It’s an hour into our interview, which feels more like an animated conversation, when Liela Moss briefly freezes up. She’s already pontificated on the state of the world, mused about the power of nature, cooed about her dog (a rescue named Ira), and dismantled capitalism. (Only in theory—there’s only so much that can be done in a single phone call.) But suddenly The Duke Spirit frontwoman has realized how pretentious some of her observations might sound when taken out of context.
“You’ve got to help me on this one, don’t make me sound like I’m some fucking professor,” she moans. “I really don’t feel like that. I’ve just found myself at a certain time and a certain place.”
So, let the record clearly state: Liela Moss doesn’t spend her spare time in pulpits.
It’s hard to begrudge Moss her life experience (or concern that it could be used against her). Fourteen years and five albums deep with The Duke Spirit (which also features Luke Ford, Toby Butler, Olly Betts, and Rich Fownes) she’s forged the kind of bonds that rarely last that long in marriages or business, let alone a creative venture.
It was an accident that kicked it off. Or fate if you squint at it properly. Moss is still mixed on the term. Pressed into service by her flat mate and future bandmate Luke Ford at nineteen, she became the voice for the songs that he had been writing. (“I think he just heard me singing along to a record or something,” she recalls.) Originally beset by fear that she might not be good enough, it wasn’t until they landed a gig at a pub down the road that she fully committed to band life. Or rather, realized she couldn’t wiggle out due to fear of inadequacy.
“I think the worst thing is that person who’s so judgmental that you do nothing in order that you’re never embarrassed and never scrutinized,” says Moss, blithely dropping another in a long series of casual truth-bombs. “But again, the whole point is to be scrutinized and make mistakes and let it happen. And through all of that farcical messing around, you find something more important than the fear that’s holding you back…I’m glad I stepped through the little door in the universe.”
Gigs and opportunities daisy-chained from there. She was self-described music geek, who as a young teen bought band t-shirts and went to festivals with lists of acts she wanted to see (“Other people weren’t into music,” she moans. “They were into skateboarding or fucking horse riding—which was like, ‘oh no, not for me.’”) and huge fan of the riot grrrl movement (although too young to see most of them perform). Gradually, Moss found herself on the other side the equation, hitting festivals, touring with the likes of Janes Addiction, and actually making a living off music. She had once dreamed of hearing private conversations between her heroes. (“Oh my god they’re so hardcore!” she laughs recalling the obsession. “Where do these bands meet? What do they do?”) But as it turns out, reality was stranger than she could have anticipated.
“I love how when you do meet people you admire, it’s quite often in a very normalized space,” Moss admits, her memories tumbling out in a rush. “Something really prosaic or really regular is happen. You’re making coffee or taking out the trash. Something so deadpan and normal is occurring while you’re looking at this person in the eyes. I met Kim Deal at a festival over here in Britain. And she was running a knitting club. Far out man! She’s fucking knitting in this bar next to the stage! I’ve worked with people I truly admire. And maybe not been able to say ‘Oh my fucking god, this is incredible.’ You try to be very calm. I’ve worked with Nick Cave, putting some backing vocals on stuff. It was quite a few years ago now. The whole time I felt like my heart was literally leaping out of my upper ribcage. It’s a mixture of meeting people and it being a very regular scenario and finding it quite funny.”
One hero she ended up working with closely was Simon Raymonde. Moss counts the former Cocteau Twins member as a guiding light for The Duke Spirit, even before they were an official band. His patronage continued when he stepped behind the producer’s desk for their 2015 album, Kin. For his part Raymonde admits being equally impressed by the singer/songwriter, who appears on his upcoming Lost Horizons album.
“The band's name itself came when they were at the original Bella Union office dropping off some gear after the first recording session,” Raymonde reveals. “[Liela is] intuitive, selfless and generous. She's very open but experience has given her a lot of confidence and she pretty much knows exactly what she wants to do. Outrageously talented as she is, I still think her best is yet to come as well.”
Rock star life is all well and good, but there’s a reason Moss is calling me from her home southwest of England, with a view that she describes as consisting exclusively of hills and trees. (If you answered London real-estate prices, know that you’re half correct.) Originally Moss thought she’d be bored leaving the capital city, but she soon discovered otherwise. It’s easy to maintain a sense of self when nature is your main companion. It’s easier to hear yourself when you experience silence. It is also, practically speaking, easy to make a racket and record an album—a fact that Moss attributes to the expansive sonic pallet of her band’s newest, Sky Is Mine.
“We were all working together in this house in the middle of nowhere,” she says, setting the scene and noting that they had worked with a similar set-up while recording Kin. “So we could make noise. If you do something like that, and you’re not in a sterile studio environment, you’re actually in a house, then every song is kind of ushering in the next. It is very much stepping into the home of those songs. It truly was organic. You’ve just heard us working and tinkering like people in their sheds over something they really care for.”
