Interview: Cosmo Sheldrake

Interview: Cosmo Sheldrake

Cosmo Sheldrake on his hip-hop roots, filming on a farm and being a romantic at heart.

Cosmo Sheldrake. Multi-instrumentalist, composer, sampler, beatboxer, teacher, choir boy, genius. So, where did it all begin? The child of a pianist and a teacher of Mongolian overtone chanting, having been sent to toddlers clapping classes and then taught piano from the age of five, it’s fair to say Cosmo was brought up immersed in music.

Interestingly, he says his own style simply came out of the process of making music. Adamant to steer clear of synthesizers, Cosmo began recording natural sounds and manipulating them.“When I recorded sounds and chucked them in samplers from things in the world rather than a ‘normal instrument’, so to speak, they had amazing qualities of sound that came with them, all sorts of textures and things. To me it seemed like an instantaneous way to generate sounds with oomph and presence” he reveals.

Having studied Anthropology at University, he learned to produce music “through trial and error”. He describes his sampling process as almost entirely unplanned, and pretty much consisting of recording “a lot of stuff”. For example, Cosmo explains the sound of tumbling rocks he used for a snare drum in his track ‘Solar’. At the time he didn’t realize what he would use the recording for, but after listening back to it, “they had this perfect percussive sort of rattley, snarey sound.”  His approach to recording is quite cavalier with his attitude of “take whatever comes across.” But with Cosmo, it works and he quickly adds that he doesn’t have a slight idea of what could be a handy kick drum sound with a good bass aspect or what might have a nice melodic tone.

Cosmo is also a great collector of instruments but admits that he is as fascinated with them as objects as much as anything else. He does, however, try and learn as many as he can, and reasons that seeing them in terms of families makes learning easy: “if you learn the guitar for example it’s not too much of a leap to the banjo… and likewise if you learn the mandolin it’s not too much of a leap to the violin because it’s tuned the same way”. He doesn’t actually know how many instruments he plays, but jokes that every time someone interviews him the number seems to be getting bigger. Apparently, we are in hundreds now…

Cosmo’s work is often described as ‘a bit quirky’ and does not generally catch commercial interest. Though he avoids making music specifically for a targeted audience and “can certainly say that that a lot of the music I make, especially a lot of the stuff that hasn’t been released is not commercial in any sense of the term.” He quickly adds however, that it isn’t necessarily a conscious effort to produce the music he makes. “I just make the music that comes out”, he explains.

Having supported major acts like Johnny Flynn and Bombay Bicycle Club, Cosmo is certainly on the fringes of mainstream attention. In spite of being heavily influenced by ideas of experimental musicians and composers, Cosmo admits that he has an attachment to melody and aesthetics within his music: “I’d like to find a way to incorporate the theory and processes of a lot of these musicologists in a way that doesn’t have to be instantly challenging to the ear. I have a commitment to melody, and to making things sound nice, whether that’s just for me or for others as well I’m not sure.”

Although often labeled as a folk artist, strong elements of hip hop music often come out in Cosmo’s performances. He learned beatboxing, which he now teaches, from a good friend and hip hop musician, Roots, and then for years, worked as a rapper in a group Gentle Mystics: “I think when I first started producing and making beats it was actually coming from a hip hop mentality, a lot of my early production and musical recordings were in a sort of hip hop style”.

As well as producing music and playing live, one of the most interesting things about Cosmo as a musician and as an artist is his video content, which he explains to have started with a conversation with his friends Ruben Woodin Dechamps and Orban Wallace from Gallivant Films: “I was keen to make some sort of video thing, and Ruben at the time was really interested in showcasing the mundane goings on in some sort of urban space, so we ended up choosing a laundrette”, where the first video for Cosmo’s track ‘Prefusify’ was shot.

After filming that, the group quickly started coming up with new ideas. My friend was working on this bio-dynamic farm, so my idea was to shoot the next video in this sterile cheese-making environment with huge machines turning the milk, but then the cows didn’t produce enough milk so we showed up to the farm and had to reconsider the project quite rapidly.” Fortunately, a litter of piglets had just been born and which led to the making of the video for ‘Rich’. The video featured Cosmo stomping loop pedals in manure while the piglets lazily looked on. All of these videos are, according to him, “quite hairy for the gear” and he even ended up electrocuting himself during the making of the video for ‘The Fly’, filmed on a fishing boat. Cosmo also reveals that they might have started planning the next video, possibly shot in Budapest.

Above everything else, Cosmo is an exceptionally perceptive human being, drawing inspiration deeply from his surroundings. This drastic contrast between his music and the self-absorbed, social media image-hooked modern culture might be why his music is so appealing. He has abstained from buying an iPhone and was raised without television. Cosmo remembers reading Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television which explains “how screens are completely killing off any capacity to really thoroughly and richly experience the world.”

Furthermore, he eventually found himself distinctly interested in sound as an “underrepresented sense.” “I read this book called ‘Soundscape: The Tuning of the World’ by Murray Schafer, a Canadian musician and composer and writer. He basically re-imagines and re-awakens this whole sense of sound. It is a hugely influential book about how to re-engage with the sound world and how much it has to show for itself.”

Finally, Cosmo declares: “I am definitely a romantic in that sense and would like people to be more thoroughly engaged with the natural world than the two dimensional, so if that was any consequence of the music I perform then that would be a wonderful thing.”

Here’s hoping, Cosmo.

Listen to Cosmo’s new track ‘Tardigrade Song’ on The Hype Machine and keep an eye out for his planned E.P. release in April on Transgressive Records. Cosmo will play a live show at Nation of Shopkeepers on 8th April.

Kit Lockey