Spotlight: Leon T. Pearl

26 Sep 2013

"It's representing a certain side of me, an extreme side that gets messed up on the weekend but also questions it the next day." RFB checks in with rising singer-songwriter Leon T. Pearl.

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Photos: Alex Sutherland

Leon T. Pearl might not be a name you're familiar with right now, rather, one we're sure you'll be hearing a lot more of in the very near future. With a musical origin story almost as uncanny as that of a Marvel superhero, with a Philosophy degree and Nicholas Jaar bootcamp to boot, Pearl has been steadily building up an audience around his viral track 'Take You to Market' and its equally compelling video. We got the skinny on his progress to date, his love of Acid-Jazz and R&B, and his unfaltering ambition. 

How did you get started with music?

Well, I started playing the piano when I was about 8 years old – it was a mum forced me to kind of thing and at first I was not into it at all but over time started to like it. I started playing classical music, standard. And then my first girlfriend broke up with me at school, I went home and hadn't ever used it as a creative outlet before, but started slamming all these minor chords out on the piano, and thought, actually this feels quite good!

What age was that?

I was like, 13 or 14 years old. After that, I started composing things on the piano and really got into electronic music and listened to a lot of post hardcore too, y'know, listening to a lot of heavy shit as you do at that age, and a lot of like, hip-hop. Ninja Tune [label] was a big influence back then too. I remember when I was 12 or 13 and I got this snowboarding magazine, and y'know when you're a kid, as soon as I got that magazine I decided wanted to be a snowboarder for the rest of my life, I'd never done it, but that’s what I was going to do. Anyway, It had this DVD with an amazing array of Ninja Tune music and I just got so deep into that off the back of it, I was like "fuck snowboarding, let's go make some more music."

Were your parents into music as well, was it a musical household?

Well, not really to be honest, I mean we had a piano and some Bob Dylan in the car, like that kind of thing, but it wasn't a super musical household at all. I pleaded with my Mum to get me an eight-track and a microKORG when I was about 14 or 15, and after that I couldn't stop. I was recording little licks and recording it all on eight-track and got a little drum machine on my Dad's old laptop and started plugging the line out of that into the eight track and then constructing beats and I got so hooked onto drum programming, that was the thing I loved the most. Doing that, putting synth lines over the top of it and some vocoding, it was ridiculous.

That’s a pretty intense start. How did you know how it all worked – were there friends around you?

No, it was all just sort of perseverance and dedication to it; I was just addicted to playing keys and listening to music. I've always had that thing were I hear a track I love and just want to go and make something of my own that's inspired by it. Even just playing Chopin on the piano, I'd find a chord and be like ‘that's the most amazing chord I've ever played, but now I'm just jealous of Chopin for having that piece, so I'm going to take that chord and write my own piece around it’.

I always did that with producing and all that stuff. I did it through uni but never really took it that seriously but I studied Philosophy and six months before I graduated I confronted the fact I really didn’t have a career.

It's scary, isn't it?

Yeah, it was scary, but I also purposefully didn't do something that doesn't have an obvious career, so was a little confused about that. I also didn't have a working computer for the last few years at Uni so couldn't produce anything, so I just bit the bullet and bought a computer and then started producing some demos. My mate that I lived with at Uni was best mates with Nicholas Jaar, and basically the first demo I made, he was like "I really like this, let's send it over to Nico and see what he thinks," and the next day Nico gets back and says "this is absolutely amazing, can you come over to New York" kind of thing, and I ended up in New York after I graduated, working with Nico for three or four months, but at that time I really figured out in my head what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted beat-driven dance music and I knew I wanted to write songs, this idea, and this concept in my head, but I couldn't really sing, for one, at that time. I always wanted to be a singer, but it wasn't my forte at all, so when I was over in New York, it was a very developmental time, but it was really frustrating because I wasn't completing anything. 

With Nicholas Jaar, were you sending him stuff similar to what you are making now?

You can certainly hear where I am now from the early demos, I mean my voice is still the same, but it is better than what it was and it's getting better and better. That said, I do feel like I went from playing a lot of piano-driven stuff to more beat driven and then, it was a lot softer and mellow before, actually I want hard dance music with songs and stories. Now, I'm going back the other way and want more of the song and the story to come out.

Those four months in America must have been quite mad for you, going from Philosophy student to musician.

I'd never been to America before. There were a lot of fun parties and a lot of like ‘hustling’ in New York, but really it was just full-on making music, I hadn't had a laptop for those two years before.

Did you enjoy the process while you were out there?

It was, and has been, super intensive, especially when you're sort of like, this is all I want to do. But I wasn't completing anything and I didn't show anyone my music, except for a few friends and Nico, until this time last year. It was about eight months after I came back from New York, just before Christmas, and then back to reality, back to mundane Edinburgh, working a 9 to 5 shit call centre job and just not having that much time but still working I guess.

How did you get out of the call centre?

I kept producing and wasn't finishing anything, all these ideas have all this potential and I just wasn't realising it. And then something just changed last summer, I just felt, well…Frank Ocean released channelORANGE; I was like crying for days, it was the best, most beautiful thing I'd ever heard, and I guess for the next month I was just listening to it every day and singing every single line, learning all the fine details, and my music doesn't sound like Frank Ocean but I think he taught me how to sing, y'know? There's something about the way he sings that makes you want to sing along with it and learn to sing those lines and it helped me so much with my vocals and gave me a different perspective on songwriting. It gave me a bit of confidence in what I was doing I guess, records do that.

