hold back. The album’s titular track, “An Optimist Dressed in Black” is perhaps the heaviest in tone, referencing her departed friends Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, to whom the album is dedicated. “I’d thought I’d actually been quite elusive about what that was about,” she says, originally considering a different title. But amidst the weight of loss, Guinness’ ethereal voice floats through: “They made for the exit/The shining light of the exit/But I remain unchained/An optimist dressed in black.” It’s a melancholic tune, but remains upbeat enough to maintain a sense of movement. Here, Guinness’ lack of vocal training is an asset; the rawness of her voice is that of a woman who has braved extraordinary loss, and doesn’t simply endure, but remains strong.
While working, she found solace in the likes of David Bowie, who himself passed away during the album’s post-production. She calls him a great mentor but is reticent to speak about him further; it’s too big a loss, too soon, too personal. “‘An Optimist Dressed in Black’ is the black hole in the middle [of the album],” says Guinness. “I think it’s the most depressing song that anybody has ever written.”
But Optimist in Black isn’t all sadness and melancholy. In “No Armageddon,” Guinness delivers rock and roll tunes; “Fasten your seatbelts,” she flippantly directs, before launching into a jumble of drums and electric guitars. And the playful “Evening in Space” is a Bowie-esque delight, replete with opulent visuals in the David LaChapelle-directed film. But through the fun, the lyrics still strike a serious note; the chorus “I spent an evening in space, man/Feel like an alien/Far from ecstasy/In a parallel reality”, alludes to feelings of mistaken identity, like an outsider, and yet so firmly in the public eye.
As we discuss the music of today, Guinness relates one such incident of that same sense of disconnect she sings about. “I switched on the telly the other day and saw ‘Pop Idol’ or something. Weird! So weird,” she says. “A friend was talking about this ‘X Factor’ -”
She leans in. “It’s a reality show, isn’t it?” she asks sotto voce. I confirm. “I thought it was… I was like, ‘you’re 17! Stop watching porn!'”
She sighs. “I am so uncool,” she says.
“But it’s astonishing to me that that’s music today. What we’re ending up with is manufactured pop that’s been put through a machine like a sausage, and what’s the point?” she says. Say what you will about her album, but manufactured pop it is not. And she allows for its imperfection: “I feel deeply that it’s a work in progress and I’m not giving up until I die,” she says, already moving on to a second album.
I ask her if this album is a message of hope; that she can remain an optimist, resilient in the face of loss. “Hope? I don’t know,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t know whether I hope that this happened or not. I wish I still had my friends.”
“Why do they all die?” she says. Then a sigh. “The optimist in black.”