I’ve always loved that feeling of laughing or smiling so much that your jaw aches for hours after a conversation ends, and just a short time chatting with sisters Jamie and Tessa McDell – otherwise known as Dunes – successfully had me feeling like an uncontrollable giggly school girl again.
They say that you can’t choose your family, but despite admitting to only really having music in common, Jamie and Tessa would probably have found their way to one another regardless of their blood relation. Their band’s Facebook page portrays two extremely down to earth, sparkly girls that are full of love for each other, and while social media is well known for only showing the best snippets of our lives, theirs doesn’t seem to be too far removed from the truth.
The two grew up together as kids, but their teen years were spent apart as Jamie spent much of her time in Auckland where she would come to kickstart her music career, and Tessa remained up North with their parents, developing a slight obsession with animal behaviour. As adults, they wanted to rekindle the closeness that they had as kids, and found that using their mutual love of music was the perfect way to do this. While initially, they did what felt natural, and followed in the vein of the folky/country type music that they had grown up listening to, and that Jamie made during her solo career, they found that as a duo, this was ultimately not what they wanted their vibe to be.
“It was actually Tess that after a while kind of sat down with me and was kind of like, hey this is really nice what we’re doing, but this style of music isn’t very me, and it’s just not – like I’m not as excited about it as I’d like to be. And um, so we took a bit of a turn and experimented with a whole lot of stuff.”
It was for this reason that despite Jamie’s success as a solo artist, you may not have heard of Dunes before, as they’ve been muddling through, trying to find the perfect sound that they believe defines them both. The two spent time pushing themselves as far out of their comfort zone as they could manage, a move that resulted with a song titled Girlfriends and Boyfriends. The track was one of the most rock-inspired that they’ve ever created, and as time went on, and they came up with more material, they found that it didn’t fit with what else they had created, subsequently taking it down from the internet, leaving little evidence that it even existed in the first place.
“We went from doing the folky stuff to then trying to push the boundaries to see which lines we were kind of willing to cross and um, and we were kind of really excited about it, so we just kind of you know, just chucked it up just went for it. But then after a while, after we’d spent quite a lot time creating the rest of our material, that particular song just didn’t really fit. So we thought best to just get rid of it.”
As they found with the whimsical decision to release Girlfriends and Boyfriends – a freedom they allowed themselves by doing everything independently – patience isn’t the pair’s forté, but they have, until now, managed to keep project somewhat under wraps as they took the time to figure out what sound represented them in a way that they were both happy with. Enter Horses, the first official single by Dunes that saw them taking a different approach in terms of the songwriting process, and a track that encompasses the two very strong personalities of both Jamie and Tessa.
“So horses was one of the first songs that we were just like, look, let’s do this differently, let’s try, let’s do this backwards. Let’s start with the beats and the music first and then see what kind of emotions it brings to us. And it ended up bring us this, you know, this feeling of being able to express freedom and like, express your creativity, and I guess we made the correlation between being a free person as opposed to being a free and wild horse. Um, and it became quite a strong theme in the song.”
This new approach changed the dynamic of their relationship, as they went from Jamie (who was known to Tess as “Straighty One-Eighty”) always being in control, to Tessa (known to Jamie as “Tessa the Messa”) taking the reins for a change. As kids, the pair spent some time living on a yacht before going their separate ways, creating both a great relationship with the ocean, as well as a need to find friends in unusual places due to their watery isolation. These friends were, of course, a number of Barbie dolls, and since Jamie was in charge, she demanded that Tessa cut all the hair off hers to make them into boys (“she would just be so cooperative”). The laughter that came with the telling of this story shows that they reminisce on their childhood experiences with affectionate nostalgia, and despite their years apart it has not been difficult to rebuild the sisterhood they had in their youth.
More recently, while Jamie was busy making Gold certified records, Tessa was busy studying animal management at Unitech, and strengthening her relationship with animals – in particular that of the canine variety – and is now working her dream job part-time at a doggy day care, where the dogs are pampered daily by their loving owners. While originally she had her heart set on working with rescue dogs, she found herself thinking that “ it would have been way too tough for me so I’ve gone with the positive side of the industry”, but continues to have “mad respect” for those that can handle it.
The fact that the duo have found the time to pursue their other life passions alongside their music is super commendable, particularly considering that, with help from producer Thomas Healy, they have also managed to produce such incredible and professional sounding music. They’re having a great time controlling when and how they share their creations, and this responsibility has forced them to work on their lack of patience, especially after they “jumped the gun“ with Girlfriends and Boyfriends. It is this creative freedom that allows them to make decisions such as the one to make a video for Horses following the incredible response it has received, which they have recorded themselves this weekend. Tessa and Jamie are hoping to incorporate both their background and their relationship as sisters – hopefully through the use of old home videos that they’ve recently unearthed – keeping in with the authenticity that comes across on their social media accounts.
And speaking of their social media, I think it’s absolutely worth mentioning that the duo have recently made Dunes its own Twitter account, which currently consists of only 9 tweets – a third of which are horse facts. This piece of information should be a shock, but somehow, after getting to know a little bit about these two, it simply is not.
“No we literally just made our Twitter like a week ago, and we were like um, what do we say? And so yes. Horse facts. That’s where you go.”
As far as their album goes, the material is all there and ready to go, and again, they’re working on having patience and trusting others when contemplating its potential release date. In the interim – following Dunes’ one and only full band performance for Music in Parks this past summer – there will hopefully be plenty of band practices that will lead to plenty of live performances for us to enjoy. When we are finally blessed enough for that to become a reality, you are bound to fall in love with Tessa and Jamie both as individuals and as sisters, as their quick witted banter, perfectly dry sense of humour, and amazing sibling chemistry oozes into all that they do. With any luck, their love for all things sparkly will translate onto the stage, not only in terms of fashion, but also instruments, as Jamie has developed an intense passion for light up tambourines, hoping to not only make them cool again (were they ever not cool??), but also to invent one that lights up either when you hit it, or to the tempo of the beat of the track. When Tessa dared to suggest that, in fact, they might already exist in this capacity, Jamie countered with, “yeah, but I want to invent it myself”. I mean… obviously.
From puppies to fancy percussion instruments, these women have ambition and drive, and it’s only a matter of time before Dunes are not so under the radar anymore.