Interview: Kiran Leonard
Songwriting meets an incredibly prolific young UK songwriter who unashamedly draws his influences from some of music’s more leftfield auteurs
his time last year, the sound of expectation building up around a certain young London artist had grown from a scattering of whispers to a palpable echo of excitement, the sort that sees people turn around as they overhear a stranger mention the name of the artist. The name of that artist was Archie Samuel Marshall or, as he’s more commonly known, King Krule.
Though the music he writes shares more with 60s psychedelia and Zappa than 70s darkwave and Edwyn Collins, and though the noises being made about him are yet to pierce the air, Kiran Leonard has more in common with King Krule than immediately meet the eye. The Oldham teen is another brilliant young songwriter, full of ideas and rich in creative potential. He’s also frighteningly prolific: any artist who considers an output of three records as the year has just breached the three-quarter mark slow, wins the Songwriting seal of approval for productivity.
Though his name may not be known to you yet, be sure to pencil it carefully onto the walls of your mind. Having seen his single Dear Lincoln spend four weeks on BBC Radio 6 Music playlist, and with his superb album Bowler Hat Soup to be released on November 4, Kiran Leonard may be at the beginning of something special.
We at Songwriting loved your debut single Dear Lincoln, packed full of energy and ideas. What inspired that?
“Well, I wrote Dear Lincoln when I was 14. The lyrics are completely nonsensical: they sort of just act as an auxiliary instrument with syllables that flow in the right way. It was kind of inspired by theatrical late 60s sort of stuff. Lyrically, I guess it was like how Captain Beefheart or Cedric Bixler Zavala’s lyrics sound, except there’s nothing going on underneath. It really is gibberish!”
How important an influence has Captain Beefheart been on your songwriting and who else has been significant in shaping how write your music?
“It took a friend of mine a three-day acid trip to understand Trout Mask Replica… without the use of hallucinogenics, it took me a lot longer! The first Captain Beefheart records I really enjoyed were Safe As Milk and Doc At The Radar Station. I first heard TMR when I was 12 or so, and didn’t really understand it, but it’s a favourite of mine now. I see it more like a record by the Magic Band with Captain Beefheart than the other way round; that isn’t a record he could have made on his own. The transcription and arranging was all Drumbo, interpreting the Captain’s mad scrambling on the piano
“Frank Zappa was a huge influence on my music, and on my life, from the age of about 13. I’d say he’s probably the key influence on my music. For the music on Bowler Hat Soup, I’d also cite American composers such as Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Sun Ra and Charles Mingus, and groups like Deerhoof, Henry Cow, Radiohead, Autechre, The Residents, etc.”
“I doubt any song on the album took more than 15 minutes to complete”
Beefheart’s use of others to formulate the musical ideas in his head is a very interesting facet of his songwriting. How do you turn the ideas you have into songs?
“I usually write pieces in annoying ways. The opening idea for a song is normally what comes first, and the closing of it normally comes second. Then I spend ages trying to figure out what to put in the middle. I always write lyrics last.
“I used to not spend a great deal of time on lyrics. I doubt any song on Bowler Hat Soup took more than 15 minutes to complete from having written the first line, with various pedantic amendments made during recording. But I just didn’t take lyricism very seriously when I wrote that album, which was over two years ago now, when I was 15 mostly. I spend more time on them now, it will take a few sessions over the course of a few days, but I don’t write as quickly as I used too, unfortunately.
“I would normally manage six or seven records in a year. Last year I managed one official full length, a C30 cassette, two EPs, a mix tape, a compilation and two live albums. This year I’m not going to manage as much. Hopefully six by the year’s end, not counting Bowler Hat Soup, which technically came out in January 2012 in its first edition, but has since been remixed and remastered for physical issue. I’m on three at the moment, so I admit it’s an optimistic goal to double it in two and a half months.”
That’s a very impressive level of productivity. What gives you the drive to be so prolific?
“I have a lot of situational things in my favour that other musicians who may take longer on their records don’t have. I live in the countryside with no neighbours for a good 500 yards, so I can record everything at home, loud acoustic drum kit and all. I don’t have any need for a studio. I also come from a musical background, so there are instruments in the house already that I can use along with my own.
