Gods, Playwrights and Transatlantic Records: An Evening with Kieran Leonard
Picture this: Hammersmith station, a little after 6:30pm. There’s me, flu-stricken and leaning against a pillar next to a statue of a bunch of naked guys. Here are the commuters, the office workers running from train to crosswalk and back again, side by side with the usual assortment of pub-goers and evening shoppers. And there, entering from stage right, is Kieran Leonard.
If Robin Hood had been a grunge fan, he’d have looked something like Kieran looks now. Long-hair, leather bracelets, hat with a feather in the side. Other writers haven’t been too far off when they’ve said he looks like he’s stepped out of 1969.
We’re standing here on Hammersmith Broadway because Kieran wants to tell me about Samuel Beckett, and to talk about his new album in more depth. We’ve already spoken on the phone about the recording process and his influences, but what I’ve got so far is only a fraction of a story that, depending on how you look at it, spans either eight months or six years and takes place on both sides of the Atlantic
“This will be much better for your piece,” he tells me.
The full story, then, is told the way that all good stories are share; in a quiet pub with both parties befriending the bottom of a glass.
“I didn’t see daylight for six days,” says Kieran. “I went into the studio on…wait, what day is it today?”
We sit and consider for a moment, each clutching a smouldering cigarette, a pair of creative types whose collective grasp on reality can at this point be best described as ‘loose’.
“Is it Friday?” he asks.
Thursday, I say with a sense of triumph. It’s Thursday today.
“Right, okay, so I went into the studio on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I didn’t see the sun again until Monday. I don’t recommend it.”
That doesn’t sound healthy.
“No. It really messes with your circadian rhythm.”
The way Kieran tells it, the tale of this record starts in a church on the moors of Yorkshire. He set up house in the church with vague ideas of writing his second album, and was immediately taken with the acoustic qualities of the building. Eventually, the space was put to use as a recording studio for one of the album tracks.
“You can hear people’s feet on the floorboards, and cats walking through,” he says of the song, “We tried to record it again later in LA, but we couldn’t get the atmosphere.”
He says he likes the church version, in part because “this way, I can say that thing about it being recorded on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The rest of the story is something of an epic. It winds through the hills of LA, then comes back to settle here in London. There’s a girl, and then there isn’t, and whiskey bottles are strewn amongst the words and melodies. There’s also a pair of cats, a host of literary gods, and a boat called the Ulysses.
“I was thinking about calling this album Ulysses for a while, but now I’m thinking I should change my name to Ulysses so I’m not sure what that means,” Kieran says with a grin.
Maybe it just means you really like that book.
“Maybe I just really like Odysseus.”
Once described by The Libertines’ Carl Barat as “a scruffy Cobainesque comrade in striped skin-tight Beetlejuice trousers”, Kieran seems to be something of an anomaly in modern culture. Yes, he has a Twitter account and a Kindle, and can presumably navigate an iPhone just as well as anyone else. But here is a man who, sitting at a wonky table drinking a glass of House Red, can also lean across and quote entire portions of Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days. Indeed, an obsession with literature is obvious in his work. His first album, 2012’s Out of Work Astronaut, featured the single Harold Pinter is Dead – an O Captain, My Captain for a man Kieran often refers to as a ‘dinosaur of truth’. The album was haunting and disenfranchised with a slug of the surreal for good measure, and a sense of alienation threaded its way through the track-listing. When I asked on the phone if we could expect something similar from album number two, Kieran had this to say;
If anything I feel even more alienated by the world now than when I was writing the first album… I’m kind of trying to speak for what I feel is this rising tide of disaffection in youth because I’ve seen it everywhere and by virtue of having travelled to so many different places this year and been around so many different people I haven’t been able to avoid [the fact that] pretty much everyone between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five that I’ve spent any time with has this kind of wasteland feeling of… “What am I supposed to do?”
Several years ago, Kieran launched the ‘Chance to Fail Foundation’ with the aim of sharing the comfort of song-writing with disenfranchised and at-risk youth. It was, he says, an attempt to be involved and physically help people feeling alienated “rather than just singing about it”. When asked, he says he might do something similar after the release of this album and its accompanying tour, but that’s months away yet. For now, he seems content to sit and swap stories about heroes, music, and a very strange wedding in a library amongst the Californian Redwoods.
At some point, Kieran stops and notes that we’ve mostly been dealing in anecdotes. I grin and point to myself, say, I’m a writer, I like anecdotes, and he concedes and launches into another one. I settle back into my chair, pint glass in hand, with the knowledge that whatever comes next from Kieran Leonard will be a whole new saga unto itself.
Kieran will appear at SXSW in Texas at the beginning of March. Until then he can be lured out of hiding with the promise of Jamesons and prose, via Twitter on @KieranLeonard or at kieranleonardmusic.com
Out of Work Astronaut is available for purchase via iTunes and Bandcamp.