Next of kin: an interview with Liela Moss

Liela Moss, frontwoman of The Duke Spirit, puts her coffee cup down on the saucer and leans back in her seat, a tired smile dancing around her face. I have just asked her what the London band has been up to since their last album was released, five years ago. A question seemingly anchored in a billowing sea of dreams and fears, joys and sorrows. Because everything happened in that time. Life changed. It’s the kind of conversation that would normally leave a trail of cigarette butts and empty wine glasses behind, and lonely islands of crumpled up tissues floating on the floor.

Following the release of their third album in 2011 and a long American tour, The Duke Spirit were exhausted and seemingly unable to shake the uncomfortable stance between obscurity and success that had always stalked them. In the mid-noughties, when the indie scene was at its most tumultuous and commercially viable, their hard-hitting, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll and explosive live shows ticked the right boxes, but fast forward a few years and guitar music was falling out of fashion. The lack of motivation to push for another record coincided, strangely, with huge rupture in their personal lives. Within a week, Liela lost her step-mum to cancer and guitarist Luke Ford’s first child was born. In a sense, life struck. The Duke Spirit had things other than music on their minds.

Maybe that explains why the newly released Kin isn’t just another indie record. It’s spacious and full of atmosphere. A determined step away from the chord-driven, American rock they’ve made in the past. Liela describes their fourth LP as one of subtle contrast and personal intensity. A mature rendition of what they have become.

Photo:  Clare Hewitt

Those five years must have brought a lot of change for you.

I had to grow up. Forget about the desire to express myself and being an artist and travel. Fuck that! I had to hang around and make sure my dad was OK. So during that supposedly uneventful time, I have understood how the dynamic of being a family works when one person disappears. It has been really sad, but at the same time I can now say that things are OK.

Was it difficult to put your creativity aside at the time?

I was overwhelmed with a feeling of – maybe for once in my life – selflessness. And not moaning about what I want or making room for my desires. For two years I was feeling things very strongly. I was understanding grief and letting emotions completely run away with me. Watching a parent grieve is a very strange and rare thing to observe. Coping and loving people became my way of expressing life. It wasn’t happening on records or stages, but in my own home, around the kitchen table, trying to think of the most comforting thing to say.

How do you think the emotional upheaval you and Luke went through affected the atmosphere of Kin?

It has coloured the whole record. There’s like a little curl of smoke that goes in and around all the songs and softly percolates through the album. I know exactly what it is, although it’s hard to put into words. It’s a couple of words or a little break in the singing. How the drums and bass come back in or a trumpet fades into the background. 

Is there a specific song you feel close to on the album?

Wounded Wing. It fell out of the air, very sweetly. It felt so easy scratching the words down, singing and finding chords, almost like I was carrying an emotion that moved me. It was something ‘other’, like a channel.

Is making music a subconscious process for you? You might not be aiming to express anything in particular, but afterwards you understand what the song was all about?

I have always worked like that and often felt myself to be a bit of a fraud. I rarely write a narrative or a set of lyrics for a song. I tend to create a melody, but no words will come to begin with. Then I’ll go through my note books, maybe pick up a line I wrote last week, or last year and piece them together from different times. It’s not really storytelling, just chopping stuff up. Is that artistic? Am I cheating? But over the years, the combination of what you put on the page somehow comes true. It’s got this prophetic quality. So I just trust that process now. What feels right in your mouth.

A big part of creative work is just intuition, isn’t it?

It is. I went through a period of time where I thought there was some sort of shame in that, because it wasn’t properly learnt, disciplined or researched. At times I’ve thought it’s a bit lazy and easy to say that you use intuition, but I’ve changed my thought on that now. It’s completely natural and pure and without an agenda and just accepting your humanity.

What other artistic changes have you experienced since the band formed?

Personally, I’ve been very slow at waking up and making artistic or production or arrangement decisions. I had my head stuck in other things. I’m a bit more clear-cut now. A bit more decisive.

How did that happen?

I think by losing someone and feeling your family change, you’re aware of time passing so you want to seize the day. It’s also from experience. Taking a break, working with other people and coming away with new knowledge. Maybe being a little bit older and more settled in my emotional life. When you’re 24 you think you have forever to make up your mind. I had all the opportunity to learn some technology or record myself, but I would always move with the herd and wait for us to do it all together. Now I have a simple set-up at home, where I can record ideas. I have empowered myself. Become more aware. Let’s get on with it, let’s do it today.

In an interview you said that the new album isn’t an expression of emotional catharsis, but about understanding yourself. In what way?

I don’t know if I believe in writing something out of your system; if it’s as simple as “it was painful, so I wrote about it”. It’s more about accepting different levels of pain, that life is finite and things will constantly change, and finding a balance within that.

Like you were saying about the path through the songs on the album?

Exactly. I meditate and have been interested in that for about ten years. Ultimately, I’ve realised that you’re most blissful and calm  when you accept and just watch. Because of that, I find writing words to wrestle with the pain very grand and not for me. I’ve written about staring at some trees or watching steam evaporate. I have been in a very observant, hyper-vigilant mode. You start appreciating the small, stunning things that happen in a day.

This interview was originally published in issue 31 of Oh Comely.