Leon Vynehall Ditched the Dance Floor and Wrote a Novella to Inspire Debut Album 'Nothing Is Still'
Published Jun 15, 2018"No journey starts or ends. Journeys only unravel outwards," reads the first line of Nothing Is Still, a novella by electronic music producer Leon Vynehall with Max Sztyber. The passage offers a telling clue into Vynehall's mindset in creating his full-length debut of the same name.
This particular journey began on a boat to New York more than 50 years ago. Borne of dusty Polaroids and accompanying narration from Leon's grandmother, Stephanie, Nothing Is Still tells the story of foreigners in a new land. Stephanie serves as the point of inspiration for all that Nothing Is Still represents — the album and novella were conceptualized together as an act of preservation on Vynehall's part. He didn't want "to have these really beautiful and interesting stories get lost in future generations," he tells Exclaim! "I used what Max and I had been writing as 'tools' for the music, sort of like after the chapters had been written and the stories had been timelined. It had a narrative running through it; I took the chapters and took words and phrases as tools to make the music."
Having been focused mainly on club-purposed music, with releases on AUS, Running Back and others before signing now to Ninja Tune, Nothing Is Still represents an evolution in Vynehall's sound, and a master class on thematically driven musicianship. Truthfully, it's easier to be a storyteller when the stories are as vivid and as personal as this.
This also marks the first time that Vynehall is calling this an album, a label he's cautiously avoided. "I just never really felt comfortable calling them albums, to be honest," he says. "Music For the Uninvited was only six tracks, and came out relatively early on in terms of the history of me putting out music. For the Rojus stuff, even though it was eight tracks, they were all kind of aimed at the dance floor, and it just never really felt like an album. An album is quite a significant label to call something."
The departure from dance floor-oriented music was spurred on in part by the focus on his family's history. Four years ago, after his grandfather's passing, his grandmother's retelling of these histories emerged in a period of mourning. "It would've been a disservice to just do dance floor numbers for [my grandmother's stories]. I just think it would've been a bit crass," he says.
Indeed, the change in arrangements is accompanied by somewhat of a sonic change — where the tape-distorted percussion and crunch are absent, Philip Glass-esque clarity enters the fray. This was a conscious choice, he says, where the novella's content allowed for some levity in terms of the approach to songwriting. "It was a different discipline, whereas previously, if you're writing for a dance floor or a club, it's mainly bass-heavy electronic music; it sort of has a context, whereas this had a completely different one. I guess you have more freedom."
The effect is tangible; tracks play out almost cinematically and specific choices in progression and arrangement lead the listener along the plot line of the novella. Indeed, sections of the novella are written as though they were a type of stream-of-consciousness, which perhaps mirrors the artist's mindset while composing the music.
Sonically, Vynehall's orchestration is both enhanced and polished thanks to the addition of Amy Langley as string arranger. "I'd written all the parts, basically, and she helped me score it all out. It was through that that I could basically embellish certain parts, and she would say, 'Well, you could do that here, or this could happen there…' Amy came along and sort of 'seasoned the food,' you know."
Understandably, presentation of this material may not be appropriate for a pair of turntables, but rather by a live performance. "The live show itself is going to be a culmination of all of the media together in some way. There's a visual side — I'd like to have parts of the book being read, or triggered, or in between certain songs — and then there's the music itself," Vynehall muses.
Above all else, Nothing Is Still is a culmination of artistic effort from all fronts; it's impossible to detach the music from the novella that intimately explores his family's history. This is an excursion in profound introspection and storytelling, and Vynehall's versatility is on full display, as reads the novella: "People change, circumstances change, there is constant upheaval. The world is in a state of flux, life is liquid, time transformative."
Nothing Is Still is out now on Ninja Tune.