This is the story of how to build a band from the ground up. The Dunwells, who are about to release their second album Light up the Sky, are a quartet from Leeds whose music is intimate yet epic, and whose songs are full of headphone moments that prompt shivers, but also possess the kind of choruses that could be sung back by the crowd at them in stadiums. The Dunwells have already made an impact in America with their 2013 debut album Blind Sighted Faith—having hit singles and playing them on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, appearing at Lollapalooza and Red Rocks—but now their sights are set closer to home: to make an even bigger impact in the UK, and to become a great British band.
"Hey now, it’s been a long time coming,” sings frontman Joe Dunwell on the single "Hey Now.” "I’ve been ready for a while.”
In an era where success must seemingly come overnight—if it is to come at all, The Dunwells offer contrary proof that real success is only delivered when you’ve worked for it, when you’ve honed your craft and perfected it.
The band comprises four lifelong friends, two of whom are brothers: Joe Dunwell, singer/guitarist Dave Dunwell, bassist Rob Clayton, and drummer Adam Taylor. Dave and Rob have played in bands since childhood, while Joe, who met Adam at college, was busy noting the fun his brother was having with a guitar, and was determined to follow in his footsteps. By 13, he precociously proclaimed himself ready to start a band.
"I remember it well,” says Dave, laughing. "I was 18 years old, and I’d just come back from doing some travelling. I thought I was all grown up and mature, but there I was wanting to join forces with my younger brother, and make music with him.”
For the next few years, this is precisely what they did. They performed locally, and then nationally. It was at the Bedford Arms in London’s Balham where the fledgling four‒piece were spotted by a local promoter who saw something in them, something perhaps they hadn’t seen themselves. "He invited us to play at a festival in Memphis,” says Dave. "It was called Folk Alliance.”
The Dunwells were not a folk act then, and they remain not one now, but they did have a song that featured banjo—and this, seemingly, was all it took. "It was an opportunity,” says Joe, "and so of course we grabbed it.”
To raise the funds necessary for the trip, they played a crowdfunding show in their native Leeds alongside a good friend, Jamie Lawson, who recently had a number‒one album. It sold out, and subsequently they made preparations to fly west. Six thousand pounds later, they found themselves shacked up in Elvis’ hometown, meeting the locals and playing to a very different kind of audience—an awful lot of people wearing an awful lot of denim.
"To be entirely honest, I don’t think we felt like we really fitted in,” says Rob, smiling, "but it was an amazing experience.”
And a valuable one, too: in the crowd was their future manager who, shortly after they left the stage, offered them a deal. A few months later, they were back in the US, recording their debut album at Willie Nelson’s studio in Austin, Texas. "It was a crazy time, and very intense,” says Joe. "We had just three weeks to record the entire album.”
The result was Blind Sighted Faith, an album of considerable promise and potential. But, according to the band themselves, a potentially confusing one for prospective fans.
"There were four of us, and three of us sang the songs,” says Dave. "We loved what we were doing, and the album was a success—especially in America—but it was like we hadn’t fully found out who we were yet, what our true sound was.”
For the time being, they simply fulfilled increasing demand, and toured the US. The album’s lead single, "I Could Be a King,” reached number 28 on the Billboard charts, and number 19 on the Triple‒A charts. They played festivals, and headlined shows for up to 6,000 fans. Not bad for The Dunwells Mk I, but the band were beginning to crave a creative leap.
And so, in 2013, they returned to the UK, and started to build The Dunwells Mk II. They changed drummers, they ditched the banjo. And to all intents and purposes, they got themselves a new singer.
"Joe has always had the stronger voice,” says his brother Dave, magnanimously. "And it just made sense for one of us to sing, not three. We wanted a focal point, and Joe was always the focal point.”
This might have damaged egos in other bands, but not here, insists Dave. "There has never been an ego in this band, and we’ve always realised we are stronger as a four‒piece than we are alone. It was actually Joe who was the most resistant, initially because he didn’t want to upset me, but I think we all agreed that he was better as the frontman. He looks the part, too.”
They brought in producer Steve Harris, who has worked with U2, Kaiser Chiefs and Kodaline, as well as Dan McDougall (Aurora) who produced the single "Hurts” and tracks "Animal” and "Will You Wait For Me,” while Manny Marroquin (Haim, Sia, Taylor Swift) mixed the track "Lucky Ones.”
The results are impressive, and for a band inspired by Damien Rice, Bon Iver and elbow, it should come as little surprise that their songs are similarly wrought and meticulously crafted. Light up the Sky is an album full of melancholy ache and the power of dreams. "Writing songs that actually mean something,” says Dave, "was paramount.”
"It’s a very honest record. It talks about where we are in life, how frustrated we sometimes are, but also our happiness, some occasional sadness, and the good foundations of our home lives. It’s also about how much we want this, the sacrifices we’ve made, how ready we are.”
Emotion ripples throughout everything here, and creative frustration is a recurring theme, especially in tracks like "Lucky Ones” and "Hey Now.”
"Both of those songs stem back to 2013 in New York when we learned there would be no more singles to be released off our first album,” says Dave. "So we went from heavy promotion to next to nothing, just twiddling our thumbs and feeling very exposed. But we decided to stop reflecting on the past and to focus on right now, to put a positive spin on things, and move forward.”
Joe says that, "I think I write at my best when I’m unhappy or frustrated, or tapping into the love and passion I feel for what we are doing.” But they also write in the third person, about those around them, with great poignancy and tenderness. "Hurts” concerns a friend of theirs, a legend of Saturday nights, a drinker and bon viveur, someone whose big break lies just around a corner he never quite reaches.
"He loves his drink, but he can’t hold a girlfriend and has the worst luck,” Dave says. "But you never see it in his face; he’s the life and soul. But one day he let his heart out to Joe, and said how unhappy he was in his life. It was painful to listen to, and really affecting.”
The result is one of the most emotional songs on the album.
Perhaps the most vivid, alongside the keening "Communicate” and the gospel‒tinged "Will You Wait For Me,” is "Animal,” a song about our most basic needs.
"I don’t know if I’m allowed to love a song I co‒wrote,” says Dave, laughing, "but I love that song. Sonically, it’s completely different than anything we’ve ever done before, and even though Joe sings it in a romantic way, there is nothing romantic about the subject. It’s about lust, about wanting to have sex with someone who isn’t quite ready to have sex yet. It’s about being prepared to wait, because she is worth it, but it’s also about how we are, when it comes down to it, animal in our instincts.”
And Joe, accordingly, infuses it with the passion of someone whose veins stand out on his neck as he sings. Taking sole control of the microphone has clearly been his true calling.
"I’m not the most confident of people off stage,” he admits, "but I really feel like I belong on stage. It’s where I am most comfortable, where everything feels natural.”
On the track "The Best Is Yet to Come,” Joe sings: "We are waiting for our real lives to begin.”
They can begin now. The Dunwells are ready to take off.