Having just performed works from her second album Machines live for the first time at Shhh Festival, and with a concert supporting Lucy Claire with Jim Perkins coming up on 19th June, it was nothing short of prophetic of James Black to ask to speak with Leah Kardos a few weeks before the date was announced.
Everyone at Chaos Theory loves Leah Kardos. She doesn’t know it yet, but it may dawn on her soon.
Can you blame us? She’s a classical composer who breaks all the rules. A master of electronic music who has a passion for organic sounds and the human voice. She has a PhD and is a self-confessed geek, but she’s as intimate and accessible in her music as she is in person.
Photo by Naresh Kaushal
And we at Chaos Theory recently had that very privilege. It’s not every day that you get to take a walk around St Pancras Old Church cemetery with a hero and musical genius, but that’s just how it happened.
Leah has just finished up her thesis, but she has no intention of taking it easy.
“Part of me just wants to play video games and sit in my own filth,” she told us. “But I know myself and it probably won’t happen.”
Describing herself as a composer, a producer and finally an enthusiast, you begin to see why we are so enamoured of this musical expeditionary.
Chaos Theory helped launch her first album Feather Hammer and ever since we have considered her and her music the embodiment of the very values we try to promote and nurture. Chief among these might be that enthusiasm Leah ascribes to herself.
Leah’s music is more than just being clever and original, and essentially modern, it’s about infusing those characteristics with passion and a fascination for sounds of all kinds. It is the life force hidden in even the most mundane sounds, that make it music.
In a musical landscape of technology and social media, where the stakes are higher than they have ever been for aspiring artists, Leah Kardos seems to personify the ideal of a musician with the vision to straddle the old and the new, the tradition and the revolutionary.
In a word, Leah Kardos shows the rest of us that it’s possible. Possible to embrace modernity without losing integrity. Possible to live as an artist today, to make the fabric and texture of modern life work in your creative favour, rather than be an obstacle to our poetic natures.
What are you up to now? Are you recording, touring?
Not right now. I’ve just handed in my PhD. I’ve just come out of a concentrated time of academic bullshit, so now I am itching to play music. I’m really keen I can feel it.
Are you going to travel or anything, get the juices going?
No. I just need to sit down and let it pour out I think. I’ve got some collaborations on the go. I’m working with a guy right now from the Ukelele Orchestra. We’ve been talking about doing something for about two or three years and I’ve been putting it off while I’ve been doing the PhD.
I want to write some spring music. Something kind of warm, dusty.
Photo by Naresh Kaushal
That’s interesting, I have just finished listening to Machines again and I wouldn’t describe that as springy. It’s good winter listening actually.
It was written and produced over the winter, so yeah. Looking back on it, I was really interested in using sound as a gesture. I was particularly trying to use a voice that wasn’t my own. And really playing with the idea of, ‘how can I make those sounds authentic?’, and ‘how can I make them disingenuous?’, and if ‘I put auto-tune on here what can I do with that message?’
So that really coloured the project, looking for that sonic vernacular, you know?
Things like using a worn keyboard that’s usually associated with, you know, West Coast, seventies, adult-orientated rock, and asking what does it mean, to bring that idea into this context? And that brings up all these nice ideas about nostalgia, placing things out of context. So that was the whole idea about Machines – mixing up gestures.
I seem to remember as well, when you launched it, that communication was a bit of a theme?
Yeah, but it’s also just words themselves. I mean they are so cheap, but they are also so precious. It’s all about context. And again, relationships and connection.
One of the ideas was remembering way, way back when I first started using the web, when I would actively avoid my parents and diss my friends, and sit alone in my room on chatrooms, and find this intimacy, this closeness with people who had shared interests, but on one level they were complete strangers. I never met them, and never knew them, but on another level we had this very personal and intimate relationship, because we shared our innermost thoughts.
It was that kind of closeness of distance, that kind of thing where you can kind of be alone, entirely, and lonely – but not.
Quite often with modern communication, you get that cheapness, a kind of distraction from yourself, but it’s almost like Machines was sort of turning that on its head.
