Leon Vynehall invites us into his family heritage with profound musical genius
There is obviously a multitude of so many amazing pieces of music scaling history, yet it takes a truly special body of work to wedge its teeth into your skin so strongly – the emotional investment that ensues is almost painful. You want to nurture it, warmly smile at the highs and sob quietly as the instruments curate duller soundscapes. A soulful journey met when absorbing Leon Vynehall‘s astonishing debut LP, Nothing Is Still.
An atmospheric and meticulously textural piece, the album survives in a series of chapters, as it offers the aural counterpart to an accompanying novella co-written by Vynehall and Max Sztyber; documenting the musician’s recount of his grandparents’ emigration.
Enduring a seven day voyage over the seas from South East London to New York City, we gain access to the lives of Nan and Pops as they follow their hopes in living the “American Dream”. Facing the reality of the situation, a whole new journey evolves spiritually, and will conjure emotional resonance for the recipient along the way.
Incredibly in-depth and sublimely executed, Nothing Is Still instantly has become an extraordinarily important artefact of 2018. With a forthcoming short film to complete the package, we spoke deeply with Leon Vynehall on the incredible art he has crafted, the phenomenal personal history to engage with, the collaborators that gave it a louder voice and the live show we can’t wait to experience.
The album is your interpretation and feeling behind family history. Did you anticipate the idea of the album to be based off something so sentimental?
Yeah, that was the catalyst for creating this, it was a personal one and a family event, so it was always intrinsically going to be really personal. I think when something is so connected to you, you can kind of put as much as you can into it, and get a lot more out of it. So yeah, that was always the plan.
It’s a product of your emotional response to your grandparents’ emigration. Did that process of research become an obsession in itself, aside from the musical component?
“Obsession” might be the wrong word, but it definitely took a lot of time and effort. It was more intrigue than obsession I think. It was a pretty long process, I mean it’s taken me four and a half years up until this point, so it’s the longest I’ve ever worked on something before.
I sat down with my nan and did something not too dissimilar to what me and you are doing now. I recorded her, asked her questions, she’d tell me stories, I’d write them out and then out of those anecdotes and little snippets, me and Max Sztyber would timeline them out and make it into the story. That’s really how the basis for all of this started.
Did you only go by your family’s recount or did you hone into the context of the era from where the stories were born?
Oh yeah we definitely went into the history of the era. All of the dates are accurate and geographically fact checked; even down to the point where (I think it’s the chapter ‘Movements’) it talks about a Christmas tree, and we had to move the date around because the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza doesn’t go up until a certain date, so we had to change a few things within the chapter so that it matched up. It’s a fictional story based on true events; geographically and in a chronological sense, everything is accurate and was fact checked.
You’ve essentially made up a persona that wedges into this real timeframe.
Yeah for sure, definitely. The story is fictional, but it’s all based on real things; the emotions are very real. The only thing that’s different is Stephanie, the main character, who would be my nan actually has a miscarriage and that’s one of the main catalysts for change in the book. That miscarriage would have been my mum, so I’ve essentially written myself out of existence within the book, which is kind of strange to think about [laughs].
Was that to take you out of the novel?
No, not really, it was more that my nan was so incredibly homesick and worried about these what-ifs and what-nots of life back home, and what she was missing out on that she went back; but as we were writing out the story, it didn’t feel as dramatic enough, even though it was sort of hyperreal. So Max came up with the sadistic idea of writing me out of existence. That was more of a larger future event that would change the course of the story.
Has your nan listened to Nothing Is Still?
She has, and she’s read the book. She loves it, so that’s sort of job well done for me. She said she read the novella and was instantly planted back into New York, so that’s kind of the highest accolade I can get, really.
Did she find it strange reading about herself in such a form?
Oh yeah, totally. She’s completely flabbergasted. To put it in her own words, “Why would anyone want to write a story about little old me?” So yeah, she’s definitely perplexed by it all, but very grateful and pretty astonished by it all as well.
It’s not the first time you’ve crafted a collection of songs with family resonance. Is this coincidence or an intentional reoccurring theme in your songwriting?
