Its simply confounding just where our minds can take us in a matter of moments. Drawn under a soft focus, we open ourselves up to the unceasing pools of thought that drip through and paint our consciousness in thought and feeling. Whether notions of calm, anxiousness or exuberance, our minds are fully absorbed by such musing – and time becomes but a matter of insignificance. We are perched completely at ease yet also on the edge of all the circumstances of our thoughts – ready for them to utterly compound and alter our mood, no matter what manner or state it held previously.
Listening to In Balance, the latest record by British electronic artist Leo Cunningham, takes a hold of you in much the same form. Blossoming bashfully from its spontaneous dawn, the album colours your mentality with notions of serenity and anticipation, ecstasy and relief – with seamless, instinctive ability. Crafted out of a desire for remedy and understanding – for Cunningham, the album is guided by the undeterminable opportunity that is afforded in experimenting with configuring and distorting sound and the capacious rural coast where he returned to find tranquility and composure.
As it turns out, we spent isolation mere minutes away from each other in Devon, no doubt unconsciously bumping into one another as we ventured past the swollen shorelines, wistful pier and undefinable beach huts that colour Preston and Paignton beaches without any notion of realisation. As we marvel at the small world we find ourselves in and the joys such a small-knit creative community can provide, the habitual calm that is shared between us colours the conversation in an immediate and welcoming familiarity. Much as in his music, Cunningham is unassuming and affable – gratifying company with deep-rooted passion and focus for what he crafts. With ‘In Balance’, Cunningham has found a way of channelling all those thoughts our minds conjure into something tangible and comprehensive – and in doing so offers a sense of mellifluous therapy to those that listen, much as the provincial charm of our home towns have during this time.
“it’s almost like your DNA projected into sound waves – that’s something that’s always stuck with me and it’s important that it is just me.”
It seems the album itself was made in a very isolated space, in solitude. Was it important for you to be able to work creatively in this way, do you feel it was more conducive to better productivity?
Yeah, I’m quite introverted. I’ve been in bands before, playing guitar and stuff, and I just felt like I wasn’t really able to express what I wanted through that, with other people. Maybe that’s a bit insular, but I think it’s interesting to be on your own and see what you can do. I’ve always thought about what a friend of mine once said – it’s almost like your DNA projected into soundwaves – that’s something that’s always stuck with me and it’s important for me that it is just me. But then I’d love to work with a drummer or something because i don’t think drums are my strong point.
I really like the idea of that – that feels like a very physical way of looking at it, like you’re literally putting yourself into the music, your own identity into what you are creating. Did you feel making the album in such a way was simply a calming, balancing process – or has it had more of a cathartic, actively changing effect on how you feel?
A balancing act is probably a good way to put it. Some of the tracks really brought me to tears, in a way where I can hear what I want to hear but I can’t translate it. But I would spend a lot of time, especially when all of the tracks were written, listening to it on headphones in the dark – just to feel if I could go through the album without having any negative thoughts – or have anything jump out that I would think really isn’t working or make me lose a state of mind – then I would change it. So I was quite wary of making it flow all together and have a bit of cohesiveness.
So in that sense do you feel like you are quite hard on yourself in terms of your creativity? Do you like to perfect things?
It’s a bit of both, I feel like I am quite hard on myself and I think that it’s one of those chasing that perfect thing that will never be there – but I think it’s kind of good to work in that way because you push yourself to improve.
So in the opposite way, do you find any sense of calm in the active focus of creativity? Does actually sinking into something in that way give you a switch off?
Yeah definitely, the way I work is very improvisational, so my live stuff is really different to the album – it’s a bit more experimental and I was kind of performing it at the same time as writing. I was finding the live stuff was in a completely different state of mind and representation. You definitely lose yourself in production in the same way that you would lose yourself in writing or performing, where a lot of times I’d come out on the other side and be like where did that come from? Like with ‘An Island Blooming From The Sea’ – that literally took about an evening to record, and it was pretty much done from then on – and it just has always stood out, like it doesn’t really feel like I wrote that song.
Really, like it feels outside of yourself?
