A cornucopia of artistic influences,
Leon Vynehall makes music that’s
sweeping in cultural scale and ambition.
He talks about his new album ‘Rare, Forever’ and the experiences that have shaped it
Leon Vynehall makes electronic music with cinematic ambition, novelistic depth and rich emotional shading. His widely acclaimed 2018 breakthrough album ‘Nothing Is Still’ was a boldly unorthodox electro-orchestral symphony, drawing on the story he had only recently discovered of his grandparents emigrating from the UK to New York City in the 1960s. It was accompanied by a novella, an audio-visual art exhibition and a lavish live show. Omnivorous culture vulture and incurable romantic, the 31-year-old composer rarely does anything by halves.
His new long-player, ‘Rare, Forever’, draws on a similarly exotic, expansive, culturally curious hinterland. Kaleidoscopic electronica and orchestral jazz, club-friendly beats and avant-rock drones combine with dialogue snippets and literary allusions, including quotes from the likes of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. It’s a genre-defying sonic canvas full of alien beauty, sensual textures and cryptic clues. So what does it all mean?
“It’s just influenced by what I love,” he explains. “I’m creatively greedy. I’m obsessed with ideas and art and music and literature, and in a selfish way I want to experience and use all of it. I can’t get enough. I’m constantly unquenched. I try not to think about things too much, but when I write I’ll inevitably start considering what I could do instead of what people think
I should do. This record is me battling those things – I should, I could, I would.”
Like its predecessor, ‘Rare, Forever’ is another concept album of sorts. Vynehall’s most personal work to date, it began life as an experiment in free expression, but evolved into an extended exercise in confessional self-examination. Along the way, it endured a series of tortuous twists and turns, from long stretches of creative block and crippling imposter syndrome to rewrites and reboots, ecstatic mushroom trips, meditation sessions and marriage proposals. Vynehall makes it sound like a gruelling journey at times.
“That’s the process,” he sighs. “It’s arduous and narcissistic and it takes fucking forever. You have to really want to do it and really have something to say for yourself at the end of it. I don’t want to be a martyr – like you have to suffer for your art – but there is an element of truth in that. If you want to create something lasting and honest, you have to go through those things. It can be terrifyingly depressing at some points, and overwhelmingly joyful at others.
It’s a fucking roller-coaster. It’s a cliché, but I don’t know any other way.”
‘Rare, Forever’ is an inner-space journey, the sound of Vynehall weighing up his own scary place in the cosmos as he enters his 30s.
“It’s about purpose, it’s about identity,” he says. “It’s essentially me exploring the question of what is my bliss, my reason for doing this. But I don’t want it to feel as self-indulgent as therapy. The record is inherently about me, but I think the themes are universal. They’re things everyone goes through at some stage, especially in the creative professions.”
The music and accompanying high-art visuals for ‘Rare, Forever’ are very much littered with sly nods to cinema and literature, science and nature.
For example, the title of the majestically eerie drone piece ‘Farewell! Magnus Gabbro’ refers to the underlying geology of the Scottish Highlands, which Vynehall discovered when playing a festival on the Isle of Skye in September 2019. He adopted this as a metaphor for his then obstructed creative state.
“I was feeling quite stuck, quite low,” he recalls. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. When I got back to the studio after that trip I felt this rock inside me. It had been there for a long time. I wouldn’t even call it writer’s block – it was more a kind of spiritual, mental jam I was trying to push through. And that song helped me do it. ‘Farewell! Magnus Gabbro’ is probably the most honest piece I’ve ever written.”
An elusive character named Velvet Brown recurs throughout the tracks on ‘Rare, Forever’, embodying music as a therapeutic, inspirational spirit.
“I was trying to personify that feeling, that guiding force, the little light in the fog,” he elaborates. “I wanted it to feel slightly ambiguous, so you didn’t know if it was a person or a voice or just like a metaphor.”
Vynehall borrowed Brown’s name from the 1944 Elizabeth Taylor film, ‘National Velvet’. He sounds genuinely dumbstruck when I tell him there is a real Velvet Brown – a music professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US with several records to her name. Momentarily speechless, he pauses our interview to verify this bizarre ‘Black Mirror’ plot twist with his own online search.
“Oh man, the universe does such weird things,” he laughs incredulously. “This is absolutely fantastic! Talk about the theory of parallel universes – it’s happening right now! Perhaps we can make some music together… or maybe we are the same person?”
A crucial breakthrough during the album’s long, anguished gestation came around Vynehall’s 30th birthday, in October 2019, courtesy of a magic mushroom trip in the sun-bathed hills above Los Angeles.
“We were staying up in Laurel Canyon, which is really beautiful, one of the last bastions of the hippies,’ he remembers. “It’s lovely, like you’re forever in a David Hockney painting. I was meditating and dabbling in psychedelics, and I had a trip that kind of gave my mind a little bit of clarity.”
He tentatively premiered ‘Rare, Forever’ last year during an online audio-visual performance for Mixcloud. Called ‘A Little More Liquid’, it was made in collaboration with his regular visual team of Eric Timothy Carlson and Aaron Anderson. With hindsight, he sees this embryonic version as another misstep, one last chance to rethink the project.
“I finished that first iteration and it just sounded confused, like I didn’t really know where I was,” he says. “It put me on the back foot and I had to recalibrate. But I’m grateful it happened because it made me turn the mirror on myself and try to answer those questions.”