With the record I put out in 2013 called Music For The Uninvited, that was about the tapes and the music my mum would play to me to and from our journeys to school, and just in the car in general. Family is an important thing to me, and I think whilst doing this for them, I’m also learning a lot about myself I suppose, and the process – especially with the Music For The Uninvited stuff, as I was sampling all of the music my mum would play to me, so when I was doing that I was learning how I have come to write music through osmosis listening to all of that stuff and then hearing it and then rehashing it, and then it coming out as a different thing.
Then with this one [Nothing Is Still] it was great, because it was just learning more about my family history, and actually learning more about my pops after he’d died through these stories. I knew him well, he was an amazing man. He was the first person to put a guitar in my lap and tell me what it was and what the strings do; what this chord was and that chord was. It’s funny learning more about him after his passing, and through these other stories, an also my nan; drawing more parallels to myself I suppose. It was illuminating.
It’s really special that you can also keep him alive in your songwriting from your perspective of him. Have you spoken to your nan in terms of a favourite song of her’s?
She told me she loves all of the songs. There was one chapter in particular in the book where my uncle Phil, her brother, visits her from the UK and comes to New York. When she was reading that, she said she was instantly back in the diner eating food with him and him being amazed at the portion sizes of the food.
How do you know when you’ve found the right individual sound to sew into your collated soundscapes? Do you go searching for them or do they find you?
You definitely have to search for them, but there also those happy accidents where something pops up and it’s just perfect for what you need. Like I said before, all of the information was in the book as to what I was going to write, so it was my job to decipher all of the information and turn it into music and musical imagery.
I printed out all of the chapters and I would go through all of the words and pick out phrases and statements as tools as to what to write, and the whole feeling and emotion and mood and pace of the chapters would determine what style of the song was going to be. With that in mind, all of the sounds were in the book. I just had to conjure them up out of thin air in front of me.
Is that how this record turned into this atmospheric, experimental body; because your EPs sound a lot more upbeat in comparison?
Yeah. I think it would have been wrong of me to do something dancefloor orientated with a record like this, I think that would be really crass. There’s nothing within the novella or within the stories that suggests it needs club fodder. I’ve always wanted to write a record like this, this has been brewing inside of me for a long time.
I’ve said this before, I understand that people would see it as a bit of a departure from what I’ve done before; but I think if you go back and listen to other records of mine, they’re kind of lidded with these downtempo or more ambient style of things. I think even within the more dancefloor stuff, I’ve always tried to write very texturally, and for the most part it’s never been about pure functionality.
I think the fact that it’s your debut full-length, and just how big the package is and how deep the whole history and story behind it is, I don’t think people will look at it like that. There’s so much depth to it, and it just makes so much sense for you to present it with all of these different textures and waves as you have.
I’m glad you said that [laughs], I would concur. There’s so much information that just putting a kick and an off-beat hi-hat with some body-moving electronics in there just wouldn’t fit.
It’s like a disservice almost, it’s just not quite appropriate.
Yeah! I think when you do something that is narrative-led or concept-based, you really have to show and do that to its full extent to present it as something like that. Especially with this sort of multi-medium piece that has a story at its core. If I were to come out and do that, I think it would be laughed off, and rightly so.
There’s also a short film coming out to accompany the novella and record. Could you tell us a bit about that?
We did this sort of cinematic video for ‘Envelopes’ and ‘Movements’. It’s going to be around 14-15 minutes long, there’s dialogue in it but it’s using a lot of shots that were within the music videos. There’ll be a different score to it and extra dialogue and extra shots in there as well.
Was there a particular sentimental reason for ‘Envelopes’ to be the leading single, as well as a part of the short film?
It kind of felt serendipitous really, to put that out. It was the first song that I had finished for the record, and it was the first chapter that had been finished writing. I think ‘Envelopes’ for me was the statement piece of the record as a whole. It felt good to me that it would be the first song to represent this larger package.
Especially the outro to that song, it’s very intense and very cinematic.
Yeah, that part gets very loud and it almost becomes this big wall of sound, and it’s to represent in the chapter where she [Stephanie] is saying that she’s staring at these envelopes but it all becomes a daydream as her mind starts wandering. That massive wall of sound is to represent when you go into that daydream and everything else becomes this white noise around you, and you suddenly come out of it.
