A Conversation with Kiran Leonard
words by maria sledmere
photos by ida olsson
In Kiran Leonard’s music, each track carries secrets and stories etched beneath its surface, waiting with each play to inscribe fresh layers on the palimpsest below, like Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad. What we listen to is indelibly intricate, struck with profundity and yet playful underneath, with an impulse towards experimentation and wonder. There’s that prodigious balancing of intellect and emotion, cleverness and sincerity.
Leonard’s new LP, Derevaun Seraun, borrows its title from ‘Eveline’, a short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners. The story describes the life of a young Irish girl, torn between loyalty to her family and the risky thrill of escaping to Buenos Aires with her lover. Derevaun Seraun deals beautifully in narrative dualities and moral conundrums, sweeping us up in earnest surges, then dissolving, exhausted, into plaintive reflection. It’s a record that feels as meticulous as it does intuitive.
Leonard’s eye for detail restores our childlike curiosity for questions both quotidian and grandly philosophic; he renders in sound and lyric an emotional encounter with various texts, reminding us that the best writing can alter our entire sense of reality. Leonard describes the record as ‘five movements’, each inspired by a piece of literature, from Albert Camus to Clarice Lispector. Listening to Derevaun Seraun, you can’t help but feel like Eveline in Joyce’s story: with ‘all the seas of the world tumbl[ing] about her heart’, immersed in the record’s oceanic consciousness–the currents of philosophy, humanity and narrative which elegantly coalesce in each movement.
It’s a remarkably mature feat for 21-year-old Leonard, who already has two acclaimed albums and a whole plethora of singles, self-releases and EPs under his belt. Derevaun Seraun’s literary inspirations are woven seamlessly through tender and nuanced arrangements, adding further layers of poetry and meaning to the original texts. Swamped in my own dissertational efforts, Leonard’s record was a breath of fresh air, both academic and affective—hardly a morass of dense quotations and more a thoughtful, lucid exploration of how we relate to literature and life.
I first listened to Derevaun Seraun walking home at night in late summer, the sycamores shedding their leaves around each sigh, each melancholy strain of violin. I was struck by the sheer sense of space the record creates, with its careful attention to instrumental sections, its economy of language; a fullness of sound that soars and subsides as one’s mind does when following a text or tracing a journey. Each song bears its own elaborate cosmos, distilling many images and feelings; refuting climax, transcendence or stasis for a more fluid meandering through the rivers of existence–every ‘tip of wave’ or ‘chandelier of blood’. Imagine the languorous sentiment of Chopin’s Nocturnes, flowing into tides of angst then easing back through contemplative legato. Grandiose ideas of love, regret, fate, identity and death are met with bruising strings, loquacious lyrics, a smidge of humorous distance alongside swells of empathy.
There’s a romanticism, a softness to these tracks that diverges somewhat from the carnivalesque, improvisational flair that characterises much of Leonard’s previous work–including the alt-prog feast of bittersweet lust that is Grapefruit’s 16-minute centrepiece, ‘Pink Fruit’, or the downbeat, eccentric indie of Bowling Hat Soup’s ‘Brunswick Street’. Jagged guitar riffs and loose percussion are swapped for bright piano and lush strings, allowing Leonard’s brooding voice the attention it deserves when delivering complex lyrics with smooth restraint. The lively cross-rhythms on ‘Living With Your Ailments’, for example, vividly flourish the song’s existential ponderings; while ‘The Cure for Pneumothorax’ channels Manuel Bandeira’s modernist poetry with heavy-hearted chords.
Derevaun Seraun offers a holistic sense of bliss, the joy of losing oneself in a synergy of instruments, pushing expression to its limit with each swoon, cry or cascade through the octaves. On the other hand, Leonard does not shy away from melancholy, his lyrics betraying a sensitivity to the lives of tangible characters, each one saying something unique about humanity. Comparisons to Jeff Buckley and Sufjan Stevens are genuinely deserved here; Leonard orchestrates the emotional trajectories of each track with a powerful theatricality that skilfully avoids hyperbole. It’s an album you want to contemplate late at night, at the turn of the seasons: when the world feels vulnerable and a chance story or song might just change everything.
True to his music, Leonard proves an equally eloquent interviewee, bearing high-minded ideas with grounded, humble yet provoking expression. On the cusp of Derevaun Seraun’s release, we caught up with the Greater Manchester musician to find out more about his literary influences, creative process and plans for upcoming live shows.
