Lewis OfMan on creativity and emotions

«Music is the most egoist thing in the process and then it becomes the most altruist, the more you express the more you will touch and make the other dream, the audience will take your song as an airport to go to their own destination.»

It takes one week to settle in, two weeks to see your work and three weeks to feel home. I love when artists book a one-way flight to Florence, even if they know the residency lasts two weeks, yet they still play it by ear.
Lewis walked in the big palace of Numeroventi an early summer morning, curious and perhaps a little intimidated by this new reality. “It doesn’t take much time for someone to feel comfortable, as soon as you understand that your studio is set up and your work process is safe, the only effort you have to make is to create a new routine, adding as many distractions as you wish to your Italian life.” After four days, Lewis confessed, “I think I will have to stay longer.” He didn’t know yet that he would be back for another two stays, spending more than a hundred days at the residency, the longest an artist has ever stayed. Five months later, I can still hear him calling his manager from the loft next door. “The stillness of the palace”, he explains, “allows you to have mental space and see your work purely. The complexity of the city and the new relationships you create constantly puts you in discussion with yourself.”
In early October, Lewis was preparing for a live concert in Florence. I was very late that day and stressed for the show (that happened to be right on the day before the beginning of the second lockdown). I jumped in a taxi on Via dei Pandolfini and Lewis was outside smoking a cigarette and smiling. I felt an immediate sense of relief, time didn’t seem to matter anymore and before even realizing, two pizzas and a bottle of wine later, we were building the music set on a Florentine hill.

Preparing for the release of his new album in 2021, Lewis has produced 5 songs while being at Numeroventi. Most of the songs were as a result of his experiences in a new city being viewed through a lens that only a traveller is able to, listening to its heart and the sound that a place can compose.

Numeroventi: During this month of residency we saw you working and performing in very different spaces and contexts. Does changing environments affect the way you hear and feel your own music?

Lewis: Yes, of course. To change environments, to meet new people, it’s what makes you discover new energy. You can experience a lot of new things, hear new music, and understand new thoughts by witnessing other ways of life and vibe. All of that is digested by your mind. I feel like ideas are randomly floating in our subconscious and the way you feel at a certain moment allows the captation and—if you are lucky enough—the material translation of this idea.

Everything is about understanding ourselves. Travelling, going around to new atmospheres and leaving your comfort zone makes you live with yourself. In this situation, you are more keen to feel what your mind wants to express. Some places make you write romantic ballads because the energy is slightly pushing you in this direction, other places make you realise a new thing about yourself, so you compose a song that expresses this feeling. Of course, sometimes some places are full of messed up vibes so you feel bad and useless but I guess we tend to avoid this. To finish this answer I would say creativity might be a field, like if you were a shepherd with your goats, going from one field to another to feed your herd, which is nothing else but your mind.

N: Observing the very different people at your performance that positively reacted to the show was very fascinating., What components in your music do you think transcend generation and environments?

L: I would say the only thing that can procure something timeless and can be understood by everyone is what you cannot hear in the song: feelings, especially feelings of love. All my songs are quite focused on this. But it’s not love as in a relationship, it’s more about rêverie, sweet nostalgia or even positive melancholy—these are understood by everyone, we all dream, we all think about this.

Also, being honest while you create allows the emotion to transfer. A song with no soul is a song that was not made in a personal way, maybe more for an aesthetic thing or to show technical skills, or just play music. And man, it is so hard to be honest sometimes. Sometimes you make a song you really love and a few weeks after you just realise you liked it because you discovered this new chord or you had this bass sound you heard in so many records so you are so proud to have it in your song but it’s an empty tune, my brother. Music is the most egoist thing in the process and then it becomes the most altruist. The more you express, the more you will touch, and make the other dream. The audience will take your song as an airport to go to their own destination.

N: What are the instruments you always travel with?

L: My beloved Yamaha synthesiser, this little boy traveled all around the world: China, USA, Sweden, Lebanon. His flight case looks like a big gun bag, so I put some little poppy stickers, and some hearts logo to make it smooth, so people would stop freaking out in the airport. This keyboard is magical, you can do everything with it: drums, pianos, bass, synth. Before I used to play with it only for shows but then I found myself in a residency in Barcelona with this only and I discovered how perfect he was to transfer my feelings—incredible. So, of course, it was natural to take it for the Numeroventi residency. This time I also took my microphone and I went further by buying some stuff in this Florence ocasioni shop. I found a tiny synth from the eighties and a cheap acoustic guitar. Buying instruments in another city feels very exotic, it gives even more soul to the thing.

N: You can compose a piece and make it into a song by recording your voice on the go, how do you think that this agility in making music influences your process and final result?