What was the whole song about, just out of curiosity?
The chapter itself is Stephanie and Derek – the two main characters in the book fly back to the UK because they’d been told that Derek’s father had passed away. He wasn’t really very close with his father, but Stephanie always tried to keep in contact with him so she would send him letters as to what they were up to, to try and keep him informed. She was always encouraging him to get in contact and if he ever wanted to come out to America.
They go back there and he was living in a Royal British Legion care home. They go back to his room to collect his things and they open a drawer to find the letters that she had been sending him over the past few years, but they’re all completely unopened. It really then dawns on her how much pain they put him through. He had no family left, really. He was divorced from his wife of many years and his son had left to go to the US. I think in that instance, it had really hit Stephanie, you know, she starts to draw parallels with her own family and thinks, “Am I doing this to my own family?” That’s when the doubt and the regret and the what-ifs begin to seep in, and that slowly begins to change her perception of this American dream that she’s following.
In the song, there’s lots of reversed sounds and that’s to represent the very contemplative, reflective mood that Stephanie has when she’s seeing these letters and collecting Derek’s father’s stuff. It’s very slow, and it’s almost like a death Waltz as it’s about loss and grieving. Then there’s obviously that bit at the end that I was telling you about. It’s quite a sombre chapter, there’s not that much optimism in it. It’s a bittersweet song that you can kind of hear in the strings – they’re lazy and they’re sort of sweet but they also have this morbid undertone to them all and that’s kind of like the chapter.
So that man in the chapter would have been your great-grandfather?
Yeah, I never knew him as he obviously died before I was born. All I know of him is that my pops had a very turbulent relationship with him, or a kind of non-existent one, really, that my nan always tried to hold together – hence why she would always send these letters back to him and why she was so devastated. She realised that he had never opened them and perhaps realised the full extent of the impact of their departure.
So literally every part of music that you’ve written for this record relates to something. It sounds so meticulous.
Yeah, whether it’s like figuratively or literally directly, it’s all connected in some way or another. The whole project is really about how all of these different mediums have this intrinsic relationship and how they connect together and how when they’re all together it gives you this wider scope of what the story is. Yet, also that it’s modular in the sense that if you just picked up the book, I would hope that you could just enjoy the book on its own for what it is, and the same for the music and the film. All together it just makes a lot more sense.
You’ve got a run of dates locked in throughout a stack of countries. Can Australia expect a visit from you sometime soon?
Yes. I’m not allowed to say what for yet but fingers crossed I’m bringing the live show out to Australia, and I’ll be DJing out there too. It will be announced in due course [laughs].
I’m going to guess Laneway…
No it’s not Laneway, actually. I would like to do that festival, but it’s not Laneway. Good guess though!
How will the live show play out?
We’ve already done six of them – we’ve done three of them in Europe and a three-night sold out residency at a venue in London. The live show is basically a combination of all of the three mediums put together presented live with me on stage and three other players.
So, for the London shows we took over the venue for three days and we had the main hall which was where the shows took place. We had the visuals that went along to that where there would be cuts from the film. There’s a visual artist called Morgan Beringer who you should definitely check out, who does all these incredible, abstract sort of melted versions of footage. We gave him loads of footage from the films and the videos that we’d shot; and also the polaroids from my nan and pops’ time out in America that they’d taken. He does this mad stuff where he like renders them for days and days on these machines, and it almost looks like you’re on mushrooms, it’s fucking mad.
In the foyer, we had a small photography exhibition with all of the original photographs from my nan and pops of that time; and then there was another room which had an audio / video installation that I had done which had readings from the book, found footage from New York in the ‘60s and I had done a sort of abstracted, weird soundtrack to that with little fragments of the record in there that I had skewed up.
So that’s the plan, it’s bringing everything together and then presenting it in a more physical, tangible format.
Leon Vynehall‘s stunning album, Nothing Is Still is available now via Ninja Tune.
Words by Hannah Galvin.
Photo credit: Phil Sharp.
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