Producer, song writer and pop artist Leo Kalyan’s speaks to THIIIRD about developing his own sound of progressive pop and being the importance of being visible as brown, gay and Muslim musician.
Interview by Fayann Smith
Leo Kalyan’s debut EP blew up in an unprecedented way. His single “Fingertips” became one of Spotify’s biggest viral successes, thrusting him into the global popular music consciousness and onto the Radio 1 playlist. Despite this mainstream recognition he is not the usual pop success story, far from it, his music and identity offering layers of complexity that usually elude chart popularity. He talks to THIIIRD about how his unique journey has inspired his distinctive sound and challenged the perception of what a pop star can be.
F: You have described yourself in previous interviews as left-field pop, what does that classification mean to you and does it still stand?
L: I would define left-field pop as music that sits outside of your mainstream radio and mainstream pop songs. So One Direction to me are the most to the right, so to speak; One Direction would be on one end and on the other end I’d put someone like FKA Twigs, or Björk. To me she is the most left-field pop you can get, because to me pop is anything that has hooks in it, memorable hooks, memorable melodies and memorable lyrics. Something that is essentially catchy is pop, if it is catchy it can become popular, if it is catchy and popular, it is pop.
That applies to the “Macarena” as much as it does to R.E.M’s “Losing my Religion” because they are both pop songs just different kinds. I would say that that’s my definition of left-field pop and all kinds of artists today whether we are thinking about Arca, Kasabian, Charlie XCX, Iggy Azalea…They all sit on a continuum, everything sits in different places as to how pop it gets. On one end it’s very catchy and perhaps more formulaic, then say FKA Twigs is somebody that is very non-formulaic and is breaking down structures, it becomes more of an ideas based presentation of music. Not everybody has the desire to express themselves in that way, a desire to express anything in particular, some people are happy singing love songs and that’s absolutely fine. Adele is amazing, but is not conceptual it’s always telling stories, that is what makes her so popular and therefore pop and I love that. There’s nothing wrong with being formulaic because there are ways of being very intelligently formulaic, as Adele proves. I’m a big fan of pop music as it informs my music in a big way, that’s why I describe myself as left-field pop. I feel that my music is conceptual, I am struggling and grappling with some big ideas that I’m trying to convey, sometimes successfully and sometimes I become too abstract and beat myself up about it.
F: I get the impression that you pay great attention to detail with all aspects of your work, your lyrics in particular stand out as considered and poetic in contrast to many songs I could hear on the radio. How do you devise your lyrical content?
L: Sometimes I see a word that sets me off, sometimes I’m sat on the train and I’ll see a word on the front of a newspaper and that will give me an idea. Sometimes I’ll be watching something on TV, something will jump out at me and I’ll write it down straight away, or I’ll sit there with the chords I’ve just played and I’ll let the emotion of the chords guide me on what the song is about. I usually have themes in my head, I want to write a song about this experience or this feeling and if that feeling fits with the chords I’ve written that becomes the song that I’m writing that day.
F: So at the root of this process although the methods are diverse, is an emotional resonance, so it’s something that makes you feel a certain way?
F: You produce all your own music, in addition to production for other commercial artists, what inspired you to produce and does it give you an advantage?
L: I’d say yes it does give you an advantage, because you’re able to think about song in more ways than just a singer, or a singer or songwriter turning up to do something. It allows you to know about the possibilities of space within production, or things you can do in terms of effects to make things sound interesting or create hooks. You know the language.
What inspired me? I’d say I worked with a lot of people before I started producing and I learnt to produce just by watching friends of mine. These were just friends of mine with whom I was trying to write songs, we were just kids fucking about, trying to make some music. I found that nobody was making what I kept thinking about in my head I wanted to try and make that. I was watching my friends and I thought you know what I can have a go at this and I tried. I started off shit, got better and better slowly and over time I became a producer and other people started approaching me and said can you produce this for me. Then I started finding fun and joy sitting down with other artists and helping them express themselves. It’s nice to get out of your own head sometimes and get into somebody else’s, to not have to worry about your own problems, or your own issues, or baggage. That’s usually what you’re grappling with when you write songs for yourself.
F: I believe that you are classically trained…
L: I’m classically trained in vocal, I trained in Indian classical music, I did that for years and I should really return to it, because it makes you think of music in a different way. Indian classical music is not about fame or glory or success, it’s much like yoga, it’s a spiritual process and you’re doing it to get better at it. It’s about the discipline of it, the pureness of being good and expressing yourself, kind of like gospel I think, so there’s a lot in common with gospel and jazz and the improvisational nature of black music. It is a completely different entry point an emotional entry point, Indian classical music is all about emotion, I don’t mean emotion in terms of subject matter, because often there is just one line, one couplet or one verse that is just sung again and again in five hundred different ways and it’s all about how you convey the emotion of just those two lines. So just a handful of words and how you were able to convey the emotion of that poetry for about twenty minutes.
