Duval Timothy: Life in Colour
Inside a converted south London shopfront sits a strange piano.
Stripped of its black lacquer, with legs chiselled down to minimalist, sturdy pillars and its 88 keys raised and exposed to touch, the instrument forms the stark centrepiece of multidisciplinary artist and musician Duval Timothy’s hybrid living space. It’s a frankenstein instrument; a period piece originally built in 1906 and updated into a postmodernist experiment. It is also the perfect symbol for Timothy’s creative practice.
“I’m interested in making by taking away,” 33-year-old Timothy says, while sitting at the kitchen table that flanks the piano. “By blocking out things that aren’t necessary, you get less overstimulated and you don’t become numb to flashes of new sounds and inspiration. So many meaningful experiences in life are made up of less.”
Accessing inspiration is seemingly no problem for Timothy. Since his melodically driven piano debut, Dukobanti, in 2012, he has released five solo records (including his latest album, 2022’s Meeting with a Judas Tree) and a 2021 collaborative album with singer Rosie Lowe. He has also been sampled by Solange, on 2019’s Dreams, and co-wrote four tracks from Kendrick Lamar’s 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. And that is just his work in music. Timothy initially trained in fine art at London’s Central Saint Martins and has a thriving practice in visual art, producing garments, tapestries, installations and even 2015’s Groundnut cookbook of recipes from across the African diaspora. He also accompanied Meeting with a Judas Tree with a film of still nature images.
An escape from the torrential rain on a grey November afternoon, Timothy’s warm home-slash-studio space is adorned with the marks of these creative endeavours. A blue and white quilt bearing the brand of his Carrying Colour label is laid over the sofa, while pasted on the whitewashed walls are several of his paintings, as well as the work of his partner, the artist Ibiye Camp. Even Timothy’s clothes bear the signs of his artistry; he throws open his front door in a blue sweatshirt embellished with sewn-on patches of his album covers and images of his family.
After spending any amount of time with the earnest, softly spoken Timothy, this seems less like a sartorial tool of self-promotion than a clue that, for the artist, his life is his art. There is little separation between the living and the making, as evinced by the fact that there is a mic’d up grand piano in the centre of his living room and a makeshift artist’s studio in his basement. It makes perfect sense that he would clothe himself in the records that already occupy so much of his life. “I like feeling them close,” he smiles.
On these records, Timothy has developed a minimalist piano sound that strips away at compositional complexities to get at the core of the musical emotion. Largely self-taught, his work trades in looping; almost rhythmically robotic melodies blend with field recordings and voice samples from London and his father’s home country of Sierra Leone, where he spends several months of each year recording. As a result, his solo albums have traversed everything from neoclassical sparsity to jazz improvisation and the encompassing warmth of cinematic soundscapes. On his collaborative album, Son, with Rosie Lowe, he samples the singer’s voice into the melodic range of the keyboard, creating an immense choral palette that tells the story of a fictional mother-son relationship.
These are all compositions filled with harmonic depth and an instrumental signature that rarely fails to provoke a response from listeners. “Someone told me they gave birth to Son,” Timothy mentions incredulously. “When we held listening parties for that album, lots of people were getting teary in the crowd, too. It always surprises me.” Yet, it is a reaction he is increasingly beginning to relate to. “I’m finding that as I get older, I’m getting more emotional. It’s like a barrier has been lifted in me and I’m feeling things more, both good and bad.”
Indeed, the past year has been one of change for Timothy. He explains how he has started therapy and it has consequently allowed him to loosen his grip on the outcomes of his creative practices. “I’m trying to be less absolutist,” he says, looking down at his hands. “I like following an idea and seeing where it goes, but there’s a point where we have to let life work its way out, rather than imposing structures.”
“As I get older, I’m getting more emotional. It’s like a barrier has been lifted in me and I’m feeling things more, both good and bad”
This motivation to let go has translated into Timothy’s most arresting work to date, Meeting with a Judas Tree. It’s a work that embraces collaboration, featuring electronic experimentalists Yu Su, FAUZIA, Lamin Fofana and Vegyn. The album’s six tracks play as an homage to the characters of the various pianos scattered throughout Timothy’s life. There is the rounded warmth of his 1906 Chappell piercing through the atmospheric expansiveness of Thunder; the grandiose tone of Alma Mahler’s (wife of Gustav) Steinway on Up, recorded during a residency in the Italian village of Spoleto; and the scattered, harpsichord-like attack of the upright piano from his studio in Freetown, where humidity caused the felt to fall off its hammers, leaving them to strike raw at its strings on Mutate.
Interwoven with these piano motifs are the sounds of the outside world, from field recordings of trails of soldier termites in Sierra Leone to passing sirens in London and the slough of falling tree leaves from walks through the hills of Bath. “I was enjoying the textures of places. This album is about working with the outside world, rather than trying to control it,” Timothy says. “A lot of the time I was recording with the window open and birds were singing or traffic was going past. I was letting sounds in, not blocking them out.”
The record’s engagement with the natural world also acts as a call for its urgent preservation. “In Sierra Leone, you can really see the devastating effects of deforestation and the climate crisis, so it felt important to document these spaces as they are now,” Timothy says. “But I am also disillusioned with how much a simple recording can convey the truth of a place or moment. I decided to abstract them, as it helps get to the emotion beneath the facts of a situation.” Timothy added electronics to his typical piano soundscapes, punctuating his floating melodies with brittle synths lines and distorted guitars, like lines of unintelligible dialogue.