Yeah a little bit, like I know it obviously came from me, but it doesn’t feel like it did which is maybe why I like it so much.
On that note, I’d like to discuss your use of physical analogue – cause I get the impression there can be a lot of spontaneity created from playing around and linking various elements? Where did your interest in using physical instrumentation in particular stem from, and how has it developed over time?
It was in my final year at uni I got into soft synth on my laptop, i’d never really played the piano before and I found it really intuitive in the way you could morph sounds – which on guitar I found there was a lot of limitations until you got pedals involved, where you could be a bit more creative. It kind of went on from there and I got the KORG minilogue in 2015, just cause I thought I would give it a go, and I just fell in love with it instantly. It kind of replaced my guitar within a year as my main instrument. My guitar still hangs on my wall but it doesn’t get played as much as it should. I found the analogue stuff organic in a way, I was messing around with it, turning the volume right up and putting it through a gain pedal just to see if I could hear what was going on, and you can hear stuff happening underneath – it was like a quite profound moment for me, feeling like its not artificial like I thought it was. It’s a physical force that you are not in control with but influencing, it blows my mind when i think about it.
It’s like you’re finding something human in the artificial?
I definitely consider it a natural, organic sound – pure sine waves. I’ve recently got a modular and that’s been my project during lockdown – trying to wrap my head around that is so interesting.
It’s quite a deep thing to delve into?
I feel like the workflow really suits me – I kind of just stick to scales and I have one scale on piano, I’ve been playing Eb for what feels like about a year – but the modular seems to just make a bit more sense to make nice tones.
It’s constant learning isn’t it, and in that sense it never really stops cause there’s always going to be a different sound that comes from that – there’s always going to be something new that you find – in that sense do you feel like there were many processes in the making of this record in particular that surprised you?
So it took me about fourteen to fifteen months to write, and in the second half of it I started using the DAW a bit more – and with the introduction of analogue stuff I’d disregarded soft synth and sampling – but I found that in ‘To Float Like New’ I had sampled a short thing that i’d recorded on my synth when I was practicing for a live set. Then in sampling that faster and slower it felt like it breathed a lot, which surprised me because it was a completely different way to start the track from the rest of it.
It’s nice that the learning and working out is in there – that’s quite refreshing in itself?
It happens throughout to be honest, I think I must’ve written about twenty songs but my ideas and the flow of it would change, there was songs that I’d written and recorded back in January where I was like “yeah this is good I want to put this on the album” but you’ve got to reign yourself in else it would just take forever to write. I have to put a bit of a limitation on my excitement.
So in that sense obviously we’ve already talked about how you feel about perfecting things but at the same time do you feel you have to be quite restrictive?
I feel like I really like the new things and not the old so much, I wouldn’t say I get bored of stuff but I get used to it.
So do you feel you have to set something down quite quickly before you change your mind on it or is it something that you can come back to and say I’m still into this and this still feels part of what I want to create?
Yeah I can definitely come back to things, but I’d sat with the album for quite a while and listened to it. I don’t think I listened to it for a month or two, just to give my head a rest and my ears a break from it, so I could listen to it and not have any of the feelings that could take a bit of the history away from it. It really made me appreciate it to give it some space and then listen to it again.
Did it give it a different personality, did it change in anyway within that break?
It felt more like an achievement, I could recognise that I was happy with it.
Like you’d created something there and then and it was real?
Yeah definitely. It’s the first work that I’ve done and I feel like it’s a properly considered piece, compared to my other albums that were one-take, completely doorless and I’d just record them and put them out as quickly as possible. But with this one it felt like I wanted to consider it a bit more, I’m glad that I did that.
Why do you feel that change in approach happened?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I started writing and recording again in January 2019, and it felt like I could do more – kind of like how I said I get a bit bored of certain workflows, so it sort of felt like it was a good time to go back to a computer and try and make some tangible stuff, rather than something raw, cause they were super raw.
And from that you’ve released the record through Salmon Universe – again in that sense it adds to that feeling of it being more considered because it was a physical release?
