Kieran Leonard's EP,"Scapegoat" will be released on October 4th,
November 2nd, December 2nd and December 31st 2009. You can
download it from itunes or Amazon, or direct at
www.kieranleonardmusic.com. Kieran will be playing in and
around London this autumn, and if you're lucky, he'll make it to
other parts of Britain and further afield. Watch his myspace for
gigs and to hear some music:
www.myspace.com/kieranleonardmusic. In addition to his Sunday
residency, the Gaslight, he'll be playing Tommy Flynns (September
5th), The Dublin Castle (17th September), The Stag (27th
September), Juicebox in Watford (2nd October), Water Rats (25th
October) and Proud Galleries (8th November). On 11th September
he'll be doing a BBC Radio 6 Music Session. If you want to know
more about Instigate Debate, go to www.instigatedebate.com.
Kieran Leonard looks as if he's stepped straight out of 1969. Stick thin, matted long
hair, beads and flowing shirts. He has an intensity about him that's palpable, is
incredibly well read, and clearly thinks a lot about life, music and culture. Scratch the
surface and you find a warm smile, and a highly developed sense of the absurd. And
so it is with his music that's attracting increasing interest in his home city of London.
Angry, thought-provoking stuff, jam packed with references from Shakespeare to
Jay-z. An afternoon interview with Kieran was not destined to be short and sharp, but
rather a delightful meander through considered reflections on music, politics,
performance and modern times...
TBS: When did you start writing songs?
KL: I can remember that vividly. I was 13, and there was a David Bowie retrospective,
and my mum insisted that I watch it. All the way from Ziggy through to whatever he's
doing now. At 13 it lay beyond my understanding. I didn't know how to react to this
man. And I felt sort of awkward, but really compelled by it. I'd been playing guitar,
messed around with Beatles songs since I'd been about 8 or 9. I'd written bits and
pieces but they weren't songs and I thought, "I'm gonna get up and write some Bowie
Bowie made me want to write. That idea that you could become somebody else
through songs, inhabit other characters. I thought "I'm gonna try that, and see what it's
like to make somebody up and write about that'". I wrote about a 100 songs in 6
months. That was where it began.
It was definitely a journey, and once I got those songs and formed my first band "Indigo
Star", I spent an entire summer recording every day in this guy, Pete's, bedroom. His
dad was a bit of a muso, and he goes "oh you should try a bit of Pink Floyd, you should
try a bit of this..." and suddenly the musical world opened up to me and before you
know it you're writing much more complex songs. Then that band sort of dissolved into
"The Drugstore Romeos" which was my first real band, where I started gigging and
playing Chinnery's in Southend with Sam Duckworth from "Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly"
TBS: Really? I hadn't realized you'd known him from before.
KL: Yeah, he was in the year above me. I used to play every Saturday with "The Drug
Store Romeos", and one Saturday, The Libertines turned up and that was the first time
I saw Peter (Doherty) and Carl (Barât).
Moby Dick vs
TBS: What kind of music were you listening to then?
KL: My social group were listening to Seattle bands and the Pixies and there was very little else until The Libertines came along, that was when I was about 17, 18,
just before I went to drama school. That changed everything.
TBS: From what you've told me before, as a child you've travelled a lot, you've lived in different parts of the United States, you've lived in Britain. How do you think
that has influenced your music?
KL: The easiest way to answer that is to say that your musical influences are actually responses to what's going on, what your state of mind is. I'd say that travelling
around probably drew me towards certain kinds of music. There is no way I'd listen to so much Dylan or Neil Young if I hadn't had that sort of "Highway 61" way of
looking at the world, and never really having roots, and all the music that I listen to now has got an element of that loose-footedness. So, moving around a lot in
America and Europe meant that I was drawn to artists that were also on the road. And the same with my literary influences, Kerouac and Hemingway, people not
writing about a place but about a time, and moving around that time.
TBS: Your songs are littered with Blake, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Whitman, and of course, Harold Pinter. That proliferation of literary referencing is quite striking
about your music.
KL: I spend lots of time trying to explain this to myself. I think one of the things that drove me to start writing again, certainly the new cluster of songs that Iâ€™m
playing at the moment, was a frustration that there was nothing around me, no cultural icons, nothing that meant anything to me. And my heroes, my gods, were
literary writers, they were like saints. Through my adolescence I was worshiping people like Kerouac and Shakespeare and Marlowe and Pinter because they
seemed to be offering me something that I could not get anywhere else. They were really my north, south, east and west, they were my moral compass. When I
was trying to write songs that spoke to people I thought "˜well, there's nothing around me that I can grab hold of to illustrate these ideas apart from the people that I
reference and the work that I reference" and now it's such a thrill that there are kids that come to gigs and not only ask me what records to listen to, but what Harold
Pinter play they should read next or "do you like Graham Greene?" or "who is Ahab?" and that is really exciting for me because I can't imagine my day to day life
without Ahab in it. I populated my inner world with these literary characters and literary greats and without it I wouldn't know where I was.