This approach is a muted activism of personal experience, one that could well become lost in translation for listeners. It stands in stark contrast to Timothy’s 2020 album, Help, a searing critique of exploitation in the music industry, with the forceful repetition on tracks like Slave referencing Timothy’s own experience of signing away his masters for his 2015 album, Brown Loop, to a startup label. It is a decision that has since led Timothy to be staunchly independent, releasing only on his own label.
While Help was fuelled by urgency and justified angst, the nuances and complexities of Meeting with a Judas Tree speak to the quiet maturity that has blossomed within Timothy over the past year. “I’m trying to be more comfortable with sitting in situations. To just let them be – emotionally and musically,” he says, looking into the distance over my shoulder. “I’m seeking out more space and letting resonances just hang in the air. I’m more interested in creating soundscapes than creating songs. These aren’t explicit messages, they’re more like moods.”
It sounds like the movement towards acceptance – of ourselves, and of the inherent messiness of life, I say. “Freetown is the perfect example of that,” Timothy responds animatedly. “I’ve been building this studio complex in my family’s house there and I had all these visions for what it should be, like an international residency for artists and a place where local acts can record. But I realised I’ve spent so much time planning, I haven’t been engaging in what’s already there.”
Timothy evokes the perfect image for this avoidance of the present moment. “Freetown is so dusty – it gets everywhere – so I’m always sweeping up, trying to make the studio pristine,” he says. “But that means I’m not creating. Whether you sweep it up or not, the next morning a new batch will blow in anyway. You can’t fight against the tide, so why not just enjoy your time?”
Timothy has also become more accepting of his status as a child of mixed cultures, split between Freetown and London. It is a tension he has been working through in music, on 2017 album Sen Am and 2018’s 2 Sim in particular. The former interweaves ear-worming piano melodies with samples of WhatsApp voice notes, while the latter takes its name from the nickname for expats who have two sim cards to communicate with their various countries of origin. “For 2 Sim, I wanted to record the people I knew in Freetown who had a similar experience to me. It helped me start to accept the reality of my situation – that I’m not always seen as being ‘from’ there,” Timothy explains. “The more time I spend in Freetown, the less of a chip on my shoulder I have about how people might view or understand me. I know that I am seen by those who care about me and that’s all that matters.”
Trousers: ABAGA VELLI
But Timothy’s music has travelled a long way – beyond just Freetown and London. In 2016, he got a message from Kendrick Lamar saying how much he enjoyed the delicately purposeful work on the Brown Loop album he had released months earlier (it turns out that Lamar had already been experimenting with samples taken from the record). In the six-plus years since, Timothy has been part of a secretive collaboration with the rapper, sending him a steady flow of ideas. “Not many people knew that we were working together, but it really kept me going when I was doubting myself or my art, knowing that Kendrick believes in me,” Timothy grins. Last summer, he finally saw the fruits of that collaboration, with features on four tracks on Lamar’s soul-searching Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers – including the punctuating piano chords on its standout opener, United in Grief.
“I knew Kendrick had the best musicians in the world to work with, so I wanted to only send ideas that sounded like myself,” he says. “A lot of it wasn’t even high quality – it was just throwing paint at the wall to see what stuck. I hit a wave with what I was making last year, though, and I could sense that it sparked something in him too.” At the start of 2022, Kendrick flew Timothy out to LA to record the piano parts on what would become the introspective centrepiece of the record, Crown.
“Kendrick is very specific with what he wants – he has such a detailed mind,” Timothy reveals. “He wasn’t in the studio with me so we spoke on the phone every day. I’d feel like I’d nailed a take and then I’d get a call: ‘Yo, can you come in again? Can you do it more like this?’ It was funny but I learned so much and it’s an honour to have my work under his words. When I heard the album I was going crazy.”
It is an ongoing partnership, too, since Kendrick is constantly working on new ideas. “With a true collaboration, you don’t know where it’s going to go,” Timothy says, looking back towards his piano. “You can’t plan it – you just explore and make.”
“This album is about working with the outside world, rather than trying to control it. I was letting sounds in, not blocking them out”
Ultimately, making more time for that spontaneous creation is at the top of Timothy’s agenda going into 2023. “I just want more freedom to be myself, whether that means making music or scoring films or taking pictures,” he says. “I’d love to get rid of my laptop and be outside and get inspired.” Over a decade since his first release, Timothy is still absorbing inspiration, but his self-acceptance has allowed in a new form of comfort in his creativity. “I’m finally backing myself more,” he says, leaning forwards. “I’m feeling confident in my way of seeing the world and in embracing my impulses.”
And where are those impulses going next? “I’m feeling open, so let’s see,” he says, coyly. “It’s music first and foremost, though. I still feel like I have so many sounds to explore and I’m going to work with what I have to say, not against it.” For now, though, Timothy has to rush off into the rain to paint the vast, white walls that will be the backdrop of the photoshoot for this interview. Since, somewhere, there is always something new to be made.
Meeting with a Judas Tree is out now via Carrying Colour