With three solo records, a collaboration with electronic producer Suren Unka and soundtrack for a short film under his belt, Levi Patel is quietly claiming his rightful place in the spotlight. Articulate and quietly confident, Levi worked on his debut album ‘Affinity’ for over four years, before releasing it in early April this year to glowing reception and a captivating release show at the Auckland Art Gallery. Jean Bell met up with Patel shortly afterwards.
Levi’s connection with music goes beyond merely being a hobby. “I remember more from sounds than anything else. I get more of a nostalgic feeling when I listen to old recordings than I do from looking at pictures. Even when I go to places I’ll look around but it doesn’t sink in the same.”
This close affinity with music is illustrated by the tangibly deep and emotional feeling to his work – it is no surprise that making music is a cathartic way of expressing and understanding his own emotions. Perhaps the most important factor is that his work doesn’t feel forced or orchestrated. “I don’t often think about what I want to express before I do it,” he says “I tend to find that most of my favourite tracks that I write are kind of both uplifting and melancholic together.”
Within the realm of the ambient classical genre, artists that Levi respects include Wellington-based composer Rhian Sheehan and Icelandic beauties like Alex Somers and Jón Þór Birgisson of Sigur Ros.
“A lot of my favourite artists that are in different genres kind of feel the same. I really love Daughter, Lydia Cole, and American emo revival bands like Foxings. I also like some electronic music, like the new Geotic album who is the guy from Baths.”
While he has been making music for over five years, it’s not an effortless process for him to come up with ideas, produce and create music. “Each time I start a new track it’s like I’ve forgotten how to make music. I don’t know if anyone experiences this but I’ll sit down and just feel like I don’t know anything,” he admits.
“Sometimes I feel super inspired, and I sit down and it just comes out – that is very rare and I wish it was more common,” Levi reveals, “But then other times if I’ve started something I can work on it without having that and then I can come in feeling normal and then when I start working on it I get into the song and that’s enough to keep me creating.”
“Sometimes if I’m really stuck I’ll recycle something I made when I was previously inspired. One of the tracks on ‘Affinity’ I started with I took the strings from an earlier track then reversed them and put some effects on them and worked on that and built it up. It’s quite interesting because the harmony feels kind of familiar but the rest of the track is so far from it.”
Interestingly enough, knowledge of classical theory hasn’t been necessary for Levi. “I feel like the way I write is more similar to the way an electronic musician would put together a track than it is to how a classical composer would write something.”
“I often start by recording acoustic instruments and then just manipulate them until the result is often a mess, but a mess that feels right.” The use of sound layering and textures is vital for Levi’s ethereal sound, and helps smooth everything out. “Straight piano is harder as it doesn’t sound inherently nice so you can rely on that. I pour soul into every note but for piano you have to. You can’t really find behind anything.
Levi’s skillset doesn’t end at being able to write music – he also has the skillset to handle – and enjoy – the technical side of producing music. “I love being creative and it’s really nice to express myself properly. I’m also really into maths, science and software so production appeals to the technical side of me – the nerd inside,” laughs Levi. “I find with my kind of music the production is as important as how it is being played.”
“I did all the demos in my apartment, and then when I finished uni and moved up to Matakana to spend some time with my dad I converted a room into a studio.”
Levi spent a few months shaping these demos into polished recorded versions, minimally armed with two microphones, a preamp, guitar and a piano along with ProTools 2. “I don’t like having too many things to use because it gets confusing and you spend too much time choosing what to use.”
“I started with writing one of the main core parts of the track – usually guitar or piano. Occasionally I’d start with an ambient sound. I’d listen to it over and over again and come up with an idea. I’d add to it and slowly layer it over days…Basically I start simple and then refine and then build up and then refine.”
“I bought in [instrument] players to play strings. I had a friend Chris Park play cello and ex Auckland Uni student Rachel Grimwood play viola. Pascal Roggen played violin, then Suren Unka, Scott Seabright and Miller Yule played drums.” Levi’s sister Giana Patel offered vocals, and once it was ready to put the final touches on, he travelled down to Wellington where Mike Gibson mastered the album, who was ”really good to work with.”
“I always spend way too long mixing, editing, and getting everything to sit perfectly. I was talking to someone about this recently, and they described it as Sisyphean – the Greek myth were the guy pushes the boulder up to the top of the mountain and then it falls down again,” Levi laughs.
Levi has a close relationship with German film-maker Nils Clauss, setting him up to follow his ambition to branch out from recording music into film scoring. Clauss filmed the artistically candid music video for ‘Since Last Letters’ in Leh, near the Himalaya’s in India. “I like that it’s a slice of life. He just walked around and has a great eye.” Clauss also used the same song for his short film “Last Letters” – a moving short film telling the story of the families left behind after a ferry sank on it’s way to Korea claiming 304 lives.
Aside from continuing to work with his label Marigold Music and aspirations to travel abroad, Levi has a number of other projects in the mix. “I’m producing an album for This Pale Fire – he writes beautiful acoustic songs and is a great song writer with a great voice.”
“I’ve started working on a track with Rhian Sheehan. It’s one of my dreams. Its quite fun because we listen to almost the same music – its like working with myself but if I had different skills. “