Yeah. I think there’s a lot to be said for the internet kind of redefining community and relationship. A whole new category. And I think there is also that feeling of safety in anonymity. You can really reveal things about yourself, because there are no limits, it’s free.
So yeah, there is a special mixture of loneliness, which doesn’t go away, and closeness.
I watched a documentary about John Cage recently and your music came to mind. I was wondering if there was an influence there?
John Cage, he’s like Brian Eno to me, he’s this sort of grand philosopher, who’s ideas are just like milk. You can’t help but be nourished by it. Everything that Brian Eno ever said in an interview, I just lap it up, and the same with John Cage.
I don’t feel as much of a connection with his music, so much as I do with his ideas. The idea of silence is a big part of what interests me.
In Feather Hammer, I really enjoyed taking away the piano, and taking all the air behind the piano and sort of looking at what happens when I have an absence of music. What else is there, all these background sounds. And that relates to what John Cage was doing.
But obviously, he was the first to do it, and I’m just copying.
Another similarity I saw relates to what you’ve said about sound as a gesture, this idea of not rationalising it as a such. Sound as a fact. When I was listening to Machines, I certainly felt like I was able to allow myself not to try and grapple with who I am in this context, but simply allow it to be an organic process.
Yeah. And sound is kind of redefined these days, because of the digital world we live in. And so we hear stuff and we contextualise it constantly.
For example, our generation grew up with mobile music, so we consume music while we are out in the world. We’re always taking in other things. And so that’s one part of what it means to use sound as a gesture.
Another part is just that recorded music has come to a point now, where you can reference something and it’s communicating. So I can reference a sound, and it means something, it has cultural importance.
Even direct sampling, I think is really powerful. I think it is a really interesting idea, and the act of composition is about using a palette to say things, and communicate ideas.
And so in my mind, production and composition have become blended.
I’ve heard it said, I think it was Bob Dylan, that modern digital music doesn’t leave space for the listener, in the same way as vinyl did. It seems to me like you are searching for that space.
Well the thing about vinyl, is that there was a dedicated listening environment. You sat and listened to your record and you sat there actively, consuming the music. Whereas now, digital music exists rarely in a dedicated environment, it’s usually on a mobile device, or on a computer where you are constantly attracted to other activities. And it’s just changed the definition of music listening.
So what are the challenges of recreating that atmosphere and richness that you create in the studio, in live context?
Live performances and studio production are like chalk and cheese. Because of my background, and because I am a composer and I play the piano, I’ve always produced my own stuff. But recently I have composed stuff for other people, and the experience of hearing the sort of transient integral version of music, that’s different every time, is intoxicating.
There’s a lack of control, and so there’s a lot of trust. It’s collaborative. And that’s magical.
Whereas a recording, that’s exactly the way I want it to be. It’s a document. It’s a thing I make, and it’s never changing.
So there are different mindsets and approaches to both of those contexts. In performance, it really excites me to have this opportunity for variation. The opportunity for someone to perhaps make a mistake, for someone in the audience to sneeze or something like that. I love it.
I love the idea of performing something on an out of tune instrument. Or performing it outdoors, where there could be talking or traffic. It’s all collaborative.
Obviously, me being who I am, I’d like to keep all of that, all those variations, and use them.
And so, to answer your question, there’s this cannibalistic thing, where I’ll be generating all this material, inviting accidents to happen, and then capturing all the assets, all the stuff that happens, and then going back to the studio, and making more music. It kind of just keeps rolling on from there, the one process feeds into the other.
That’s what Three Preludes was all about. Exploring that whole process.
There seems to still be this sense that technology could be bad for music. Do you agree, or do you think people who say that are just not trying hard enough? Or do you not care?
I understand where that comes from. Technology represents a democratisation of music making. It’s a complicated issue, but I don’t think you can ignore it.
Particularly, referencing the cultural landscape that we are in, which is digital, the way we consume music, and the way it is distributed and sold, you can’t escape it.
Even if you are making acoustic music, the way that it is going to be consumed is going to be through digital media. So I do have mixed feelings about it.
