The Melbourne-raised Kaity Dunstan, who sings under the name Cloves, released an EP that had fans of the vocal greats of yesteryear dusting down the superlatives and pinching themselves in disbelief. Not yet 20, Cloves already has the voice of a veteran. In her songs, feelings are hinted at rather than shouted from the rooftops, but you can hear the hurt in every bar. Endearingly, Cloves herself seems only dimly aware of the gift she has.
“I still find it hard to listen to my own voice,” she says. “And I definitely don’t understand where it comes from. I can listen to other singers and think, ‘God, I wish I could sing like that.’ But that’s got to be better than me sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, I sing good .’ I’ve always been a fan of tone and expression in voices, rather than lots of elaborate runs.”
She admits there was a time where she went in for some Whitney/Mariah-style acrobatics herself. “I always saw where I wanted to go, and heard how it sounded in my head. And I always knew the music I loved. I found the spot where I wanted to sit, though I went through all the poppy stuff before I got there. So I tried that whole massive-singing thing; I used to go to loads of open mic nights where everyone did that, and then I’d get up and perform my own song, with an acoustic guitar. Everyone else got up and sang a Whitney song, and people would clap. I realised that I had to start doing my own thing or it was all going to turn to ashes. I mean, I tried singing like that, but I knew I had to break out on my own.”
“I used to love making everything sound really difficult; I used to use lots of metaphors, you know, ‘What’ s the weirdest word I can find?’ At the time, everyone was going through this indie-pop phase, and writing really strange lyrics, and I thought that was the cool thing to do. It took my realising that I wasn’t getting my point across that way to make me stop. I’d listen back and go: ‘That’ s not what I was actually thinking.’ And in a sense I could have been singing anybody's songs; they didn’t sound like me. Now, if I write something that is genuinely upsetting to me, then it rings true. I can hear it, if you know what I mean?”
On Cloves' debut EP, you can hear it, too. Cloves has fashioned music of haunting minimalism: pop-noir soundtracks over which her extraordinary voice arcs and keens.
The name CLOVES was inspired by a trip to Bali, where cloves are a national symbol.“I went there straight from being in LA for five weeks, and the contrast was breathtaking. In California I had my head up my own arse by the end, and the minute I got to Bali I went: ‘I need to get my act together.’ I went from that constant hustle to what felt like real life.”
Slowly but surely, CLOVES debut album is taking shape. "I want it to be stripped back and all about the songs – because they need to breathe. Over-polishing things just takes away so much of what is special about them. So, yes, the iron has been unplugged and thrown out. Someone asked me the other day: ‘What is success to you?’ And I said: ‘Being happy with the album. To be able to feel that I’ve done something good, that sounds like me.’”