Playing beyond the walls
Article from the Sun daily by Mark Mathen Victor (posted on 12 Oct 2019)
WITH an impressive musical resume in the gig economy, 24-year-old Keith Noel is one musician not afraid to take risks. After all, walking away from his Christian music roots, and his church, to pursue his own dreams is certainly something most people would hesitate doing.
“I didn’t like (Christian bands such as) Hillsong and Planetshakers. I was more about gospel music; they had groove and were more rhythmic,” he explained. “I obviously felt a lot of emotion playing that kind of music, and it did help me musically, but it didn’t help me internally.”
He also made the bold decision to drop out of his expensive law school, in order to loosen the family finances so that his two younger siblings could pursue their studies without taking any student loans.
Keith once studied in law school before dropping out so in the hopes that his two younger siblings could continue their studies without being burdened by loans.
This allowed Keith to focus completely on creating music full time.
“I’d play for six months and go ‘This is going nowhere. Let’s go to the next band’,” he said.
Having played in a number of bands spanning different genres, either as a temporary player or as a sessionist, Keith has now established himself as the artiste Leon Sapphire, employing unconventional sounds through mood-setting vocals, jazz and R&B.
Speaking to theSun, Keith spoke about what makes him tick as a musician, his background and even his thoughts on the local music industry.
How did Leon Sapphire begin?
“Leon Sapphire is a persona. I didn’t want to go by ‘Keith’. I would’ve been like a singer-songwriter, which I didn’t want to pull off.
“My favourite artiste is this guy called Justin Vernon, and he has a band called Bon Iver. That band is his persona. It’s kind of his persona to be undefined.
“I wouldn’t even think of it as my own thing. Everyone that plays for me now, I never tell them what to do or what they should be playing. I grew up in a place where you could express yourself through music and when we’re doing it, it’s like a group project.
“Leon Sapphire consists of ‘Noel’ backwards, and I was a big fan of drinking Bombay Sapphire. I didn’t come up with the name myself. I was playing with [fusion rock band] TMJB, and my lead singer started calling me that.
“Before I knew it, everyone started calling me Leon Sapphire.”
Where do you start when creating your music? The lyricism or the songwriting?
“A good musical idea of where you’re coming from is very important, but the lyrics are king for me. [Local] English music has been going on for many years. I’ve always felt like I have to compete with the best of the best.
“The only music I listen to when I’m in the car is on Lite FM. I get really in touch with the lyrics, how they come up with them, and where they’re going.
“When I try to write songs based off the music, it comes off as generic to my ears. So I always try to write lyrics first.
“Music-wise, I’m secretive about where it comes from and the process. It’s most things that are undefined and pique my interest.”
Much like any ‘tormented’ songwriter, where do your words come from?
“I don’t talk a lot about the problems in my life and this is a good way to express them, especially societal problems that I feel have no answer to them. You can only reflect on it.
“I don’t get involved [in] political and racial problems. There’s no answer to them, so I have to sing about it. It’s the easiest way to champion my ideas.
“I’d say my lyrical themes revolve around the progression of love now compared to many years ago, male suicide rates, Indian people trying to get jobs, and the middle class life.”
As a bass player who also uses the bass synth, why did you skew towards with these instruments in telling stories?
“I started playing when I was seven or eight years old. My dad was a musician back in the day, as a guitarist.
“According to him, one day God said his fingers were blessed and he was meant to play the keyboards. From the age of 25 onwards, he picked up the keyboard and now he plays it so well.
“My brother started playing the drums when he was three years old. When I was younger, I used to look up to my brother, and one day my dad asked what I wanted to play.
“I didn’t want to play the guitar because everyone played it, and I didn’t want to use the keyboard because my dad played it. So I chose the bass.
“It was that or the saxophone. The bass is the easiest to pick up, and the hardest to master.”
Do you think you’ve found your voice or signature style, or is it ever-evolving, much like the intricacies of life?
“I feel like you can find your sound multiple times, especially identity. Right now I’m singing from a very soulful place.
“When I’m singing a song, you might not understand the words sometimes but when you’re listening to me, you’re coming into my world.”
Any other instrument you’d consider/like to start playing: “Drums.”
Top 5 most influential records/albums: “Bon Iver’s Bon Iver and 22, A Million, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, and Thundercat’s Drunk.”
Top 3 most influential singers/songwriters/instrumentalists: “Justin Vernon, Marvin Gaye and Erykah Badu.”
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