“Pulling You Into a Space”: A Conversation With Duval Timothy

A wide-ranging chat with the pianist and conceptualist.

by
Credit: Sophie Davidson.

On tape, Duval Timothy’s voice is quite blue. He doesn’t sing, but through his jazz-tinged, experimental discography, the sound of his piano remains distinct. That voice actually comes from various pianos: the Yamaha in his parents’ house that he played on “Slave,” a single from his latest album, Help; an old Steinway at Electro-Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles; the one located in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where his family is from, that appears on the Help track “Look”; the New York instrument he used on his 2016 debut, Brown Loop, which will be reissued with additional music on Oct. 2, Timothy’s 30th birthday.

At some point in the middle of our Zoom conversation, he turns around and shifts a stack of sketches to reveal yet another piano, a grand taking up half the space in the South London apartment he shares with his partner; it resembles a big, brown wooden couch and seems to cut the room in half. Surrounding Timothy’s face in the Zoom window is a constellation of yet more sketches, studies and works at various stages of completion. In this latest album from the multidisciplinary artist, he says he’s “describing the mess of my life in London and Freetown.” Whereas on his last full-length, 2017’s Sen Am, he traced the geography of his life and lineage, on Help “there’s an enjoyment of that mess; those things can sit together.”

So he’s actually pretty cheerful. Help begins with “Next Tomorrow,” which he co-produced, along with much of the album, with the Scottish producer Rodaidh McDonald. It’s a bold new context for a musician known for his piano compositions. “We did [that track] and said to each other, at the exact same time, ‘This has to be the opener,’” Timothy recalls. Even to my ears, untrained as they are in the nuances of electronic music, the sound is distinctly London.

He continues: “I guess I also wanted to present sonically a step in a slightly different direction, for people that just know me as a guy who plays piano. I wanted to introduce those textures of drum ’n’ bass drums that Vegyn [a British producer best known for his collaborations with Frank Ocean] put in.” Still, halfway through, when the first acoustic piano chords are struck, it’s trademark Duval Timothy. 

When I ask Timothy about that singular, melancholic piano tone, he links it to a bout of anxiety he suffered in the process of reclaiming the masters of his previous records. That turmoil culminated in “Slave,” a track that turns the titular epithet into what eventually comes to sound like a chorus of mocking schoolchildren. “They represented my mental process at that time, going through a lot of feeling anxious and agoraphobic,” he says. That malaise reigns over these first songs, and it’s most clear-eyed on “TDAGB,” a brutal interlude that features Timothy’s sister intoning matter-of-factly that “things don’t always get better.”

Timothy says he selected the voices on Help carefully, explaining, “I don’t want to hide behind the vocal samples that I’m using.” There’s more talking than singing on the album, and by the latter half it’s mostly Timothy’s piano, aided by electronics from other collaborators including Twin Shadow and Vegyn.

That’s where Timothy sees himself going next. “Piano will always be there,” he says, “but I’d like to step away from that, almost to tell myself that I can.” In addition to working with his partner on a studio space for artists in Freetown, he says he’s working on a project with the singer Rosie Lowe, composing for voice from his piano.

His work remains geographic, but now he looks to the sounds of places: He and Lowe played their songs in a church in South London and rerecorded them through a Dictaphone. “There’s a thing with spaces,” he says, “even the voice notes or the conversation we’re having now.”

How is London?

Can’t complain. I’m just at a one-bed studio apartment. We’ve got a little outdoor space, close to a park. So I’ve been feeling blessed, really.

Your demeanor surprises me, because I think your musical voice is normally pretty somber. 

[laughs] Are you surprised? I definitely have my moments. I feel like I’m somehow drawn to that tone when I play. I feel like maybe it’s an insecurity thing as well. It’s a bit like how a vocalist hides behind too much reverb. Sometimes the easiest thing that comes out is a bit melancholic, using that sustain pedal a lot. 

We tend to reflexively interpret melancholy as depth.

And actually, I really admire people that are writing poppy, quite simple staccato melody [songs]. It takes a lot to say like, boom, this is it. 

A recurring theme in your art in general, and in your music in particular, is geography — the geography of your life. How do you think about those geographies as they relate to the sounds on the album? 

