Nothing Is Still: The singular cinematic world of Leon Vynehall

By in Features





Five years in the making, we look at the creation of the UK producer’s new album, book, film and live show.

Leon Vynehall’s music has always possessed a uniquely cinematic quality. That is to say: it is vivid and it will move you.

Debut EP Music For the Uninvited opens with ‘Inside the Deku Tree’ – cellos plucked straight from a Parisian soirée in the 1800s, vogueing across Time Square to a westside NYC club in ‘It’s Just (House of Dupree)’.

‘Butterflies’ loops you into a hypnotic summertime trance, that dizzy feeling of a Saturday afternoon rolling on grass, before the sepia-hued, dusky evening boogie of ‘This Is The Place’ swerves you into the get down groove.

The lift of Rojus’ ‘Beyond This…’ an echo of airplane ascent above a cityscape, floating into the frenetic fever of an early romance via ‘Beau Sovereign’.

Vynehall’s latest project Nothing Is Still – a book, album, accompanying short films and live show – takes this quality into multi-sensory realms.

Inspired by a personal and unexpected event in the wake of his grandfather’s death, we visited the producer in his Shoreditch studio to find out more.

Your grandmother, Nan, shared polaroids and stories with you. Was there a particular photograph that lead to the album?

It wasn’t a single photo, it was a batch of them – spread and strewn across the table. They’re all quite different. I’d known that they’d gone to New York before Pops (my grandfather) died, but it was only around that time when Nan started to divulge more and really go into depth about it. My great Aunty, who still lives out there, and my uncle Tom sponsored my grandparents to live in America.

There’s one of my Nan in a waitress’ uniform at the Mayor’s Ball in 1967. Then there are some where she’s arranging flowers, and there’s another one of Pops on a horse, and I said, “what is all of this? Where is this particular scene set? Who are these particular people?”

Have visual influences always inspired your music?

These photographs inspired the initial idea, but I think more visceral images, and what literature can conjure up in your imagination, are more informative for me. Actually, my Pops was the first person to put a guitar in my lap and say: “this is the D-chord, this is the G and whatever.”

Did you listen to music with your Nan and Pops when you were growing up??

I wouldn’t say I grew up listening to music with them, but Pops was always into country music. He loved Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson – all that kind of stuff. I definitely went through a phase when I was around 12 of loving Johnny Cash too.

That’s great as a 12 year old!

Yeah it was wicked. I haven’t really told anyone this, but they used to take me line dancing when I was about 8 years old. They’d dress me up, and put a little cowboy hat on me, the tassel – you know that John Travolta string tie. He loved it.

It’s kind of funny, and it’s evident of how much he loved America. That was his sanctuary and it’s detailed in the book, which is why it was sad that they had to come back. I think that Pops always regretted not staying out there.

This was in the UK though? Where can you even go for line dancing?

They lived in East Grinstead. It was a village hall somewhere near there, with people going line dancing and dragging their grandchildren along with them.

So you hadn’t heard these stories about your grandparents before?

Not in that much detail, no. It’s funny, I’ve said this to everyone I’ve been speaking to about this: the way I spoke to my Nan was not dissimilar to what we’re doing now. To the point where I had my phone out, and started making notes on my laptop – that was really where it started to take a bit of a shape. Then me and my friend Max, who I wrote the book with, got together and timelined it out and thought: “OK, where can this story go?” It went through loads of different iterations though.

Have you used any other familial anecdotes, or things that were as personal, in your previous releases?

Music For The Uninvited was based on all of the music my Mum played me when we were on the way to school, so there’s a family theme, but not a conscious one. These are things that I’m familiar with, I know them intrinsically so I have a confidence to put my artist’s hand on it, and try to turn it into something.

In this case, it started out as something for me and my Nan to do together, to document my grandparents’ life together – and I thought it was so interesting. Nan’s not a bragger, but she’s really good at telling stories. I didn’t want all these memories to be lost down the line, in future generations of the family. I realised pretty quickly that I could turn my hand to doing something bigger with this. This is an amazing story, we just needed to change it up a bit.

Did you tell your Nan about it before you started?

Yeah of course. She’s gobsmacked that anyone’s writing something based on her anyway. I sent her the book and the box set the other day, and she rang me up straight away in tears saying, “I cant believe you’ve done this. Why are you writing about little old me?”

The book is fictional, but based on real events. For example one of the major catalysts for change is that the main character Stephanie – my Nan – having a miscarriage. And at that point that would have been my mum, so I’ve essentially written myself out of existence. It kind of needed more turmoil in the book, as sadistic as it sounds, to make it more of a compelling read.

In the book you thank the strong women in your life, why was that important to you?

The story itself is about womanhood in a sense, finding yourself as a woman and a single mum, a new mother. It would have been wrong not to acknowledge that we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this if we didn’t have strong women in our lives that looked after us and brought us up.