TBS: Which links it to what you talked about before with Bowie and his characters...
KL: Exactly. Music is almost the most disposable of products. A song is meant to be a transient thing, whereas literature... you can build a house out of books. You
literally can. Books are big things to hang songs off.
TBS: Just going back a bit, while travelling around as a kid, was that one of the things you did, read a lot?
KL: Oh, completely. I lived vicariously through it. Having no stability and no structure in my day to day life and my family life, a thousand years of literature to retreat
into gave me some stability and structure. When I was on my own for long periods at a time without any social interaction, I could feed myself from those books.
TBS: So given your statement about the transience of music and the solidity of literature, why aren't you writing poetry and novels?
KL: I don't know. I don't understand that at all. As I was saying, I've wrestled with myself to explain. Saying music is transient isn't a criticism, it's a quality that music
has. A novel, every person experiences individually. You can talk about it, but it's an individual thing, whereas there is a Dionysian element in music which means
you can lead a tribe with the right song, and my cultural frustrations, and social frustrations... you write a book about it and maybe in 20 years... But for a young
man full of blood and spit, music offered me that chance to grab hold of people and do it immediately and efficiently. Time will tell.
TBS: Songs like "Jerusalem" have a very clear message. Do you see your music as a vehicle for social and political change?
KL: Not really a vehicle for social and political change. I see it as trying to raise awareness. I don't think you can change anything, really, with music. The 60s
taught us that. But you can generate awareness of things. And you can try and elicit a response with music. I don't think "Jerusalem" could necessarily cause a
revolution, but I think it might get more young people thinking about things they take for granted and don't even realise are symptoms of a failing system in this
country. In that way maybe it can instigate change but I think the music is always the rush that accompanies the change, I don't think it causes the change.
Did the Pre-Raphaelites know what they were going to change about England when they were painting? Did Millais realise what "Ophelia" was going to do? No. He
just wanted to fulfil his creative impetus. He was trying to scratch a creative itch, as it were. And in the long run, that one painting changed art irrevocably. But at
the point of actual instigation it was him fulfilling a creative need within himself.
TBS: Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood did have an extensively change-driven agenda.
KL: Okay, yeah, in that sense, I'd say I do have an agenda for change. But I'd like that to be on a personal level for each individual that comes to listen to my
music. I'm not writing protest songs, I'm not writing songs that are meant to provoke large groups of people into reacting to a situation. I mean, my agenda is
change. I'm disaffected and disgruntled about a lot of current realities in this country and across the world. I think singing about William Blake is far more
dangerous than singing about current social problems. Does that make sense? If they go away and read William Blake, that is a vehicle for change, because it
means that they're doing that rather than watching "Big Brother" or buying "FHM" or believing everything they read in a newspaper. I think the message that is
tattooed into the songs is possibly the change, not me, not the process... I'm just writing things that will maybe turn people onto things rather than tell them... it's
hard to explain. I don't really want to articulate it too closely because that will inevitably change the music. I want the music to be slightly difficult... I'm trying to think
of the best way of saying this. To define it could damage it. So I don't want to define it.
Songs are a spell. A very finely honed spell. I'm trying to write spells, that make people realize that William Blake and Harold Pinter and other literary characters
that I often reference, were all wizards and spell casters. And they cast spells on the culture of their time. I'd say they were just in me and they had to get out.
TBS: What about your participation in things like "Love Music, Hate Racism" and "Instigate Debate". That's not so much about the content of your music but what
you are doing with it. How you're being an activist as a musician.
KL: "Being an activist as a musician". Now there is a sentence that I don't like very much. I think those things are mutually exclusive. The reason I'm involved with
LMHR and ID is because I have got a conscience. I think I have... anyway... most of the time. And because I make a living out of bardic response to the world . And
if I'm going to do that it feels like I should stand up and try and do anything I can. Whatever playing a gig for either of those organisations does - because I'm not
sure what it actually does - but whatever it does, at least it's me actively and outwardly showing to people that listen to my music that I will screw my courage to the
sticking place. I don't want to talk about what those gigs do because I think it's a very complicated thing. But I do it because if it means that five more people come
to an event where there are important issues being discussed - whether it's like the Stoke gig trying to prevent the British National Party from being elected, that's
very important. If me being there means a few more people come and they're going to stay and listen to the message of the day, that's fantastic.
