The mysterious face behind QT, Hayden Dunham returns with their debut album CLEARING, featuring contributions by A. G. Cook, Caroline Polachek, and the late SOPHIE
It’s November when I speak to Hyd on video chat and, slightly alarmingly, T-shirt weather at a time when Christmas ads are on the telly. They’re in New York. “I think we sent that cloud over to you because it was literally just 70 degrees [21°C] here,” they say. They’d recently been in the UK, celebrating their birthday in London’s Hyde Park (aptly, given their name is pronounced “hide”) with friends who all decorated their hair and clothes with flowers. “It was really sweet,” they smile.
CLEARING, their debut album, has just come out via PC Music. The sound is minimal, raw pop that embraces glitch, hyperpop, witch house and, occasionally, stirring pop hooks. Hyd’s vocal is at times unfiltered and whispering, at others processed in that commercial pop way that’s typical of the PC sound. “It’s been many years of caring for this ecosystem,” they say of the record. “But it’s also so intimate. It’s so interior. Seeing it externalised is really wild.”
On the cover of the album, Hyd is submerged in a pool of water. It’s fitting given our introduction to them was in liquid form, as the face of an energy soda, DrinkQT, back in 2014. The SOPHIE and A. G. Cook-produced “Hey QT” single, that fizzed with futuristic pop spirit, proved to be divisive – with its plasticky, capitalism-skewering feel teetering between genius and something out of a Black Mirror episode. The track’s vocals were by British singer Harriet Pittard, but Hyd was the polished and flawless face of the project. Yet, despite becoming a cult favourite, that was Hyd’s only musically-aligned release before they emerged last year with their first solo release, “No Shadow”.
That track was written after Hyd found themself temporarily blind following an eye surgery. Being in total darkness was, though, “an incredibly nourishing space for me. Which was surprising because everyone around me was terrified.” It meant that Hyd couldn’t create work in the same way as they’d previously been doing, and needed help to do things “like open[ing] the door to [their] studio”. Still, Hyd found the experience transformative. “The way that time is organised when you don’t have vision… It’s forever. It doesn’t exist. So when you go to sleep and wake up, you have no idea how long you’ve been asleep or how long you’ve been awake.”
Then one day, Hyd woke up and could see out of their left eye for 15 minutes. “It was wild to get it back, you know? Because no one thought it would come back. I think a lot of people really value what they can see, that what you see matters, and I really don’t feel that way.” They now seek out spaces of complete darkness: places in the world where there’s zero light pollution. “As often as I can, I drive to them so I can sit in total darkness – specifically on a new moon, because I really love the feeling of being held by darkness. It feels so good, I can’t even tell you. I think a lot of people who have vision really are missing out on a hugely dynamic sensory world. I think vision can be a distraction from that.”
Along with various PC mainstays and orbiting collaborators (A. G. Cook, Caroline Polachek, Ö, Danny L Harle, Jonsi, EASYFUN), one of the key producers on the record is the late SOPHIE. “She and I were together in this life as girlfriends for many years since 2011,” says Hyd. “We cared for each other in immense and profound ways, and I still feel that care. Words are such difficult containers – they really don’t translate reality. So whenever I talk about her, I don’t use words, because words can’t hold her. Music can hold people beyond their forms. Hearing her in the work, it’s very powerful. I really do believe that people can move beyond their forms and communicate beyond their physicality.”
“I really do believe that people can move beyond their forms and communicate beyond their physicality” – Hyd
Texas-born Hyd speaks carefully and animatedly – sometimes almost cyborgian-ly, QT-like – using intricate and elaborate metaphors to describe their work. As Hayden Dunham, they’re a prolific visual artist, working with materials like liquids, vapours and tar, and they have exhibited in some of the world’s largest galleries. A recent Company Gallery exhibition, Transmutation, saw them working with glass “to make a series of 11 objects that create almost like a toolkit for building a new world,” they say. They’re particularly interested in how materials transform through elements, and chemical and biological compounds.
Hyd recalls going to a volcanic field in Lanzarote with A. G. Cook and SOPHIE when they were writing album track “Trust”. “I was wearing really thick shoes and walking on the volcanic ash and it sounded like glass breaking. There’s so many materials within this album changing from one form to another: liquid becoming ice, glass shattering, enabling liquid to be free again.”
CLEARING is split into various elemental states of being: fire, ash, garden and air. For the record, Hyd interviewed firefighters about their lives and work. “It was unbelievable,” they say, talking about the “hundreds” of ways there are to put out fires, from sand to chemicals and milk. “I also learned about which plants can survive – and thrive – in fires. That was incredibly compelling, because in a larger sense we’re all in this new terrain, having to adapt into this new environment, which is incredibly turbulent.” Within ash, they explain, with a current of excitement in their voice, there can be seeds, meaning life can grow in areas of complete devastation. One of the merch items for CLEARING is a Hyd-branded water bottle fire extinguisher.
While some artists experience synaesthesia, whenever Hyd hears sound, “[they] see the material landscape that surrounds it”. “My favourite part of working on songs is listening for the temperature. On ‘Trust’, I saw a highly noxious gas, a difficult-to-breathe environment where there’s not very much air. That’s also something I’m really compelled by in music, how it can really change how you feel.” They reference their sculptural work with glass and how sensitive it is to frequencies – “it feels the sound, like us”.
“I work with music, to change – well, everything about me,” they continue. “To augment how I feel, or go deeper into my feeling. It's really a conduit and a catalyst to transform how I’m feeling.”
CLEARING is out now