With the sweet tang of a South African accent, singer-songwriter Nick Leng has a calming reassurance in his voice. Having moved to California aged nine (another place soaked in the warm buzz of orange light), he emits an aura of laid-back hedonism. Aside from his untamed curls, there’s a certain carefree quality to his spirit. It’s in his experimental sound, a fusion of sensitivity and electronic shadows. It’s the feeling of basking on white sands and those August nights that are cloaked in the dew of the setting sun. The seconds that make you question things, in awe of nature’s mysterious beauty.
Playing on the facets of romance within every artist’ mind, photographer Monroe Alvarez captures Nick in a story that grows organically; "Nick is a young kid who is on the verge of something big, and I wanted to capture his soul before the rest of the world grabbed onto him". Cruising around Venice Beach, they jumped out candidly in areas that emit the light of an undefined time. It’s those moments of being alone in your own head; the beauty and distress of it all. Stylist Tara Nichols dresses Nick in a comfortable wardrobe, complimenting his carefree aura.
Since the release of his EP ‘Drivers’ last year, Nick has been working to add a new dimension to his work; to remove the Hollywood suit and present music that relates to his ever-shifting personal journey. Influences run deep in his work, from the genius of Classical composers and their mathematical symphonies, to the chilled out beats of the West Coast. He wants to question everything, and disturb nothing; at the core of his work is a mission statement of harmony. Music to him is an innate, ever-evolving form that is undefinable. Sitting for hours, taking the time to think and allowing those thoughts to arise and dance into shapes undiscovered.
How's your day been?
I'm in New Yorkfor over a week and it's been amazing. It's actually cold there. It's been lovely here, I absolutely I love New York. I'm originally from South Africa, then I lived in North Calfornia for a while and then I got to L.A. two years ago.
How have you been finding the differences between the lifestyles of living in South Africa and US.
I moved from South Africa when I was 9, but I recently went back and there are so many amazing things about South Africa and so many amazing things about the US. I think that for how my mind works with creativity and finding like-minded people, Los Angeles has been extremely beneficial for me. I mean, there's people who kinda think the same way. Before I moved to L.A., most of my creative friends were online, so I was always on Facebook Messenger talking to all these people. And now it's great, I'm meeting people who I look up to and aspire to be. You know, just getting confident with them and talking as friends and being surrounded by those. I always thought that you kinda rise as high as five of your closest friends, so if you surround yourself with people that are driven and aspiring, you become that - you're never gonna be left behind. Yeah, I really love being in Los Angeles for that reason, just surrounding myself with really creative people.
What do you want the listener to feel when they're listening to your music? Do you wanna take them on a certain journey?
Yes, I think. What's really made me enjoy making music is making things that I want to listen to. You know, a lot of people ask me; 'Do you listen to your music?' and I’m like ‘Yeah, I really do’. Not because like I'm the greatest, but I make what I wanna listen to. And I think that me, and the way my mind works; someone that sits and thinks, like when one is driving and one's mind just wanders off. So I would love the listener to be able to escape with my music; to drift off and think, to feel something. I want them to be able to walk away with a melody stuck in their head. I grew up doing a Piano Performance major at university, and I played classical music since I was 8 and was really obsessed with the romantic period, like Liszt and Chopin. So I'm very much honed in melodies and chored voices, which made me feel and wrenched my heart. It's kinda like daydreaming music, almost like a song of sadness, yet with hopefulness.
Where does that kind of melancholy in your music come from? Have you faced any struggles in your life?
Yeah, I think so. I’m very much in my head - like, all the time. To the point where, you know, people are like; 'Yo, Nick, where are you? Be present’. I tend to drift away, I'm always thinking of things. And in a way, the last two years have been a spiritual journey of figuring out about myself and all that. For instance, my ideal day is to get up, and then I’ll sit at a coffee shop with a coffee just to think for an hour, before I go do my own thing and do music. That's the ideal type of thing, where I'm just in my head, you know. It's a joy making that type of music. Like, it's this type of rolling kinda thing, it's groovy but you don't rave to it. You can get down to it, but you can also have a conversation to it.
For the last two years I have been doing something where I’ve been trying to influence myself musically, but not with music - with like art, colours and pictures. When doing it with music, trying to do it with things that aren't necessarily in the same genre and more focusing on the thinkers behind the music. For instance, I remember studying, I took piano literature at university and we studied these pieces that were kinda boring in a way, but when you study where they were in time and understand that a composer, because he played this note and this scale, that was ground-break thinking. So listening to these artists and understanding them and how important this type of music was, because of what was coming before that.
For instance The Gorillaz, they made a cartoon band in a post-apocalyptic world. Like, who the fuck does that? And they didn't care about the song arrangements, it's the shittest weird songs, but it fucking worked, because they intentionally earned it. And so I've been trying to find out what my version of that is. Like, who can be my music muse that is not a musician, what artists resonate with me. Is it architecture that can influence my music or philosophy?
It’s nice to hear you talk about your music with such passion. Could you tell me about your song-writing process? How do you go about sitting down to write a song?
