That honest and personal quality translates to his tracks, which are of a piece with what I heard in that set. And though there are countless producers looking backwards through the history of house, Vynehall's nostalgia, inspired by personal experiences rather than a collective idealized memory of the past, feels sincere. Vynehall doesn't seem to worship at the altar of MK, Chez Damier or Kerri Chandler. Instead, he approaches house music with the sound palette of late '70s disco and golden era hip-hop. At their best, his tracks are bottom-heavy, just a little dusty and graced with indelible hooks.
His ear for these sounds has made him a standout producer from the very beginning. In 2012, after honing his skills in the then-bustling Brighton club scene, he landed releases on Well Rounded and ManMakeMusic. Those 12-inches set Vynehall apart from his more garage-obsessed peers, and he fine-tuned his sound over several more records before unleashing an album-length, double EP masterpiece. Music For The Uninvited is one of the loveliest records of this year—the sound of an artist settling into a creative purple patch that still has many fruits to bear. It feels lived-in and comfortable, breezes by effortlessly and perfects that sepia tint that comes so naturally to Vynehall. It was also mastered from cassette, giving it the warm glow of the tapes Vynehall grew up listening to. The EP distills a lifetime of listening to and loving music into 40 minutes, drawing on Vynehall's earliest childhood memories in the East Sussex town of Crowborough—particularly driving in the car with his mum, whose music collection shaped his taste.
Encouraged by his grandfather, a former skiffle band player who gave Vynehall his first guitar, Vynehall dabbled in music the way many young kids do: playing in makeshift bands with friends during high school. He found that he loved making music as a hobby, but that the band experience wasn't fulfilling. He eventually found his way to electronic music, a move that also had its roots in his mother's tape collection. "One of the mixtapes had a 30-minute section of electro between all the funk and soul cuts," he says. "Man Parrish, Afrika Bambaataa, etc. I had no idea at the time what it was. It just sounded cool. It was later on in secondary school and into college that I began finding out and researching electronic and dance music. I remember the first thing that really blew my mind was "Cock/Ver10" from Aphex Twin's Drukqs. I listened to the whole album and became super engrossed in it before getting my hands on everything else I could of his."
With a growing interest in music, Vynehall would travel to bigger towns like Tunbridge Wells on weekends. He was an avid attendee at The Forum, an all-purpose venue that hosted all sorts of music and ran an open-minded record label called Unlabel. The label had signed a band that included Ashley Marlowe, whom Vynehall became a fan of, describing his drumming as "mesmerizing to watch." Marlowe went on to found the Well Rounded record shop and label in Brighton, where Vynehall ended up a few years later.
In arts-centric Brighton, there was a healthy appetite for dance music. Vynehall became a resident DJ at the weekly Aka Aka Roar party, one of the city's most popular and on-the-nose club nights. There, he developed a passion for mixing, using the residency to master his craft and growing into the confident selector he is today. "It was at those nights I learned how to DJ," he tells me. "How to build an atmosphere, how to select records, to read a crowd. I also learned that sometimes a crowd doesn't want to be 'read,' that you'll gain their respect if you are brave enough to cut different paths and take a few left turns."
Brighton was unencumbered by the fashionable impulses that hold sway in bigger cities like London. The tight-knit communal setting was invaluable for Vynehall, who was surrounded by artists who were, like him, still learning to make music and play out. It was these connections that helped kickstart Vynehall's career. "We'd spur each other on to push things," he says. "I shared a studio with Lorca and A1 Bassline. Greymatter and the Wolf Music guys were—and still are—releasing fantastic music. Guy Andrews had just had his releases out on Hotflush and Hemlock, Bobby Champs was securing his Hypercolour and WNCL 12-inches, and Eagles For Hands was laying the foundations for what he is doing now.
"I spent a lot of time with Laurie [Ross, AKA Eagles For Hands] when I first moved to the city. He had a house share with three other friends and we'd always hang out, go to parties, see local bands. I spent a fair amount of time on their sofa, mainly because I had a shitty part-time job and nowhere to live for a few months. They kindly put me up and I re-paid the favour in cleaning the kitchen and living room a lot. It was a house full of musicians, so we'd play music together and make lots of noise. It was fun."
Crucially, Vynehall struck up a friendship with Marlowe. They would reminisce about the old Forum days. He eventually sent Marlowe some of his music, and Marlowe signed it on the spot. That first record was Mauve, a confident three-tracker that embodied what was interesting about the young producer from the very start: warm, engaging house music that sounded like it could have come out at any time in the past 20 years.
"If it weren't for Ashley taking a chance on me, I don't think I'd be where I am now," he says. "He opened the door for me, and for that I'll be forever grateful. The first time I held that test pressing with my own music on it was a fantastic feeling, and a very special moment. That feeling never goes away, no matter how many records you do."
Vynehall racked up releases over the next year and a half. The thumping Gold Language EP on George FitzGerald's ManMakeMusic; the soulful and funky Brother / Sister EP; and then his return to Well Rounded Housing Project with Rosalind, the most obvious showcase of his taste for soulful, vintage sounds up to that point. The success of these releases established him as a touring artist. Becoming increasingly disconnected with the scene back home in Brighton, Vynehall sought a more peaceful home base, so he made a move to the Midlands in 2013. He now resides on the outskirts of Leicester.