Self-produced by the band, with guest turns from Duke Garwood and Josh T Pearson, at its core, Sky Is Mine is a rock album—heavy emphasis on the word album. (Moss notes with a half-smile that Ira contributed heavily to the sound. “She stomps around and comes into the room when you’re trying to scribble some lyrics down…I just look at her and think, ‘I don’t know the answers! But what do you think about this new chorus? Come in and have a listen.’”) Non-canine additions including heavy helpings of percussion, ominous walls of guitar and synth and synths and strings appear and reappear, tying together songs and themes.
"It would just be great if we could all practice retreating back a little bit. I suppose that’s something that fascinates me."
Moss says that the sonic themes run in tandem to her habit of reusing lyrical themes. From the slow build of “See Power,” with the understated hook where she sings “All my desires/they make me tired,” to the soring chorus of “Houses,” the musician has concerned herself with the act of leaving, of getting outside the structures that tell us we need more, rejecting the idea that the superficial hierarchies we’ve invented are actually a measure of a person’s worth, or the belief that we can game a system that has convinced us if we try harder and do good-er, we can win.
“Probably the same thought said in five or ten different ways is definitely weaving its way through the album,” she confesses. “There’s such an ego driven possessiveness and need to be right and to want things. Actually you become a tired person. Instead of a fulfilled being. It’s only when something happens or you’re watching something with great care that you really see it and feel it and think ‘This is utterly pointless.’
"As human beings, if we move inward, we kinda already have a very comfortable, nurturing, peaceful place. It’s always been there; it will always be there. It’s only this grasping feeling of needing more that really disturbs us. It would just be great if we could all practice retreating back a little bit. I suppose that’s something that fascinates me. It ends up in the songs.”
It isn’t an over-reach on Moss’ part. Knitted into the DNA of Sky is Mine (the title itself an admonishment to anyone or any government who believes they can really possess everything—even the sky) is the quiet questioning of everything, with the unspoken belief that there’s something better laying just behind it all. On slow-burner “How Could, How Come,” Moss repeats the title track like a meditative prayer aimed at a higher power. Even though Moss speaks of spirituality from the position of someone who has chosen not to take an official stance on the matter, she can see the benefit of viewing herself as part of something greater.
“I think it’s quite possible that we are perhaps all generated from one explosion of energy,” the musician says after long pause. “The idea that we are all individuals, separate, fighting entities can seem at times so utterly ridiculous and so devastating that we cannot see that. So I feel like when you make music you make harmonies and you bring together so much abstraction. Stuff that isn’t really there, and you can’t touch, but you can hear it. Perhaps it’s the best place to work in terms of trying to understand what we might really be, underneath our hair and behind our eyes. When you pull your teeth out, what’s left?”
She’s not in the market to answer that. On Sky is Mine’s meditative closing track “Broken Dreams,” Moss finds herself meditating on the very nature of the world—only to discover that there are no answers, easy or otherwise. “Waiting waiting/show me/fading, peaceful/show me,” she sings against a minimal guitar riff, the vocals line repeating like a hall of mirrors.
“You’re waiting for peace to come,” she says of the peaceful paean. “You know it’s inevitable. Because like I say, there is an ultimate belief in the good of people. So yeah, I think that’s a really good point you brought up. Although its chords and notes might fall into a melancholy minor position, there is a feeling at the end of the record of just waiting for the peace to come. It’s not impossible. That’s the overall feeling of the last two records. It’s not impossible—even as dark as it is. I’m not hoping, I’m just somehow faithful the lights will dim back up again. It’s a total head fuck. But we have so much good inside of us. You have to stick a flag in the ground and say ‘I’m waiting here. It can be good.’ Claim your territory for everyone who isn’t a total fucking cunt!”
"There’s no risk or too much burden on this commodity that we’ve been worried about for years. It’s freedom now."
It’s that rowdy sense of well-being that Moss is extending to her band these days. Any full-time musician worth their salt will tell you that it’s a joy and a privilege to make a living from their art. But when Moss drops a similar sentiment, it feels like more that mere interview fodder. Life is complicated, scary, and uncertain. She’s done trying to make it more so.
“This time [recording the album] really felt like a simple pleasure,” she says. “You rewind several years and things seem to be overly important. Too much riding on them, and too much money spent. I think we all let that go quite a long time ago. Got back to a much more artist working, chipping away for their own good reasons. No longer feeling quite so commodified. A realization in two ways that you’re not profitable enough to be important and who gives a fuck? But actually, there’s enough of a fuck given to put out more music. Trending a fine line. I think when you let go and say, ‘Hey, probably no one. But this is beautiful,’ then everybody succeeds. There’s no risk or too much burden on this commodity that we’ve been worried about for years. It’s freedom now. It felt like simple pleasures to accumulate these songs. It’s a much nicer feeling than perhaps when you’re younger and you’re more uptight.”
And even though we’re speaking via telephone, it’s hard not to imagine Moss smiling as she delivers one last piece of wisdom. Advice which—let’s face it—we should all take to heart.
“Let’s let everything fall away and be just as we are with our favorite dog,” she laughs. “It’s okay.”
Photshoot location courtesy of The Approach Gallery, London. Artwork featured includes 'The Village' by Evren Tekinoktay, 'Rhombus' by Germaine Kruip and 'Self Portrait at Jake's (Yesterday and Today)' by Dave Muller.