I love technology because it facilitates things. If I had to rely on studio technicians and session musicians all the time, I’d be struggling. I take advantage of the access that technology brings.
I may be off track, but I can hear a little bit of Laurie Anderson in your work. Are you a fan?
I am. I am not aware of all of her work. I have actively referenced the O Superman thing in Machines. With the disembodied robot voice.
With Machines, it was a case of imagining all these wonderful female voices. Laurie Anderson came up as one, that sort felt like this landmark voice in the feminine narrative. The whole narrative of O Superman was something that really stuck with me. And I remember actively using that and thinking, “I’m gonna steal that idea”.
Photo by Naresh Kaushal
So it something you would say that you are concerned with, this idea of exploring the range of the feminine voice?
On Machines, yes absolutely. And partly because it was an indulgence I could afford because it wasn’t my voice. I was really lucky that Laura [vocalist on Machines] was so great, and so trusting. Because it wasn’t just writing for the voice, it was producing it, and all the ways you can dress the voice with production, compression, EQ, reverb effects. How you place its prominence in the mix.
You can sort of suggest worlds of pop music, scenes and what have you. I was interested in that, just as a thing to play with.
There’s not just pop on that record, but there seems to be a definite play on choral music, and a classical quality as well.
Yes, and that’s one thing that some people commented on, the opera thing. It was interesting that it had that response, as soon as she went into that voice style, it became emblematic of people’s feelings towards that style in general. The class associations and what it means to their own cultural background.
Some people felt they couldn’t understand it, because it was opera. But she was singing English. I grew up in classical music, but I have a friend who comes from a pop background, and she was very afraid of the idea of stepping over the line – which doesn’t actually exist. But it’s funny, that’s how strong the cultural resonance of certain styles is. But that’s what makes it fun to play with.
So you don’t see a line at all between classical and pop?
No, I don’t, but I am one of these people that doesn’t really believe in genres and things. Partly because I don’t feel an allegiance to a particular scene. If I grew up feeling tribal about my music, then that would be different. But all I see is a world of gestures and tools that I can engage in.
I don’t feel any shame about that, and I don’t feel that I am not being authentic. But there are a lot of composers and producers that share those feelings, and perhaps it’s because of the digital landscape, and because they can consume music from all over the world, and because they can access it.
Nevertheless, do you have any preciousness about your classical roots? I mean, is it a case of having to know the rules before you can break them?
I don’t think so. When I first started writing, after having been away from music for a while, I had so much anxiety about being clever. It was really strange. I signed up for my PhD, and I really struggled to sort of be confident in my ideas, and I felt intimidated by everything.
But I had a bit of breakthrough with Feather Hammer, because with that album, I really just wanted to know myself better through my music. So I explored ingrained muscle memories and I embraced simplicity, and I improvised, and used improvised material without editing.
And even when I finished Feather Hammer and I showed people, I was still ashamed, it was as if I was waiting for someone to say, “that’s so simple”.
But actually it was really freeing. But through that I felt that my musicality was acknowledged, and the simplicity of where it comes from.
Authenticity is ascribed to music. It’s not inscribed in music. So I have had to allow myself to feel authentic about my music. That was the big breakthrough of Feather Hammer. I don’t think you need to have a classical music education. No. All I think is you need to have a voice, and perhaps some good quality execution.
The litmus test for me is whether it is honest, and can I stand behind the idea. If so, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s put it out there, stop whining, stop worrying.
Photo by Naresh Kaushal
It’s interesting because there is this democratisation, there might be this need to sort of show yourself exclusively in some way. But it’s interesting that your creativity came from being able to let go of that.
Yeah, but that’s just my story.
When you’re working within a world of unlimited options, particularly with technology, cultural references and sonic gestures, it can get overwhelming so it’s about having your own strategies to deal with insecurities.
Everybody creates their own definition of their own authenticity. But the result of that, is you create with confidence. And that is hard one.
Leah is performing Machines in full, with singer and string section, for the first and only time at Servant Jazz Quarters on Thursday 23rd October.