Cosmo Sheldrake is a British multi-instrumentalist, composer and music producer. I sat down with him to discuss his life in lockdown, improvisation, his propensity for nonsense, and his fascination with birdsong. His latest album is Wake Up Calls, an album of songs made from the calls of endangered British birds.
Richard: Hi Cosmo, thanks very much for doing this interview! How are you finding lockdown three?
Cosmo: Two ways, really. One thing I’ve always strived for and longed for is time and space to focus on my own thing. But when it actually happens you realise that you have lots of other needs for contact and so on. I ping pong between contentedly cracking on with my own bits and bobs and then moments of slight despair. I was living in London in March, then moved to this off-grid cottage in Dorset where I am living now. I don’t drive either, except for this little moped I’ve got, so I’m on the isolated side. It’s a very different existence – I love it in loads of ways, but with number three I’m getting a bit bored of it. I’m ready to see some friends and be a bit more independent.
R: I can understand that. And how has it been not playing live for almost a year?
C: Bizarre. Just before lockdown I had come to the end of a long period of gigging, and I was ready for a break, and getting back to studio mode, writing mode. But I do now miss live shows. There’s an energy that you can’t reproduce online, of being in a room with so many people. So I really want to get back to it – in theory I have a gig scheduled in March but there’s no way it’s going to happen.
R: It seems like improv is a big part of your live shows too, have you missed that, and are you trying to use it in your studio work?
C: I leave my loop pedals all set up just in case, but it’s different when you don’t have people in front of you. I can improvise on my own – after about 20 minutes of solid improvising I crack the headspace open, but live it happens instantly. You’re feeding off and responding to the energy of the crowd, which becomes like an instrument itself. I miss the unpredictability of that. I’m doing a bit though, just to keep my intuition alive.
R: Is it a different musical headspace when you are freely improvising?
C: Absolutely. That’s when I feel most alive, most present, most focused. It’s almost meditational. You have to say yes to anything that pops up. The second you say no, you’re done for. You have to absorb and incorporate everything, even if it’s a mistake. No is a resounding, clanging shut-down door and close windows feeling, and in that vulnerable improvising state it’s the last thing you want. In a compositional headspace, apart from anything else, I get racked by much more self-doubt because you have longer to think about things. Improvising there is no time to hang around. You say yes and move on. And I do miss that headspace, because it’s the nearest you get to inspiration. Well out of your comfort zone where you find new ideas.
R: A lot of your music is inspired by nature, have you found any new ideas connecting with it deep in the countryside?
C: Well I’ve been completely immersed in birds. There’s a bird table right outside my window. When finishing Wake Up Calls [his latest album composed from birdsong], and being able to strap microphones into the hedge and listen as if I was in the hedge has connected me. This house I’m in now is off-grid, so I’ve noticed the seasons changing more, and it’s powered by a diesel generator. I have a battery powered studio and solar panels, and there’s no central heating so every morning I have to chop wood, spending 30 per cent of my energy just on keeping warm. It’s healthy in some ways. So much of my time here has been taken up not with nature but with electricity. I say that, but also I have been enjoying the different rhythms of life, and thinking about where electricity and heat comes from and how much we are using, constantly. I have to decide between working into the night or having power to work tomorrow, and where best to use the energy. Completely renegotiating my relationship to power. But I’ve been incredibly grateful and very lucky to have this little cottage.
R: Talking of your last album, why do songs only with bird calls?
C: I’ve always loved birds, my Dad’s a biologist and so I spent a lot of time trying to identify them. My practice anyway was working with field recordings and I was interested in acoustic ecology, and thinking about sounds and what they mean. I think historically we have swapped sound for sight, to our own detriment. I wanted to make music based on more ecological principles. The first piece of birdsong music I made came when my girlfriend painted me an owl and asked me for an owl in return, so I made a piece from all the noises of the British owls, which then ended up on the record. My attempt was to make music that emerged naturally from the birdcalls, as if you were lying there listening to a skylark, and the skylark became this piece of music. I was simultaneously thinking about recordings of extinct animals, but because there is a limit to the number of animals that have gone extinct since the birth of the microphone, and those recordings are very hard to track down, I thought I would focus instead on the endangered animals. Then I could shine a light on some things that haven’t yet gone extinct. Wake Up Calls evolved out of all these threads I suppose.
R: Is that the double meaning of Wake Up Calls? Birdsong and a call to action?
C: Well four or five of the songs were written on Christmas Eve, when I didn’t have presents for my family. I stayed up late making them personalised alarm clock music from recordings of birds. I was thinking about functional music, and it was originally going to be called ‘Music To Wake Up To’, which could help each of them wake up in the way they normally do. So that’s where it got one sense of Wake Up Calls. Then I was talking to a friend of mine, Rob McFarlane, and there was a people’s march for wildlife last September which I was going to compose a few pieces for, and he suggested Wake Up Calls as a double meaning, which stuck basically.
R: For your more lyrical music you seem to use a lot of nonsense words and noises. Do you find that words can get in the way of the music?
C: Yes, certainly for me, but that’s just my relationship with words and with music. I’m more of a musical thinker than a lyrical thinker, and lyrics have been a recent addition. I used to find it easier to set poems to music – William Blake poems and such. I find it harder to write lyrics than I do to write melodies and music, which is why I found nonsense so refreshing, because it liberates the need for immediate meaning. Not that nonsense isn’t meaningful, there’s a deep philosophical tradition of nonsense, and one that I’m fond of. It felt like a playful way in – instead of taking myself too seriously and struggling with words, I could loosen my relationship with words. It’s made it much easier to be playful with words and lyrics.
R: Are you happy with that as it is, or do you want to try more work with lyrics?
C: I think through that method there was a clear development on the album The Much Much How How And I. If I put the songs in chronological order, it would be obvious to me that there was lyrical development, and the subject matter got more serious and moved away from the whimsical nonsense. I’m finding it more comfortable and more fun to explore lyrics. Since starting to write lyrics I have become a lot more aware of the words in songs, and poetry too has opened up more. Like before I played the guitar, I never listened to guitar music, then when I did this whole musical world opened up for me, and I think it has been the same with words.
R: Thinking about the return to live music, I’ve seen on your YouTube channel that you have done gigs in pig sties, hot air balloons and fishing boats. Where’s next?
C: Good question. Most recently it’s been the woods because that’s the only place I can go. I tried to do one in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but it has since shut down which is a shame, because it is a building that has been going for six hundred years. As much as possible, I try to get the videos to shine a light into a hidden process that you wouldn’t normally see, like cuttlefishing for example. A window into an uncommon scene. I’ve tried to steer away from sensational places. One I thought of was an old Victorian rope factory. With places like that you can tell two stories at once, with the music and the video.
R: I look forward to them when they arrive! Looking to the future, do you have plans or thoughts for a new album?
C: This one particularly has come over a long time – 50-60 per cent of the material has come from over a two year period, instead of as a concentrated burst of energy. So I’m trying to let it move wherever it wants to go, instead of focussing on one energetic theme. I have some clear sonic visions in mind. I’m excited to take it to the studio and record some live instrumentation, some choirs, but at the moment it’s not explicit. I’m thinking a lot still about ecology, and my brother is a mycologist so I’m thinking about fungi, so they might be a theme, but it’s not a concept. The final thing has come from all this bottled energy of the lockdown – I’m feeling a rowdiness, a bit of carnage, and I want to see if I can bring that out in some music.