Kiran Leonard leapt into many people’s eardrums with his 2013 record Bowler Hat Soup and its infectious-yet-puzzling opener Dear Lincoln. Now, with an exciting new album, Grapefruit, peeking over the horizon, the multi-talented songwriter has the likes of BBC 6Music’s Marc Riley, Stereogum and The Line Of Best Fit telling legions of listeners just why his music needs to be heard.
Kemptation had originally planned to ask Leonard a few questions over email and work them into an interesting feature. It turns out, however, that it’s far better just to let the man speak his mind. In the interview, we cover popularity, language, song construction, David Bowie and the true reasons why artists make the music they do.
We first came into contact with you through Marc Riley playing Dear Lincoln on his BBC 6Music show. Since then, we have been avid converts. Have you noticed an increase in listenership over the last couple of years?
I suppose I receive more nice e-mails and messages than I used to. I try not to obsessively track Twitter mentions and stuff but it’s kind of addictive. Sometimes I get the urge to just go home, give my copy of Future Primitive a big wet kiss and bury all my hardware in the back garden.
You speak Portuguese and even sing in Portuguese on some songs, such as O Hospideiro. Do you find that you can express things in this language that are not quite possible in English?
I don’t speak Portuguese fluently by any stretch of the imagination – I can read it alright, but I still definitely have a long way to go. I’ve also never tried writing lyrics or poetry in Portuguese: O Hospideiro is a cover of a song by a friend of mine that I translated into wobbly Portuguese as a linguistic exercise. Sorry, that was a really boring answer. I’ll try again in my response to the next question.
You mention on the liner notes to your 2015 EP, Abandoning Noble Goals, that you admire singer Daniel Johnston’s ability to present exactly who he is through song, and that this is something you find difficult to achieve yourself. Does singing in a different language help with this at all?
Well, again, I have never released a song in another language that I’ve written, so I can’t answer that question directly. I think that every human being, regardless of the language through which they choose to communicate, is faced with the task of rendering intangible, deeply personal feelings into tangible, accessible speech. I mean in day-to-day life, not just in arty farty ‘confessional’ songwriting. Reading in other languages, whilst obviously as pleasurable as reading usually is, offers more incomplete solutions to a problem that is impossible to overcome. It’s helpful in the way that if you climb up a stepladder you’re probably a bit closer to the Earth’s outer orbit.
Your latest single, Pink Fruit, which was released in anticipation of your forthcoming album, Grapefruit, is a whole 16-and-a-quarter minutes long. David Bowie just did a similar thing. Who’s riding on whose coattails here?
I thought the noise surrounding that new David Bowie single was very peculiar for two reasons. First of all, it’s not new ground for him at all to write long pieces that eschew traditional song structure – you hear that his new record is going to be full of long, strange pieces and just think, “oh right, like Station to Station.” You get the impression that people were freaking out ’cause David Bowie had recorded the song, not because the song had been recorded… and that’s just sheer celeb idolatry rather than judging a piece’s innovative qualities on its own merits. In of itself, the song is territory covered by a huge number of artists before him and by Bowie himself.
I’d say exactly the same thing about Pink Fruit. Its length is nothing special and largely a failure of concision; I wouldn’t say that about every long song ever of course because there’s a lot to be said for the use of extended running times as a compositional process alongside the sounds contained therein, but a meaty song length is never ever ever something to aspire to. Write the damn thing first, see how long it is and justify its length. If you can’t, then shorten it. If you can’t shorten it, live with it.
Pink Fruit is an exceptional track, a whopping cavalcade of genre-busting anti-merriment. How did this song come about?
Initially the song was just that one riff in 7/8 that you hear nine times 12 minutes or so into the song for a quarter of an hour – then, I figured that would be really tedious. I think I wrote the last four minutes first, then the first four minutes, then the middle bit. The music and the lyrics came together over the course of a year or so.
I don’t think it’s anti-merry! I guess it’s not a very pleasant depiction of human beings. It’s got saucepans in it though, and they’re well merry.
We are looking forward to hearing your new material played live. Did you catch the Sanctum here in Bristol recently? A 24-hour live exhibit of sound for 24 straight days; hundreds of musicians and storytellers took part. Sanctum’s mission was to show Bristolians a new way of experiencing their city. How about with your music? Do you use sound as a way to cultivate new experiences for others?
Well, I mean, on the one hand musicians don’t have a responsibility to cultivate anything for anyone except themselves. I’m still in two minds about the idea of art as a selfless act. You mentioned Daniel Johnston; believe me when I say that what he has written has helped me immeasurably at moments in my life. But ultimately he’s doing it for himself. That kinda goes completely against what Andrey Tarkovsky said about his films: he didn’t believe in any of that, he was all about art being… about an individual trying to articulate their own truth of existence to a wider population in the hope that it will help enlighten them – to depict but also to transcend – but he’s no martyr, he did it because he loved cinema and because he wanted to find these truths for himself. You make art for yourself but if it lacks a certain resonance with other people then I think that affects its quality.
I’m trying to avoid a “oh I don’t know about that mate, I just write songs and if anyone likes them, then-” sort of answer, because I fucking hate that complete lack of responsibility with every fibre of my being. It’s pathetic and cowardly. It’s good to have an outlook on what you make with a mixture of thoughtfulness and modesty, and to try to find a way to assert a belief in the worth of what you’re making without turning it into something self-aggrandising. I take what I write very seriously but… yeah, I like the way Tarkovsky put it. There is a value in what I express because there is a value in human self-expression. Does that answer your question? Not really. Bristol’s great though, I hope I get to visit next year at some point. I’m in the middle of reading his book, Sculpting in Time, so that’s why I’m gushing about Tarkovsky. He can talk about the role of art to its audience with much more beauty and precision than I ever can, and I think his definition applies to him as much as it applies to anyone as much as it applies to me. So ye m8 don’t mind me u know just write sum songs init and if some1 else likes it then that’s a bonus m8, ye.
Kiran Leonard’s single, Pink Fruit, is available as a one-sided etched 12″ via Moshi Moshi. His album, Grapefruit, will be released on 25 March 2016.
Kiran Leonard tour dates:
24 March 2016 – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds – buy tickets
25 March 2016 – Fulford Arms, York – buy tickets
26 March 2016 – Stockton Calling, Georgian Theatre, Stockton – buy tickets
27 March 2016 – Cumberland Arms, Newcastle – buy tickets
28 March 2016 – Electric Circus, Edinburgh – buy tickets
30 March 2016 – Soup Kitchen, Manchester – buy tickets
31 March 2016 – Hare & Hounds, Birmingham – buy tickets
01 April 2016 – Bullingdon, Oxford – buy tickets
02 April 2016 – The Nest, Bath – buy tickets
04 April 2016 – The Lexington, London – buy tickets
05 April 2016 – Music Hall, Ramsgate – buy tickets
06 April 2016 – Portland Arms, Cambridge – buy tickets
07 April 2016 – The Bodega, Nottingham – buy tickets
09 April 2016 – Dim Swn, Cardiff – buy tickets
Artist: Kiran Leonard
Label: Moshi Moshi