Mica Levi: In dreams
“I was once driving on the motorway and the car next to us was the Ghostbusters car – they’re all wearing the uniform.”
I’m in Mica Levi’s studio in south east London, perched on an office chair they found abandoned in the street, when the conversation takes a turn for the surreal. “I was like, ‘Fucking hell! I didn’t know that you guys operated in England!’” they say in their characteristically dry tone. “Might have been in America, actually? I can’t remember where.”
Whether it’s blurry memories, fragments of dreams or revelations of offbeat inspirations from romcoms or horror films – they mention watching movies like Keeping the Faith and Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video – moments like this crop up throughout our conversation. After a while you begin to feel that, for Levi, the membrane between the conscious and subconscious, between wakefulness and sleep, is porous.
This fluid approach and broad range of influences has continually shaped their creative practice, as has their musical upbringing. Born in Surrey to parents who were both musicians – their mother is a cello teacher and their father a professor of music – Levi was raised in Watford, on the outskirts of London, before moving to the capital in their teens. Driven ever since by an intense curiosity and open-mindedness, Levi’s 15-year career to date is characterised by a shapeshifting ability to move between disparate musical traditions: one minute they’re writing a whimsical pop song and the next, they’re producing an unnerving film score. Feeling equally at ease with both underground artists and classical musicians has meant that they’ve managed to subtly infiltrate mainstream cultural institutions, and even Hollywood, despite remaining firmly rooted in south London’s DIY scene. One of their most recent projects saw them composing the score to Zola — a film based on a viral Twitter thread, in which two young women get entangled in a frenetic odyssey through Florida. It builds on their previous and highly-celebrated work on films such as Under the Skin, Monos and Jackie, and further shores up their distinction as arguably the most sought-after composer of their generation. Yet you sense that for Levi, this is all a slight inconvenience.
It’s a warm afternoon in August when I meet them at a train station in Lewisham. Despite the heat, they’re wearing all black: a black jumper with three silver alien heads on it, black tracksuit trousers with orange stripes, and black sunglasses. Walking with a slow, laid-back lope, we quickly fall into conversation (turns out we’ve both been having trouble sleeping recently) as they guide me to their studio space on the corner of a nearby road. They give me a brief history of the building: it was a fire station, a pub and a squat before becoming home to a community of artists and musicians. It’s a humble and unpretentious creative abode.
Levi spent a lot of the past year in the studio, making use of the space to create some structure in the face of the timealtering weirdness of lockdown. “I think I learnt a lot of things and slowed down,” they tell me. They learnt to “really think about what it is I want to do and what’s important to me, which is ever-changing. Just maintaining a good relationship with creativity”. In Levi’s case though, ‘slowing down’ has meant releasing two albums back to back – Ruff Dog, released in December 2020, and Blue Alibi, released in early 2021. Neither album is what you’d expect from an artist who first broke through with the subversive avant-pop of Micachu and the Shapes (the band reconfigured in 2016 as Good Sad Happy Bad). Ruff Dog is stripped back, noisy and raw – built from grungy, heavily distorted guitar and barely audible, reverb-laden vocals, as though the whole thing was recorded with rusty instruments in an abandoned railway tunnel. Blue Alibi is a little more melodic and melancholy; simple, heartfelt vocals with scatterings of field recordings and vocal contributions from friends, all members of the Curl collective that Levi is part of.
“I just felt like I needed to get some stuff off my chest,” Levi says of the pair of albums. “A lot of the things I do are in response to other people’s images, or collaborative with friends, which is great. But it was good to just do a printout of where I was at, and just get that relationship with making and releasing. It’s like dead weight otherwise.” Both albums were released with next to no fanfare and employ a consciously lo-fi aesthetic borne from a setup of guitar and mic. “I just recorded for ages and cut the bits out that felt good,” they explain.
In contrast to the more experimental use of instruments on previous albums, equipment was kept to a minimum on purpose. “There’s no screen. It’s just a physical connection – your voice and an instrument,” they say, quietly probing their relationship with technology. “I really like a lot of music made on computers – I’m not anti-computers at all. I just find for me at the moment, because I’ve been so locked in, it’s like a tonic, that yin-yang. You’ve just got to get the balance up.”
“I think if I didn’t have music I’d be a really angry person and find life really difficult. I think music can be helpful for everyone like that”
There was also catharsis to be found in the recording process. “I went into rehearsal rooms and they’re like padded cells. You can scream and shout in there and no-one would know what’s going on, or care, which is quite a rare environment. Kind of mad. I literally screamed in there. You scream, scream, scream, no one’s batting an eyelid.” In speaking to them, it becomes clear that music is not just a job, or an artistic practice, but a way of life that offers an essential means of maintaining emotional equilibrium. “I think if I didn’t have music I’d be a really angry person and find life really difficult. I think music can be helpful for everyone like that.”
