At some point in history, it became a given that debut albums by indie bands had to be described as some kind of virtuosic, single-minded work. It’s such a boring trope: the suffering auteur, going mad from their own genius, working with a band but channelling some vision they could only ever craft alone. That idea is simplistic, and often untrue, but it’s especially untrue for Gems, the debut album by Dannika.
Listen to the record, and it’s impossible to deny Dannika’s dexterity, her specific, distinctive style — a natural gravitation toward bright melody, a fondness for blushing, impressionistic prose on slower songs and beautifully direct, almost bratty rebukes on faster ones — but Gems isn’t so feeble as to rely on some kind of auteur myth. On the plainest level, this album is clearly the product of four people who are in tune on some kind of profound emotional level, whose contributions are strongest when working in tandem with each other. Dannika slips into the music on Gems like a favourite hoodie, a pair of well-worn shoes.
More importantly, though, Gems feels written by the characters that appear in its stories. This album is dedicated to “our friends,” and how could it not be? These songs are inspired by the “grown arse fucking men” asking for too much advice, the girls dating down, the friends who have passed and the friends yet to come; the album’s most stunning love song, “I Don’t Wanna Be With Anyone,” is about Dannika wanting to be by herself, not in a sad, defeated sense, but in a way that is sharp and clarified.
I should correct a statement I made before, and say that Gems actually is the result of some specific, virtuosic vision. This is an album about building a life for yourself where your friends are extensions of yourself and your family; that’s Dannika’s vision. Her art is nothing without knowing that it springs from passion and compassion for others — not just one, life-defining other, but many others, the companions who make up the warp and weft of one’s life, not just the embroidery.
That Gems is materialising so many years after Dannika’s first EP, For Peaches — four years, a lifetime when your friends are some of the most prolific musicians in Melbourne — feels right; like catching up with an old friend, time has revealed exciting new parts of Dannika. Gone is the endearing looseness of For Peaches, replaced instead by thick grooves that grip tightly. “Giving It Up,” hitting smack-bang in the album’s middle, is dissonant and spare and brilliant: Dannika’s lyrics, delivered in a moody deadpan, just hit so different here. “People always tell me I’m too nice,” she sings, and it sounds like a threat — she seethes and spits, in a way that’s hot and weird and so powerful and so unbelievably epic. “Giving It Up” might be the only song on Gems that’s ‘dark’ in a traditional sense, but the rest of the album is equally powerful: an eloquent, graceful kiss-off on “Too Good,” coy flirtation on “Directions,” considered empathy on “Friends.”
The songs that comprise Gems have been such an essential part of our lives for so long that they feel tactile and specific, like objects unique to our lives: they’re not just songs, but mixes laboured over by Stefan and Liam and Paul; messages in the girls group chat; demos played through Nicola’s car speaker, drowned out by the sound of the freeway; friends singing it to each other at a house party; videos shakily filmed in The Tote front bar and sent over Messenger to Emma. It’s important to stress that Gems doesn’t refer to precious jewels, but to Dannika’s favourite food, potato gems — things to be devoured, comforted and nourished by, best consumed at any time of day or night, and, of course, most enjoyed when shared. These songs are inalienable parts of our lives now; they’ve brought our friends together over the past few years and, now, maybe they will for you and yours too.