I’m more describing the mess of “What is my life in London and Freetown?” You’re interacting with friends that are Iranian and Russian and Sierra Leonean and watching this-and-that content from YouTube and it’s all part of the same thing. We’re all consuming content from such diverse places, even if you’re in a bubble. Even the food we’re eating. So it’s less intentional, but there’s an enjoyment of that mess, that those things can sit together, like those drum ’n’ bass drums and whatever [else].

What were the collaborations for this album like? Did you have sessions with artists or was more done electronically?

[Los Angeles] was the main trip, other than London and Freetown. A lot of the collaborations happened in London quite naturally through friendships, also friendships that are evolving through music. Music has allowed me to make new friends and spend time with old, old friends. Like Mr. Mitch is my school friend I’ve known since I was 9 or 10 years old, and we both find ourselves in this world making experimental music, but it’s nice that making tunes together is just a reason to hang out. We’ve got a bunch of stuff that we’ve done together. Same with Vegyn, Desta [Haile], Lil Silva, that was already happening.

Then I went to L.A. I’d spoken with Rodaidh [McDonald] on the phone, and [we] both said we’d love to work together on something. That was a [more] deliberate process of “Let’s get this project together in five to six days.” Then he brought in Twin Shadow to [Electro-Vox Recording Studios], and a couple other people came through. Melanie Faye came in quite late in the day when we were working on “Fall Again,” and we knew her tone would be incredible in that, and she sent some stuff remotely. Krim, [a vocalist] from Freetown, was in Accra with [one of my other friends,] AA, and he ended up sending stuff and we ended up using his demo freestyles, which are the vocals on “Groundnut.” We just kind of preferred that lo-fi, ambiguous lyric.

Do film scores inspire you? In general they have the tendency to treat timbres as characters, which I hear in your work.

Yeah, I worked on my own art films, and more recently, these music videos, I’ve directed or co-directed all of them. And when I did the 2 Sim EP, the centerpiece of that was conducting interviews with friends and family, but I was making that at the same time [I was] making the music, which was really interesting. I definitely feel used to making an atmosphere that’s cinematic in tone. I kind of like building different emotions. The Jon Brion stuff is amazing. I discovered his stuff through Jay Electronica using the Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind] soundtrack. I listen to a lot of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Joe Hisaishi and all these people that are musicians and artists and then step into film. 

Would you ever want to score film?

Yeah, it’s a thing I’m starting to think about. I just completed a score for a friend’s short film, Akinola Davies Jr. It’s untitled, it’s a film about his mum that he made during lockdown. He actually handed over a bunch of really intimate voice-note recordings and interviews he did with his mum talking about how she met his dad, and different family histories.

That was kind of interesting, because the process was a bit reversed. I made the score just out of those recordings and conversations with Akin, about what the film would be like, but he hadn’t actually shot a lot of the footage, he just had this archive material. So I kind of made the whole thing. We made two or three drafts, and then he essentially cut the film to the music. I’m definitely interested in it. I’m a bit wary of it; I know there’s a lot of culture in film of them basically asking you to remake a song, and I don’t really want to get into that side of it too much. But if there’s creative space, I’m definitely interested in that.

There’s more talking than singing on this album. How do you find those pieces of tape?

It’s just stuff I’m normally listening to. I don’t really go out of my way to search for, like, the craziest emotional monologue that I could use. It comes from whatever I’m researching at the time, and the stuff I get sent. The stuff I have an actual relationship to.

I definitely come across a lot of things on YouTube where I’m like, “Oh, this would sound crazy” but that would be more like an entertaining thrill — [that] would maybe be empty afterwards, if it doesn’t actually relate to me talking about my life. I always like the idea of collaborating with people you get the sense you have an affinity with who are maybe not even alive now. You could do that with spaces as well. Initially it was just a case of making a bunch of stuff, and as we homed in on the tunes that were going to be included in the project, it went from being a mixtape to — I actually really wanted to make a mixtape, but it just kind of forced itself into an album. 

You have these voices, spoken and sung, at the beginning of the album, but near the end you have the voices stripped away and it’s nearly all piano.

There were more vocals [at one point], but I also don’t want to hide behind the vocal samples I’m using. I just try to remind myself, “It’s enough as it is.” On “Look,” I’m using [painter Ellsworth Kelly] to explain what I’m trying to do, but it’s maybe an over-explanation, so I pulled back in other areas and just wanted to say, “This is it.” It’s like pulling you into a space and you’re just in there. You’re kind of lost. 

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