d4vd is sitting in a booth at Alicia Keys’ famed Jungle City studio in New York. Surrounded by some of the most advanced recording equipment in the world, the rising star is supposed to be singing into a Neumann microphone worth $4,000. Somehow, though, it just isn’t quite giving him the sound he wants. “I was like: ‘Bro, I don’t know how to use this,’” he tells NME a few weeks later, back at his parents’ house in Houston, Texas. “I pulled out my phone and I was in the booth, in front of the mic, using BandLab!” He laughs disbelievingly, before adding that over time he did start to feel more at home in the expensively-outfitted studio. “I kind of overcame that and figured out how to work with producers and engineers,” he says. “I was trying to figure out how it is for the quote-unquote ‘normal’ artist.”
Suffice to say, d4vd is not a normal artist. The 18-year-old, born David Burke, is far from the first person to write a hit song in their bedroom, but he might just be the first to create a worldwide Top 40 hit while curled up in his sister’s closet using nothing more than a pair of EarPods and a free iPhone app. In July 2022, his heartbroken indie-rock earworm ‘Romantic Homicide’ went massively viral on TikTok on its way to racking up millions of streams around the globe.
Its success earned him a deal with Darkroom Records, home to the likes of Billie Eilish and Holly Humberstone, and paved the way for his recently released debut EP ‘Petals to Thorns’, which was also created entirely on his phone. Now, he lands on The Cover, NME’s commitment to exclusively spotlight emerging and rising artists across the globe on a weekly basis.
To begin with, all d4vd wanted was to make a couple of songs so that YouTube would stop taking down his Fortnite videos. That was November 2021. Back then, d4vd was a home-schooled video games obsessive dreaming of getting so good at online third-person shooter he could turn pro. When he uploaded his highlight videos, however, they would frequently get removed because they featured other people’s music.
“I told my mom about it, and she was just like: ‘How about you make your own music then?’” remembers d4vd. “I thought, man, the way technology is now, I could probably do that! The next day I literally just looked up: ‘How to make music on iPhone’. This app called BandLab popped up. I downloaded it, and the next day, in my little sister’s closet, no studio, no professional mic, I made my first song ‘Run Away’.”
Prior to that, d4vd had always had trouble sticking with music. His parents had encouraged him to learn piano when he was five, but he’d only kept it up for a few months. He’d lasted about as long with the flute, and he’d quit the church choir. BandLab was different. “It gave me the tools to be independent,” explains d4vd. “It made it my decision, and I love doing things that’s my decision.”
Sitting in the dark in his sister’s closet, he taught himself to piece together poetic, introspective songs using only his voice. “I didn’t know how to build instrumentals, but I knew how to use my voice so I used that to my advantage,” he says. “I would verbalise a guitar sound and then I could make it sound like a guitar. The drums I made with pencil taps on the wall. There’s not one person that feels like they can’t express themselves through music, because it’s a universal language.”
The app may have allowed d4vd to make music with no instruments, but he still had to dream up the actual songs. At the time he started out, his knowledge of popular music was still rapidly expanding. Until the age of 13, he’d only been allowed to listen to gospel music at home with his family. Everything changed one day when he was on the bus. “Somebody had a Bluetooth speaker blasting and they played Lil Pump’s ‘Gucci Gang’,” remembers d4vd. Hearing the Iggy Pop-approved viral trap single was a transformative moment. “I was like: ‘Yo, what is this? What have I been missing?’”
The discovery led him to SoundCloud, introducing him to underground rappers like Smokepurpp and XXXTentacion. Meanwhile his obsession with Fortnite videos introduced him to indie anthems such as The Neighbourhood’s ‘Sweater Weather’ and Arctic Monkeys’ ‘505’. “That’s the most common genre for montage videos,” explains d4vd. “I was like, bro, guitar? That’s the one!”