Vynehall grew up in Crowborough, a sleepy East Sussex market town famous as the home of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and not much else. The only musician in his family history was his beloved grandfather, who once played in a skiffle band and first put a guitar in young Leon’s lap, introducing him to Johnny Cash and even taking him line-dancing.
“That’s where my obsession grew from,” he laughs.
More crucial in shaping his childhood musical tastes was his mother. Working as a hairdresser, she would share mix tapes and song tips passed on by her hip co-workers. And so the young Leon schooled in vintage hip hop, electro, funk, disco and rare groove at an early age, absorbing the rule-bending studio genius of Madlib and J Dilla alongside 90s pop landmarks like Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ and Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’.
Left-field trip hop was another shared passion, notably Aim’s ‘Cold Water Music’ and DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ album.
“My mum’s ‘Endtroducing’ CD is so worn and scratched – she played it all the time,” he says. “I think ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ might be part of the molecular structure of my DNA by this point.”
Vynehall played in a series of school bands in his teens, switching from guitar to piano to drums. His regular social haunt was The Forum in Tunbridge Wells, a live venue in a former public toilet that developed its own mini-scene of associated groups, club nights and DIY labels. He was initially drawn to grunge, and noise rockers like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic
Youth and My Bloody Valentine remain enduring inspirations.
“It’s where my sense of space and texture comes from,” he says. “All those warbly, never-in-key sounds – they’re still so beautiful.”
Later, while studying for a music BTEC in Eastbourne on the East Sussex coast, he discovered more contemporary and electronic composers, including the likes of Aphex Twin, Philip Glass and Jonny Greenwood.
“Aphex Twin either blows people’s minds or they don’t get it. He blew my tiny fucking 17-year-old mind. I’d try to imitate his music when I was at college. It impressed on me to expand what you can do on a computer.”
Settling just down the road in Brighton after college, Vynehall spent his early 20s teaching himself to make music on a laptop, while couch-surfing and living off the bread he’d bring home from his cleaning job in a bakery. Through flat-shares and local club connections, he began DJing and making his own warm-blooded, soulful brand of house on small boutique labels like Well Rounded. His growing profile as a DJ and producer soon began to earn him bigger deals and global bookings.
Family ties have remained a key factor in his creative vision. His first long-form release, the 2014 mini-album ‘Music For The Uninvited’, paid oblique homage to his mother’s love of vintage disco, funk and hip hop. Four years later, his official debut, the widescreen epic ‘Nothing Is Still’, memorialised his late grandfather.
“My life has been dedicated to music,” he says. “I obsess about plenty of different things, and they come and go, but music has always been there. It’s my identity – it’s all I’ve ever done – and I’ve been so blinkered by it that I failed to have a plan B, so I’m kind of glad that it’s worked out… ha!”
Every step of the way, the self-taught Vynehall has been guided more by emotion and instinct than technical expertise. Like his musical heroes, from My Bloody Valentine to Dilla to Aphex, he realised early on that learning the rules is only helpful if it helps you break them.
“I never had any formal training,” he nods. “I do stuff wrong all the time in a technical sense. But if I’d got all my piano grades, I’m certain I wouldn’t be doing things the way I do them now. For me, music is a vessel to convey emotion, whether that’s anger, joy, sorrow, love, whatever. You can have the formal training to be able to do it, but if you don’t have the raw need to do it, it’ll never happen.”
Like most musicians, Vynehall has been in Covid-induced limbo for much of the last year. Forced to postpone tours and live shows, he moved out of his old studio for financial reasons and set up temporarily in his spare bedroom.
“I basically reverted back to being my teenage self,” he laughs.
In November 2020 he opened his new studio, Ooze, in Tottenham, north east London, where he has begun developing a fertile sideline as a producer and co-writer for rising vocal talents like Wesley Joseph, Ojerime, Kenzie TTH and Kam-Bu. Most are loosely rooted in R&B and hip hop, which Vynehall deems the most “boundary-pushing” genres of the last 15 years.
“Electronic music has always pushed forward and been experimental,” he says. “But when you look at hip hop and R&B in a wider sense and the extent of their reach, the artists in this genre have been phenomenal – they’ve influenced me the most, for sure.”
Assuming live performances can safely resume later this year, Vynehall is aiming to launch an ambitious new audio-visual show in November. In the meantime, he also plans to get married in late summer. He and his fiancee, NTS Radio DJ and On Loop label founder Alice “Moxie” Moxom, got engaged during the making of ‘Rare, Forever’.
“Neither of us had thought about marriage before we met,” he shrugs.
“It’s not like we believe in the institution. It’s just that I know I’m going to be with her for the rest of my life, so we thought it would be nice.”
He definitely sees his future in terms of kids and family. Plus more music,of course. Which means more albums, more anguished soul-searching, more obsessive overthinking. Genius is pain, after all.
“Ha! Yeah, right!” Leon Vynehall agrees. “It’s not torture. I just want to have done something alright with my time on Earth. If and when I have any offspring, I want to be able to think it was worth it. It’s the human condition of wanting to leave a mark, I suppose. My time is the most valuable thing,and I don’t intend on wasting it.”
‘Rare, Forever’ is released by Ninja Tune