Kaity Dunstan didn’t originally conceive her new record as a riff on Wes Craven’s 1984 slasher classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street. That came much later in the process. Along with producers Clarence “Coffee” Jr. (Dua Lipa), Hudson Mohawke, Jake Portrait (from Unknown Mortal Orchestra), and Detonate (Sia, Diplo), Dunstan recorded the album in Abbey Road Studios, located on Elmfield Road in London. A mural, depicting “very stark, dreamy and a bit creepy” imagery, faced the studio and become an immediate focal point.
Between writing and recording, she’d head outside, stand along the road, “and smoke cigarettes and talk about life. It became the location and foundation for the record. The concept is this void in my brain,” she tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call, “so it made sense that the road became the location─kind of giving it a world, giving it a foundation.”
The album title, Nightmare on Elmfield Road, sprang from this deep, dark mental well, and it was mid-way through when she realized how closely tethered it was to Freddy Krueger’s midnight killings. But she just went with it. Both the album and the film evoke sweat-inducing fear and dread, the kind you discover in dusty corners of your bedroom at night─or from watching too many horror films.
“I say that I am a horror fan, and then when I watch them, I regret watching them because I can’t sleep,” she says. “In my childhood, the most I’ve ever been scared of a film was ‘Harry Potter’ [and the Sorcerer’s Stone]. I know it’s not scary. But when you’re a child, it is absolutely terrifying. I remember watching the Voldemort scene and I couldn’t sleep for about three weeks. And my parents were like ‘you’re not allowed to watch this ever again.’ In my adulthood, it’s probably been ‘Blair Witch’ or potentially Chucky. I’m not a big doll fan. Dolls freak me out.”
Across 10 tracks, shape-shifting from the heart-plucking piano song “Manic” to the mournful, throbbing “Grudge,” Dunstan needles together an unsettling sound and lyrical design. “I think what the record started from was the concept of the world in my brain and how it functions. It needs to be dissected down into small portions, and we worked at it as pieces that make up an overall puzzle.
“Each track is an unraveling of that and the compartmentalization of what that is,” she adds. Even her vocal readings are very much rooted in mood, frequently breathy and restrained, with production decorating around her in sharp, tortured patterns. Vocal layering is then shoveled on top, sometimes “with a distorted high voice and then balancing these between each other to give an old creepy texture, and then pulling in production around that.”
With “Dead,” the song which began it all, Dunstan works overtime to distort the senses ─even recreating a moment from 2001: A Space Odyssey as the blood-curdling outro. “You feel much better now,” a disembodied voice contrasts against Dunstan’s exasperated breathing. It’s downright chilling. “We literally recorded it on our phones,” she offers. “During the session, we were talking about these kind of dystopian sci-fi textures. We obviously couldn’t clear that from the film, so we had to recreate our own ‘Space Odyssey’ moment, which was just sort of a technical glitch, end of the world kind of feeling. The song is about being very self-deprecating. It’s kind of that moment where you feel such a pit in yourself that you’re just kind of over it.”
“Screws,” rattling with equally-frightening components, appears as another essential album cut. I’ve got a couple of screws loose in my head, she sings, a bit frantic. “We had booked a studio, and then for some reason, the studio had been double-booked by accident. So we ended up in this studio last-minute─and there was a dead rat,” she remembers. What she describes as a “super punk studio” allowed for the song’s static electricity to pulse and come to life. “We were trying to [capture] this idea of this anxiety character and give it free rein for a track. ‘Screws’ is anxiety let loose.”
“Anxiety is not going to sing nicely to you. It’s going to just come at you directly with all your worst thoughts and feelings,” she continues. “It’s going to say them to you as quickly as possible, and then it’s going to be gone. So, everything about [the song] was approached from this character’s perspective.”
Where “Paranoid” uses gritty ‘90s filims as a jumping off point, particularly the “super contrasted” way of cinematography, “Sicko” retools a specific pop relic, the undeniable melody from Suzanne Vega’s 1987 hit “Tom’s Diner,” for a modern adaptation. “As soon as you lose perspective, it’s kind of pointless. So, I like to leave the situation and come back. So Coffee and I were just standing outside. We then came back in, and we were working on ‘Nightmare’ and ‘Sicko’ on the same day. We were flicking between the two different tracks, and then we started listening to like a bunch of playlists.”
“Tom’s Diner” came on, and the pair immediately “realized our first line is the same as [that song’s] first line,” she says with a laugh. “We were talking a lot the time about how we could bring in these ‘90s elements but create them in a modern context and have them feel futuristic. It really was a very visual album to make. We were always aiming to paint these characters, and the words we were using were all about texture.”
Dunstan bookends the record with a haunting guitar moment. “Beast” adheres to the sonic journey of the previous nine songs, but even within this context, the downtempo number feels like a stepping stone. “It felt like a good out point to me because I think what I want to set the tone for for my music kind of across-the-board is that I always want to be evolving. It’s the most different song on the record.”
Nightmare on Elmfield Road is heartbreaking─and ultimately liberating. In the aftermath of her debut record, One Big Nothing (2018), during which she envisioned what the follow-up would be, she found herself stressed and depressed. With self-inflicted pressures to seek perfection, Dunstan had to learn to let go of those preconceived notions and ideas before she had any chance of moving ahead. “As I was able to lift that self-pressure, which was blocking me creatively, I found it quite smooth coming into the second record,” she says.
With the release, explicitly tied to her mental health journey, she came upon a realization that the work will never be done. “Overtime, I’ve realized that’s fine. I went into dealing with mental health thinking there was going to be an answer for me. I’ve learned that you’re constantly growing, and you’re going to have to constantly work at yourself and with yourself.”
Now, she admits she feels “pretty good” heading into this new chapter of her life. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but I feel─you know when it’s your birthday and you feel like you’re meant to be really happy but there’s this pressure. I feel a little bit like that. I feel like there’s a pressure approaching Friday. I’m like, ‘what happens if I don’t feel good that day?’ I’m just trying to not put too much pressure on myself and just dive in.”