F: A word that comes to my mind is transcendence; a sound that feels like it connects you to something bigger than yourself. Even if this is just an illusion it is a powerful one, like hearing a spiritual in church.
L: I often describe in my music what I’m trying to always capture is a feeling, the one thing that is in all of my songs is the fact that they feel very dreamy, ethereal, summery, oceanic, I like to use that word because I want all of my songs to make you feel like you are floating on a wave. Or to make you feel that feeling of the heat on your skin when you are driving in a hot country by the ocean. That’s a very specific thing, but you know it is almost my own test when I make a song for me, a Leo Kalyan song that I make for myself as opposed to a song for somebody else. When I make a song for me I like capturing these feelings and is an interesting challenge to give to yourself.
F: The lyrical content is often quite challenging in contrast to the lush soundscapes; as in your song “Fucked Up” – on one hand the music is very seductive, soothing almost, but the ideas can be much darker.
L: That wasn’t a choice, in terms of I want to necessarily give people soothing music with more hard themes. It wasn’t a choice it was just naturally what happened; now I’m thinking in a more deliberate way, I’m thinking okay well there are some that even grittier and harder I’d like to talk about. Stories I’d like to tell about my own life and my own experiences, I’ve only been able to come out about in the last eight or nine months.
In the “Fucked Up” EP I finally talked about my sexuality, I talked about my cultural background, my ethnicity and all these kinds of things that I didn’t want to talk about for a long time because of the controversy around these things. Somehow I’ve just found myself as an adult having all of my labels of identity intensely politicised and always on the news, so you almost feel like everybody is talking about you and your rights. That’s not a choice that I made it’s just strangely where I ended up, just because this is a point in history where we are at right now.
It took me a long time to talk about those things, because in a world post 9/11 everybody who was from a Muslim background and had brown skin dealt with it in a different way. The increasing rise of Islamic terrorism combined with Islamophobia, the actions of a few all of a sudden having to represent billions of people around the world. How in the West those who are brown and from Muslim backgrounds how we dealt with that, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we talk about it or make excuses for it. Everybody deals with it differently and is dealing with it differently.
It’s only in the past eight months I’ve been able to start talking about the really hard-hitting things and now I’m in the process of figuring out how soothing the music should be if I’m going to talk about things that are really not soothing. I’m not very soothed by the world at the moment, which is why I like to travel, take photographs, why my imagery is a lot to do with escapism. This is all subconscious and I’m only now able to look at what I’ve been doing for years with my visuals, my music and my Instagram, all the creative things I do and recognise a theme, escapism. Wanting to connect with these surreal blue oceanic landscapes because I can see a sort of freedom, an escape from the boxes and trappings of everyday life in a city as a queer person of colour.
F: It is a time of decreased attention spans and high paced media; to fly in the face of that is something quite profound, especially as a pop artist, have you found it harder to grab people’s attention or has it not been an issue for you?
L: I guess, yes in a sense, if I wanted to I could sit down today make a big pop House tune and put it out and I have many friends who have global careers doing just that. Making bangers. Do I want to make bangers for myself? Do they express my truth? No, but I will happily write them for other artists. I’ve been involved writing bangers for the people and I love a good banger. I love a good banger but at the end of the day I don’t think that my truth as a human being, as an artist is necessarily expressed best through a banger. I think the ideas I want to convey through my music are different but I’m happy to write songs for other people that are bangers and fun and frivolous, I have no problem with that kind of music, in fact, it inspires me.
F: You are one of the successes from the new online streaming model of music consumption. MTV described your breakout single “Fingertips” as the most viral track on Spotify in 2015. It must have felt good to get such an organic response to your work from your fan base. The ground reports from other artists about their experience of Spotify and the streaming model vary, how did it work out for you?
L: It got me lots of other opportunities in terms of getting my music in front of lots of people, therefore lots of people took me seriously, it helped to build and create my fan base. In terms of bringing me a big old cheque, no. My song was played on daytime Radio 1, in the middle of the day, it was number one on the worldwide Spotify chart. For me that is something that makes me feel incredibly proud because I didn’t see it coming. It just happened with “Fingertips” I didn’t even want to put that song on the EP and it just came out and did so well. In many senses I wasn’t prepared for it.
F: You recently went public as a gay Muslim, partially via the bluntly titled “Fucked Up” – it struck me this was a bold move in our divided times, why was important for you to become visible?
L: As a gay brown person, you don’t exist. You have no identity, your existence is denied. It is strange to me to think that I am the only gay South Asian person who is out and living life publicly as a musician in this country, possibly the world. That is crazy to me, it’s a weird position to be in but there simply aren’t any others. It’s important for me to show other people that it is okay to be gay and you can actually live a full life and be a complete human being.
