When the Toronto electro-pop trio DIANA released its debut album, Perpetual Surrender, in 2013, it kept a low profile — with blurred photos, reverb-heavy vocals and roundabout answers to questions about who Diana is, exactly. The musicians' responses were never direct. "It's an emotion," they'd say. "It's your perspective."
The truth was that DIANA hadn't yet found its identity as a band; Kieran Adams, Joseph Shabason and Carmen Elle had only been recording as a three-piece for a few months, and even though Perpetual Surrender drew international attention when it was longlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, they still felt like strangers. "It's easier to be mysterious when you don't know who you are," Adams tells NPR. "We threw a veil on everything to buy us time."
In the past three years, DIANA has blossomed magnificently and seems to have found its own voice. There are fewer synths, more guitar; less posturing, more heart. The band's lyrics have evolved from ghostly abstractions to confident ruminations, as seen in the forthright new single "What You Get."
In a series of matter-of-fact questions, the song confronts the trickiness of expectations — particularly in relationships: "What did you expect? / To never feel regret? / Did you really think you were too good to take the fall?" Written on a ferry ride between Ireland and Wales during the band's first tour in 2014, the song wound up being the first on DIANA's forthcoming album, Familiar Touch.
"We started talking about how people feel deserving of certain things when you put in a certain amount of effort," Adams says. "And you know, love doesn't work like that. Feelings don't work like that. You don't always get out what you put in." The song is comforting despite its harsh sentiment. The group made an effort to balance warm melodies, surging basslines and heavy tom-toms, a la Prince and Fleetwood Mac, with lyrics that brought some tough love. "It's a nudge to move along with the wisdom you've gained," Adams says.
Producing the song helped steer DIANA on its own path of self-discovery, away from the synth-pop, chillwave bands they'd been bundled with and into more raw territory. Little by little, in studio sessions in Toronto and Montreal, they peppered in industrial drums and funky guitar and clarified Elle's vocals to make them sound rich and intimate. The approach was totally new for the group, but it felt right, and it dictated the rest of the album.
"There were moments on Perpetual Surrender where we felt like we'd painted ourselves into a corner in an attempt to sound cool," Adams says. "This time around, we checked ourselves every step of the way. We wanted it to feel personal. We talked a lot about Sade because Sade nails intimacy. When she's singing, you feel like she's looking you right in the eyes, in your ear, by your side. That's what we're going for."
Familiar Touch comes out Nov. 18 via Culvert Music.