Yellow House chats the gruelling experience of self-isolation during the making of his latest album

Cape Town-based songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Yellow House (real name Emile van Dango) has cemented himself as one of South Africa’s greatest folk-rock artists, known for hit tracks like “Love In The Time Of Socialism” and “Better Views”.

With ethereal tinges of dream-pop and R&B, Yellow House brings tender sensibility to his music. It’s soft, lilting, wandering at times, and he continues to explore these qualities on his latest album Psalms Of Yellow House.

Released via ODESZA’s Foreign Family Collective Label, the project centres itself around the idea of a hymn; a hymn that might chronicle a moment in life, or record the lingering traces of an experience. “I grew up in a spiritual environment,” says van Dango, “and I’ve tried to stay close to my spirituality as I’ve grown older.”

“It’s a massive part of the way I make music,” he continues. “I believe that art has to be linked to some kind of energy, and it’s something that I am always trying to connect with.”

Psalms was written during van Dango’s time spent living in the mountains of Paarl, where he stayed in almost total isolation for a year. “I was able to face myself without any distractions,” he tells me. “There’s nowhere to hide when you’re alone in nature like that.”

“It starts with euphoria,” he continues. “Initially the isolation feels like the answer to everything, and the world goes away for a little while. But as the months roll on, you realise that you haven’t necessarily escaped anything, let alone yourself. Everything that you were tussling with in the city follows you there, and you’re left to face it.”

Difficult introspection. No distraction. No noise. These qualities reveal themselves on Psalms, downcast and searching for answers. Eventually van Dango decided to return to the city to finish writing and recording the album, avoiding an eventual sinking into the rabbit hole of his mind.

“Saviour Complex” is an honest start to van Dango’s emotional journey. “It all started to unravel in the summer of ’94,” he sings, accompanied by brittle chords and an echoing nostalgia.

“Milk & Honey” is sweetly reminiscent of Beach House, while “Blowing Away” has this sad kind of ceremonial sound to it that feels like a funeral march, a procession towards an end, or perhaps a commemoration of life.

“The songwriting process was very unpredictable for me,” says van Dango, “because you never know when that spiritual connection is going to strike.” He continues, “Great songwriting is casting your line into the universal ether and waiting for something to catch. They tend to be the tracks that come the easiest. As soon as I get that spiritual feeling, I know I’ve got a song I want to see through.”

Led by intuition, van Dango’s seal as a songwriter is bound by a kind of sacrilege instinct, hidden in the holiest parts of himself. Closing track “Don’t Cry (It’s Just Goodnight)” was written in five minutes, and just moments after the recording van Dango received news of a friend’s passing. “Moments like that are undeniably synchronised,” he says.

“I felt like if I had to never make another record again, and this was the last thing I had to say to the world, the last song I had to sing, then this should be it.”

As van Dango’s painful vocals fade away, and the acoustic guitar strums out, there is a sense that this final hymn was worth the gruelling isolation. I listen to it as a lesson in grief, as I’m sure van Dango might too, and the full knowledge that every difficult experience in life leads us closer to true enlightenment.