As we’re talking, I get distracted by some objects dangling between us, what look like tiny horseshoes suspended from a string in the ceiling. It turns out this was a Christmas present from a friend. “It’s made out of stuff from Deptford beach,” Levi explains, referring to the riverside neighbourhood a few miles down the road, “they’re just bits of concrete that have broken off, with stones in them and metal bits. They just get washed up on the beach.” This strikes me as quite an apt physical metaphor for the way Levi approaches sound: random objects, scraps of ideas, dreams and other detritus washed up from the subconscious are crafted into something beautiful, cryptic and slightly warped.
Some of the other projects they’ve been working on are similarly wonky and unconventional, yet based on the same generous and collaborative model of creating and sharing music. One of these was a series of graphic scores – featuring images, diagrams, scribbles and instructions as an alternative to conventional musical notation – for a set of pieces entitled ***. These were released as downloadable PDFs, a tactic they borrowed from fellow south London musician Klein. “I’m just interested in the idea of making these setups,” they explain. “It’s kind of having situations that happen in real life that you can repeat, because there are instructions and people could access this world, and maybe that would make them want to make pieces as well. It’s just a form. I’m not so precious about how they end up.”
Some of the instructions are very specific, however. Cities Flower, for instance, which is made for “two synth players, four performers, one light/camera person”, follows the trajectory of a flower as it is passed around a group. It includes notes such as: “THE PIECE SHOULD BE PERFORMED IN THE DARK, EXCEPT FOR A TORCH LIGHT OR PHONE LIGHT THAT ALWAYS TRIES TO STAY ON THE FLOWER.” This particular piece came out of a group session that took place at Cafe OTO in east London. “I wrote the pieces and then tested them with a group. We just tried to play them and I attempted to correct, adapt or re-word the scores so they were clearer or worked better, taking in suggestions or instincts from the group. The aim is that the scores are playable without previous musical experience.”
The use of graphic scores attests to Levi’s ability to use and subvert aspects of the music education they absorbed while a student at the prestigious Purcell School for Young Musicians, and later the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, finding ways to make music making open, experimental and accessible. “I was getting kind of drawn into lots of far-out things,” they say of their time at Guildhall, “like John Cage and that sort of thing.” But their musical education has always been amalgamated with a much broader range of influences. “I also feel like I’ve learned a lot from dreams, from my peers, people around me, everyday things, different kinds of music.”
Levi is one of a handful of contemporary musicians who have managed to access more established cultural spaces – early on in their career they collaborated with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta – while still remaining rooted in the underground scene and without compromising an inch of their artistic integrity. Despite this, they experience a degree of ambivalence towards the institutions and elitist culture surrounding classical music. “I tussle with it,” they say, scrunching up their face while searching for the right word. “There’s so much amazing music and commitment to learning instruments in music traditions like classical music and jazz, where it’s virtuosity and skill and scale. I really respect it. And I’ve been trained in that way,” they state. “But I have a good time just knowing and not knowing about it. I kind of forget. It’s in one ear and out the other. Having that life pursuit is really a beautiful thing, but I don’t think that the approach is better or worse.”
This complex relationship to classical music is further highlighted when it comes to film. “There’s a lot of strange weight to it,” they say of the dominance of classical instruments in film scores. “It’s interesting, the use of classical music in films, because it’s kind of abstracted from popular culture. So it doesn’t give you information in an audible way. When you’re watching an adventure film, you’re not really thinking about it. It creates more of an opera-like thing where it narrates, it holds the storyline underneath it. Whereas if you put a guitar in there then you’re thinking of images and people who played that music, and clothes and sounds.”
“There’s so much amazing music and commitment to learning instruments in music traditions like classical and jazz, and I’ve been trained in that way. But I have a good time just knowing and not knowing about it”
This is perhaps why Levi’s take on film music is so radical: they have an uncanny ability to strip a film down to its essence and translate that into sound with only the most minimal of elements, like the pipes, whistles and occasional synths from Monos, or the simple xylophone and harp motifs that punctuate Zola. “For me, in every film there’s a source. You’ve got to find the source as part of writing music, or making the film. The source might be from one character, it might be something to do with a colour, the landscape of the film, an object that a character has. All of that shit is really exciting. And it’s kind of amazing how much an image changes with music or sound. It’s mad. I love all that.”
Despite the huge success they’ve had as a film composer, Levi hints at the psychological toll of being so invested in a project, as well as the pressures of having to keep up with a film’s production schedule. “I really enjoy it, but I definitely need to chill now from doing that for a bit,” they say, before quickly adding with a laugh: “I shouldn’t say something like that!”
In a follow-up email that came a couple of days after the interview, Levi clarified some of the struggles that can come with composing for film: “It can require quite a professional role. I get emotionally invested and I can’t help that. I get soaked into the film so I’m kind of not cut out for it. Too soft.”
It’s a surprising admission from an artist whose film scores are regarded by many as visionary, but it also displays Levi’s true calling as an artist: wanting to get back to making music on their own terms, responding to their inner desire to connect to the world and people around them through sound. “I think I’m just going to do it until I don’t get away with it anymore,” they say with a wry smile. “That’s it. Just carving a little space where I can just do my thing. I think that’s all everyone wants really, isn’t it?”