I think that I’m on the journey to discover what my ideal song-writing thing is. You know, with a lot of the songs that are out now, I would start with just a sound. I build upon it and almost go on this journey of creating textures, and then suddenly I would just hear the finished product and it wouldn’t be even done yet. For instance, I remember with ‘Drivers’, that was actually the first song I wrote at the piano first. There was this little chromatic note that you might be going up and down, and second I did that first chromatic note was like; ‘this song is done, I know it is’. So I mean, I’m still discovering what is my regular way, but I don’t even know whether I ever will have that. You know, every song has been different in the way I’ve made it and how I’ve made it. I’ve made some things that have been released on a road-trip, I’ve made some things in a café and then I’ve also done the thing where I’ve locked myself in a dark room and just like lay it on the floor and seeing where I want this to go. If I didn’t have to plan it out and just let it flow, where would it be. So, I think I’m still discovering what my way of doing things is. Maybe it’s good to not figure that out, but I think I’ll be discovering that as I try to figure out what my thing is.
I have always been fascinated with sounds and textures, ever since I was small. I would listen to these songs and especially with electronic songs, I’d be like; ‘How did they get this? How did they get this sound?’, and I’d be fantasizing about keyboards and all this stuff. And things that come quicker out of me are things that create this texture, often fitting into a new texture really far away from its original form. And then I listen to that, and let that turn into la vibe of a song or something. Because I want to work on song-writing, I want be a songwriter. I wanna be seen as a singer and people to be like ‘singer Nick Leng’ not like producer, soundman.
Have you always wanted to be a musician?
I always wanted to be a musician. I started taking classes for piano at 8, and then I was home-schooled and for a while, probably a few years. I was only aloud to listen to classical music, and I’m so thankful and grateful for that, because the way kids were moved to dance to rap music, I learned to listen to those energies like waltzes, like Strauss. So it was easy for me to go from this place and then I started playing keyboards with bands with my dad and his friends at farmers’ market from the age of 12. I also started a band with my brother.
When I was young I used to go to bed early, so I could dream of playing keyboards on stage. I would just imagine myself, I always used to think keyboards were so cool and all the sounds and stuff. Then later, in high school, the reality was kinda daunting on me of like; ‘Nick, this is music, there’s no money in music’. I didn’t know anything about the industry, I didn’t know how to do it, so I did an altitude test to figure out my strengths, and basically it said; ‘whatever you do just do music, because you’re great in this. You gotta do music’. That kinda made me like okay, I’m gonna do this. So I went to university and I was studying piano and performance, but I always kinda had my electronic music on the side. Even in high school, I started making like little electronic songs and stuff, and then in college I got very into the LABC type of music. Things like the Flying Lotus, because I was so inspired by these people that were not giving a shit about what’s typical and it was more about the thinking behind it, they were forcing these non-musical sounds to be musical sounds and that was fascinating for me. I started figuring out what my version of that is, like dropping keys on my computer and recoding that.
The big turnover is when I was able to sample, I switched my computer program and in a way, I forgot everything that I did. I was listening to new types of music and the mind-set was that everything can be music - every sound can be music. I was so inspired by this, and I started creating sounds. I would put in a lot of vocals, but it was drenched in reverb, because I was very embarrassed about my voice. This was my Nick Leng project and I started playing in the beat scene, in bars, shows and stuff like that, and eventually, my manager now, Chris Danks, found me on Facebook, because he had a mutual friend that shared a video of me performing. There’s a million reasons to not do something - there was a million reasons for me to give up and not do it, but I just really believed in taking that plunge. I believe that things will work out, if it’s coming from a good place. The move to Los Angeles and leaving my school was the big step of saying; ‘I’m gonna do this’.
What keeps you motivated and makes you realise that this is really the best step for you?
I think just reminding myself how passionate I am about music. There’s a couple of things, like remembering that first love and excitement when I first start a song, which is so important when you’re working on it for a month and start thinking it sucks. It’s been a trial and error of being self-aware enough to realise that what you’re going through is normal, that this is a real passion and you can do it. I think that music, especially for people coming from a music background and not from a celebrity star YouTube background is kind of discouraging, because there are kids with a massive following and labels are just buying them up, because it’s like buying a business and they get guaranteed audience. So, it can be discouraging when you see that it’s been years and then you see these kids pop-up in like a month and get to where you’re dreaming of being. But realising that over the years, I’ve created something that I’ve tried to make very me and that I’m trying to be the best version of myself, and if I keep pressing forward, people will hopefully like it.
You said that you played the keyboard with your dad and your brother, are you from quite a musical family?
Yes. I have three brothers and we all had to take piano lessons until we were 18, we didn’t have a choice. That’s what actually got me here today, because every person I talk to says ‘Oh I wish I didn’t give up piano’, and I wasn’t allowed. to There were times when I was like "Mom, I really wanna give up", and she was like "no, you’re not giving up". I’m so happy she made me do it, because that’s why I’m doing music today. No one was necessarily a name that was successful, but my family very much just breathes music, good music, which I believe is very important in creating good art, surrounding yourself with other good arts and good things.
Are you quite a family man?