TBS: I think saying "I believe this and I am therefore prepared to stand up and say or sing I believe" is a form of activism...
KL: You see that as activism? Okay. I just don't like the term activism because it generates a whole lot of other ideas that I don't think is the domain of music. If I
wanted to be an activist, a proper activist, I'd be in politics. Or I'd be working for the UN or, actually, on the front line of an organisation trying to do that. I think it's
very easy for musicians given the position to dip into these things, very convenient when they've got an album coming out. And I resent that. I find it mercantile and
avaricious. I have a lot of respect for people who work for those organisations day in and day out. But as a musician I don't want to be known as that musician who
just turns up.
TBS: Tell me a bit about "Instigate Debate".
KL: As a group, we came up with a concept that we thought would potentially improve the media. The group is Jon McClure, Mark Donne, Carl Barât, Drew
McConnell. We were getting increasingly frustrated at the way the media generates so many problems with consumerism, with political inactivity, with pretty much
anything you can throw a stick at. And we wanted to make the media and celebrity more accountable, and that's why we did it.
Photo by Jonathan Perry
Interview by Alice Bigelow
TBS: When I first knew your music, you were a solo musician and you've recently started working with "The Horses", your band, so tell me a bit about how you see
"The Horses", and that transition from solo artist to somebody fronting a band.
KL: I started off playing primarily solo because I wanted to reconnect with that idea of standing in front of a group of people and learning, which I did on two tours,
how to deliver as simply as possible a story to people and get them to respond. The most direct way of doing that was to get an acoustic guitar and stand there and
sing. And then it reached a point where I was writing more and more and I wanted to push things. I wanted to expand the envelope slightly and the obvious way to
do that was to find the right band. It took a long time to find the right band. "The Horses" are probably the best band in the world. They are the powerhouse. They
deliver the message of some of these new, later songs where I need as much power and as much pace as I can get. For what I wanted to do next I realised I
needed more horsepower. If you want to play Shea Stadium you need to make a massive racket.
TBS: And now we're sitting in the downstairs room of the pub in Archway where you put on the "Gaslight", a regular Sunday night residency. How did that come
KL: I guess, two things to say about that which is if I was going to be the best canoe maker in the world I'd try and make canoes as regularly as possible and I
realised that to get songs to the point where I wanted to deliver them, to reach that apotheosis of delivery, I had to do it week in week out. I also wanted to offer my
fan base a chance to really connect with things and that communal thing of coming every week and seeing me share sketches of songs, reinterpret songs, playing
in a very relaxed atmosphere where the audience are as much part of the performance as I am. There is literally no boundary between performer and audience
which is just a thrill to me. It's an old fashioned idea, the residency, it's what musicians used to have to do and I believe in it... the industry made everybody forget
the amount of hard work it takes to be any good at this. Nobody said to Holman Hunt "Just paint one picture and we'll take care of the rest and oh, can you do
another one next year? That's fantastic". Which is how the music industry works right now. "You've got one song? Oh you've got four songs. We'll do something
with those". I like that idea of having to really build up and craft something. It's as much about me finding what I'm trying to do as it is delivering something to the
audience. It's supposed to be like a workshop so I can invite my friends and contemporary songwriters to join me and play, there's no pressure here, the world's
hardly watching, various people come down, whether it's Carl Barât or Lee Mavers, or whoever it is and they can try things out or experiment. There's an element to
what I do where I think that if you're a carpenter, you don't make chairs for other carpenters, you make them for other people to sit on, but it's quite nice to
occasionally get together with other carpenters and discuss how you make chairs. And it's really good fun as well.
TBS: You talked earlier about the education for you as a musician of touring. How is that different from "Gaslight"?
KL: Well touring is a very strange thing. I'm sure not many musicians would own up to it, but you have to abandon personal identity for the tour, because the pace
of travel and the regime and rigmarole of performing each night in a different place means nothing is tied down, so all you have, or all I found I had, on the two
national tours I did last year, were the songs, so you live really intimately with the music because you haven't got a fixed abode, you haven't got a fixed group of
people around you. The only constant is the music and that taught me to make sure you're really writing about what it is to be yourself. It was great... it revealed to
me how important it is to write about who you really are because if you're singing songs that don't actually mean anything to you on tour you're really going to
become very miserable very quickly. If you're singing night in, night out to a different audience in a different place about yourself and about what you feel that's
fantastic. It's about testing the songs by fire and it's very, very different from doing a residency. A residency is like home turf. You invite people into your lounge; it
feels to me it's my place to do whatever I want. If I want to wear a funny hat one week I'll wear a funny hat, if I want to wear a poncho one week, I'll wear a poncho. It
doesn't really matter, whereas when you're on tour, all of those things fall apart and you're left with your songs 'cos the only constant is the material you're playing.
