The Dø Find a Universal Language in ­Music

The Dø play Montreal on Sept. 9.

The Dø are a happy accident. After being left to their own devices while working on a soundtrack for a French film, members Olivia Merilahti and Dan Levi couldn’t find the words to say goodbye to each other. So they didn’t.

“When we started working together in the studio [for the film], we kept working on different projects [such as] contemporary dance, theatre and cinema,” Merilahti explained. “[And] then we started recording our own songs for the fun of it and the album just appeared.”

That album, released in France in 2008 and titled A Mouthful, made this French-Finnish duo the first English-singing band to reach the top of the charts in France. The buzz emanated across Europe and the album was released in North America last April.

The duo are about to embark on a North American tour, bringing the band to our neck of the woods in Canada.

Though lead singer Merilahti’s first languages are Finnish and French, writing songs in English comes naturally to her and helped make The Dø’s music accessible worldwide.

“It’s always been [that way], since I started writing songs in my bedroom when I was 13 or 14,” she said. “It’s the music I listen to; it’s a universal language. It’s as simple as that. Once I realized that, I managed to express what I wanted with the vocabulary I had and it just stayed that way. [English comes] natural to me, and it’s been the pop language for decades,” continued Merilahti. “The words [to the songs] are not even so important. I’m not really writing about my life; it’s more of a poetic approach, so even people who speak English may not understand it at all,” she said. “But, of course, I’m happy to be able to travel the world and share our music with people who speak the language.”

“We’re inspired by sounds or even just a word, or a story someone might have told us, or a dream we might have had.”
—Olivia Merilahti,
Lead singer of The Dø

In this sense, language is not the most accessible aspect of The Dø. Their sound incorporates varying degrees of cultural influences, tied together by Olivia’s earnest, melodious voice—not to mention her charming accent.

Much of A Mouthful is dripping in romance, in the kind of back-and-forth confusion that comes with conflict in love, and Olivia’s genuine delivery communicates those emotions well.

Upon a full listen of A Mouthful, it is clear that The Dø work from a great variety of influences, both European and American, both conventional and unconventional.

“We’re inspired by sounds or even just a word, or a story someone might have told us, or a dream we might have had. [Inspiration is] everywhere,” she said.

In tracks like “The Bridge is Broken,” Merilahti’s voice, sweet and delicate one moment, turns a bit raspy and breaks in just the right moments, emphasizing the emotional content of the song.

“Unissasi Laulelet” is sung in Finnish and gives the listener a taste of rhythm-heavy world music. That same deep rhythm leads into “Tammie,” reminiscent of the likes of Nouvelle Vague.

In some songs, like “Queen Dot Kong,” Merilahti seems to be channeling M.I.A., backed by strings and brass.

“When I write a song,” Merilahti explained, “I don’t decide, ‘I’m going to write about this.’ It’s really an unconscious, automatic way of doing it. It has to be organic. We cannot do it any other way.”

With no form to the chaos of their creative work, one can only imagine what The Dø are like on stage.

“It’s all about energy,” Merilahti explained.

“On stage, we wanted to go to some extremes, so it’s louder and more explosive than on the album, and maybe more electric,” she said. “We like to change the arrangements a lot. Sometimes it can puzzle the audience, but I think we’re after that, as well.”

Merilahti is pleased with what music has brought to her life and does not feel daunted by The Dø’s success.

“With The Dø, we’ve managed to do so much that we couldn’t have done before,” she explained. “It’s about complementary teamwork. There are no boundaries. We have so many plans and so many artistic dreams that we want to achieve. There’s no concept; it just is.”

The Dø play with Braids on Thursday, Sept. 9 at La Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 04, published September 7, 2010.