In a local scene fixated on rock, indie and dance hits, the sounds of Leon Sapphire are a refreshing break from all the noise. He has yet to be defined by the local scene, as he steps out of whatever box you put him in with the ease and expertise of someone who has spent years carefully cultivating the kind of harmonies people still think about as they leave the venue. “Music is a communion between people, no matter how it sounds or how many people gather around a song they can agree with.” And when Leon Sapphire plays to the close-knit crowds of local favourite indie spots like Merdekarya in Petaling Jaya, Gaslight Café in Damansara Heights, and Bean Brothers in Kota Damansara, he makes sure to impart this same magic that is so distinctly his.
Leon Sapphire grew to be a staple at underground indie hotspots like Merdekarya.
The bass man, singer-songwriter and musical gem has already made a name for himself in as an up-and-coming local musician that crowds need to be on the lookout for. And with his unconventional blend of jazz, R&B and dreamy vocals, his track record already boasts a number of stellar opening performances, for the likes of French multi-instrumentalist and DJ, French Kiwi Juice, Canadian producer and jazz-electronic duo Tennyson, Canadian electronic music sensation Crystal Castles, Korean indie rock band Hyukoh, as well as being a featured artist for Urbanscapes Kuala Lumpur 2017. Oh, and did we forget to mention Leon Sapphire’s only been around for one year?
Leon Sapphire played alongside fellow musicians Shelhiel and Isaac Miranda when he opened for Hyukoh.
But before there even was a Leon Sapphire, there was Keith Noel. The cool guy with a dark wit, a sensitive observer who felt in great detail. The person who thought he was too immature for the indie scene and whose musical tragedies included “this one time I joined a choir when I was younger and wanted to record but the choir leader wanted me out because I didn’t sound good. There, that’s my sob story!” and “Nobody in the scene wanted 13 year-old-me so YouTube was my only friend!” On a cool, smoke-filled Saturday evening as Gorillaz played in the background on a friend’s porch, I had the chance to listen to some of Keith’s world-weary insights on his music. And in his true nonchalant fashion that drive crowds crazy, we talked about melody, misery and making a difference with your lyrics.
It’s no wonder that Keith’s origin story is as unpredictable as his music. “I started at the age of 9 in church, which was a great place to start off playing with new people and new songs.” With no classical training, he and his brother Kyle, who performs with him from time to time, would watch the older people play until they got it just right. And like his music, church was also a sacred place to him. “Church made me stay, it gave me a place to show up on a Saturday or Sunday where I could just remove all my needs and tensions and just start being a vessel for the music.” The emotion was in the process and the experience left a profound impact on the blooming young musician. “It became harder to leave that feeling behind, which is when I decided to experiment with my own style of music,” he confided.
The performances that shaped the musical phenomenon weren’t what people would expect either. Keith recounts with a touch of irony, how his biggest personal achievements in music were both wedding gigs but it was the most soulful and emotional experience of his career. At the age of 13, he played first ever real gig in front of 600 people alongside experienced 30-year-old musicians who not only encouraged him but gelled well with what he had to offer. His next favourite performance came a few short years after, playing double bass and leading vocals at 16 while recalling the struggle of pouring his heart out through his instruments. “It was the first time I had to really call out that emotion from somewhere and it was exhausting. You wanted people to listen to you but you also wanted them to have fun.”
Leon Sapphire at his gig opening for DJ French Kiwi Juice.
But as Keith found his footing and grew as an artist, so did the number and quality of the performances. He fell in love with jazz and the rest, as he says, is history. Jazz and progressive “African-ish” music played a large part in shaping him, as a constantly evolving and underrated art form, that impacted his music’s undefinable quality. Keith’s bass playing has become its own distinct art form musicians look up to and he cites American bassist Abraham Laboriel as his biggest inspiration for teaching him how to play over the song instead of sitting comfortably inside it. “I spend a lot of time trying to play outside the box while kept disciplining me to play inside it. Laboriel helped me find a good balance of both.”
But it was Christian gospel singer-songwriter and worship leader Israel Houghton’s progressive African jazz music that had the biggest influence on Keith. While Houghton’s style had all the musical elements he worked towards but more importantly, came somewhere from a deeper meaning. These words are sacred to Keith’s stylings, who believes that making an album is an art form because of the message it should give to the place and emotional landscape people are at.
“All of my top 3 favourite albums go beyond what the artist wants for themselves and focuses on what the artist wants from its community.” And it’s true in each album he lists which have a special place in his heart – Israel Houghton’s ‘Alive in South Africa’, Bon Iver’s eponymous second album, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’.
Leon Sapphire opening Canadian producer Tennyson and “getting annoyed because I was playing the bass and bass synth at the same time and realised I didn’t have enough limbs.” Source: All Is Amazing/Twitter
With each meaningful album he lists, the introspective and sensitive picture of Leon Sapphire becomes clearer. Keith is very careful with the crafting of his lyrics, a leftover from playing in church where lyrics go through a rigorous checking process through the pastor, the music deacon and the choir. “Words have always had an important meaning in my songs”, he explains as every feeling plays into how people choose to interpret and listen to his songs. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you what my signature sound is because everybody’s is different. It all depends on where you come from or how much angst you have in your bedroom. What really matters is the message behind it and how people absorb that.”
“Creating art is painful. It’s about painful things like heartbreak, hitting rock bottom, falling in love, addiction. But it’s about sharing this hurt with other people and connecting with them. Every day I finish whatever I have to do and at the end of it, it always feels like it’s too much. When I’m filled with the self-doubt of realising my problems aren’t as bad as anyone else, it’s just another thing to endure. So, I deal with it by writing a song about how I feel at that time. The melody doesn’t matter. That can come over time, but the words, where the lyrics come from, those are special. The words are part of the situation I’m in so when people hear it, they can remember when they felt like shit too. The music creates memory. And that memory is art for me.”
When asked what his most memorable lyrics were, he recalled the opening lines to Bon Iver’s ‘Re:Stacks’: “this is my excavation and today is Qumran / Everything that happens is from now on / This is pouring rain / This is paralysed.” When Bon Iver was asked what it meant, the artist just replied that it was because he was going through a rough time. “I thought it was genius,” Keith said and the rest was in his music.
If you’ve been a long-time fan of Leon Sapphire or are just looking to expand your musical tastes, Leon Sapphire will officially be releasing a new song at the start of next year, a sardonic take on the battle of saying ‘I love you’ to anything, on the second week of January. The same month will mark a milestone in his career as he collaborates with another local music sensation, Alextbh, to perform at St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Singapore alongside alternative favourites like Anderson .Paak, The Internet and Mac Demarco.
By Aishwarya Adaikalaraj
All photos and videos provided by the artiste and obtained from various sources
Featured photo: Kekabumi, from the artiste