May/June 2021

by Sam Smith

Sheep, Dog & Wolf: Finding The Strength

by Sam Smith

Sheep, Dog & Wolf: Finding The Strength

It has been eight long years since Daniel McBride released music as Sheep, Dog & Wolf. His first album, 2013’s ‘Egospect’ won instant local acclaim on its release, earning the then 19-year old McBride the (since defunct) Critics’ Choice Prize, judged to be that year’s future success-bound artist. With detailed orchestral arrangements and layered vocals his experimental pop came blended with new jazz and electronica. Sam Smith caught up with McBride to talk over his return to music.

Characterised by dense instrumentation, unusual time signatures and prodigious vocal layering the complex self-recorded Sheep, Dog & Wolf debut album even turned heads internationally, landing McBride a European tour and glowing coverage from various international music press. Among a diversity of praise, The Guardian notably referenced McBride as a ‘young Sufjan Stevens’.

At the time when Lorde was storming global charts, Sheep, Dog & Wolf was widely tipped to become one of New Zealand’s next international breakout stars. Instead McBride disappeared, seemingly withdrawing from music and the music industry for the best part of a decade. In 2021 he has re-emerged, releasing a second Sheep, Dog & Wolf studio album, a brave exploration of mental health titled ‘Two-Minds’.

What prompted this apparent career-jinxing hiatus just when overseas success beckoned? Things were initially going to plan and, alongside studying for a degree in computer science his sophomore album was recorded, again in his Wellington home studio, during 2016. But then, as he explains, a series of major life events intervened to postpone the release indefinitely.

“After recording ‘Egospect’ I had a period of pretty bad physical and mental illness, with depression and anxiety coinciding with a period of chronic sinusitis. It was really nasty, and I was just exhausted all the time and couldn’t do anything.”

McBride very candidly says the root of his mental illness was down to the financial onus he was placing on his music and the pressure to turn it into a career.

“I was coming to my music with the idea that it needed to be something that could make me money and be financially viable. This kind of completely ruined it for me and ruined my connection with music for a while.”

What he didn’t know was this was just the start of what would become an eight-year gap between releases, with two more life situations pushing his music career to one side.

“My dad got a cancer diagnosis and was given, at the time, three months to live. I dropped everything and moved from Wellington to Auckland to live with my parents.

“I took a year off focusing on that, and finally, after a while, I thought I was ready to release the album. But then I got assaulted in the street, which resulted in me getting a really bad concussion and being temporarily deafened in one ear. I needed a year to fully recover from that.”

The Covid-19 pandemic then hit, and McBride admits he was not even sure he now wanted to release the music he had finished in 2016.

“At certain points, I was like, ‘I wrote this a number of years ago, do I even want to release this?’ But every time I felt like that I would listen to the songs again and I was still proud of them, I still wanted people to hear these.”

That almost decade-long gap also played on McBride’s mind and the thought appeared, ‘Would people still care about him or his music?’

“When you have moderate local success with an album, and then it is like eight years before you release another thing, why would I assume anyone would care anymore? I definitely did worry about that and I think it is hard to deny that not releasing something for eight years is not great for your music career.”

Inevitably ‘Two-Minds’ is a more mature album than ‘Egospect’ and reveals further growth as an artist.

“I am always going to love maximalist orchestration, and polyrhythms and big vocal harmonies, and so it has that. But I think there is also a lot more room for space on this album and a lot more angularity and sparseness in some places. I think ‘Egospect’ was very excitable and all over the place and lyrically naïve in a wonderful teenage way, but ‘Two-Minds’ feels like a big step forward for me.”

Although the recognisable original Sheep, Dog & Wolf sound still features heavily, McBride mentions he was influenced by electronic music and RnB while writing of the album.

“I don’t really have a consistent sound. It is kind of just whatever I feel like writing at the time, which is informed by whatever I happen to be listening to at the time. On here I was listening to a lot more electronic stuff and a lot of RnB, like FKA Twigs and Kelela, but also stuff like Floating Points and Jon Hopkins and Nicolas Jaar. It’s like a clashing together of everything I like to listen to.”

Again McBride plays all of the instruments on the record, from piano to French horn, saying it is a way of allowing him to continually improve as a musician.

“Through the process, I get to learn so many instruments. I like to write parts that I actually cannot play yet, especially on instruments I cannot play yet because it gives me a really good excuse to spend time improving on that instrument and getting to a new level of skill.”

Lyricism was a stronger focus for McBride on ‘Two-Minds’ as well, something he admits paying less attention to earlier, even going as far as masking his vocals so listeners could not work out what he was singing about.

“I didn’t feel proud of my lyrics. I tried hard with them, but I wasn’t the kind of person who listened to lyrics a lot in music. But between ‘Egospect’ and ‘Two-Minds’ that changed quite a lot. I put a lot more time and thought into lyrics with this album and especially into being really honest and frank with them. Lyrically, I have come a long way and I am not ashamed to show them to people now.”

Indeed the lyric writing process proved beneficial in that he was able to explore his own personal struggles with mental illness, likely the biggest factor contributing to the album being delayed.

“This record is mostly about mental illness and physical illness, and what it is like to have a chronic illness and how it affects you. But it is also about the ways that you can still have light shine through in those times. It feels like a record about a journey to recovery more than like, ‘Oh god I am depressed all the time’-type of record. It was almost like a therapy process for me writing these songs. It’s very personal.”

His candid openness made it surprisingly easy to ask the obvious question, how is he doing now?

“I’m doing a lot better these days. Mental illness will always be a part of my life and always something I need to be aware of and work against, but I think right now, I’m doing okay.”

Of course, the music industry has itself changed a lot in the time since McBride last released music. He is under no illusions about where his music fits within the grand scheme of things as he makes his return to a scene that is still recovering from Covid and is very different from how it was in 2013.

“It is almost like the restart of my career. This is a new thing, and I am expecting it to go a different way. I definitely have noticed this time around that things work very differently to how they used to. Blogs, for example, they don’t seem to exist anymore. It’s a very different climate. I do find streaming very bizarre. It seems like a lottery getting any kind of success on there.”

Whatever the lottery result for ‘Two-Minds’, McBride says Sheep, Dog & Wolf is here to stay, well for the foreseeable future at least.

“Sheep, Dog & Wolf is the name for the music that I make for myself when I need to write music. I can’t ever see it going away. The name might change one day I suppose, but writing music is something I am going to have to do for the rest of my life.”

And rest assured, we won’t be waiting so long for a third.

“No, I am already working on the next album, don’t worry. It’s happening a lot faster than last time, I promise it will be less than eight years.”