At "The Gaslight" you can come twenty times in a row but you'll see twenty different things. I've played there when I've been absolutely exhausted but then a third of
the way through found myself enjoying it more than any other gig I've ever played before, and sometimes I've just pushed myself to the point where I don't really
know what I'm going to sing, I really don't know what the next verse is because it's written somewhere in the back of my mind. I'd never go out on stage on tour with
a song like that. I'd never walk out on stage and think "Oh it doesn't even have a title but I'll try this", whereas "The Gaslight" is a sketch pad, and I've found some
of my best songs by doing that, by taking that risk, and to have an opportunity to take those sort of risks is really valuable.
TBS: Now you've started recording some of this material, tell me a bit about that process and what that's been like, because that's the other end of the spectrum,
capturing something at a point in time and stopping it evolving.
KL: Yeah, which frustrates me a little bit, but the way I get round that is by deliberately engendering in the recording process an element of risk and creating as
heightened a state in the studio as I possibly can, by saying to the engineer that we take two shots at this and if it's not there we don't record the song again. If you
know you've got twenty takes to get it right then no one is going to deliver properly. You don't walk on stage thinking "oh if I don't get this solo right I'll get the next
one". It doesn't happen. And I deliberately try to make the studio a very unsafe place. I think safe studios make for bad bands. The more challenged you are in
the studio the more you're going to pull something out musically and that's what I've been doing in the last weeks recording with the band.
TBS: So tell me about the four songs you've recorded and are going to release starting this autumn.
KL: Starting this autumn with the first full moon of October. October 4th that is. The collection of songs is called "The Scapegoat". It's four songs, which are going to
be released as chapters on each full moon, that build into a box set. Each of the songs is about a form of scapegoating: "Song For The Doomed", "Jerusalem",
"Oedipus Rex" and "King My Father" - the character or point of view in each of those songs is different but the moral emotional bankruptcy is always the same.
That's the thread, the damning red thread that runs through all four of them. Carl Barât produced it and we recorded them in two days. Chris Sheldon, who
engineered it, and is known for producing Radiohead and The Foo Fighters, has brought out all my harder sensibilities and I'm really excited to get them out there,
the time feels just right now.
Art by Michelle Misfit
Photo by Jonathan Perry
TBS: And how will people be able to get them?
KL: From all good computers. From iTunes, from Amazon,
from my website where you'll be able to download each track
as the full moon rises on the evening of the release date,
that section of the website will become live and you'll also be
able to get your quarter of the overall image that makes up
the massive image of "Scapegoats" which is a very
interesting piece of art put together with Aimee Grundell, and
liner notes and whatnot, and you'll be able to order a box for
the set or get it in various shops around London. I'm giving
them to charity shops and good book shops, you go and get
this actual box for like 50 pence and you'll fill that up and
then by New Years Day you'™ll have the complete set.
"The Scapegoats" will be available from October 4th, 2009 from
iTunes, Amazon or www.Kieranleonardmusic.com
But in terms of me turning up and doing a gig for “Instigate Debate”, it’s like someone
needing a door painted. I can paint a door, I’ll do it. Music and politics have a very strange
relationship because music is responsive, politics is kind of... conscriptive, in a sense. It lays
down the agenda and music doesn’t really – or shouldn’t – have an agenda. And the second
you start intertwining music and politics it can appear that your music has an agenda. And I
don’t think any art should be used for an agenda. I go to ID and LMHR events because as a
young man who’s lived this far into the 21st century, I feel it’s what I should do, my craft is
being a songwriter and performer and so I use that to help a cause that I feel needs my
support as a human being but I don’t feel my craft is particularly supportive of those causes.
So that’s why I struggle with the idea of being an activist as a musician. As an individual, I’m
an activist. As a musician, I’m a musician.
As an artist you’re constantly running up into the edifice of society. There’s nothing
wholesome about the state of civilisation at the moment, it troubles me so much... I pepper
my songs with literary references to try and signpost things, to get people to listen to my
songs, to go, ‘look try this idea for size, think about what this means, try to make Moby Dick
make sense against MySpace’, running those things into each other because you can strike
sparks that way. And once you strike a spark in someone’s mind, who knows what can
happen. You asked if music is a vehicle for change, and yes, because if I can spark in
someone’s mind by running ideas together like that, difficult abstract ideas, then I’ve done
my job, it feels like what I want to do, it feels right.