“I still live at home with my parents, still being at college, so it’s not like I have commitments with work or anything. There’s extra college work I suppose, but I find a way to work around it.
So do you think your songs would be different if you lived in the middle of a city?
“Well, that’s something that’s going to happen next year when I go to university, and I’ll be interested to see where I end up and what my music becomes as a result. I still don’t really want to use a studio, because they cost money and I like being able to drift onto the computer at any time and just tweak things and add the odd line and replace this and that, without the stress of a time limit and the financial burden of hiring a proper studio. I’m excited to see how I’ll adapt to the circumstances. I guess I’ll just have to write quieter stuff… or record loudly and fast before I get evicted!”
Ha, so your university recordings will either be like The Clash or Nick Drake?!
“I’d like to write on manuscript more, and make music that’s more intricate, with a more diverse set of instruments – not just limited to what I can play plus a few friends.”
“I’m 18 and I don’t know what the f*ck I’m talking about!”
When you say intricate, what direction then do you see your music taking? Do you see it developing down a particular route?
“The record I’m making at the moment is called Grapefruit. It’s around the same length as Bowler Hat Soup but has seven tracks. It was originally going to be quite minimalist, like Swans or Shellac, but it’s gradually got more and more complex. I wrote most of Bowler Hat Soup on piano but Grapefruit is a guitar record except for the first and last track. It’s thicker, basically.
“As for music after that… like I said, I’ll adapt to my circumstances. What I’m excited about is that my music is all influence and little experience – I’m not in denial about that. I’m 18 and I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about! I’m not cut off from the rest of the world, I’ve done a little independent travelling, but what do I know about what’s going to happen? I don’t know anything, so I sure as hell don’t know how my songwriting will develop. But I know it’s always about a reflection of your circumstances. It’s a way out of your head and you can do it through thick metaphors or if you’re really brave (and I’m not) you can just be no bullshit and completely frank.”
Where does the title Bowler Hat Soup come from?
“The phrase just entered my head while I was on a walk! No interesting story around it. It was initially going to be a two-hour record I was making with a cast of nine or 10 other people, like a theatrical musique concrete record with some band improvisation interspersed throughout. That group fell apart, so it never came to fruition and I adopted the record’s name for this.”
You’ve mentioned some diverse influences, some of which are quite old. Who are the current songwriters and artists that you admire? Any we might be surprised by?
“Currently, Mark E Smith, David Longstreth, Chris Cohen, Sun City Girls, the improvisational duo Borbetomagus, the Nigerian songwriter William Onyeabor, Minutemen, Vivaldi, Alice Coltrane. I’m especially into Mark E Smith – I’m listening to The North Will Rise Again a lot. The Fall are great: they are who they are, zero bullshit. Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand put it very well: they’re really great but if anyone else tries to do stuff like them you’re just like, ‘You’re just trying to sound like The Fall, fuck off!’.”
“If songwriting is a life choice, you’re doing it wrong”
What tips would you have for any aspiring young songwriters out there – those who might be considering it as a life choice?
“I’m not sure you want me to answer that… my thoughts on writing songs for a living are mostly quite negative. The fact is that if you’re considering it as a life choice, you’re doing it wrong. If I end up doing it as a profession, it’s because I will be sucked into it if I reach a point where nothing else will make me happy. It’s not a rational decision, certainly.”
Sorry, when I say life choice, I mean more those who have ideas but are maybe afraid to let them out; to share their ideas…
“Oh okay, yeah that’s totally different! I don’t want to say, ‘Don’t be a songwriter for a living, it’s shit’, but I don’t write songs for a living; I can’t answer that question properly. But sharing is fun. If you’re shy, use a pseudonym. I have in fact released a number of cassettes of French-language electro-pop under a pseudonym because I don’t want my friends to find out about them and no, I’m not disclosing the pseudonym. You’ll have to search for them.”
Kiran Leonard’s Bowler Hat Soup is out on Hand Of Glory on November 4, but in the meantime we at Songwriting recommend that you get your ears around his single Dear Lincoln, which is available on Leonard’s Bandcamp. You can read our review of Dear Lincoln here.