It’s a crunching, almost hypnotic affair called ‘Mettle’ in the middle of Leila’s Blood, Looms and Blooms that sticks out on first listen, and across fifty five odd minutes of undulating beats that weave in and out of one single definition it’s the one that is the album’s vortex.
You can imagine it’s the sort of cut she might have dropped during her support slots for Bjork’s recent UK shows. Fans and journalists began to stream in their reports of the much-anticipated shows online. When it came to Leila though, many were confused, some newly won-over by her chaotic set, and others chose not to mention her altogether. It’s the bottles thrown onstage and the booing from the audience that intrigues me most. Leila Arab is on the phone, her London accent laughing at this remark.
“That’s only because I’d sworn at them!” she says with a chuckle. “But no no, what happened was that they didn’t throw bottles, I mean, that’s slightly exaggerated, but what was funny was I devised this strange DJing set that is really pretty fucking difficult, using CDs and records and effect units and the mixing desk, so the potential for noise is insane. I did this kind of freaky DJ thing. I mean, it is kinda difficult but it’s funny – well I mean, I find it funny.”
Not quite the “handbag house” that Leila thinks some Bjork fans expect the songstress to listen to, then. “I’ll play classical music then I’ll play some fucking hardcore breakbeat then I’ll suddenly play some Marcel Duchamp spoken word art dialogue. I mean, it’s proper carnage.” Another chuckle.
Blood, Looms and Blooms is not so much carnage as the product of a creative mind on overdrive; and on hearing the eclectic nature of her sets, the album takes on yet another dimension. In ‘Molie’ there’s the staccato beat pulsating along to melodic fuzz, in ‘Young Ones’ a piano and cello arrangement echo the classical throwbacks, cascading into a rapturous applause at the end. Things begin to sound different with each turn.
There’s opposing sounds competing for attention but it’s remarkably coherent. “For me an album is almost like one of those patchwork quilts…so weirdly enough, there’s patches, tracks I thought were really good but I didn’t put on the album because they didn’t work within this particular quilt… I think this idea that, you know, you do a couple of singles and a shit album is fucking ridiculous. I think an album should be an album, and for me my biggest thrill is that everyone likes different tracks, nothing makes me happier than that.”
A happiness that took a long while to resurface perhaps, as the transition from 2000’s Courtesy of Choice to Blood, Looms and Blooms was an eight year gap in which she lost both of her parents. “I’m an Aquarian, so I do live in my head. In a way, the trauma of losing my parents has grounded me and connected me to the real world more than ever before. Because it was such a real thing, and so much of my life is in my head that it’s not really real anyway. Which is probably why I make music, because you’re making it up aren’t you?”
It’s the making it up that is pivotal – and it was a part of the album’s creation as a whole, including the distinctive artwork surrounding the release. Michael England was the man responsible for bringing Leila’s vision to life. “I basically made him move into my house for 3 months for us get it done. Poor man. He literally fucking aged! But I think it’s worth it. I think art has the right to be fantastical, you know? And I’ve never done press shots before or anything…unless it’s something to do with my work or my music, it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me. I’m not asking to be liked, you know?”
“I knew what the album was called way before anything else, funnily enough. So when I found the artwork I explained to him what I wanted on the cover. Looms has two meanings, because obviously it means loom as in something that’s hanging over you, but also when you bunch a load of equipment leads like phono leads together, they’re also called looms. So the meaning for me is first of all, it was me losing my parents, obviously it has a big thing for me in the past few years – it’s blood, so the blood you’re born into and it hangs over you, and you have to bloom beyond that. And the other meaning is the things that mean a lot to me, as in my blood like my crew, looms like the electricity looms, and blooms, because I do have a little soft spot for plants. But you do shit like that when you’re a hermit.”
A hermit perhaps, but not so much as to stop her working with Bjork across several albums and on many occasions as her live collaborator. There’s a video that shows them working together on ‘Enjoy’ – “rubbish”, as Leila puts it, but she’s over that now. “I have 16, 20, 24 elements, and depending on how I arrange them the track can mean a different thing every night, so that’s the way I tend to work with her. Every night it could sound different depending on whether I brought the beats in a lot or just kept it to a distorted organ…so what’s exciting for her is that she knows the elements but she doesn’t really know what mood I’m in and what configuration I’ve set them up in.”
‘Storm’, off Bjork’s soundtrack to Matthew Barney’s film Drawing Restraint 9 is more indicative of their live work together – “organised improvisation, organised chaos”. It’s a bit like the entirety of Blood, Looms and Blooms, except the latter has far more competing ideas clawing for attention, each crafted with the sort of care you could imagine her plants receive.
The album is no exception to the Leila rule of vocal collaborators, as on her previous releases. Terry Hall of The Specials, Martina Topley Bird of Tricky fame are the two that will be the most well known, but it’s Luca Santucci and Roya Arab (Leila’s sister) who threaten to steal the spotlight. The clanging of ‘Mettle’ begins to ring in my ears again – Andy Cox and Justin Percival on guitar making it feel like the sound of the here and now, as well as the yesterday and tomorrow.
Back in 1998 when Leila’s first album Like Weather came out on Rephlex, many were quick to pigeonhole her multifaceted sound in with the trip-hop scene when in fact her influences and sound were far more diverse. “For me, where I’m kind of lucky – or some people might say unlucky – is I have no allegiance to any scene, clan, gang of artists or whatever…my allegiance is to each track, so for me each track should be honoured for what it wants to be. When I’m mixing, I work for noise. I am working for the sound, it’s not an idea representing me or some shit like that…to me each track, you have to honour it as an individual thing.
“What shocked me when I made my first album…people were in one camp or the other. You either get an album with just shitloads of singing or just instrumentals, and I thought this was ridiculous. Why can’t you have both, and both of them done seriously? So not just instrumentals as silly interludes, but both of them are convincing and have conviction, and they mean it.”
We toy with the idea of short attention spans, and that’s a part of the album, a part of why Leila likes live mixing so much. “You’re totally just enthralled by noise…you bring up some effects and suddenly they’ll do something you’re not expecting and I have to respond in that instant. But that’s why it can also go really wrong, because if I’m in a bad mood it’s just a fucking disaster. Then again, it’s worth the risk.”
“I only started making music when I ran out of tracks that fitted the moods I was in, to be honest….when I was young, I played the piano and used to listen to records, but I was the kind of person, if I was playing the piano and someone walked in, I’d stop playing. I’m a very reluctant performer.” She’s a witty woman even if she is convinced her on-stage persona is more introvert than extrovert. “The mystery is all in the art – I’m not for sale. I try to be really generous with my work, because it’s not like I’m not going to do any of the other shit that’s involved – it’s not my nature”, she says, when I ask about this further.
One review of her recent solo live show was more intent on describing her (lack of) interaction with the audience. It even prompted Leila to write to the author in question, asking him to explain his reasons for concentrating on her attitude rather than the music she was making.
“People get shocked that I take these things personally – but it’s fucking personal! When you get [reviewers]trying to be funny…it’s like ‘Are you a comedian?’ I don’t mind if people don’t like what I do. The whole point is no one likes all my output, but when it’s snide, then I take it personally. Either have the courage to be a stand-up or learn to write a review.” Leila explains further. “I’m really quite busy while I’m performing…if you wanna see that, go see, I dunno, some Girls Aloud or some shit. To be fair, Girls Aloud aren’t actually shit. But that’s not what I do.”
“For me it’s really basic. When I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it, and when I haven’t, I’ll just get on with my plants and mooching about at home.”
Blood, Looms and Blooms is released through Warp/Inertia.