July 18, 2018

How Leon Vynehall’s Album Was Inspired By His Family’s Polaroid Photos

Article submitted to the Polaroid Originals Magazine by DJ Pangburn. 

Electronic music producer Leon Vynehall is known for creating evocative house music with a deep emphasis on themes and narratives. For his 2014 album, Music for the Uninvited, Vynehall combined childhood memories with house music’s queer history, while the 2016 follow-up, Rojus, fused his interest in bird mating rituals with a narrative of a night out at the club. On his latest, Nothing Is Still, Vynehall once again dips into personal history, unfolding a multimedia tale of his British grandparents’ time in New York City. As ambitious a musical project as you’re likely to see in 2018, Nothing Is Still is an album, novella, Polaroid photo exhibit, film, and immersive live show.

This deeply personal project has its origins in the passing of Vynehall’s grandfather, and the discovery of a box of Polaroid photographs. The photos, taken by his grandfather from 1963 to 1969, revealed details of his grandparents’ life in New York City—the fulcrum upon which Nothing Is Still’s narrative turned.

How did your grandfather’s Polaroid photos inspire the multimedia album Nothing Is Still?

It was more out of curiosity of what they were, what they were doing in those photographs, and where they were. Also, kind of facetiously, they were strewn across the dining room table and I made a frame with my fingers and thought it would make an interesting LP cover. I guess it almost started in an unserious way, but it quickly turned into something I thought would be quite important for me and my family, when my Nan started divulging information about the pictures.

What did you find out about what was going on in the Polaroid photos?

There were certain pictures of my Nan in a waitress outfit, and it was her working at the Mayor’s Ball in 1967. She also started a small flower arrangement company, and there are pictures of her doing that. They were photographs of them at Niagara Falls, and one of the anecdotes from that features in the novella. There were pictures of my grandfather in Arizona on ranches with horses. Basically, my Nan worked for an airline in the food department as a waitress in one of the airline diners, so she got free flights, and they explored America more than the UK. A lot of those pictures were them seeing what their newfound home could present to them.

Were your grandparents prolific photographers throughout their lives.

Yes, they took pictures throughout their lives. My grandfather was definitely interested in technology, so when the first VHS cameras came out he had one, and he was also obsessed with computers and things like that. So they were definitely avid photographers throughout their lives. I think that it was more about capturing memories of the family and what was going on around them than being about the technical or aesthetic side of photography.

Did the novella grow out of these photographs and the conversations you had with your grandmother their time in New York and other parts of America?

The photographs were the catalyst for the idea. Out of those photographs came the anecdotes behind them, and then out of those anecdotes came more stories, and out of that came the idea to write it up into a fiction-based story based on true events. This then sparked me wanting to write music to each of the chapters and then doing all of the digital sides to it. In essence, the two sparks were the passing of my grandfather and these photos.

What was the writing process like as far as building the story out of these conversations and photos?

I co-wrote it with my friend Max Sztyber, who I’ve known for nearly a decade now. I was in Berns, Switzerland with him in my late teens and very early twenties, and he was also a lyricist. He’s got a beautiful ways with words. He writes poetry, short stories, but the way he came into it was through writing lyrics after having an interest in literature. The way he writes is very musical and lyrical, which lent itself to writing music along to the literature. We got all the anecdotes together, we timelined it out, and we figured what we were going to have to put in there that is fiction that would give it its middle or ending or its catalyst for change. Max would have all of the information and then he’d come back to me with a draft, then I would edit it his drafts and give him notes, and he’d go back and apply them. Max was doing the bulk of the creative writing, but it was me that was in a sense directing or producing the story. The novella itself is nine chapters, and each chapter is basically a snapshot of the characters as they spend their lives in New York.

Are these chapter snapshots directly related to the photographs?

Some of them definitely are. They had to take a boat to New York from the UK because air travel back then was extremely expensive, and my Nan got seasick very soon after leaving. So there is actually photo of my Nan and Pops, and my Nan is in bed seasick and my Pops is there with her. There is the photograph of them at Niagara Falls, which is part of one of the chapters. There are numerous others ones as well, but the photographs all informed the novella in some way whether it was literally or figuratively.

At what point in the story building process did you start writing music?

It was toward the end of the creative writing process because in order to write the music I had to have the chapters in front of me as a sort of brief. I would print out the chapters and go through everything with a highlighter and basically pick out words and phrases that I could use as tools that would inform me as far as what the song should be doing. So a phrase like “the city shuffles forward to the festive season” told me that if there is a beat in there it’s got to have a kind of shuffle to it. And since it’s festive it’s got to have a sense of optimism.

On the tracks “Movements” and “Birds on the Tarmac” there seems to be a jazz influence embedded in the electronic tones and rhythms. Did the time period’s musical flavors infiltrate your songwriting in this way?

Absolutely, but I didn’t want the music to be a pastiche of the time it was set in. I wanted it to have something in there—like a flavor or a style or an instrument—that would inform me. Even though the chapter “Movements” is them exploring New York in the 1960s for the first time, and they’re going to bars and dancing and hearing all of this music, I didn’t want to write a jazz track. The songs are musical interpretations of what’s going on in the chapter, but they’re not solely set in the era. They’re telling you what’s going on with mood and pace.

Right, the songs almost sound like film cues in that way, particularly on “Trouble” and “Envelopes,” which have this very clear cinematic quality.

Scoring is something I would definitely like to get into, and I suppose in a kind of a crude this was me doing something without waiting to be commissioned. I wanted to paint pictures in people’s head about what was going on. It’s a multimedia-faceted project, and I wanted people to sort of see in their heads the film that was never written. At the same time, I want it to be modular in the sense that you could read the book and it would be enjoyable, and the same with the music. I didn’t want to go too cinematic and it would become this ambient background noise, but I did want to conjure musical imagery if that makes sense.

What can you tell us about the film and immersive live show that is tied into Nothing Is Still?

We’ve already done the immersive live show, and we plan to do more. The premise of the live show is to combine the three elements, so you have the music, the visuals, and some of the literature. We also had the original photographs up in the venues where we did the live show. You walked into the venue and you saw the photos that inspired it, and you had an audio of certain passages of the book being read, along with these fragmented soundtracks using what I’d written for the album. The live show had projected visuals as well, which were taken from the film and skewed in a sort of druggy way. The film itself is not the full novella, but the two most important snapshots. It’s a 15-minute short that has some dialogue in it, but I wanted it to look like these surrealist abstract paintings that move and tell a story.

‘Nothing Is Still’ is out now on Ninja Tune.