On The Rise: Isaac Dunbar

An 18-year-old artist Isaac Dunbar celebrates his third EP’s release titled ‘evil twin,’ which offers a darker, more experimental twist on his previously described ‘self-aware alternative pop’ sound. Corresponding from a cabin in Upstate New York, Dunbar is already working on new music in the middle of a snowstorm with ‘a breathtaking biome’. 

Just stepping into the world of adulthood, Isaac Dunbar has come a long way in his musical career, gaining support from tastemakers like Zane Lowe and Sam Smith themselves. His transformation has been tremendous. Coming from Barnstable, Massachusetts, heavily influenced by his love for Lady Gaga, Dunbar decided to take the plunge and learn everything about production. Today, he has three EPs under his belt with hits like ‘onion boy’, ‘suicide,’ and ‘love, or the lack thereof’. 

At the moment, Dunbar classifies in the alternative pop category, but in the beginning stages of his career, before his teenage years, he was playing around with a more electronic sound. He talks about his trajectory: “I’ve been singing my whole life, so that came naturally to me, but the moment I decided I wanted to pursue music as a career was at the age of nine. I taught myself how to produce music via youtube tutorials and by recreating sounds from my favorite songs through synthesis. I started off making EDM music, and then at age 11, the lyrics started to come along”.

As a mixed-race artistic kid with a Liberian father and an Italian mother, Dunbar admits to feeling lonely and out of place. What made him feel like he’s not alone was listening to Lady Gaga, especially after the announcement of ARTPOP; everything changed: “Her authenticity and theatrical approach to music always captivated me. She was my world growing up. She’s the reason I started producing music. In 2013 she announced ARTPOP and the various producers she collaborated with, and I did a deep dive on one of the producers, Madeon, and saw he used a program called FL studio. I illegally downloaded it, and it just snowballed from there”.

At the age of 12, Dunbar started uploading his music on SoundCloud and building an audience.  By downloading FL studio, Dunbar opened the door to endless possibilities of creating music on his own: “My roots are a combination of bone-crushing EDM beats and hundreds of layers of synths and tight vocal harmonies, and I believe those influences shine through in my music today,” he says. 

While growing up, Dunbar was far too familiar with the feeling of not fitting in and grew into isolating himself. Apart from committing to writing lyrics that connect on the deepest level possible, Dunbar advises people going through a similar thing: “I would say to them that their differences are the coolest part about themselves. It is okay not to fit in, you will meet your soulmates in due time. What helped me the most was actually going into the real world and not being in highschool 24/7. The environment was so toxic for me. Once I got to do online school, I met all sorts of people who are weird and cool, and now I do not want to be around normal people. So I would say embrace the weird because weird is the new cool”. 

His first release was ‘pharmacy’ that is now featured on his 2019 project ‘balloons don’t float here’. He elaborates on the track: “I wrote pharmacy about codependency in all forms, in regards to romantic/platonic relationships, and even in regards to inanimate objects or concepts. You can be addicted to anything, and if you do not have a balance, you will go bonkers!”. 

Before things like live performing were put on hold, Isaac Dunbar got to tour with girl in red and reveals his favorite and least favorite things about touring: “I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life on tour. Touring broadens your mind in a way that is not easily replicable. My favorite part of touring was meeting all of the locals of the locations I visited. My least favorite part of touring was having to lug suitcases everywhere. It’s really taxing”.

Being a successful artist at such a young age may do a thing or two to your ego. Dunbar tells us how he stays grounded: “I honestly have no clue. Being recognized by notable people is the coolest yet frightening thing ever. Staying grounded is something I struggle with. I have to ground myself every few hours. I imagine roots growing out of my feet and going deep into the earth’s crust, and I literally tell myself, “I am here right now.” It might sound crazy, but that’s how I do it!” 

Being a successful artist at such a young age may do a thing or two to your ego. Dunbar tells us how he stays grounded: “I honestly have no clue. Being recognized by notable people is the coolest yet frightening thing ever. Staying grounded is something I struggle with. I have to ground myself every few hours. I imagine roots growing out of my feet and going deep into the earth’s crust, and I literally tell myself, “I am here right now.” It might sound crazy, but that’s how I do it!” 

One of the notable highlights of his career will be getting a shoutout from Sam Smith. They shared Dubar’s music was their LA soundtrack. “I remember the first time I saw that clip of Sam, and they said my name. I played it over and over and over and almost pooped my pants”, Dunbar reveals. 

With the release of ‘evil twin,’ Dunbar begins a new chapter. After ‘isaac’s insects,’ he offers a project with a more experimental sound that also unveils aside to him the world’s rarely seen before. Dunbar explains the concept behind the EP: “I came up with the concept when I was in a tough spot in regards to who I want to be as an artist and the type of music I want to make. Even though I make pop music, I rarely listen to pop music. I’m a huge fan of Aphex twin and Cocteau Twins and Slowdive and Bjork. I wanted to make the music I love to listen to in my free time and also the pop music I am most known for, so I had my alter ego sing the experimental records on evil twin and my day-to-day ego sing the pop records. The alter ego is always with me. If anything, it isn’t an alter ego; it’s just a side of my ego I haven’t gotten the chance to show the world yet”. 

One of the singles from ‘evil twin’ is ‘pink party,’ and it’s inspired by what could’ve happened, or at least what Dunbar wished would’ve happened at a random party in Paris. He paints the picture for us: “‘pink party’ is about my first time going to a club in Paris called the “Petit palace”. The guard at the front let me in and didn’t ID me, and I walk into this pink decked out party with freaky people who danced like Sims. It was transformative. I had this whole thing going in my head that I was going to meet a hot person and have a short-lived romance with them. I didn’t, so I wrote a song about this fake person and all the experiences I wanted to have with them”.

One of the singles from ‘evil twin’ is ‘pink party,’ and it’s inspired by what could’ve happened, or at least what Dunbar wished would’ve happened at a random party in Paris. He paints the picture for us: “‘pink party’ is about my first time going to a club in Paris called the “Petit palace”. The guard at the front let me in and didn’t ID me, and I walk into this pink decked out party with freaky people who danced like Sims. It was transformative. I had this whole thing going in my head that I was going to meet a hot person and have a short-lived romance with them. I didn’t, so I wrote a song about this fake person and all the experiences I wanted to have with them”.

As a previously stated promise to making music that will be able to connect people, it comes hand in hand with being vulnerable. Dunbar shares that one track that hits the spot: “‘blueberry brows’ from my first EP, ‘balloons don’t float her.’.  It’s cloaked in metaphors, so it’s really hard to understand. I did that on purpose because I was so scared of being direct about the topic of the song. It’s about my relationship with my mother”.

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Photographer: Harshvardhan Shah

Words: Karolina Kramplova