Dannika: Melbourne jangle rockers offer honesty and empathy on shining debut

Dannika Horvat on taking up space, the recording of her first album ‘Gems’ and her love of the “weird messy moments”

Dannika Horvat has joined the Melbourne jangle rock mafia. The award-winning short filmmaker didn’t aspire to it, but since high school she’s socially orbited future members of Good Morning, Cool Sounds and The Ocean Party, bands that have been responsible for some of the microgenre’s great recent works. Now, she’s adding her own jangly paean to friendship to the canon: her debut album ‘Gems’ with the mononymous band Dannika.

Joining this little ‘scene’ and playing jangle was “not something I go in with the intention of achieving,” Horvat tells NME. “[But] my favourite bands are my friend’s bands, I really do love jangle. I like things being messy, I’m not someone that likes things being polished in any area of my life. The interesting stuff happens in those weird messy moments.”

Where ‘Gems’ diverges from its contemporaries is unfurnished honesty. Horvat skips the place-made charm achieved by name-checking Melbourne streets, instead using untidy arrangements to frame cathartic confessionals with more universal appeal than say, Courtney Barnett’s ‘Depreston’. The effect is personal yet pervasive feeling.

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The Dannika band have a serious jangle pedigree too. The primary members of Good Morning (Liam Parsons and Stefan Blair) and Paul Ceraso give the music a rickety groove, almost threatening to detune too much but always holding in place for Horvat’s inventive vocal melodies. Her voice has a slight husk but a pop brain: think Angel Olsen, with Karen O’s disregard for grace.

Dannika Horvat debut album Gems Good Morning Melbourne jangle rock
Credit: Matthew Stott

When NME meets Horvat in a Brunswick cafe, post-Melbourne’s lockdown, she’s effervescent with joy at getting a tram for the first time in almost a year to get there (“I love commuting!”). She’s happy talking about her debut album too, a document that reveals more shades of her personality than the coy romance of Dannika’s first EP, ‘For Peaches’.

“My demeanor is generally pretty smiley, but often apologetic. I don’t like taking up space, I barely like sitting down on the tram ’cause I feel like I should leave the seat free for someone else. There’s a side of me that doesn’t want to take up any space, but there’s also a side of me that’s like ‘fuck you man, get out of here’,” Horvat laughs.

The difference between the EP and the album is six years: the jump in maturity from age 22 to 28. The twee sentiment hasn’t totally vanished – ‘Gems’ is named for Horvat’s favourite snack, potato gems – but the opener ‘Horses’ sets the dominant theme with a rhetorical question about emotional labour: “How do horses carry people on their back? / Nobody asked them / But they went ahead and did it anyway”.

“I feel like people think it’s selfish to fill themselves up, but it’s the best thing you can do for the people around you,” Horvat explains. “If you’re having a shitty day and you walk past somebody who has dropped their bag and their shit is all over the pavement, you’re not going to be able to bend down and help them because you’re too busy thinking [about yourself]. But if you’re having a good day, and someone’s having a shit one you’re far more inclined to help that person.”

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That quotidian epiphany guides the record’s exploration of friendship, grief and love. To what do we owe our friends? Horvat says she owes them everything. The songwriter was a singer from early childhood, loving pop music like Destiny’s Child but knowing she didn’t have the range to sing it. She first met Parsons, Blair and Ceraso in late high school, and slowly began to identify as an indie muso herself. They formed a covers band called The Drawing Club, the turning point being when Ceraso and Parsons asked her to join so they could cover The xx’s ‘VCR’.

“I was like, ‘oh yeah, I love that song, absolutely’. But I’d never heard that song. They were a lot cooler than I was! I went home, Googling, listening to the song over and over again,” Horvat remembers.

Impostor syndrome struck early for Horvat, after a demoralising experience in a high school music class where a lack of music theory knowledge left her self-conscious. “It was full of all of these dudes with their instruments who are real mathematical music people who are brilliant, but I did not fit that mould. I was just a singer. There was something about that, that felt a little bit silly,” she said.

“I’m not someone that likes things being polished in any area of my life. The interesting stuff happens in those weird messy moments”

While Horvat went to university to study film, Parsons and Blair formed Good Morning in 2013, the bedroom pop band making an unexpected splash in the scene with shoutouts from US rappers Tyler, The Creator and A$AP Rocky. Horvat concurrently made her name in the arts with the 2014 short film The Summer Of ABC Burns. In the unnerving 13-minute film, two young schoolgirls blackmail each other over their nascent queer sexualities, often through a game in which they scratch the other’s skin. Some of Summer was autobiographical; Horvat shows NME the faint splotch of a scar on her hand to prove it.

Impostor syndrome followed Horvat when she decided to try music again – “I didn’t want to seem like someone who has too many interests and not enough understanding of any of them” – and so the compromise was bass guitar.

“When I decided to buy a bass and teach myself, it was because I thought, ‘I can handle three strings’.” Horvat pauses, and palms her forehead. “Four strings, my god! I can handle that, that’s not too scary. I think that also helped me feel like less of an impostor – to have an instrument.”

Horvat sketched the songs that would become the rough-hewn frame of the ‘For Peaches’ EP and showed it to Parsons, who immediately asked her to record an album. Five years later, with a gap in Good Morning and Ceruso’s prolific release schedules, Dannika returned with greater purpose to make ‘Gems’. More hi-fi recording sessions were booked in an appointment-only piano repair shop in Preston in July 2019 – only for Horvat to come down with a nasty illness the night before.

In words that echo the oft-quoted COVID-dinner party caution from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, the singer-songwriter explains: “We had a party the night before where there was a karaoke mic. One person was sick and then everybody used the mic by the end of the night and everybody got sick.”

Horvat recorded many of the vocals on ‘Gems’ sitting down, with a microphone up to her face and a water bottle in hand. But the mess was part of the slap-dash approach that created its charm – Horvat vetoed rerecording the song ‘Friends’ after they caught the ambient sounds of trams passing by the street outside in one take.

“Songs are just a moment in time. That moment just had that little scratch or div in it,” she says.

The resulting record is a triumph of self and communal experience. ‘Too Good’ pivots from Horvat’s kiss-off to bad relationships to speaking on behalf of her whole group of friends: “I’m too good for you… we’re too good for you”. The jolty pop of ‘I Don’t Wanna Be With Anyone’ could be read as a giddy love song, but Horvat wrote it for herself in a diatribe against singlism, reflected in the homespun solipsism of the music video.

“I feel like a lot of the time people think they have to apologise for being on their own. I think that’s bullshit,” she scoffs.

“There’s a lot of love songs about hetero relationships, nuclear families and there’s less about other kinds of love… ‘Gems’ is lots of different love songs really, for different kinds of feelings.”

Dannika’s ‘Gems’ is out now via Spunk Records and Osborne Again. Dannika launch the album with Snowy Band at the Northcote Social Club on February 5

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