Q&A and Track Premiere: Leila Abdul-Rauf on “Diminution”

Leila Abdul-Rauf is well known to Decibel readers for her exemplary work with bands including Vastum, Cardinal Wyrm, Hammers Of Misfortune and others. The multi-instrumentalist is also busy composing her own music, which often veers in unpredictable directions. Her upcoming album Diminution, the followup to the 2015 release Insomnia, draws on Abdul-Rauf’s feelings about the collapse of the creative class in early 21st century America.

Diminution was composed, performed, and produced by Abdul-Rauf and mastered by Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha Mastering Lab, and features artwork by Matthew Jaffe and layout by Kristoffer Oustad and James Livingston. It will be released digitally on April 13th and on both CD (Malignant Records) and LP (Cloister Recordings and Black Horizons) on May 11.

Abdul-Rauf talked to us about the new album and about finding hope and renewal in dark times. While you are reading, make sure to stream the title track which follows the Q&A. 

When you worked on your last record you were dealing with sleep problems, correct? Did anything going on in your life lead to this new record?

Insomnia was about a sleep cycle from midnight to dawn and the journey of that experience. Diminution isn’t just a personal record. There is a personal flair to everything I do but this one is broader and gets into how people around me are feeling as artists, musicians and content providers in the 21st century. They just aren’t valued as much as they were in the previous decades. That’s where the title comes from – the feeling that you are less.

A lot of people I know who are lifelong musicians are living in poverty. Writers have a hard time making money. Is that what you are talking about – how creative people are being marginalized?

Yes, and it’s been happening more in the past decade than any other time period. Our culture is now one hundred percent into devices and technology in a way that we’ve never seen. It goes across all art forms and processes: writing, visual art, music and film.

Can you tell us a bit more about writing Diminution?

It doesn’t take me a long time to write an album. But it takes me a while to get started (laughs). I just start tracking and see where it goes from there. It’s not a linear process at all, although that seemed to happen with Insomnia. I also might collect my thoughts and write lyrics and then everything will come from the lyrics.

 Do you write using a piano or have a reference instrument?

Sometimes. On this album, I did on the title track. I tend to have multiple reference instruments and that’s probably because I started playing piano at a young age. I wasn’t a classical student of the piano but I have been playing since I was six. I picked up a guitar at 13. So both of them are reference instruments depending on what project I’m working on. With the solo work, there really isn’t a single reference instrument. My partner Nate (Verrill) and I even did things like late night field recordings of Amtrak trains in Berkeley. That was a foundation for a track.

We have all of this access to information but people are losing connections. And we are suffering as a result.

I love the idea of “found sound” leading to music and the idea that almost everything in the natural world has a cadence.

There’s an old track called “Nearby” that I made of sounds recorded in my parent’s yard in New Jersey one summer. The crickets were so loud. From there, I can hear what kind of instruments and what kind of vocals I want. That was very fun, making a recording of crickets.

I’m wondering if on Diminution you are suggesting that if we don’t take care of the things that give our life purpose we won’t have any connection to others or the mechanism for self-discovery? Writing, music, and art give us a reference point to discover ourselves.

There are definitely different processes to get to know yourself. But it’s important to be able to think and reflect on who you are in relation to other people. The title of the record really comes from an overall dying out, of death on a large scale. The artwork includes a painting of a dying man on the insert and that’s a concrete image that accompanies my more abstract feelings.

How can people push back against that spiritual dying out?

Talking about it and writing about it and expressing these feelings of grief is really important. This is a grieving process. With any trauma, you need to be able to process it, sometimes creatively or through just having a conversation.

It’s strange because people now have more access to music and art than at any time in human history. Despite that abundance, people seem to just recycle content or live in retrospect. Our lives turn into a churn of what’s happened before.

Exactly. There’s an abundance of communication modalities but what is sacrificed is the present moment. We have all of this access to information but people are losing connections. And we are suffering as a result. There is a generation of young adults growing up without any present moment connection to other people.

If you expand that to music, in the past people had the time to develop a personal connection with a record. Now people are so flooded with material it’s hard to cultivate intimacy with music.

Yes, and another thing that happens is we’re just so overstimulated. If you were only buying a few records every few months you could listen to them and connect with them in your own time. Now, with all of the files in your inbox and dozens and dozens of blogs you don’t have the time to take in what you listen to anymore.

For people who know you from your bands what can they expect from this album? It will definitely be a different experience.

Well, my music is definitely not for everyone. My solo project is actually my escape from being overwhelmed. I give myself space to work on it and hope to create a space with it. It’s a hard album to listen to in the background. You need a good set of speakers or headphones to hear what’s going on. Most metal music is very compressed and you only hear a certain bandwidth.

If the idea behind Diminution is a spiritual collapse and the marginalization of creators how to we revolt? Form communities? Individuals creating on their own?

I don’t think there is a single solution and I’m not sure things could ever be rebuilt in the same way. We need to think about the way we think about things. There might be different forums for rebuilding that we can’t even conceive of in this part of the century. Everything is always changing.