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When I speak to Kedr Livanskiy, she’s on the Los Angeles leg of the third North American tour of her career. It’s set to conclude with two shows in New York, including one for MoMA PS1’s Warm Up series, but, excitement aside, the 28-year-old Moscow-born singer and producer can’t wait to get home. I catch myself agreeing that there is something special about summer in that city: vast highways heated by the sun, the towering housing estates sinking into the lush greenery, the haze which envelops the brutal cityscape. To some extent, Kedr Livanskiy’s music is rooted in this sense of belonging. It reflects a certain time and place, a unique experience of a certain generation.

Kedr Livanskiy is part of a new wave of Russian underground sound. Now aged 28, Livanskiy – her artist name – began making music in 2015, first appearing on the international radar a year later with her elegiac debut EP January Sun. Back then, she was part of Johns’ Kingdom, an underground collective that united artists and musicians inspired by the day-to-day grit of Russian urban edgelands. Livanskiy, like many of the Johns’ Kingdom community, was drawn to the raw qualities of lo-fi sound as a means to communicate a DIY romanticism. Home-recorded and charmingly imperfect, her songs invoke the unexpected magic of something overheard through an old car stereo, intimate and playful.

© Yaroslav Klochkov

Existing in an ambiguous space between drifting pop and experimental music, she established a broad fanbase that spread far beyond the borders of Russia. Livanskiy’s second album, Your Need, released in May, is a remarkable development in her sound. Though it wasn’t conceived as an album – working with her friend, St Petersburg producer Flaty, the two came together with a plan to create a single. Ten days later they had a full-length LP. “We didn’t really conceptualise it, just shared music we liked, looked at videos, and then sat down and tried to connect musically,” Livanskiy admits. “Everything went down at such a crazy pace. Every day we made one or two tracks, there was this burgeoning powerful and unruly energy.”

Your Need seems to take its cues from crowded dancefloors as much as lonely bedrooms or desolate cityscapes. Its melodic pop structures are heightened through a palette of hardcore synth riffs, deep house pads and – on the kinetic Bounce 2 – drums that top 150 BPM. “All the songs refer to classics of breakbeat and house music, but in a timely way,” she explains. “It reflects the mood I was in at the time: very wild and volatile.” Indeed, the unfiltered style of working translated into a kind of catharsis for the artist. “Before writing the album I went through a period of depression. Flaty was a big support, and thanks to him I showed the sides of myself which I might have been scared to expose or didn’t know technically how to express.”

“In nature, you can find a reflection of any human feeling or emotion, and nature provides a way to describe it in a more subtle and beautiful way”

Expression has always been central to Livanskiy’s work, despite many of her listeners not knowing Russian – the language in which she sings. Even for Russian speakers, the lyrics are understood as often being fragmented and abstract. For Livanskiy, music always comes first, and words second. “The way you feel is best and most accurately expressed through music. That’s why I like metaphorical rather than concrete lyrics, like poetry – although I’m not saying that what I write is poetry,” she qualifies. I wonder what it feels like to write and perform in a language to an audience that doesn’t understand. “I think the international audience perceive my music exactly the same. People don’t understand the words but they feel the vibe, mood…”

To create her distinct mood, Livanskiy turns to nature for help. The video for her single Ariadna is filmed in the remote Georgian mountains, while Ivan Kupala, the final track on Your Need, refers to the Slavic countryside tradition of summer solstice festivities. Even the name she performs under, Kedr Livanskiy, translates from Russian as ‘Lebanese cedar’. “In nature, you can find a reflection of any human feeling or emotion, and nature provides a way to describe it in a more subtle and beautiful way,” she says. Her interest in “the intersection between nature and the industrial environment” also feeds into the inspiration behind the cover for Your Need. It’s an homage to iconic pop album artwork, “like ones by Britney Spears. But the bright, acid-y look is combined with the natural landscape. It creates a contrast between something fierce and something tender. This conflict also exists on the album.”

© Yaroslav Klochkov

The overt pop reference feels pointed in other ways too. The Russian music industry is still relatively young, only dating back to the 90s, and doesn’t offer a lot of support for emerging talent. In fact, most cutting edge Russian music today exists in parallel to mainstream high-budget production and media. In Russia, you wouldn’t see Livanskiy and her peers on TV. With little hope for monetising underground music within the Russian media economy, this path often remains a labour of love and matter of community. This sense of community has given rise to a new generation of Russian producers and artists who are content to remain proudly DIY, from underground labels, like the NTS-approved Gost Zvuk, to fellow Johns’ Kingdom alumni Buttechno. When questioned, Kedr Livanskiy mentions underground rap crews 555TRAKC555 and Praztal Fractal as her favourite artists in Moscow’s current music scene. “Of course, it’s a little bit ironic, making Memphis-style Southern rap in a Russian setting, but I love that the guys are really committed to music. They constantly hang out in their home studio, drink, smoke and record. I am certainly planning on collaborating with them in the future,” she says. “This is my favourite thing about making music – when talented people come together to create something beautiful.”

This idea – the potential of music to connect fellow creatives and build the local scene – feels central to Livanskiy’s approach, however far from home she travels. Despite her rapid global rise, success is secondary. “I never expected anything from my music career, and I still don’t. I guess that’s my secret,” she admits. “I don’t have anything I’m desperate to achieve. My main happiness is to write a beautiful song.”

Your Need is out now on 2MR.

This interview has been translated from Russian.

Photography: Yaroslav Klochkov
Styling: Vasilisa Gamaleya-Gusarova
Styling Assistant: Lorena Kasparova
Make-up: Valeria Vitko
Production: Vasilisa Kartashova
Production Assistant: Ivan Leontiev
Technical: Alexander Shlyantsev
Technical Assistant: Fares Demenuk