When you hear Kiran Leonard’s “Dear Lincoln” for the first time – all Elephant 6 collective, Daniel Johnston, psych folk, lo-fi and kind of shambolic – you’re left wondering what underground, cultish US act is responsible for such brilliance. So, to find out it was written when Leonard – a native of Oldham, Lancs. – was just 14 years old is something of a shock to the system, and enough to send anyone older into a jealous rage. And it doesn’t stop there; at only 18, Leonard’s discography is swelling, including impressive debut Bowler Hat Soup.
Sixteen sprawling tracks long and fifty-odd minutes of unhinged brilliance, it’s quite a way to introduce yourself to the world. Inspired by the Mothers of Invention, Sufjan Stevens, Penderecki, Albert Ayler, Don Cabellero, Godspeed and The Beach Boys it’s almost too much to get a grip of on just one listen. From the woozy country of “Whisky Bath”, through the gorgeous mandolin and keys wheeze of “Port Aine” to the sound collage of “There’s No Future In Us” and the tear-stained organ closer “A Purpose’” there’s so much depth (before we even get to Leonard’s fascinating vocal yelps and stream-of-consciousness lyrics) and variety it’s verging on the unbelievable that it was written before he was even out of school.
With all this in mind, how could Best Fit pass up the opportunity to find out more about Kiran Leonard? After agreeing that a boring email Q&A wasn’t the way to go, I dialled up Kiran on a drab weekday evening for a Skype video chat and despite not wanting to mention his age, that’s pretty much where I end up starting…
I say to Kiran that we should begin with the question of his age, just to get it out of the way…so I ask if it bothers that people seem so amazed/concerned/fascinated at him making such a brilliant record at a relatively young age: “I dunno; I don’t think anyone listens to things for pleasure just based on the circumstances under which it was made,” says Kiran. “If you can’t appreciate it for an objective piece of work – whether or not it was made by someone who’s 16 or in their 50s or whatever – people aren’t going to enjoy it if it’s completely decontextualised…but if people like it for that, then that’s nice, you know?” Fine. That’s that sorted. Moving swiftly on, I decide we should start at the beginning, so at what age did Leonard start to play and write music? “I started playing about 4 or 5, on a mandolin,” he begins, reaching behind him to show me the mandolin on which he started playing, “mainly because my hands weren’t big enough to play guitar properly! Then I started playing guitar when I was 8, and the first things I wrote around then were short, melodic things on the mandolin…and I’ve just continued to write.” And does Kiran still use the mandolin in his recordings? “Yes, absolutely,” he affirms, adding: “Comparatively, that’s more of a classical discipline for me than the other instruments. I do concertos for college and things like that, but I’m not an extremely disciplined five-hours-a-day kind of mandolin player…I play classical pieces on it, whereas I don’t do that with piano and guitar. That’s more me kind of auto-didactically weaving my way through the instrument, really.”
The bio for Leonard and Bowler Hat Soup suggests that there’s twenty-plus instruments on the album, so is it really true that the teenager has turned his hand to so many instruments? “The number is sort of gimmicky really,” reveals Kiran. That includes if I strike a radiator or something…but mandolin is the only instrument I’ve had regular lessons on really. I’ve never had proper guitar lessons…though I have one music lesson a week with a private instructor, mostly mandolin and occasionally piano, but we don’t do…we mostly just talk really!” I ask if Kiran comes from a fairly musical family, and it’s hardly a surprise that he does: “I’ve got three brothers who all play guitar,” he admits, “so you could say it’s self-taught as I’ve not had lessons but I’m in an environment where everyone plays…” Does that include his parents? “My dad plays the guitar; he used to play professionally in the 70s and 80s but now he works in radio production.”
Another part of Leonard’s bio which fascinates is the list of his influences; some you might expect from a teenager, other more obscure ones you wonder where a 13-year-old might have come across them. So where did Kiran get his excellent musical taste from? “My brother, mainly,” he begins. “When I was 10 he loaded the contents of his iPod on to my computer from which the most long-lasting influences were The Mars Volta, Boards of Canada, Shellac, Melt Banana, Boredoms…also bands like Pelican - he was really into that intricate, instrumental, heavy, post-metal. Using that as a starting point and information from cyberspace I just branched out, really!”
The mention of a band like Boredoms interests me as there are moments on Bowler Hat Soup, such as recent single “Dear Lincoln”, that are extremely percussive and noisy. Does Kiran use more than one drummer when playing live? “Yeah we play with two drummers!” he reveals. He then explains: “That’s one of those things that needs to work really well, though. Occasionally if we’re under-rehearsed …you need to be so interlocked with two drummers!” It turns out, though, that the use of extra percussion comes out of necessity. Kiran expands: “The idea behind that is, basically, I have to take pieces that have twelve or thirteen instruments on them and boil them down into a group arrangement that’s feasible to perform live. Normally when we play the pieces we replace the tonal diversity with brutality, really, so it’s just very loud – we belt it out instead. But we don’t play live as a band very often, that’s a format I’m still working with… I do more solo shows really; band stuff is still a work in progress.”