by Surya Bowyer
“There’s an incredible creature called the tardigrade, a kind of biological anomaly, which can put up with thirty times more radiation than any other living organism. They’ve also sent them to outer space because they can live in vacuums, plus they can live without water for up to 15 years and withstand the high pressure at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. They’ve been doing this for millions of years, yet they just spend their lives in moss and lichen. They don’t really use any of their superpowers.” I am sitting in a layrinthine cafe in Hampstead with vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer Cosmo Sheldrake, whose passion for biological inspiration is apparent from the beginning. The tardigrade’s ‘super-powers’ so captured the mind of Sheldrake that it serves as the muse for a track on his latest EP, Pelicans We, released in February. Other tracks feature lyrics from Edward Lear’s ‘Pelican Chorus’, and William Blake’s ‘The Fly’.
Sheldrake admits he first turned to literature after encountering trouble writing lyrics himself. “I’ve always loved nonsense. I learnt a lot of Irish folk songs with nonsense choruses, made up of vocables – sounds that aren’t considered words. They don’t have any literal meanings but they’re a huge part of the song form. In Native American songs there are these syllables that don’t have any literal meaning either. Some people say its because they’ve lost parts of the language, but I met this one guy from the Odawa tribe in Michigan and he explained how he was taught to sing by reading the silhouette of the treeline. So the way they learnt music would imitate the natural world, and all through these nonsensical syllables.”
He smiles at me from over his coffee.
“But then I also just loved the sheer joy and play of people like Lear. There’s so much seriousness in the world, it’s nice to just inject some play into it.”
He takes a bite of his jam and butter covered croissant, before continuing:
“And then with Blake, he’s written so many beautiful and powerful lyrics. He’s got this kind of devotional quality and, for me, contemporary popular Western music has lost that. It can often be very mundane. Plus his works were written to be performed. It’s called the ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, after all.”
“Hearing is one of the senses that has been undervalued for so long in favour of others – predominantly sight.”
Sheldrake is keen to point out that his interests extend further than small super-creatures and limericks. He very quickly, and very excitedly, gets onto talking about Bernie Krause, a prominent soundscape recordist and bio-acoustician. “We met because I was recently asked to play at this fundraiser at the Natural History Museum that was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List [of Threatened Species]. They asked me to make a piece of music out of the coral reef ecosystem. So that’s how I stumbled upon Bernie. For the last 50 years he’s recorded the most extraordinary archive of sounds from the natural world, and about half of his recordings are of animals that are now extinct. He’s made a recording of both a healthy coral reef system and also, a few hundred yards along the same stretch of coast, another reef that’s just empty and dead. One is of this popping, wheezing, dense polyphony with all these fish doing their thing. The other one is just this desolate sound of the snapping of shrimp, which is all that is left when the ecosystem dies.
“So yeah, that’s how I met Bernie, and now we’re working on a project together to do with extinction and endangered species, using some of his amazing recordings.”
There’s a track Sheldrake performs live without a given title or studio recording. The ‘Fish Song’ is made up entirely of marine recordings. The artist carefully avoids creating a novelty track, only enjoyable due to the story behind its creation. Instead, it’s a beautifully haunting number with a hypnotic whale song-like melody placed over the top of an infectious shell- crunching beat.
This messy-haired bohemian is a wholeheartedly devoted lover of sound, a believer in the importance of not underestimating our ears as an important channel for experience.
“For me, using field recordings in my music is a massive reminder of the sound-world. Hearing is one of the senses that has been undervalued for so long in favour of others, predominantly sight. There’s this brilliant book by R. Murray Schafer called ‘Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World’, which performs a sort of archaeology of the sound world. Schafer writes this account of the changing sonic account of people from the time of Nordic Viking poetry and goes right the way through history, through the industrial revolution and the birth of heavy machinery and the accompanying hearing loss, and then onto aviation, ending right up at the present day. Reading it helped me to realise how much we’ve lost or drowned out through human noise pollution. Bernie has this recording of a group of frogs chorusing in sync. When an aeroplane flies over they get incredibly confused and fall out of sync, and then predators can pick them out individually because instead of a unified chorus each of the frogs is distinguishable. We do have an incredibly significant effect on the world of sound and more often than not we don’t fully realise it.”
As the croissant on his plate slowly disappears and his cup of coffee depletes, Sheldrake goes on to tell me about yet another project he’s working on, this time in an attempt to document a forgotten part of London: its subterranean rivers. He’s picked four of them (one in the North, East, South, and West of the city) each to devote a day to. He plans on walking the length of them and, where possible, climbing down into the underground culverts that the rivers now flow through. As usual, he’ll be carrying his handheld recording device so that he can document the array of sounds he’ll encounter. Then, after the four expeditions, he’ll use the sounds he’s acquired to form a new track, which he aims to perform at one of the rivers’ mouth.
At certain moments Sheldrake comes across simply as a young musician drunk on the excitement of making music. Moments like when he is onstage, hunched over his array of equipment, dextrous digits rhythmically selecting loops, voice construed into Tibetan chanting, or beat boxing, or Mongolian throat singing.
In addition to improvising whole new songs during live shows, Sheldrake has developed another method of making music quickly and spontaneously: ‘cake mix sessions’.
“I feel like if you don’t limit yourself when making music it’s very easy to become a little directionless. So I’ve developed this thing where you get all the ingredients for a cake, and you select all the sounds you’re going to use in a new song. Then you heat the oven, put the cake in, run downstairs and make your piece of music. Then you can’t touch it once the cake’s done. It forces you to think in broad brushstrokes, rather than getting stuck in the details, because you’ve only got about two hours to produce a complete track. And who knows, maybe you’ll come out of it with an idea for a song that can actually lead somewhere. Of course, some tracks might not work, but that’s the point of it. At the end of a few of these sessions you can hold up these pieces of music and see how you’ve progressed.”
It’s easy to forget that Cosmo Sheldrake is, at 26- years old, a musician who is still in rapid progression. It’s this passion driven rapidity which fuels and drives the young artist. He possesses an acute awareness of the pace and content of the outside world, ready to be beautifully compiled into experimental tracks and soundscapes. His mind works 100mph whilst we sit back, relax and calmly listen as the aural spectacle unfolds.
(Photograph: Surya Bowyer; Painting: Rachel O’Donohoe)