Yeah, I’m extremely close. I call my mom like three times a day, and I’m always talking to my dad and other brothers, we all have a very good relationship. My older brother’s in Chicago, my two little brothers who are 19 and 17 are in North Cal with my parents right now. So we’re all here in America.
The way you speak is very much like an open book, have you always been quite expressive with your feelings? Or is it something that’s gradually come?
I think I’ve always been quite an emotional person. Since I was small, I was always able to really put myself into other people’s shoes, so I’ve always been emotionally sensitive, an open book in a way. I think that’s even partly why I’ve always connected quicker with girls as opposed to guys, ‘cause girls are much more in tune with that type of thing. I think it was also because I was home-schooled when I grew up in North Cal, so I didn’t really have this arching pressure to be like "this is what being a guy is, don’t be a pussy". Because of that, I was able to develop what was inside me without those negative influences a lot easier. It was very natural for me to just develop an emotional sensitive side, because I didn’t really have any of that ‘bro’ influence.
Would you say that masculinity is changing? Shifting away from that kind of ‘bro’ culture that you’re talking about?
I think that in certain circles and environments it is changing. For instance, a lot of my friends grew up in progressive circles and with that, I think, they are honestly slightly more in touch with their feminine side. I think that people are becoming slightly more enlightened and self-aware that these pressures are actually kinda bullshit and where they’re coming from is not necessary normality. We’re moving there universally, hopefully, but I also think that in certain circles, maybe in certain cities, even in small friends’ groups, we’re able to develop that side more. I believe it's more natural and in tune with ourselves, and when people have these other pressures, it just chips away who they are - their emotional and sensitive side to them gets supressed, because of ideas of who the ‘real guy’ is.
Would you say that you yourself have felt a pressure to fit into the image of a commercial musician?
Yeah, definitely! There’s the whole “hey, you wanna pay rent, right? Well, actually, if you just do these other things to the song, you might have a better chance of doing that” - there are definitely temptations. I used to just do things without any influence during college and then I discovered the commercial world of song-writing and producing behind the scenes for pop-artists. Something which I’ve been fascinated with however, is listening to those classical greats and understanding how they worked and why they are the greats. You listen to a Radiohead song and it’s not accessible; why was it good? Why did it work? While some of these other ones, like the Gorillaz and Damon Albarn, it was just coming from such original and pure place, so for me, the temptations to cut corners are very real, but I’ve been trying to just be aware of them and understanding what’s gonna work in the long term for me and what I’m gonna be happy with. That’s something that’s very pure and naturally coming out of me, not chipping at the song because of negative influences or cutting corners to make things commercial. I want my song to just be a vessel of what I am and I think that’s the reason why some people connect with my music.
Your shoot with Monroe, how did you find that?
It was extremely spontaneous, just pure fun and creative. We went in not really knowing where we wanted to go with it, but it was the most amazing people with the most amazing energy, all so talented, that it was an absolute dream to work together. I’ve always found that my most productive and creative, fun days - whether it’s music or whatever, are where you go and just have people to hang out by. None of that was really planned, it was very spontaneous and fun, a freedom of expression. I guess, in theme of music, that’s where the best things come out of - the places where there’s no negative thought, energy or influence. It’s very original, it’s coming from you.
If you could collaborate with one other musician, who would you pick?
If I collaborated with anyone it would be Thom Yorke from Radiohead, because I’m just fascinated by his mind. If you own what you’re doing and you believe in what you’re doing 100%, it’s gonna work. I’ve watched the music video for Lotus Flower by Radiohead like a million times, because if another person did that and didn’t 100% believe in what are the movements and stuff, it would be a joke video, it would be hilarious. The guy looks fucking weird, but if I showed it to just a random friend who doesn’t like that, they’d be like ‘holy shit this is dope’, because he just owns it and believes in it. I think I’m someone that really worries about what people think of me and I’m willing to battle that, so I’m really inspired by people who just don’t give a shit. People that are just remove the ego, remove the self from the art.
That’s really cool. Talking about goals, what are your ultimate life goals?
I’d love to get to a place musically, when I have a good audience to which I can share what I create, where I really feel like I can just express myself. Creating things where I could even go elsewhere, like art or something else, and the same audience would just be there to accept it. I guess with my music I want to do the practical things, I wanna tour, I wanna do festivals, I wanna have this audience, but eventually I want to be creating something, where I can really just express myself artistically. I think it’s quite curious and interesting why people are almost offended when their favourite artist goes into something else, they’re like “you’re not a film maker, you’re a musician". I mean, why box yourself in? To be honest, I don’t think I can do art well, I don’t think I can do photography well, but I’d love to explore this.
If you had some words of advice for any young boys out there who want to be in your position, what would it be?
I would say; 'don’t give up'. There’s always gonna be a million and a half reasons to give up, and great ones too, just don’t do it. If you’re passionate about it, go after it. Create the most ‘you’ work and art that’s possible. And if you don’t know what that is, explore that. Don’t be a berated version of anyone else, be the best version of you that you can be, and just make what comes out of you. Be aware if you’re making decisions that are based upon outside pressures to do so, and also, be open to advice.