Definitely, you get lost entirely. A great record changes your psyche and how you. Music is so inclusive and there are so many things going on at once, are there other artists around the project that have had a similar effect on it?

I guess with subconscious things that you're like, "Oh I used to listen to that all the time," and funnily enough, I hear that in my own music, like Jamiroquai…

Man, I reckon there's going to be a big Jamiroquai comeback, he's going to pop back out. It worries me. 

Ah, but he's too drugged up now, too fucked in the head. I watched an interview with him on YouTube or whatever and he's just fried man. He's so deluded and fried and rich.

My theory is that all the music Industry money in the '90s went straight to Jamiroquai and this is why we have nothing now. It’s still an interesting thing for you to pull out though. I mean, it's not the coolest music in the world…

What, Jamiroquai? For me, it's the earlier stuff that is super amazing. The first album Emergency on Planet Earth, the strings in that and the songwriting and the bass and the grooves in it are unbelievable. Y'know, there was a peak period when I felt his singles were on fire, with songs like 'Canned Heat', it's just funk, that's basically what it is. But, he had a different quirk and style in him as a frontman, him being a little white man. I can relate to that…

And the 'Take You to Market' video is a slight sort of homage to Jamiroquai?

Well, that was the thing, I was listening to loads of Jamiroquai when we put that up, but made that video and didn't really think of him. I found that Russian hat I wear on the floor, outside a charity shop and thought "that's a weird hat", this is like a year ago and we were shooting the video and just got a bit messed up in the house. We only had four days to shoot it as it was an American mate who filmed and he was flying back to the States. I didn’t know what to wear but yeah, I put this hat on, and I've always enjoyed stupid dancing  and stuff like that so we do that moonwalk around the fruit shop thing and everyone's like "oh my god, that's Jamiroquai" and I realised, oh yeah, it totally is, but it’s cool I - love Jamiroquai!

Have you created your own alter ego then? Is that glasses and hat guy coming back? Because with that video I feel you've created two characters.

Totally. I mean the music I was making then felt quite theatrical, it's representing a certain side of me, an extreme side that gets messed up on the weekend but also questions it the next day. That's like the cycle most songs go through, it's like this is so cool and fun, but actually it's dumb as shit. With the video, I hadn't represented myself on camera before or performed in front of it and I'd already created the name as a moniker I wanted it to be satirical as the song is so pop, the way it's structured, it's not that alternative. The melodies aren't so intricate or complicated or original necessarily. It's structured into something I want to be accessible. But the idea is I'm trying to subtly rip on what everyone thinks is really cool, as in everyone glamorises shit that just isn't that glamorous. Y'know, like with Miley Cyrus, saying "we be up all night taking Molly", yeah you will, but then you'll be crying the next day.

A Miley Cyrus comedown album would be a very strange thing….

It might be the best thing she could ever do, though I'm not sure she's got it in her.

What place do you find yourself in now as an artist? We've tracked the beginnings and how you found the sound…

I feel really excited about the future and about what I'm doing now. Obviously, like eight or nine months ago, December last year I was just a guy in a bedroom. The time with Nico felt really promising but nothing really came of it and everything that's happened since has either been pot luck or completely external to that. Its been really intense, but I've thought a lot about what I want and I've also reflected, like when I made that 'Take You To Market' video, it was just for mates, just like "check out what I've made", but actually once you put something out there you realise people you don't know are watching it and could be misinterpreting it; people said it sounded like I was trafficking women for drugs, which is not really the impression I wanted to make.

What does "take you to market" mean?

Basically, the concept of the song is, you've got your girl, and she's cool and that but sometimes you just want some space; the lyrics go, "I want to take you to market, swap you for good shit and snort it," but actually I'm just saying I want you to go away for a night so I can get fucked up. There's other songs I've written that people haven't heard that are more the other side of that. Y'know, you feel one thing at one time, and feel the opposite thing the next day and that's what I want to represent in my music. The problem is, when people have one single and that's all that they get, they have a very false impression of it. You can't cover every emotion in one song.

Do you feel slightly misunderstood as an artist? 

From the 'Take You To Market' video, potentially yeah, I don't know, because no one has turned to me and been like "Oh you're a hipster from Shoreditch".

But I think people must realise it's a tongue-in-cheek, big, fun, Jamiroquai-esque pop song.

That's what I wanted, I wanted people to see I was being facetious.

Finally, what are the next steps?

I don't ever want to take myself too seriously, because I have all these ideas and things I'm so wary of being this artist that is so intense, I want to say something serious and then be like that's ridiculous. That's the way I live my life in a way. I'll be so intense and laugh about tragic things then have to laugh about them and take the piss out of myself for being so deep or getting depressed over nothing. I want to apply that to the music. I want to put that across in the live show as well, I want the audience to be relaxed and get that it's supposed to be fun. It's not about me singing my heart out and you've got to listen, actually, you know what, have a dance. Do your thing, I'll do mine.

Watch the video for Leon T. Pearl's 'Take You to Market' below. 

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