It’s been just about two years since a shadowy R&B duo out of Toronto called dvsn — pronounced “division” — signed to Drake’s gilt-edged OVO imprint, capitalizing on buzz they’d assiduously built across the previous fall through uploading a handful of tracks to SoundCloud.
Their initial records — all silver-tongued, smoothly produced siren songs that discussed sex in hushed tones, with a sincere, near-spiritual reverence more analogous to ’90s R&B than modern radio hits — captivated music bloggers, as did the mystique that surrounded the group.
Following the example set by fellow Torontonian and OVO associate Abel Tesfaye (a.k.a. The Weeknd), dvsn at first stayed out of the spotlight. In place of names and faces, they offered only a neon-lit mathematical symbol. Then, shortly after signing with OVO, came “Sept. 5th,” a debut disc that affirmed their talent for merging cavernous soundscapes with soulful vocals, while divulging few personal details.
Now, of course, we know more. It’s hard to maintain anonymity under an intensifying spotlight, and that release brought unprecedented attention to dvsn’s doorstep; without a big reveal, it became clear the group was a duo, comprising two veteran musicians: vocalist Daniel Daley and super-producer Paul Jeffries (better known as Nineteen85, behind Drake hits like “Hotline Bling” and “Hold On We’re Coming Home”). By the time dvsn released their follow-up, “Morning After,” last fall, they’d played more than 100 shows, the majority opening for Drake and Future on their Summer Sixteen tour (still the highest-grossing hip-hop tour ever).
“In the moment, neither of us knew how many shows we were doing or how much experience we were getting,” says Jeffries, 32, reflecting on the duo’s meteoric past few years. “You get so enveloped in it that by the time something happens, you don’t even realize it’s happening.”
Speaking by phone, both members of dvsn — who’ll play a sold-out show at the Royale Sunday, part of their first headlining world tour — say that they knew they were onto something special from day one.
“I’ve worked with a bunch of producers before, and I’d like to think that I’ve still made good music with other people,” says Daley, also in his 30s, who first befriended Jeffries in Toronto more than a decade ago, when the R&B genre barely had a mainstream pulse. “But there’s just something different about when me and 85 connect. The chemistry is as real as it gets.”
Part of what made the two click so effortlessly, they say, was a shared desire to showcase one another’s talents.
“A lot of current production outshines the artist, and so the last few years I’ve really focused on finding ways to make Daniel’s voice and his story be the main instrument amongst all the other instruments I’m putting in the track,” explains Jeffries. “We’ve worked together for such a comfortable space in where we’re at in our careers that we never have to overshadow each other.”
Eventually, the duo began collaborating in earnest, Daley writing songs and Jeffries constructing soundscapes. Some were originally intended for other musicians; it soon became clear, however, that the pair had a shared rhythm and purpose no outside artist could harness as effectively as they could themselves. Drawing on their knowledge of what was selling at the time while — unconsciously, they say — evoking the classic R&B they both grew up on and loved, Daley and Jeffries struck out for themselves as dvsn.
“Seeing as we are of this generation, and we are a part of this current wave, it’s like, yeah, you get the 808s and the synthetics and stuff like that,” says Daley. “But because of what we were listening to when we were kids, [’80s and ’90s influences] came out naturally.”
Another breakthrough in developing dvsn’s sound involved imbuing it with a cinematic quality, something the pair have since expanded upon by creating movie posters to promote “Morning After” and erecting a 20-foot video screen to augment their current tour’s setup.
The duo are so in sync about film that it’s become an integral part of dvsn’s music-making process.
“When we’re making songs, the way we can articulate to each other what we’re trying to get out of the song is by asking each other, ‘If this was in a movie, what kind of scene would that be in?’” Jeffries explains. “And Daniel will be like, ‘This is the scene where such and such happens,’ and I’ll get what he’s saying.”
‘There’s just something different about when me and [PaulJeffries] connect. The chemistry isas real as it gets’
Not surprisingly, both members — Jeffries in particular — hope to one day compose a film score. Might a transition to moviemaking be in dvsn’s future? Neither are opposed, though they’d likely search for a more seasoned collaborator to help them out. The two, perfectly in sync once again, give their No. 1 choice at the same time: Quentin Tarantino.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @isaacfeldberg.