Can you talk about the album title? I believe it’s taken from Joyce’s story ‘Eveline’. In relation to Joyce’s use of the phrase, critics disagree about the exact meaning, varying from corrupt Gaelic (‘the end of pleasure is pain’) to corrupt Irish (‘the end of the song is raving madness’). My cheap edition of Dubliners simply bears the coy footnote, ‘The phrase still baffles scholars’. Do any of these definitions mean anything to you, or is the potential meaninglessness itself crucial to the openness of the record’s interpretation?
I like how that openness is something that academic study hasn’t been able to resolve; it is just some weird phrase, perhaps having once held a semblance of meaning, but now garbled beyond belief to make its etymology totally irrelevant.
With this piece I wanted to focus on the instinctive pleasure that books give. Musicians writing about books is sometimes dangerous territory, cause there’s a tendency to try to look sophisticated, and to chat breeze about big impressive-sounding names and what have you. The culture of reading is so heavily dominated with these very dry, competitive, and rather classist attitudes, and all the Important Authors are laid out in checklists for you to cross off, and you can’t possibly have understood this in the right way if you have not read this, and isn’t it impressive he’s read all the works of so-and-so… Joyce suffers from this more than anyone (he made sure of it personally), but still I don’t like this view of him as some towering hoop you have to make a great effort to jump through, and that liking him is some achievement to be mightily smug about. Joyce is good cause he can communicate feelings and observations beautifully and strangely; even if he writes something where you don’t fully understand all of it, you can sometimes inexplicably feel it to be true or identify with it (I would say Lispector is even better at this).
The record’s excellent front cover (credit: Atalanta Xanthe) is a sketch of a scrunched up piece of paper. This image conveys perfectly what I tried to express in the piece. Reading is unknowable, mysterious and complex, but it is always formed out of something very simple. I think that, from this perspective, its more imposing and austere figures are revealed to be the accessible, enjoyable writers they often are.
You’ve noted Albert Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ as a key influence on this record. I was struck by the line from that essay, ‘That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness’. I wonder if parallels can be drawn between that act of return and the composition of music; how both thrive on repetition as a sort of compulsion, the modulation of thought, the looping back as a form of pleasure. But where Sisyphus is bound to an endless and painful fate, music presumably retains an explosive, entropic sense of endless possibility (contained within but propelled by its formal limits?). Both however are bound to consciousness.
What are your thoughts on the balance between accident, the unconscious application to some kind of labour, and those moments where you become conscious of what you are doing? How does this fit into your writing process? Is it characterised by Joycean epiphanies or is it something more elusive or continuous?
Jerry Seinfeld, that other eminent philosopher of the 20th century, once claimed that anyone who claims to suffer from writers’ block is kidding themselves, and that’s it a bullshit excuse for not doing any work. That’s easy to say if your source material is going to the shops, but I sympathise with what he’s getting at. The belief in an individual who just sits around all day, doing sod all, waiting for that bolt of inspiration, is kind of bogus; making stuff involves a lot of repeated activities, pleasurable as well as painful (or at least tedious). Personally I get a lot of ideas from improvisation, which is a good way to trick yourself into thinking you’re doing hard toiling work when really you’re just farting about and enjoying yourself.
I was also struck by Camus’ line, ‘Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world’. It made me think of your song ‘The Mute Wide Open Eye of All Things’. Is there a sense in which a song is its own world, takes on its own agency? You evoke in that song the ‘Trembling mystery, self-contained and not defined’, ‘the resplendence of rotting tree trunks’.
There’s a Romanticism to that perhaps, Wordsworth’s resistance to learned/Enlightenment knowledge–’the world is too much with us’–a primitive desire to pay attention to the enthralling mystery of things we find beautiful and strange. Could you talk about the relationship between music and ‘world’?
That song is about Clarice Lispector, particularly her short story “Amor”. Lispector wrote it while married to an eminent diplomat. She spent a lot of time travelling the world with her husband, on her own in the house, frustrated. In the story, Ana is a very content housewife, happily married with children, off to buy food for a party she is hosting later that evening. On her way home, the tram stops at a red light and she notices a blind man chewing gum attempting to cross the street. She jumps in fright and drops her grocery bag onto the pavement below; in her ordinary, organised world, she had forgotten that blind people existed. In a shocked daze, she misses her stop and ends up in the Rio de Janeiro Zoological Gardens. Lispector describes in detail the splendour of the wildlife there — trees that are overgrown and bursting with life in a way Ana finds nauseating, but also captivating. She returns home irrevocably changed and unsettled, unable to properly reassimilate into her domesticated existence.
