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Sanity, Clarity, and Sonic Excellence: A Chat with Léanie Kaleido and Mark Foster of Karamelien

20 January 2024

UK-based Karamelien is Léanie Kaleido and Mark Foster. After a string of singles, the indie pop duo has released their debut album. It celebrates the rewarding path of learning to live with mental health challenges, accepting them, and feeling the freedom of just going with the flow.

This 9-track offering was co-produced by Ride’s Mark Gardener, Ian Caple (Massive Attack, Tricky, Mansun, Tindersticks, Vanessa Paradis) and Chris Mars (A Flock of Seagulls, Damian Wilson). This album also features bassist Lee Pomeroy (ELO, Rick Wakeman, Yes), Morris ‘Mo’ Pleasure (Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Ray Charles), and Léanie’s father Top Topham (The Yardbirds), who recently passed away. Let’s get into it.

The first music I encountered from you was Léanie’s solo work. What made you decide to work as a duo, and what are the pros and cons of both formats?

Léanie: I’ve always written songs alone – I’m creatively quite insular in that respect – but I met Mark in my twenties, and we started playing live gigs together, and he has remained my guitarist for live performances ever since. He’s my left-handed right-hand man! Mark played on many of the tracks on my first solo album – also called Karamelien’, an anagram of our names. My 2nd and 3rd albums, Quicksands & Shadows and How To Weigh a Whale Without a Scale were recorded with other musicians, but Mark and I were still in touch and continued to play live gigs together.

I’d always loved the name Karamelien as an artist name, and the decision to ‘officially’ create a duo came from that and from the fact that I wanted to open up to the possibility of co-writing a little more and experimenting with basslines and beats – a chance to break away from the traditional songwriter mold. I’m still the primary songwriter, but Mark’s creative input with his guitars, production ideas, cover artwork, and, more recently, his video production means that Karamelien is a truly creative team effort. Our skill sets complement each other perfectly.

Mark: We’ve known each other for so long and have always respected each other’s opinions enough that working together really feels like second nature.

I know and trust Léanie to act as my creative compass, and I am the same with her. I know that if she thinks something isn’t working, she’ll tell me pretty quickly! And that’s cool, as we haven’t got time to waste on ideas that we both aren’t sure on. On the other hand, being in a duo does mean I may have to wait a while longer before releasing the minimalist, Deep-House solo record I’ve been working on for the best part of two years. Haha.

What musical path brought you together and made you want to work together?

Léanie: I met Mark through my partner at the time, Andy (still a good friend of mine), as they worked together at FCN Music. Andy introduced us as he knew I needed a decent guitarist to start playing live. Up until then, I’d shied away from playing live as my stage fright was (and still is) a huge barrier. We became good friends, and our weekends back then often involved a lot of beer and a lot of staying up late listening to our favourite bands and exploring new music.

Mark has an encyclopedic knowledge of bands, and he introduced me to stuff I didn’t know about, such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Mazzy Star. We were both already huge fans of PJ Harvey and we’ve been to see her live together a few times over the years. Mark’s taste veers more into the heavier side of rock, which works for our songs as it helps to take my ‘sweet’ vocals and melodies and gives them a harder edge.

Mark: I think with Karamelien, we’ve both found that the band has allowed us to express our creativity in so many more ways than any previous projects we have worked on. We don’t feel constrained by expectations or the usual’ singer/songwriter’ tropes, and this has allowed us to introduce lots of different elements and influences in our music – electronica, samples, drum machines, alongside organic instrumentation.

Karamelien’s music can range between something lush and pop-like, especially on tracks such as “Digital Imogen,” slightly darker and rawer. Do you make conscious choices about your sound, or do the songs tell you what they need?

Mark: This band allows us to unashamedly bring all of our ideas and influences together with no particular regard for fitting into a particular style or particular genre.

It’s actually been quite liberating, as if we feel like shiny synths, strings, and glossy pop production work on one track, whereas lo-fi fuzz and wheezing guitars work on the next – then that’s what we record. No filters. What we have is ‘Living With The Moon’… An eccentric clash of musical personalities… but we like to think it works!