So the self-releases were physical releases as well, they were tapes. Which is how I got to know Rich from Salmon Universe – he bought my tape in Drift. Then we got chatting through that and it felt like I wanted to make something a bit more legitimate. As much as I love the DIY tape stuff, I’m holding the CD now and it feels really nice.
There’s something about that isn’t it – it’s like birthing this real thing, it’s weird and lovely at the same time. Now the album for me very much felt like a nod to the way in which the natural and the synthetic can congeal and persuade one another. Devon in particular just possesses a rural majesty that I find speaks to you through the silence in the atmosphere. Did this happen naturally rather than it be a necessity for you to explore natural sounds through synthesis?
I think the landscape and countryside has played a part in the music I make. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since I moved back to Devon that I’ve started to write in this kind of style. I think it wasn’t a conscious decision, I was listening to a lot of environmental music from Japan – they just approach it in a really refreshing way, it’s about the ebb and flow and there’s not a set structure of a chorus and verse. I just think my musical influences changed, cause I moved away from friends and stuff and it was more about listening to music on my own.
It’s a very personal thing?
Yeah, it kind of helped with mental health problems and then it went into making music which I found therapy in.
And now with the album here, how does that make you feel now, where do you feel you are at now?
It feels good, like I said it feels like I can see the achievement in it. I’m kind of just enjoying moving onto the next thing now really with the Modular stuff. It feels like I’m gaining a bit of momentum which is nice.
For me it’s then interesting to explore how we are able to evoke such emotion and relatable, universal feeling in instrumentation and sound. Do you feel you were able to wear your heart on your sleeve so to speak when crafting this record?
I feel like it’s definitely a way to express myself in a way I’m comfortable doing. I feel like the improvisation thing is so therapeutic and in going back to the DNA thing, it helps you see how you are feeling. I found an old song from when I first moved down back in 2017, and it was super industrial and beat-driven, and it was really dark. I’d kind of forgotten about that time almost – it’s nice that you can look back at something and it’s almost like an entry to a diary, so that’s how I was feeling. But at the time it was just natural.
What I also love is how you juxtaposed the more considered tranquility with rushing, heavier hitting phrases – on say The 4th Condition for example. Do you find solace or a confidence from both forms?
I feel like they are part of the same wave, there’s peaks and troughs. To have the high and full energy you need the low, tranquil emptiness. ‘The 4th Condition’ is sandwiched between two very ambient pieces, and I feel like it has to be there because else it won’t have the same feeling of being on top of the wave if you never have to climb up or go down.
You want to capture everything, the emotion and the energy. In that same sense it’s such a seamless record to listen to, it transcends the idea of what the ‘ambient’ genre is – transgressing from the actual categorical genre into more of the actual mood it possesses?
I love ambient music, but I feel like it’s such a broad term now. You can pigeonhole yourself with it. The way I see my influences and what I’ve started to say I’m influenced by is traditional electronic – so more like Mort Garson and Suzanne Ciani – when synth was first making its way in. Electronic makes me think of EDM, but ambient is kind of like Brian Eno – so where’s the in-between?
So on that note, in the hyper-rushed nature of modern music consumption, where do you feel your own music sits within this?
I feel like it’s music for people to listen to on their own? I’ve always liked the music for after nights out, when you’d just sit with your mates and you’d chat and listen, or go to bed and listen to something. I don’t really know where it would sit, I think it’s music to have in the house I’d say, to relax to – but maybe you could drive to it as well?
At the same time I’d say it’s certainly something you can engage with – it’s something you can listen to and you can find something new in the builds and development in it. To close up of sorts, what have you ultimately taken from making this record – and what do you hope listeners to take from it?
So I think what I’ve taken, appreciated and really feel grateful for is to work with Rich and Joe from the label – having two extra pairs of ears to guide me through it, because I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it on my own to get it to this point. I think there’s something really important about finishing things.
I hope it makes people feel relaxed and that they can relate to some of the emotion. For the same reason I make music I guess, I want to feel nice and I hope people will feel nice when they listen to it.
Lecu’s album ‘In Balance’ is out now via Salmon Universe.
Words: Ross Jones