Lispector is the best observer of ‘the enthralling mystery of things’ I have ever come across; her writing is all instinct, totally peculiar but at times strikingly relatable. Her writing lends itself to a freedom of interpretation we normally associate more with poetry and lyrics. The agency of words (if by that you mean their openness to a subjective reading) is very important. Words uninterpreted are meaningless.
I also wanted to ask about ‘space’ in these songs. Compared to the sprawling density of your previous records, with their rich array of clustering instruments and styles feeling like an epic journey, there’s a smoother consistency to Derevaun Seraun. Here, the songs are built mostly around lush though often restrained strings, piano and voice. I think it works really well in terms of helping the listener imagine the dramatic palette of each song; they feel more immersive somehow, as the eclectic elements of rhythm and instrumentation seem more stark, the legato parts more seductive. At the start of ‘A Particle of Flesh Refuses the Consummation of Death’ I’m reminded of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Dream Brother’, the way that nuanced croon leads us into something that unfurls gradually into an almost baroque intensity. Is space something you think about consciously when writing?
I think the spatial quality of sound is something we only become aware of consciously when we are listening to something very quiet. I don’t mean like panoramic fighter jet noises at the IMAX that swoop round your head. Like Morton Feldman, whose pieces are so gentle they blend into the background ambience of a room. They fill up a space like wind.
Your songs often have a distinct storytelling quality, unafraid to commit to length and detail but never becoming too cloying. ‘The Cure for Pneumothorax’ is this completely beautiful 9-minute odyssey which veers between perspectives, between abstraction and lyric precision–not to mention a whole meteorology of moods! There’s something about how you derive epic narratives from the ordinary that makes your music paradoxically accessible even in its complexity. Can you talk a bit about that song in particular, its function as the final track, its influences?
That whole song is about Manuel Bandeira, who was a prominent poet of the Brazilian Modernists. What happened in the 1920s was the Brazilians decided they were sick of aping the European modes and that it was necessary to try and find a form of expression unique to their national identity. They ended up with a style of writing that is very pared-back and full of idiomatic language. They wanted to write something for the average Brazilian; Bandeira for example often will just versify a story he’s read in the newspaper, or list things he sees in the street with little poetic embellishment. He was a very funny and lively writer, and his images manage to be highly surreal and evocative even when expressed in such clear, simple terms. But he was also a tuberculosis-stricken pervert who spent a lot of his time indoors, unwell and isolated. Often his poetry is utterly hopeless and melancholic; he wrote a lot about social alienation, death, childhood, poverty. So, I like his diversity and his steadfast belief in accessibility.
There seems to be a bit of a turn towards maximalism or the long-form album (something like Bowler Hat Soup) in the ‘mainstream’ of late– Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty’s latest records clocking in at over 70 minutes each. What might previously have been an esoteric risk is paying off commercially. Do you think this is a response to ephemeral streaming culture, the necessary result of grappling with our complex, data-saturated world–perhaps something else? Stylised as five ‘movements’, were you attempting something a bit different with Derevaun Seraun and if so, why?
I think my two records are both too long; Bowler Hat Soup is 50, and Grapefruit is around 57. Jim O’Rourke says the optimum length of a record is 38 minutes. And WWJO’RD? My next one is done already, and that will be 40-ish.
(I would of course make exceptions for records where the sheer size of them becomes part of their appeal. Keiji Haino records are perfect at 60-70 minutes; 40 would not be enough. Or something like Trout Mask Replica would not quite be as stupefying as a single LP. Or the last batch of Swans records).
How do you plan to take Derevaun Seraun to a live show? What will the band setup look like?
I’ll do a short tour this September with two thirds of the trio that play on the LP, and go to venues with an in-house upright piano. I went to a club night in Salford a couple weeks ago where the Necks had just played, and these four removal men were ushering this big upright into the back of a truck, and all these pissheads were milling round the door and getting under their feet and not listening to the removal man trying to tell them to fuck off out the way. It looked like a nightmare.
Derevaun Seraun is out on 15th September, via Moshi Moshi
Pre-order it here
UK Tour Dates:
20 September – London, St. Pancras Old Church
23 September – Manchester, Band On The Wall
25 September – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club