You can tell your parents that you are gay and if they have a problem with it, then they just have to deal with it the way everybody else’s parents have to deal with it. You were born gay, you don’t choose it and you just are what you are. I think that more and more people need to be visible because I think in South Asian culture there is a huge stigma around it. The same way there is in African culture or Caribbean culture, there is huge stigma around sexuality for all people of colour. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to start talking about this, then I just thought to myself, fuck it, life is short. I only have one life that I can live and I’m sick of not being my full self, I’m sick of having to cordon off important parts of my identity, personality and interests. Why should I do that?
F: This is very brave, especially when you are occupying an outsider position, but you still also have this ability to be a mainstream pop artist. One of your idols George Michael remained closeted for the first part of his career and sadly you can see why the industry thought it was necessary.
L: I’m a huge fan of George Michael, vocally, musically, everything. He is a fantastic producer as well, people don’t realise he produced a lot of his own records and played the instruments. What I love about him was that he ultimately wasn’t afraid to put his sexuality out there, with Fast Love and Outside. When he came out he came out with bells on! I’m here I’m queer and you can fuck off! I think that was really, really amazing and we haven’t really seen anything like that since. We have out pop stars now, but they aren’t doing quite the same as he was able to do.
We have some incredible artists who are doing great things for gay people in the public eye, Sam Smith, Olly Alexander, both of whom are friends of mine, they set a really wonderful example. The thing is they are both white; we need to see more. There is also MNEK who is out, he is trailblazing a path for people of colour who are gay, you see him and you are just like, wow, I don’t need to be this stereotypical thing, he doesn’t give a fuck and we need more people to not give a fuck. We need more labels to take chances on artists who are actual artists, who don’t give a fuck and who were doing things that are ground-breaking and pushing culture forward.
F: Do you feel the need to reconcile your gay identity with your Muslim heritage and if so how do you do it?
L: Oh God, what a question! There has been a long tradition of gay poets and musicians and artists within Islam. Within left-field spiritual Islam, Sufism, there have been a lot of poets, the most famous being Rumi, a 13th century Persian mystic. Beyoncé has named her child after him, I’m sure knowingly, as she does her research, he is also one of the bestselling poets in America. His poetry sells by the bucket load in America! Islam has got a long tradition of these kinds of things.
How do I reconcile the two? I don’t necessarily reconcile the two in the sense that I am what I am and that is the reconciliation. If there is no reconciliation and I wouldn’t have been born that way. There is a really interesting article my friend sent me when I was about to release “Fucked Up” about why modern Muslims have such a problem with homosexuality, because they haven’t throughout history and now they really do. It gave lots of examples of gay people who have existed in Islam, from Islamic countries, hugely successful ones, so it does beg the question what has happened now. A lot of it stems from Wahhabism, a very stringent form of Islam, but that just isn’t the way most Muslims think.
F: How was your truth received by your loved ones and fans?
L: I feel like my fans started talking to me about things on social media in ways they hadn’t before, there were certain fans who send me heart eyes on everything I post and they still do! The people who are my fans are here for the music, they weren’t bothered; if anything they reached out to me more because they feel like they know me more. As for my loved ones, I’ve had such amazing support from people, I’ve had messages from cousins and my aunties and my uncles, people just saying I’m brave, can’t believe you had the guts to do this, you should be proud.
F: The positivity was unexpected?
L: I did not expect it at all, I really didn’t.
F: So this is really encouraging to a fan is perhaps in a similar position?
L: I can’t promise that that’s gonna be the result; I talk to my fans about it, if they message me I talk about these things with them and my main piece of advice to them is that if you do really fear for your life, fear for your safety, fear you will be thrown out, make yourself financially independent before you tell them. I do understand that it is potentially actually putting people in danger and the last thing I want to do is encourage people to be at risk. It can help to make yourself independent, I did, before I told my dad unequivocally that I was gay. Luckily for me my story is positive and I would like to hope there will be more positive stories, but there is no guarantee of that. All we can do is band together, build a community that we can rely on, a place for queer people of colour to find support and advice.
F: Love is a recurrent theme in your work, would you agree that is good to demonstrate there is a universality to the subject of the agony and ecstasy of relationships, putting homosexual love on a par with the endlessly eulogised heterosexual union?
L: I think it is incredibly important to have that. The fact is, even I don’t use male pronouns, I just use “you” and that is a deliberate choice. Somebody Tweeted me the other day to say how much they love me. I never use pronouns like “he” or “she” and I do that on purpose so it is universal. I just want to tell the story and not have it labelled as gay or straight.
Do I think that there should be more songs from man to man that use a male pronoun? Yes and maybe I’ll write one actually, I haven’t done it and perhaps that is because I’ve been afraid, when I think about it. I heard an artist recently called Serpent with Feet, very abstract sort of songs, but all telling stories that are very much gay love stories, people are definitely doing it. Maybe I will.
Single “No Man’s land” out now.