Isaac Dunbar recently watched “The Sound of Music” for the first time. After the von Trapps escaped the Nazis crossing Austrian-Swiss border, an epic rush of inspiration hit Dunbar and he wrote “Banish the Banshee” in a burst.
“I stayed up for two days straight making that song,” Dunbar said from his adopted home of Los Angeles.
The title track to Dunbar’s new EP, “Banish the Banshee” doesn’t sound like a Rodgers & Hammerstein show tune. Pulsing and pushing, the song is closer to a Flaming Lips fever dream or radical revamp of Top 40 that MGMT might come up with (it does however contain the wonderful, Maria-evoking lyric, “I was a witch in a crowd of nuns”)
Just 19, the Cape-Cod-raised Dunbar has already written, recorded and released four EPs. “Banish the Banshee” is his most ambitious yet. Using “the Banshee” as an alter ego in a similar vein as 2021 EP “evil twin,” Dunbar weaves very personal stories into this “series of sonic parables.” The music pulls from a wide range of sources: pure pop, psychedelic grooves from the ’60s and ’70s, all sorts of alt rock from ’90s and aughts. The lyrics draw from Dunbar’s history of being an outsider.
“The banshee alter ego serves as a vessel for me to experiment, to say things that Isaac couldn’t or wouldn’t say,” Dunbar said ahead of his June 28 show at the Sinclair. “There were certain things that I wanted to keep private that I now want to share with the world. I think it’s really important for people to feel heard through my music. The best way for me to do that is vulnerability, being honest in music.”
Dunbar says fans can’t read “Banish the Banshee” as straight audiobiography (he didn’t bleach his hair to make his parents mad as he sings in “Bleach”). But the core messages of the songs come from Dunbar’s experience as the child of an Italian mother and Liberian father who obsessed over Lady Gaga before he hit double digits. Dunbar was bullied, made to feel like he didn’t belong.
“It felt like (Lady Gaga) curated worlds for me to escape in, they were grand and maximalist and something other than what I was experiencing day to day,” he said. “I feel like it’s necessary for me to do something along the same lines.”
Dunbar went from listening to creating in a matter of weeks.
“I was 9 when I downloaded this music production program called FL Studio at the Barnes & Noble in Hyannis at the Cape Cod Mall,” he said. “I taught myself how to produce music through YouTube tutorials and by reproducing my favorite Lady Gaga songs. I would come home every day after school, eat a bunch of salt & vinegar potato chips and produce beats.”
He knew what he was meant to do. And RCA Records knew it not long after — the label signed him at 16.
It was a smart move as the 100 million or so streams on Spotify attest to. Hopefully, he turns 20, watches a bunch more Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, and creates a few more masterpieces worth another 100 million streams.