Wise, refreshing and critically acclaimed, what more do you want in an up-and-coming musician?
“Deerhoof, Shellac, Dirty Projectors… the end of Eraserhead where the baby dies and the whole of Henry’s apartment fills with mashed potato” – these are just some of the influences Kiran Leonard tells us about for his second album Grapefruit. The list goes on to hail the set design and costumes in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III and having a lack of professional percussion equipment to experiment with. “Anybody who’s ever bought a cabasa is a fool. Just wrap a piece of sandpaper round a block of wood and scratch the surface with a washing-up brush. It’s exactly the same sound.”
It’s safe to say that when most of us were fresh out of finishing our A-Levels, we hadn’t released a 16 track, critically acclaimed album. But then we’re not Kiran Leonard. An early starter, Kiran’s first release, Bowler Hat Soup was produced when he was 17, and even now at just 20 years old, speaks with a wisdom regarding his work that would take most people years to cultivate.
Grapefruit is the self-recorded follow-up to his initial success, which consists of 8 surreal titles, holding a combined sound of grunge, noise and ballads a la Grinderman.The album is heralded by a 16 minute long lead-track called Pink Fruit, which will be released as a strictly-limited one-sided 12” vinyl single early next year.
We live in an oversharing era with increasing pressure from a PR perspective on artists to remain scripted and say the ‘right’ thing. Refreshingly, Kieran has a blatant disregard for this dull philosophy, and dedicated his latest work to a school foe in conceited fashion: “to the boy who used to call me a long-haired f***ot and punch me in the kidneys in biology class… this one goes out to you”
Your career started when you were just 17, which is very young, do you think that’s influenced how you write?
I… don’t know? Sorry, I know that’s a rubbish answer, and a fucking appalling answer to start an interview with. But I don’t think my career has had any impact on the way I write. I don’t think that starts to happen until you’re Taylor Swift or something and your career takes off to the point where it starts having an effect on the way you think and see yourself in day to day life. I still write and record on my own at home, in pretty much the same way I always have.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist?
I think it’s important to ingest a lot of art – music, but also stuff from other mediums – and take it in perceptively and learn from it. I also think self-evaluation is crucial, so you don’t get lost up your own arse or find yourself just going through the motions. I’ve always found it helpful to listen to old material every once in a while, and not lose track of things you’ve done that you’re proud of and you can re-use, or forget mistakes you’ve made so you can avoid them altogether or work on improving them. Basically I think self-awareness and open-mindedness are really conducive for growth.
The guardian wrote that one of your tracks sounded like a hardcore band playing a show tune, which I think sounds pretty amazing, how did you react to that?
I remember that feature really clearly! That was one of the first times I was written about on a big-shot website. I guess it’s natural to have some reservations about the stuff people write about you, even when it’s positive… like, a comparison to a band you actually hate, or a forced simile that makes you cringe a little. I like the phrase you’ve quoted a lot though: I guess that journalist is just trying to reference the hyperactivity of Bowler Hat Soup, but… the fact that it’s hyperactivity with pianos. That’s basically the same as saying ‘hardcore show tune’, right?
You’ve expressed a love for poetry before, specifically for poets like Anna Akhmatova and Manuel Bandeira, do you think they have influenced your music?
I mean… that was just a list I put together for National Poetry Day a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t really start reading lots of poetry until I started extensively studying it at university a year or so ago, and Grapefruit was finished by the time I began my degree. I did write a piece about a few of my favourite writers for a week-long series of concerts for Manchester Central Library last November, and the last movement of that was about Bandeira. I fucking adore him; it’s a shame his stuff’s not widely available in English. He can be hilarious and brutally tragic and poignant in one fell swoop, and in the plainest language. But, certainly with regards to the stuff on Grapefruit, I was more inspired by songwriters, particularly Daniel Johnston, Kate Bush, Sufjan Stevens, Captain Beefheart, and Cedric Bixler-Zavala (because why have a song make sense when you can just string cool-sounding phrases together ?? ^_^)
Have you always known what you wanted to do?
Thanks for putting so much faith in my decision making! I still don’t know what I want to do, and I presume by that you mean do for a living. I don’t see music as a choice in that regard… as if at the moment I don’t ‘do’ music because it’s not my profession and then one day I’ll just say, “OK I’m doing music now” and then I’ll have started doing it. I already do music, and I always have done and (god willing) I always will, and I might do it professionally, but I don’t think that’s a decision you can make when you’re twenty. Fuck knows what will happen.
What’s the best bit about making music?
I think that because music is unable to rely as much on tangible, linguistic profundity, like films or novels can tap into with greater ease, it has a wider scope for eliciting intangible, almost physical, pleasurable sensations that are beyond verbal descriptions, and it’s fun looking for a chord or a texture that approaches eliciting that sensation. I guess that sounds a bit wanky. What I mean is… OK, I can’t explain why Scriabin is as moving to me as, I don’t know, ee cummings. You can kind of explain why ee cummings or FG Lorca is beautiful because poets express things verbally and the beauty’s easily analysed and in some cases almost objective; Scriabin is just chords, but they’re chords tapping into this weird, indescribable sensation that, in my opinion, music has a stronger ability to reach. Obviously with literature there is always this element of the indescribably moving but I think what makes music particularly fun is how the majority of its appeal is ultra-linguistic, and purely sensory and almost instinctive.
Is there anything you’d change about your career path so far?
Again, the use of the word ‘career’… I promise I’m not trying to be one those smarmy ‘it’s just about the music, maaan!’ sort of people. But I suppose that’s one thing I’m very satisfied with, the un-careery way that I still produce music. I still like to self-release stuff online for free, for example, which I’ve done since I was 12.
For someone so successful at such an early age, it’s interesting you haven’t signed to a major label. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
If you’re asking if I have a “fuck the majors” sort of philosophy, it’s not quite that. They serve a purpose for people with a particular type of dream that I don’t share. I like to try and accomplish what I want as simply as possible, and major labels do not operate simplistically. Or flexibly, or very ethically.
One of your songs is 16 minutes long, which is a very bold move, tell us about that?
On my previous LP most of the songs were around two minutes long and very densely packed. I like writing longer songs sometimes as a contrast, because there’s more space to develop certain motifs, and remove them and re-interpolate them later on in the piece, and experiment with repetition and the ways that challenging perseverance can affect the way a listener interprets a piece of music. I was thinking recently about the title track from Swans’ The Seer and the weird effect time has on the motifs in that piece. Isn’t it strange how the final section of “The Seer” is so much more gratifying when it’s preceded by a quarter-hour of thundering, sustained, dissonant chords? Like you’ve had to trudge through all this abstraction to get to the groovy bit; like you’ve been rewarded for persevering. It just wouldn’t sound as good if those final four minutes were a standalone track. Long songs allow you to explore stuff like that, I suppose.
Who would you say are you biggest musical influences?
Hearing Frank Zappa when I was 13 changed the way I thought about playing and writing music. I know that’s a bit of a cliché but literally … I’d say he’s important as an influence particularly because I rarely if ever revisit his work but so much of what he did still subconsciously finds its way into what I do (a fetishising of odd time signatures + structures, musique concrète, use of dialogue, aspiring to virtuosity and playfulness in equal measure, a lack of regard for genre distinctions, varying your output…). Like, he is just a part of the way I think about music, whether I like it or not, permanently printed into my brain.
WORDS: Lizzy Nicholson