One balmy evening 18 months ago, Leon Vynehall went to a Kano gig and realised he was stuck. Watching the grime pioneer perform at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, Vynehall was awestruck by the sight of an artist “speaking his truth”; it was a symbolic capstone for a scene historically sidelined by the press and sometimes persecuted by the London Metropolitan Police.
With the exception of 1Xtra’s Grime Symphony in 2015, the 150-year-old venue hadn’t seen a show like it — sousaphone players duelled with classic grime riffs and, as Vynehall puts it, people were going berserk. The show left Vynehall full of admiration for Kano — and full of doubts about himself. “Even now I get goosebumps thinking about it, it really moved me,” he says. “I felt honoured to be there, to hear him say those things. And I just thought to myself, ‘What am I trying to say?’”
Vynehall felt adrift, and probably depleted. In the year prior he’d released ‘Nothing Is Still’, a widely acclaimed debut album on Ninja Tune, accompanied by music videos and a novella co-written with Max Sztyber. The ‘DJ-Kicks’ mix that followed a few months later convincingly captured Vynehall’s expansive DJing, with tracks from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono, UK street soul group The Bygraves, and experimental US composer Ellen Fullman. Coming from a DJ and producer whose work has frequently gestured to his interests outside of dance music, this year-long stretch of public activity saw Vynehall at the height of his creative powers. But by the time he’d turned 30, a birthday he celebrated in Los Angeles’ bohemian paradise, Laurel Canyon — surrounded by trees and hillsides, he stayed with friends “in a house I could only imagine being in one of David Hockney’s paintings” — his thinking went more or less like, ‘What now?’
His new album, ‘Rare, Forever’, is inspired by that absence of inspiration, and what it takes to find it again. When he got back into the studio, “My first thought was, ‘I’m going to reject the idea of story’,” he says, a condition he’d imposed on ‘Nothing Is Still’. “I was like, this time I don’t want to do that — I’m going to turn on a machine, pick up an instrument, or find something and follow that idea through the fog.”
He also became interested in abstract painting around this time. “I was in love with this idea of letting the work tell you what to do in a more abstract way — like a painter would do one brushstroke, or dip a colour, and then think, ‘Where am I going to go from here?’ without actually having a plan.”
The appeal of ‘Rare, Forever’ partly rests on its familiarity. Songs like ‘Worm (& Closer & Closer)’ and ‘Alichea Vella Amor’ are flush with the mellow warmth that runs through all his records; a lived-in feel that you’d also find on, say, Mark Farina’s ‘Mushroom Jazz’ series, where soul, hip-hop, house, and acid jazz rub along easily. But if that warmth was only the sum of a tasteful record collection, his music wouldn’t strike such a consistently powerful chord.
Take 2014’s ‘Inside The Deku Tree’, a reference to ‘The Legend Of Zelda’, which sometimes gave you a glimpse into a world of private emotion made richer for its seclusion. This feeling was fleeting at first, but as his music matured beyond the 12-inch format, Vynehall found ways to express themes like memory and intimacy with greater depth. If what we hear in Vynehall’s music are echoes of his past, they somehow seemed like echoes of ours, too.