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It Can Be A Bit Terrifying: Raul Zahir De Leon on His Return with CANANDAIGUA

“Who is America for?” ponders Raul Zahir De Leon when recalling the earliest knockings of what has now become CANANDAIGUA, his first musical project since the dissolution of Stamen & Pistils in 2007. “Several years ago, I began a short film series where I explored different aspects of the idea of what it means to be an American. I wanted to dig into issues of identity, place and being. I only completed a couple of instalments, but I always thought I’d pick it back up. In 2018 when I was first working on the ideas that would become CANANDAIGUA, it started to feel like music could be a way back into that earlier project.”

Released at the start of August, Slight Return compiles the smattering of songs De Leon has been slowly releasing over the past year and adds several more. A country-tinged wobble through the most careworn spit ‘n’ sawdust joints in the American south, it presents the yearning vision of an artist whose relationship with his country has been knocked out of whack. Via visits with legends (“Lament for John William Henry”) and woozy barfly waltzes (“Diamonds”), the collection exudes an edginess that betrays personal uncertainties: as he searches for his country, De Leon looks deep inside himself. “Much of the work is autobiographical, considering my own relationship to [America],” he tells me. “I want things to be better but I know that we can’t really move forward if we don’t confront who we have been, so that we can better contend with why things are as they are.”

Despite the lengthy hiatus from writing music, De Leon never lost contact. “I heavily connect with the medium as a means of self expression,” he says.” Throughout my life I’ve always been heavily impacted by music, but what that relationship looks like has evolved and shape-shifted over time.” In the late 90s, he performed solo as Radel Esca, “a long-standing project [that was] introspective and rooted in hip hop, based on a sample heavy, pastiche type of production.” He then met Miguel Lacsamana, with whom he collaborates to this day. “Miguel and I were beginning to write songs that combined guitars, synths and abstract noise, with sung vocals to the point where the hip hop elements began fading into the background until it morphed into something else entirely,” he recalls, recounting the inception of Stamen & Pistils, a band that went on to release two albums and share stages with the likes of Dirty Projectors, Asobi Seksu and Yacht. “Ultimately [we] evolved into something approaching a more off-kilter folk- and roots-influenced live band sound. Miguel was simultaneously working on really cool, but sonically divergent, material [and] my own attention was being drawn toward film and video work. Our drummer John Masters was working on his solo songs, and Stamen & Pistils ended up gradually taking a back seat to those things. It wasn’t a band break up as much as a hiatus that never really ended, which is kind of the story of most DC bands.” De Leon subsequently launched All Our Noise, a video blog dedicated to showcasing his favourite local bands performing in intimate settings, before expanding with the help of the local NPR station and launching Bandwidth. “All of this kept me connected to music,” he says. “Honestly, I was feeling pretty fulfilled approaching it from that angle.”

The return didn’t come too easy, and De Leon remembers feeling “tapped out” by early attempts at rejoining the songwriting fray. “I just wasn’t really doing anything I felt good about,” he says. It was only when his radio work ended and he started seeing bands again as a fan that he began to see a way forward. “[S]ome of those shows really inspired me to get back in the saddle. Something shifted internally where I realised I needed to just sort of start over instead of evolving the last thing, and I began shaping CANANDAIGUA as a project that spoke to traditional folk and country music.”

De Leon steeped himself in history to ensure he had his angles right. “I was reading a lot of books about American history, especially about Reconstruction and the beginning of the Jim Crow era, as well as more recent historical non-fiction addressing white supremacy,” he says. “[It] had me thinking about the relationship of past periods to today. Simultaneously, I was digging into old blues and country catalogues.” This resulted in a contribution to the Real Fakes series of 7″ singles for Baja Dracula, the label he helps run, on which he covered John Prine and Jason Molina tracks, dipping toes in the water before launching his first originals. “A Dime and a Ribbon” and “Diamonds” followed within the space of a few months and both riff on familiarly hardscrabble topics, albeit perfectly pitched to reflect the troubled present. The first is a migration tale that could just as easily take place in the dust bowl as it could modern-day Afghanistan: the lyrics are romantic and full of trepidation, De Leon’s voice gently wavering as his subject leaves home for the final time; the second is inward-looking – a late night, semi-autobiographical croon De Leon says is inspired by “a real experience [from] more than 20 years ago [when] I was feeling pretty low and kind of spiralling.”

“I just randomly got in the car and started driving.”
– Raul Zahir De Leon

“Diamonds” is accompanied by an amusing video in which De Leon road trips and bar hops, apparently haunted by visions of himself backed by a band of musicians dressed as animals. “I just randomly got in the car and started driving,” De Leon recalls of the aforementioned low point. “I had no destination, but after many hours on the road without really having any clue where I was, I did end up in a dive bar in Knoxville. For the video, I started with that experience, but I felt like I also wanted to explore some more of my insecurities and for things overall to feel pretty lonely.” With its self-deprecating tone and palpable yearning, I tell De Leon the video reminds me of nothing so much as the celebrated clip for TV On The Radio’s “You,” in which lead singer Tunde Adebimpe begins a cut-price Prince tribute and performs to perplexed passers-by. “There are definitely some fun and silly moments in the video,” he agrees, “but for sure, there is a sadness to it and I’m glad that comes through. The animals backing me were meant to represent different aspects of my personality. And so performing for an audience of myself I was alluding to my being my own worst critic. I’ve always gotten a kick out of classic animatronics, and Jim Henson creations and such, so I figured going the animal band route would be a pretty fun way to go about it.”

“Diamonds” also showcases De Leon’s voice at its quavering, uncertain best – its obvious limitations in the classical sense allow subtleties of emotional weight to rise like slivers of gold in a grubby pan. De Leon concurs in my suggestion his voice isn’t a obvious fit for country but gains strength from the thought that some of his favourite singers could navigate its dusty alleys regardless of vocal talent: “I always connected with the David Berman line, “all my favourite singers couldn’t sing.”” he says. “You’re right – I don’t have a traditional voice for country and when you push something forward knowing that you’re not fitting the traditional mold, it can be a bit terrifying. But I’ve always been inspired by singers who don’t necessarily have traditionally ‘good’ singing voices. Whether it’s Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash or Daniel Johnston or the like… That’s long been my motivation to keep moving in this medium, and my approach here – how could I arrange the music and shape the tunes so that that raw energy could come to the fore, and it could be more about conveying a feeling and connecting around that?” 

Slight Return adds a further four songs, including his own paean to the legendary John Henry. “I began learning some John Henry songs, and learned that John Henry was an actual person,” De Leon says. “A young man incarcerated for something minor, but loaned out as prison labour to a railroad company. That crystallised what I felt CANANDAIGUA as a project could be all about – writing stories that feel traditional but could just as well be written about things happening now.” The sentiment echoes clearly throughout the other songs, too: “Calm Through The Clearing,” for example, finds its influence in police brutality, and “The Margins” asks us to reappraise accepted historical narratives. De Leon, though, is hesitant to align himself with any of the great folk statement makers of the past. “I would never claim that I was trying to write a new song with the explicit intention of being passed down to future generations,” he says, “but I’m definitely inspired and motivated by how recording songs can expand upon and deepen our connection with tradition and the past. It’s crazy to think about those early recordings—those folks could probably not imagine that they would be heard beyond the people immediately in front of them. They were playing the songs that they were taught and expected they’d pass them down in their own families or communities, not more broadly. Much of Slight Return was influenced by things happening in the country [and] a feeling that we need to remind ourselves of this nation’s promise and speak out about what it means in our communities.”