Dan Snaith, who makes electronic music as Caribou and also, sometimes, as Daphni, is telling me about the time he turned down Rihanna.
It was 2015 and he was surfing on the success of his last Caribou album, Our Love, which had earned him his first trip to the UK top 10, a Grammy nomination and his second Juno award (the Grammy equivalent of his native Canada) for Electronic Album of the Year. Even so, he didn’t quite believe that the world’s most famous Barbadian would be interested in the likes of him.
“We’d been on tour for months, I was about to go home to my wife and kid, and I got this email from some LA management type: ‘We need you to get on a plane tomorrow,’” he says. “This was their first email! I thought I’d get there, there’d be 30 other producers in little boxes and I’d never actually meet her or have any of my music used. I have friends who’ve worked for Kanye and that made me hesitant about the whole thing.”
So he said no, Rihanna’s album Anti came out in 2016, and there she was covering a song by Tame Impala – a similarly leftfield songwriter who has had plenty of critical acclaim but might not, at that point, have been considered worthy of mixing with R&B royalty. “So then I was like, ‘Maybe it is plausible that I could have had a track on a Rihanna album – what an idiot I am!’ To some degree, obviously, this is something I regret.”
It may have had an adverse effect on his bank balance, but the incident does demonstrate his ongoing priorities: home and family. It’s something that’s increasingly finding its way into his music. He works at home in Stoke Newington, having been an honorary Londoner since he arrived in 2001 to do a PhD in Mathematics at Imperial College. On next week’s new Caribou album, Suddenly, this onetime instrumental musician, 41, puts his soft, fragile singing voice on every track, offering some highly personal lyrics.
Listen carefully to the opening song, Sister, and you can also hear a brief snippet of his mother singing a nursery rhyme. It’s taken from one of many audio recordings his English parents made when they moved to a rural area an hour south west of Toronto, to post back to his grandparents – FaceTime for families of the Eighties.
“I hope people enjoy listening to them, but these tracks were made for me,” he says. “The music is trying to discuss difficult things and process them, and it’s for my own sake. It was therapeutic.”
He’s a relaxed, interested conversationalist, holed up in his local cafe in a hipster dad sweater and the large gold-rimmed glasses of a murderer in a three-part ITV drama. He wants to discuss child-rearing tips and work-life balance, occasionally forgetting that he’s supposed to be relating all this to promoting his music.
The new album is called Suddenly, inspired by a period last summer when his younger daughter, about to turn three, had added the word to her vocabulary and begun saying it all the time. But it also refers to the changes wrought so swiftly when some of life’s big moments happen.
“There’s been a divorce in the family, a death in the family – somebody not much older than me from a heart attack. Then my dad had a health crisis that required us all to drop everything and forced me to confront the thought of how much time I have left with him. All these things have had a big impact in the last five years,” he tells me. These events also led to that title: “They’ve been these out-of-the-blue things where you get a phone call, and all of a sudden you’re living in a different reality from before you had that news.”
Those fast shifts are illustrated in the music too. While Our Love was a smooth listen, immediately appealing, and partly inspired by the birth of his first child, this time the songs jump between styles like a restless channel flipper. You and I opens with soft synth chords like an Eighties power ballad before giving way to jittery notes, fast-cut vocal samples and an unforseen squealy guitar solo. The piano on Sunny’s Time begins conventionally before the notes begin pitching woozily like a seasick Satie. Lime stops completely and becomes something so different that it had me getting my phone out of my pocket to check whether I’d pressed something by mistake. It’s a headphones record, filled with clever surprises.
“I wanted to make the last album as shiny and pop and concise as possible, buff all the rough edges and see what that would be like. But I was aware I couldn’t push that any further without losing something fundamental,” he says. “So what am I gonna do? Exactly the opposite. I love music’s eccentricities and idiosyncracies, so let’s embrace them.”
There are moments that would work in a club, especially the house beats and repeated vocal line of Never Come Back and the sunny disco of Ravi, but they’re the exceptions. His Daphni alias is for that purpose – they’re all songs he writes to play out when he knows he has a DJ gig coming up. With Caribou he isn’t generally trying to make you dance. “Not with this record, definitely not,” he says. “I’d have failed miserably if that was the intention. I always feel like I have one foot in the songwriting, band world and one foot in the electronic music world. People who are making music for a club are not generally thinking about their family life. To some extent I’m just documenting the cliched life stages – we’re in that ‘care sandwich’ right now with young children and older parents, so you’re thinking about mortality but there’s also so much happiness and joy. It would have been impossible for this album not to be about that in some sense, because that’s where I’m at.”
He could worry that fans of his production skills might not want to join him on such a personal journey, but recognises that he’s in an unusual position: having begun releasing albums almost 20 years ago, when he was calling himself Manitoba, he’s become more popular every time.
“Most bands, you could just delete the second half of their discography and nobody would mind too much. I’m in kind of a weird situation where the music people like best, for the most part, is the most recent stuff,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of shifts in genre over the years and things have worked out fine – better than fine – so it’s given me a vote of confidence to keep following my nose.”
So even during some personal upheaval, musically things are working out perfectly well. If Rihanna’s people should make contact this time, I get the feeling he’d happily turn her down again.
Suddenly is released on Feb 28 on City Slang.