When Two Feet—a.k.a. the Harlem-raised vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Bill Dess—uploaded the smoldering “Go Fuck Yourself’ to SoundCloud in 2016, he had no idea life was about to change. Within days, the jazz-tinted, electro-contorted song had amassed over 8 million streams and set the stage for Two Feet’s debut EP, First Steps. That release, which arrived several months later, drew attention from DJs and influential music curators and landed Dess a deal with Republic Records.
This rapid ascent wasn't just pure luck: Dess pairs a voracious appetite for music with an admirable work ethic. “I’m a workaholic,” he admits. “I never stop. I rarely go out. I’m in my home 12 hours a day. If you asked my friends, ‘What’s one thing [that stands out] about Bill?’ they’ll say, ‘Yeah, his work ethic is fucking insane.’“
This inner drive kept Dess going when his fortunes looked much bleaker. In early 2014, he had lost his scholarship to the Berklee College of Music—he was kicked out after spending 12 hours a day focused on his own songwriting instead of going to classes—and was working at a bodega in Harlem, making beats for other rappers and barely making ends meet. “Some days I was functioning on three dollars a day,” Dess recalls. “If a friend was like, ‘Hey, come downtown,’ I’d be like, ‘I can’t. It costs me five bucks to go there and back.’“
But the aspiring artist persevered, thanks in large part to the unwavering encouragement of his dad, a taxi driver who’s a writer on the side. Dess would call his father “almost every day. And I would say, ‘Maybe I should go back to school’ or ‘Maybe I should figure out a way to pay for college, or get a real job.’ And he would always say, ‘No. You can do this. The only people who don’t make it are the ones who give up.’“
Dess first became interested in music after an elementary school field trip to see the Nutcracker. “I just remember thinking it was overwhelmingly beautiful,” Dess says now. “For whatever reason, I really connected with orchestral, cinematic music as a child.” From there, he started immersing himself in hiphop, pop, jazz—Chet Baker and guitarist Wes Montgomery are favorites—and film score composers such as Ennio Morricone. Dess also played upright bass in the school orchestra and started playing guitar in earnest (“ten hours a day, eleven hours a day”) as high school graduation loomed.
These formative influences explain Dess' eclectic approach to music. Although both the First Steps EP and 2017’s Momentum EP drew comparisons to Chet Faker, Darkside and Glass Animals, this work can’t be pigeonholed into one specific genre. Two Feet's songs are atmospheric and moody, courtesy of spacious arrangements, midnight-hued production and sinewy, hip-hop-tinged electronic beats. Haunted guitar licks with blues and jazz accents add backbone, and exacerbate the mournful undertones of Dess’ smoky, conspiratorial voice. Two Feet songs are the soundtrack for staying up late into the night, aching to figure out how to remedy heartbreak, anxiety and uncertainty.
Today, it’s safe to say Dess is leveraging every bit of momentum to his advantage. He’s performed at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits and SXSW, and his first U.S. headlining tour is slated for early 2018.
As Dess turns his attention to writing new music, he’s actively looking to incorporate his life experiences into Two Feet lyrics. “I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I can really talk about my past in a way that people will understand,” he says. “But some of the new stuff I’m writing is starting to slowly become more personal. That’s actually something I’ve been focusing on, is trying to figure out how to add my story into my songs more.”
From a musical standpoint, Dess is also eager to continue experimenting. He’s itching to make a full-length record—the idea of having 12 or 13 songs to stretch out and be creative is enormously appealing—and honing his ability to combine his unique, evocative textures with pop structures. Judging by Dess’ track record to date, expect nothing short of intriguing, inventive results.
“I’m interested in figuring out a way of making pop music that’s not only more original, but also honest,” he says. “I feel maybe ten years ago—or maybe even five years ago—my project wouldn’t have worked.
But now it feels kind of like a big experiment that we’re about to try out.”
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