L: I have the impression that having constraints in the process is what makes us the most creative. You do the best with the little things you have. This is something that happens particularly when you are travelling because you cannot take your whole studio with you. So what I love to do is to take a few things and just play with it. This is how I composed my song Dancy Boy for example, I was in this little house in Greece with a cute Yamaha PS-30 synthesiser that a friend of my family lent me and I was just having fun with it—playing with the built-in rhythm machine and the very electric gameboy sound it has, and suddenly the song arrived from nowhere. I was shocked because it was cool as fuck, yet it was not supposed to happen.

The energy you possess is different when you are restricted in your tools, you are not overwhelmed with things, you do not have a lot of choices so you are not overthinking regarding this bass sound or stuff like this that take you away from the song, you just focus on the idea you have. It is the best feeling because you know it is cheap from the beginning, hence all you can do is great because the base is cheap and not supposed to be cool.

N: Could you compare the way you made music during the residency to the work you would do in the studio? Did the last months of confinement strengthen your ability to compose and make music in different places than your studio?

L: During the residency, I took a little bit more stuff than usual when I went away, regarding the fact I was working on my album I needed a certain confidence in the quality of the sound. It was like a miniature version of my studio. The thing is that this residency turned into a complete conversation within me and myself. I realised a lot of things about me and overall, I understood what I really wanted to express. I cannot really have this kind of feeling in the studio because the process is different, I have a lot of gear, it’s in a cave, in the middle of Paris, which is not the best city for great vibe in my opinion, it’s hard to take a step back and difficult to capture real personal ideas.

What I usually do is make demos in places where I feel inspired by life and what I am going through, like this little house in Greece, my Numeroventi residency or even sometimes my Paris apartment. Then, once the idea and the soul is captured, I go to the studio to do the arrangement and the real production work, because I do not have the pressure to lose the idea, it is there, I just have to make it look good. And so yes, in these situations I can spend hours chasing the perfect melody and sound.

During the confinement I did not really composed, the atmosphere and the common energy was messed up, although the cool thing is that I only took a really cheap Casio synth, to have this constraint thing that I love, I played with it a lot, it has a really sweet organ sound. With this keyboard I practiced a lot, I also did covers, I discover a lot of new musical skills, so I would say it strengthened my ability to compose but not really in an agility way, because also, quite at the end of the confinement, my label was giving me special attention allowing me to go to my studio to work.

«To suffer, to be extremely happy, having arguments, frustration, to meet love, contemplating physical beauty, big parties, is something we need. All these different feelings are gasoline for our mind.»

N: When do you feel like a song is complete?

L: This question is hard, sometimes I think a song is complete and I live with it for almost a year. Then when I start the mixing process and my team organises the release of the song, I suddenly realise that something is missing, that I should change this and that, it’s terrible. This is exactly what happened to my song Attitude actually, I decided to put the voice that says “this attitude” or “you’ve got this attitude” really in the last moment because I felt a lack of soul, and well, it took me one year to realise this.

When I answer this question I kind of understand how important it is to take your time in the creation. A big step back of one year can sometimes turn a random song into some crazy shit. But also, sometimes the song is almost complete in 30 minutes, but I would say it is important to let it flow for a certain amount of time, so you can figured it out if this song is still giving you chills after a few months or if it is just a random-cool-aesthetic-viby piece that is not that interesting.

N: During your residency you worked on the track “I’ll be the one to forget how much I care for my love”. When do you find yourself in a song and what pleases you the most about observing a song coming to life?

L: For this particular song I would say it is different than usual. This is one of the first times that I am expressing something this personal. Normally what happens for the best song I have done is that one day I woke up, went to a synth, a piano, or made a drum rhythm, and the idea just appeared like if some kind of god was giving me a chance. It always came suddenly and I don’t really know what’s going on. Most of the time it is scary because it is a new path, at the same time you are a bit frightened by this odd new direction but still, you really don’t want to go back to these other paths you know for sure. It is an inner struggle. Sometimes you have the courage (and the skills) to go through the shadows and sometimes you lose and ruin the new idea by translating it randomly. I would say this is the same frustration one could experience waking up from a great dream that you don’t want to forget but 10 minutes after waking, everything is just gone forever, vanished.

I would also say that the best songs I have done were not giving me any incredible sensations during the process. My explanation for this is that the more you are doing something personal and honest the less you realise how good it is. Because it is so close to you, you don’t consider it, you sort of have no feeling about it’s like hearing the sound of your own voice. While all the songs I have done that were directly made me turn up in the studio have grown old or turned boring because they were made following a particular idea that was not mine, but influenced. Of course, all of this is not set, it’s just a statistic that I noticed since my short and humble career started.

