An auteur with attitude

Leila Arab has recorded a 1950s sci-fi soundtrack for the 21st century. Ben Thompson asks her how she did it
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The Independent Culture

"When you're young," explains 29-year-old north London electro-soul auteur Leila Arab, "you get into these strange emotional states - either of over-the-top happiness or over-the-top confusion - and certain records help you to deal with them." Whether it's a Prince album, some John Coltrane, or a trashy pop single, the music that enables you to bridge the gap between those "kind of ultra feelings" and the real life they don't seem to quite fit in with, is a precious resource.

"When you're young," explains 29-year-old north London electro-soul auteur Leila Arab, "you get into these strange emotional states - either of over-the-top happiness or over-the-top confusion - and certain records help you to deal with them." Whether it's a Prince album, some John Coltrane, or a trashy pop single, the music that enables you to bridge the gap between those "kind of ultra feelings" and the real life they don't seem to quite fit in with, is a precious resource.

When Leila realised her stocks of these kinds of sounds were running low, she started to make them herself. In the bedroom of the Finchley Road flat she shared with her parents and three siblings, using electronic equipment bought with the proceeds of two world tours playing live keyboards with Björk, she quietly put together one of the most striking debut albums of the Nineties.

After Like Weather came out - to ecstatic and well-deserved acclaim - on Aphex Twin's tiny Rephlex label in the summer of 1998, Leila expected that the record's trio of accomplished, if previously unknown singer/songwriters (her sister Roya, Donna Paul and Luca Santucci) would all soon be signed to major solo deals, while she would vanish happily into the backroom world of production, "chomping on a fat cigar".

Instead, Leila got offered "lots of silly deals" to make another record. "Materially," she explains, in a nasal but unnervingly clear speaking voice, while the denizens of a Soho tearoom pretend not to eavesdrop, "my premise was 'I really don't wanna do another record, so you have to go out of your way to make me."

That sounds like a strong negotiating position. "It was," Leila agrees emphatically, "but that's the story of life. If you can't maintain your dignity, if there's anything you want more than you want your self-respect, you're screwed." A nervous tinkle of china from a far table suggests that someone who wasn't previously aware of Leila's reputation for straight-talking, now is.

"It's a terrible thing to admit," she continues, "but the bit I enjoyed best was the negotiating: it was like playing some mad game of blind chess. If I'd been them, faced with someone like me, I would have said 'get lost'."

Happily for the future of British pop, X-L recordings - already home to The Prodigy and Badly Drawn Boy, and with a developing reputation as a home for talented mavericks - took a more tolerant view. Courtesy Of Choice, the album which resulted, picks up where Like Weather left off (with the station identification music from an outer space radio channel) and proceeds, through a welter of affecting cyber-balladry and eerie instrumental interludes, to establish itself as the first great 1950s sci-fi soundtrack album of the 21st century.

For all its weird and wonderful incidental moments, what makes Leila's work special is the way it blends experimental soundscapes, reflecting its author's determination "to make music that even I don't know what kind of music it is", with classic pop songwriting and emotive vocal performances.

The same three singers whose presence illuminated Like Weather, step more determinedly into the spotlight the second time around. Their contributions - Donna Paul's slinky R&B, Luca Santucci's distinctive lovers' rock/indie crossover, and the virtual chanteuse meltdown of Leila's sister Roya - fall more easily into conventional patterns than Leila's does, but by the time she's finished messing with them, they're as strangely compelling as anything she can come up with on her own.

"On a practical level," Leila explains, "I felt quite guilty that often you can't hear what they're singing - they do write some fine lyrics, bless them: that's why I got them to handwrite the songs on the sleeve, because I thought people should at least be able to read them. When I'm putting a track together, I'll be editing between at least 25 different mixes, you'd think I'd pick the version where the singing was clearest, but I tend to go for the one where there's a noise I like."

Given that it's Leila's name on the finished record, does she feel that the songs have to say something about her as well as the person who wrote them? "For me, it's more a question of empathising with what they mean. But if a lyric is going really badly, I will put up a fight and say, 'I can't have this on my record, it's just too terrible'. So anyone who rhymes fire with desire is in trouble." But isn't that an actual lyric? She grimaces cheerfully: "I think there's probably a ton of those on my album."

Leila's devil-may-care demeanour towards the glamorous world she almost inhabits ("I want Steps to be made up of Clark Gable and Ava Gardner: then we'd have a show") has its roots in an upbringing perfectly calculated to inculcate a sense of perspective. Uprooted from her Persian home at the age of seven when the Iranian revolution forced her millionaire businessman father into exile, she had to adjust to living in a new country, and then, when his assets were confiscated, in unaccustomedly straitened circumstances.

"There's something magical about being foreign to where you're living," Leila smiles, "it gives you a head start that we're all aliens to each other."

"A lot of people ask me why there isn't more of an Iranian influence in my music," she continues, "first, I never want to use that kind of ethno thing as a cheap talking point, and second, because aesthetics should transcend where you come from, whether you're a girl or a boy, whether you're old or young. That, to me, is the magic of art: it's where all these things - natural life, the physical constraints of existence - don't matter any more. That's where the fun really starts."

 

'Courtesy of Choice' (X-L) is out on Monday

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