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In Conversation With... Saint Leonard

Updated: Jul 16

Words by Chiara Strazzulla


Even when he is not standing on stage in an immaculate white suit charming audiences with his smooth countertenor, Saint Leonard still has a distinctive magnetism to him which is a perfect fit for his choice of stage name. He has the energy of a mystic: think William Blake if he put his poetry to rock music. His eyes are animated by a mix of amusement and curiosity as he discusses how his latest labour, an album recorded in Berlin and soon to be released, came to be. 



“It was a real odyssey,” he recalls, going back to the very beginning of the endeavour – which, like so much of the best music we’ve heard recently, was first conceived during the strange years of the pandemic. “Before the lockdown happened, we had started working on some songs at Paul Epworth’s Church Studios. But then everything was closing down, and there was this idea of moving to Berlin for a while to keep working on it; Berlin was still open then, for a while longer… at the same time I was reading this book, Threshold, by Rob Doyle, which I was absolutely fascinated with. And I got a call that he was doing a reading of the book in Berlin, and would I want to come down and read some of my own novel too?” (The forthcoming book, titled “A Muse”, also has an occult thread running through it). “At the same time I was told that this flat in Berlin was available to move into if we wanted”.


The series of signs from the universe, perhaps too much to ignore, became almost a prophecy of a record that is steeped in the occult and attentive to the greater forces: a representation in music of energies beyond music itself.


It was at the book reading that another bit of serendipity happened which would eventually result in the music as we hear it today, as it was there that he met Alex White and Nathan Saoudi, of Fat White Family fame, who would become deeply enmeshed in the making of the record. “I’d heard of them before, but I didn’t really know them, so I didn’t know what to expect. But we got talking afterwards and I told them I was looking to make this record, and Alex asked, do you need a band? And the answer was yes, of course.



I made them listen to some of what I already had, and they had plenty of ideas, so we just went from there”. What was the first impression like? “Weird, at first. I was wearing a crucifix that day, I think, and one of the first things Nathan asked me was ‘do you believe in God?’ Then later on we met at this one-bed flat where they were living like the odd couple – it was a strange time because of the pandemic, and they’d be stranded while on tour, in Norway I think, and then they’d ended up in Berlin. But we had a bottle of whisky that night and we got discussing what we wanted this to sound like”.


"Its deliberate intensity, its sense of abandon paired with the ingenuity of its many moving parts."

It is, indeed, an interesting concept, to think of a Berlin album in the early 2020s. “You’ve got that kind of sound in mind, when you say a Berlin album, of the late 70s,” he muses. “Bowie’s Berlin years, of course, and Kraftwerk, all of that. And I had this in mind from before, so it made sense, really, to finish it in Berlin. But you also have to ask the question, what does that mean now?”


The music they ended up recording more than answers the question. The influences of those glory years are there, no doubt: the shadow of Bowie looms long over some of the tracks released so far, especially in the way the vocals are handled and the mechanics of the composition, which is to be expected from an artist whose love of Bowie borders on devotion (“You can’t be a fan of Bowie, you have to be something more… something like an acolyte”, he notes, as we discuss the deeply transformative effects of the man and his art).



But there is much more to it, a depth that is refreshingly welcome and that takes nothing out of the immediacy. On the contrary, you have the impression that in spite of their many moving parts, these tracks came into being almost fully formed, as if they were being channelled from somewhere Other. “That was really the feeling,” he agrees, when I point it out. “Almost like the music already existed, and it was coming through as we went. There was a moment in the studio when Nathan put his drum machine on the weirdest setting – it was echoing all over the place and it created this atmosphere, it was almost something out of Twin Peaks in the mood it generated, bittersweet and unheimlich. I just kept singing along, and it really felt like a ritual, working on that song. And at one point I had this idea – it was actually inspired by a séance and haunting investigation I’d done once, where I’d record different parts of the house during my tarot readings, to discover, to my alarm, all manners of unearthly sounds – to put microphones everywhere, not just by the instruments, and they were picking up all sorts of things, little noises, rustlings, snippets of conversation… it definitely felt like there was something there, when we listened back”.


The song, Bells and Ecstasy, is undoubtedly striking: in its complexity and immediacy both, in the curious rarefied atmosphere it evokes, in the way it does manage to channel that sort of black magick. For a record that was heralded by so much serendipity, made by an artist with a long-standing interest in the occult, it just made sense to keep paying attention to the greater forces at play, which was why the song is one of three to be released on the dates of three consecutive full moons. “There has always been, and for good reason, a connection between the full moon and creation,” he points out. “And there is something to it… everything ramps up with the full moon”.



He lives in Ramsgate, a town that he describes as ‘almost Lovecraftian’ in vibe, and he reminisces on the atmosphere there, on those full moon nights, with the mist and the noises of people partying in the street. “We would go out for a celebratory drink, me and Alex, and think, you know, it’s quite nice releasing music on a full moon”. Like a musical werewolf? “Something like that,” he laughs. “There is something deeply visceral to it”.


There is something deeply visceral to the music, also, with its many quirks and minutiae, its deliberate intensity, its sense of abandon paired with the ingenuity of its many moving parts. It is almost an antidote to the era of the jingle that we seem to be living in.


We struggle to come up with contemporary releases that embrace the same love of complexity. “Fiona Apple’s latest album, that was an incredible work,” he decides in the end. “And there’s Kanye’s new album coming out, which is bound to be interesting. These days it’s a good thing to be interesting. So much of what is released feels so soulless”. Then there is, of course, Sorry, with whose front woman, Asha Lorenz, he has struck up a friendship and creative collaboration that’s as much personal as it is artistic. “She has an incredible energy on stage, and she has that, again, that ability to be deeply intellectual but also very immediate. We can be discussing Hesse and Jung over wine and then something very silly just comes up and the two go perfectly well together”. He is playing a show with Lorenz at Third Man Records in Soho – “a wonderful space” – and something remarkable is bound to come out of it.



This is another Saint Leonard trademark: like his release dates, his live shows also feel pointed in their choice of time and place. He is no fan of the drudgery of your standard touring: “Playing the same setlist, in the same way, every night for a week, it feels meaningless after a while. And you end up having expectations for a show and sometimes the space or the audience don’t match it”. Choosing occasions and venues very carefully, on the other hand, results in every stage appearance feeling meaningful: a gig at the Windmill in Brixton that attracts all sort of quirky characters in the audience, a support slot for the Libertines at the Cavern in Liverpool. “One of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” he says of the latter.


“It really is a temple to music. Pete and Carl watched our show from the side of the stage, and of course, it’s the Libertines… it’s as close as you can get as being in that glorious era of rock. The Cavern for me was one of those times where you feel, I’ve done this, now I could die happy”. Does anything else, in making art, give him the same sensation? “Listening to the masters, when it’s all done and you can’t change it anymore. Thinking, I’ve done this thing, now it has a life of its own, people are going to react to it. And then the comments starting to come in when it’s released”.


'Threshold', just like the book that in many ways started it all. “It is what brought us together originally, so it made sense. And it’s a meaningful word if you think of it, a threshold, a gateway. A path into something. Another sign from the universe”. The whole project does feel, as Bowie might put it, like a magical moment, which perhaps is exactly what an increasingly cynical music scene is in need of. Wherever Saint Leonard decides to take us next, the best thing to do might be surrender, cross that threshold, and simply go there.



 


‘Threshold’ is out now on Isolar Records


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