You’ve been lucky to work with some great people, particularly bass players. What was it like to work with Lee Pomeroy and Morris Pleasure, and who else has been essential to the recording process?

Léanie: Lee Pomeroy is a friend of mine – when he’s not on tour with Take That, ELO or Rick Wakeman, he plays in a great psychedelic 60s band with my ex-husband Joolz – Joolz and I have a son together and are still close friends. I was lucky enough to catch Lee on a quiet week! He lives near the studio I was working at, with a couple of days free, so he popped down and elevated the tracks to another level. We were so honored to have nabbed him for the album!

A couple of years ago, when lockdown was still creating havoc, I enrolled in a songwriting course in an attempt to hone my skills, and Mo Pleasure was one of my mentors. I’d recorded the basic idea for “Ascension Heights” and asked him if he’d mind putting something groovy down – and he did! It was all done via Zoom. The power of technology! Some of my other mentors from that year included Paul Statham, who helped me get the sample and hip hop beat for Ascension Heights, Shelly Poole (award-winning songwriter, ex-Alisha’s Attic), Andrew Rollins and Jeff Franzel, all of whom sprinkled some kind of songwriting inspirational magic over me, kickstarting a whole new bunch of songs, many of which ended up on the album. So, my thanks go out to them all.

I also am indebted to my friend Mark Gardener of Ride, who produced three of our album tracks, as well as my third solo album, How to Weigh a Whale Without a Scale, a few years ago. As a lifelong Ride fan, working with Mark was a dream for me. He’s a true diamond. I’m really hoping to work with him again. And we owe huge thanks to Ian Caple, who produced the rest of the album. Another lovely guy and a humble soul with lots of juicy stories to tell from his engineering days at EMI!

Ascension Heights is, of course, a cover of your late father, Top Topham. How did you decide on incorporating his guitar work into the song, and how special as a musical memento does that make the piece?

Léanie: I’ve always loved my father’s track Ascension Heights – I even chose it as the walk-in music for my wedding to Joolz. On the day, my father had no idea we were using it, so the look on his face when the music started was brilliant! It was a really special day for me as both my dads were there – my father Top, and my dad Alan, who adopted me after he married my mum. Having both dads there meant the world to me.

Writing my own version of Ascension Heights seemed almost like a calling. By the time I started writing it, my father was in the latter stages of dementia (he had all the variants of it, so it was a really cruel, severe case) and had already lost pretty much all of himself. He didn’t know who anyone was any more and had forgotten all of his musical and artistic accomplishments.

My song was my goodbye to him, and the lyrics were about the end of his journey here on earth and about finding his spiritual peace at the end of it. The song came so naturally. I’m so proud that I combined both our work to create something that will last forever. I still prefer his original, though!

Are there any particular themes or messages that recur through your songs or any dialogue you are trying to have with the listener?

Léanie: I suppose there’s often a spiritual, philosophical element to my lyrics, and I’ve noticed since I became a mum 13 years ago, my lyrics have become a little less cynical, more self-accepting and celebrating an inner strength. I’ll still come out with a little musical diatribe every now and then, though! I try to put a lyrical twist on common emotions – rather like looking at an everyday object through a kaleidoscope. But there’s no binding theme to our album Living With The Moon. It’s just a collection of observations about life, as seen through my eyes, with Mark’s guitar all over the shop, to make it way cooler!

To round things off, what does the future hold for Karamelien and you as individuals?

Léanie: I’m loving this project, and although I have some co-writing projects going on with other artists, Karamelien is where my heart lies. I’m loving the whole creative package that we bring as pair. We have a ‘digital mix’ of ‘Digital Imogen’ coming out soon – because the theme is about fake digital presence, we had a mix done with my voice autotuned to the max! I’m so anti-autotune usually, but it felt like a fun thing to do to fit the theme of the song. So that’s coming soon, and we’re thinking about doing an EP of cover versions, just for the hell of it.

Mark: ‘It’s been quite a prolific period for Léanie’s writing, but there is so much more we still have to say. The future is neon-bright! For me, personally, I’m still on a journey to write a song even half as good as ‘Birthday’ by The Sugarcubes (one of the best songs ever written – in my humble opinion!)

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