But as I wrote this, I have memories of songs that gave me instant chills. It happens way more when I do romantic ballads, or when I express something really personal, which leads me to speak about the track I worked on at Numeroventi—the story is different. This sentence “I’ll be the one to forget how much I care for my love” came up one day a few months ago while I was working on a funky disco song with a lot of elements. The voice was pitched really down to have the feeling an old crooner was singing, in an aesthetic way that shit was tight. But then I realised that no one was vibing with that song and, furthermore, paying no attention to what I was saying. And for me the lyrics are really important so I was pissed. But in Firenze, talking with Martino, talking with other artists, living life, I realised how much I wanted to express this particular feeling that was making me suffer in a way. So I said fuck it, lets stop hiding behind fake voices and funky stuff, let me do this song like it is supposed to be and I started from scratch. I just found myself singing it with almost no effect on a sort of minimalist orchestral arrangement, it made way more sense, then the song followed its own way and scared me by turning into a two-part song (which I never do) with an epic end and quite violent up tempo, with me saying ever more personal things. Today the song is not finished and it has been two weeks I did not listen to it, this, actually, leads me to your next question about purity.

N: How does purity apply to your process?

L: What I consider to be “pure” in my process is the purity of mind. A pure mind allows you to capture an idea and to translate it perfectly, and maybe make it even better. I am always chasing after this state. This is why I travel a lot, trying to experience new atmospheres, meet new people, getting away from these toxic distractions defined by going out way too much for no cool reason, friends that take too much space in your life, shitty snobby clubs, bad business energy, anxious fame vibe, realistic life issues, too much information and even sometime, too much music making.

Purity is you getting back to yourself by being happy just to live with yourself. Purity is to take a huge step back regarding everything you do to just let your mind peacefully digest. In order to achieve this state, I tend to stop making music for a few weeks. I let myself live, experience things, listen to other music, discover music that other people like—especially in the car, this is the best way to discover this whole album you were too lazy to pay attention to. In the end, you understand a bunch of new things, your mind relaxes. To come back in the studio after moments like that is incredible. First of all, you were a bit frustrated to not play music for this amount of time, so the pleasure to touch your synths again, to play some great chords, it is like you are brand new, you listen to these songs you left on the making and suddenly you understand why this structure is not working, you have no fear to just take out elements. And of course, while you were living your life, ideas were growing in your head, most of the time unconsciously for me, so you make new songs, a lot, crazy moments.

Regarding purity of spaces I would say one creates the vibe, the purity of your mind makes spaces pure, I think it is a coward and a lazy thing to blame it on the room when you are struggling. Everything is going on in you, of course places have vibes but vibes are created by what happens in the room, if you make cool things, the room is cool. Simple as that. But I admit, when I write this, it is hard as hell when you find yourself in these positions. But that is the truth, and to end this answer in a cheesy way lets quote king Pharrell Williams, «The truth will set you free but first it will piss you off»

N: Lastly, your workflow seems to fit well your creative and dynamic attitude, it does seem like it is easy for you to make music and this (sincerity) translates during concerts. In what area do you see yourself improving in the next 5 years? And where would you like to imagine Lewis Of Man in half a decade from now?

L: These days I am comparing my process to painting. In the way that I want to make it alone and this is the challenge I want to put to myself, digging deep into me and also flying up above my work to figure out the best I can demonstrate. But in 5 years I guess I will try to work with way more musicians regarding my work. To practice with a computer that does whatever you want is one thing but to deal with humans is above everything. Kanye West is working like that now, basically he is saying he cannot do it alone anymore, he wants to use the best human resources to make the best music. I do not think I would do it like he does, this process is too much of a factory way, but I know I want to try to work with an orchestra or a jazz band, to extend the power of improvisation and trust myself in an instant way.

Or maybe I will do really bad songs and just realise that adventure is over and turn to my plan B which is to become a fragrance maker. Hopefully it does not happen. In any case I am also dreaming of having a big space where I could finally do all the funny things I want to do to extend my freedom of creation. This is quite material but to have a big living room with a little electric train toy going around would put me in a great mood. Not in a city, more in the countryside, like somewhere in Cataloña. To live somewhere where life seems timeless, away from bullshit, and going to the city just for big appointments, shows, and eventually visit friends. Because city life is important to realise how much you need space for you and of course, in my opinion, to experience social things is something every artist tragically needs, to suffer, to be extremely happy, having arguments, frustration, to meet love, contemplating physical beauty, big parties—it’s something we need. All these different feelings are gasoline for our mind.

«The more you are doing something personal & honest the less you realize how good it this, the less you have an opinion, because it is too close from you, its like the sound of your voice, you don’t consider it, you sort of have no feeling about it

Lewis OfMan is part of “So Close So Good”, a collective exhibition involving artists and designers in a conversation between the city and its local communities to raise questions in the post-COVID era.