"It's more like living in a village than a city," Vynehall says. "The only people putting on good nights are Artful Division and City Fly, but I rarely go out. If I do manage to have time off, the last thing I want to do is step back into a nightclub. I miss seeing my friends there, the spontaneity of the city and its bohemian feel. I love Brighton, but I'm happy where I am at the moment. I'll certainly go back one day, but that time isn't now. Maybe when I want to start raising a family. I've always wanted any kids I have to be brought up near the sea."
It was in Leicester that Vynehall finished work on Music For The Uninvited. The EP's genesis goes back to a brief period when Vynehall stayed with his parents in 2011. During this sabbatical, he rifled through his mother's record collection and brought back a handful of it to Brighton the next year. It was "all '80s pop and mainly naff," he says, but he started taking the odd sample—an instrument or a vocal ad lib—and tried to make songs out of them, moving from taking inspiration from the sounds of his childhood to actually using them in his songs.
"'Goodthing' was the first track I had written for [Uninvited]. A Vesta Williams 12-inch single and some weird Kenny G ballad sparked off the idea. I thought it would be great to make something using pieces from what I listened to when I was younger, via my mum. Then I thought about the car rides to school being the main place I heard music, and the cassettes they were played on. So once I made a substantial amount of songs, I laid the tracklist out and sequenced the songs to make it feel like a journey with a start and an end, and mastered it from cassette. It kind of just fell into place, really.
"I've never really thought about it as a conscious decision to create something retro," Vynehall adds. "I take references from what I have listened to growing up. I enjoy texture and imperfection in music over something more clean. It keeps my ears interested. I find that I lose a lot of colour and character when I start using something more synthetic. On the other hand, the contrast between 'organic' and 'synthetic' can make for some really great results. It's all about how you use your tools, their time, and their placement. Sometimes I'll start with a sample and build an idea around it, other times it fits in after. Some songs don't have any samples at all. Usually a sample can begin as a starting block for ideas."
Music For The Uninvited is the most substantial work that Vynehall has committed to wax, and is also the most revealing in terms of his influences. The stately "Inside The Deku Tree" references the classic video game The Legend Of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time, while many of its other tracks draw from old hip-hop, texturally and melodically, in a more explicit way than before.
"I've always referenced hip-hop when I write," Vynehall explains. "Maybe more so than house. I would class DJ Shadow's Endtroducing as the centre point of my musical education growing up. The whole album is a masterpiece. That and Aim's Cold Water Music are records I could draw most similarities in my own approach to music I guess. Texturally, anyway. That '90s style of broken-beat, hip-hop hybrid stuff has always been around for me."
Perhaps the most immediately appealing dimension of Uninvited is its lush strings, which, courtesy of Eagles For Hands, feature prominently on "Inside The Deku Tree," "Be Brave, Clench Fists" and "It's Just (House Of Dupree)."
"After I had written 'Goodthing' and the idea for Music For The Uninvited was formed, I set about making something to open it. I had a melody and some chords for "Deku" laid down, but it felt bare and I wanted something to give it more depth. My first thought was strings, so I called Laurie and he came over a couple days later with his old—and well-worn—cello. I gave him the notes, told him what I wanted and where I saw the song going. We set up a mic, and it was played with such precision and ease that I could hardly believe it. Laurie is an incredibly talented musician, and I'm very lucky to know and have him on the record."
Well received from pretty much all corners of dance music, Music For The Uninvited has propelled Vynehall to new heights of popularity. He's fresh off a substantial North American tour, and he has a stellar new record already out on Clone Royal Oak. Vynehall himself was taken aback by the reaction to Uninvited, surprised that an inward-looking release would strike such a universal chord. Appropriately, the most touching reaction was a very personal one.
"There is a sample at the beginning of 'House Of Dupree,'" Vynehall begins. "It's the voice of Willi Ninja, one of the most well-known dancers from the voguing and ballroom scene. Most say he's the godfather of voguing, and the clip is from a film called Voguing: The Message—not Paris Is Burning, as many people have said. I received a 'message' of my own from a guy named Dave, who runs a label named Young Adults out of LA, where he also has a radio show on KXLU. He informed me that he had played 'House Of Dupree' on his show, and that the creator and director of the film, David Bronstein, happened to be listening at the time. He said that he 'called into my show literally in tears. He was so moved by the fact you used a sample from his movie in such a pure underground art form. He has turned down many corporate licensing opportunities for the film, but was so pleased when you used it because of the quality of your output.'
"This blew me away. I was speechless. I had to read the message through three or four times for it to sink in. I still find it astonishing now. I emailed Mr. Bronstein telling him what I had been told, thanking him for being so approving of what I had done, and expressed my shock, and happiness. I'm still waiting on a reply. I really do hope he does. I would love to talk to him."
Leon Vynehall plays at Warehouse Project's opening party in Manchester on Saturday 27th September