There was a part of me that was worried, even though it’s my Nan, I’m telling her story and she’s given me the license to do that. It’s still two men telling a woman’s story. So the very least we could do is to thank all of the women in our life who keep pushing us along.

Was the music changing as the story was evolving?

I held off writing the music for as long as possible. The book is essentially like a brief for me. All the music is in the book, in an odd decoded way, through Max’s writing who I co-wrote it with. It’s my job to decipher it, and make it into something you can hear rather than read.

When you say it’s like a brief, was there a part that was detached from your collaboration with Max?

Max would write and come back with chapters and I’d say, “right this is great, that wording doesn’t work well there, also we need the sound of someone seeing a bird, and that can be reflected in the music.” So you’re transported straight into that environment from the beginning.

What I didn’t want it to be was this really loose narrative. Sometimes people can say “oh yeah the music was inspired by when I was did this or when I went there.” Then you listen to it and you think “OK, I kind of get it, I think I get it?” Whereas with Nothing Is Still, I wanted it to feel like, if you’ve read the book you’ll understand what these sounds mean. Why a specific song has that feeling to it – why it sounds optimistic or why it sounds really sad.

It’s all just being pulled from everywhere, which is how I wanted it to be really, everything’s got to hug each other. Like this big embrace of information.

Let’s talk about one track specifically, because the process sounds pretty intricate. How did you make ‘Drinking It In Again’?

The chapter in the book is about this American couple that Stephanie and Derick have made friends with. They go round to their house for a cocktail party. This is where Stephanie gets a bit tipsy, and thinks “is this all it’s cracked up to be or am I just drunk?” Her friend is an estate agent and says, “you just love it here don’t you?” And Stephanie thinks “you’re trying to sell me something – I’m starting to doubt all of this… or am I drunk?”

So the song sounds a bit drunk and wobbly as well. In the chapter they’re listening to Charlie Parker and Bill Evans, so there are these saxes that come in at the end, and it drops into this half time jazzy feel. Derick comes in and whispers something in Stephanie’s ear. So I said to Finn, who was playing the sax: “play a line and make it really breathy, so it sounds like someone is whispering in your ear, and move the reed a little bit so it’s a tiny bit out of pitch.” He did a whole take, and then I said, “ok now play along to yourself.” And he played it again. And I said “play along to yourself again.” And we took out these parts of the recording that are drunkenly wobbling around each other – this is what I mean when I say everything is considered.

When did the films come in?

That came later on, as the book was being written and I was starting to write the music. Literature and music are so visceral, you start seeing things, and so I thought I should do some videos for this as well.

Was there always a vision to have a live show as well?

No, again it developed as we were creating everything. While we were making the short films I thought, “if we do a live show then we can incorporate all of these elements together in the same performance.”

There are nine of us going on the tour for these shows, and a massive visual element to it as well with a projector and all these strips of gauze. The whole live show is meant to be about deception and disorientation. You’re being shown parts of the film, with visuals from New York, and at the same time things can completely switch and you sort of don’t know what you’re seeing at points. I’ve never done a live show like this before. It’s made me appreciate other shows in a totally different way.

When you’re talking about the visuals having gauze, and being hard to see, does that relate to when you’re reading the book and the reader’s room for interpretation?

Absolutely. It’s also a kind of abstract metaphor for how Stephanie is seeing this new world. She goes there under the pretence of thinking what it’s going to be like and suddenly she thinks, “this is not the dream that I thought it was.” Her sense of reality and her perception of everything is different. It’s like the cinema of the cilia, not what is actually happening.

Songs sound like colours to me… I don’t have synesthesia where you hear music and see colours, at least I don’t physically see them, the light in front of me doesn’t turn purple when I hear some horrible chord. I can see colour palettes though, and I think that’s why the film idea came to mind. I was listening to the music and I thought, “if this was arranged this way you’d have all these nice pastelly burnt oranges and reds and off white colours. Or when I heard ‘Envelopes’ I thought, “everything has to be black and white with a grim Ukranian 1950s film-feel.”

Is there a way you’d want people to digest it all?

The way it’s come together has been: first the book, then the music, and the film. I guess in my head that’s the most logical order of taking it all in. Some people I’ve given it to listened to the music first and then read the book. Whatever people like – it’s meant to be modular.

What I didn’t want was for the music to be background atmospherics. Rather than soundtracking the book, the album is the musical representation of the literature. The words, turned into music.

It’s a different sensory impression?

Exactly. That’s a far nicer way of saying it’s music, words and film.

Everything’s got a purpose for being in here, which is why I feel like I have to talk about it. I don’t usually like doing interviews, because I feel a bit weird when doing them. But I need to explain this album to people, because there’s a lot of information in it. I want people to ‘get it’, to understand it, and most importantly to enjoy it.

Leon Vynehall presents Nothing Is Still (live) on 3rd, 4th, 5th July at Hackney Showroom, London.

Nothing Is Still is out now via Ninja Tune.

(Polaroid c/o Leon Vynehall. Photographs by Ceili McGeever.)