In January 2022, d4vd uploaded his second song, a jangly indie rock tune titled ‘You and I’ that could have been a major hit in the ‘90s. Instead, it was a major hit among his fellow gamers. “It took off,” remembers d4vd. “I titled the video on YouTube and Twitter: ‘I made a montage with my own song.’ That incentivised people to start using that song because it was royalty free.” The song quickly went viral, giving d4vd the motivation to keep going. “At that point I was like a little Hans Zimmer,” he says with a laugh. “Every time I made a Fortnite video, I’d make a song to it.”
Hoping to find a broader audience for his music, d4vd started uploading his songs to TikTok. At first they were jokey covers with his voice pitched up so he sounded like a chipmunk. “I didn’t know how it was going to go, so I thought: let me do what I know best, which is memes,” explains d4vd. His tactic worked, and he’d soon attracted some 500,000 followers. Then, he changed direction.
“The next post was ‘Romantic Homicide’,” he remembers. “After all the chipmunk propaganda, I dropped my original music and everybody was like: ‘Yo, is this the same guy?’ I had never shown my face at that point. When the song took off I released a live video and people were like: ‘What, he’s Black? What’s going on? Who is this guy?’”
“I wanted to make something where you wouldn’t skip one song”
Working entirely on his own, d4vd had created an audience for himself and then delivered a hit. He achieved the wildest dreams of teams of marketing executives with just a phone and his native understanding of the worlds of computer game fandom, indie music and the meme economy.
The industry scrabbled to take notice. Almost overnight, d4vd found his inbox filling up with emails from A&R scouts and curious management companies. He wasn’t sure what to make of them, and neither were his parents. “They thought it was a scam!” he says. It was only when his eventual manager took the time to talk the family through what was happening that they realised their son wasn’t being conned. “My management explained the entire music industry to my parents sitting in a Panera Bread one day,” remembers d4vd.
By the time d4vd came to put together his EP, his biggest challenge was whittling down the vast library of music he’d created to form a cohesive tracklist. Typically he’ll use BandLab to work on eight or nine songs at a time, and says he’s never once suffered from writer’s block. “I’m gonna be the 18 year-old in the room and just say it’s because I’m bored,” he explains. “If you’re living, if you’re existing, if you can breathe, that’s inspiration in itself. There are endless things to write about and I can just do it constantly. My record is, what, 10 songs? I can make 10 songs in one night.”
In the end he cut his ‘Petals to Thorns’ EP down to just nine tracks, which together chart the course of a doomed relationship from first love (romantic lullaby ‘Sleep Well’) to heartbreak (epic sad banger ‘The Bridge’). “I wanted to make something where you wouldn’t skip one song,” he says. “It took me months. I finally figured out the right placement for each track. It’s like a character arc. You get the rising action, the climax, the falling action and the resolution, so it feels complete. I really wanted to make something that felt complete.”
This EP is just the start. d4vd already has plans for an interconnected world of music and visual art, some of which will feature the blindfolded character Itami (Japanese for “pain”) who appears in his music videos. There’s a dark aesthetic that runs through his visuals and his shoot for The Cover. “It fits with the era of music that I’m in right now,” he says. “It’s very heartbreak-centred.”
Then there’s his upcoming debut tour, made all the more remarkable by the fact that when d4vd played his first-ever live show in Houston in February this year it was also the first live show he’d ever attended. “I was an audience member as much as I was a performer,” he says. “It was surreal listening to myself live for the first time, with all the instruments behind me and the live band.”
It’s a safe bet that won’t be the last surreal situation d4vd finds himself in. From Alicia Keys’ studio to stages around the world, he’s living proof that these days anyone with a phone and a great idea can make themselves heard. “It’s such a blessing that this stuff can happen now, because it’s like the first of its kind,” he says. “It’s starting to be a mainstream thing, where people that weren’t able to do this 20 years ago can now make music and make it in the industry.”
d4vd’s debut EP ‘Petals to Thorns’ is out now
Photographer: Jonathan Weiner
Grooming: Tracy Love
Stylist: Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo
MGMT: Mogul Vision