As part of our continuing partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we are delighted to share SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt, a new audio visual work by Leon Clowes.
Leon Clowes is an interdisciplinary emerging artist investigating the distance of memory and the space between sounds and words in space.
SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt is an exploration of being a queer teenager in a white rural working-class family during the 1970s and 80s, amidst a moral panic about AIDS. By reimagining the four track electronic pop demos he made and sought solace in, Leon revisits the banality of the daily trauma of schoolyard bullying and relentless ridicule, putting that to a visceral piece through sound, song, script and moving image.
This work was created as part of the second nationwide call for new sonic works celebrating queer histories, stories and sounds on the British Music Collection – read more about the other works selected here and find out more about Leon here.
Leon Clowes – SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt
Q&A with Leon Clowes and Heather Blair, Creative Project Leader, Sound and Music
Can you start by telling me about yourself? How did you start to make music and what are your influences and inspirations?
I was drawn to pop music as a small kid. I vividly remember the Tamla Motown, David Bowie and T. Rex album covers my mother had, and I started to learn piano when I was maybe 9 or 10?
I would devour all the music I could get my hands on. This was in the early to mid-80s when there was a glorious explosion of queerness, cheap synths and art school graduates ripping up the rule book, people like Soft Cell, Psychic TV, Coil, Fad Gadget and Cabaret Voltaire. Equally though, I was learning about, and listening to, all corners of popular and classical music - only available then via radio, the four terrestrial TV channels, and weekly printed music press (Melody Maker, Sounds and NME). While I loved the early electronic pop and alternative music coming out at the time, I was equally at home with Dionne Warwick's Bacharach-David songs, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Joni Mitchell, Prince, Brecht-Weill, Scott Walker, Northern Soul.
As mentioned above, synths and four track cassette recorders were opening the possibilities of making music at home. I started an electro pop duo ('Candybox') with my best mate Nick, and it all started there.
You were awarded a grant to make this work as part of a specific open call for LGBTQ+ composers and music-creators. Beyond this project, what role has music played in your expression of your own personal identity?
Part of hiding away in my bedroom to make music for most of my teenage years was an escape route from a world that was horrendous to gay men, especially during the onset of the AIDS crisis. I found catharsis in writing music, and as a young person, expressing my identity through the words of a song was critical for my sanity. I was drawn to listening to and consuming music that offered individualism, and new concepts and sounds, and was arty and intriguing. It didn't really matter to me if the music was by a queer artist, I just loved, and lived for, music. For a long time I didn't really enjoy much of the music I'd hear in gay bars. From hi-nrg to house, I struggled to find any sense of community or identifiers in the mainstream gay scene. I was more into the indie LGBTQ+ London clubs I found in my late twenties like Duckie and Popstarz that would play all sorts from punk to Britpop.
What changes would you like to see for LGBTQ+ folks making music, or for the sector more widely?
I think much has improved. I can only talk from my early 50s age perspective, but I do remember when music making really was dominated by white straight men. Of course there is always more to do, but there has been a real sea change in a short space of time for more diverse voices. It's great there are specific opportunities for different communities - long may that continue!
SHAMES revisits music you made as a queer teenager growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis. Would you feel comfortable sharing more about your experiences during this time? And what prompted you to want to revisit and reimagine this material in a contemporary context?
I'm more than happy to share about these experiences now. It's important to me that I do, as, taking a couplet from an audio visual animation I made based on lines I've heard from other people in addiction recovery: 'Secrets keep us sick and Shame dies on exposure'. All of my artwork is based on lived trauma in some way (family, queer, abuse/addictions) and my philsophy for doing this is to be open about the uncomfortable, and to face the uneasy. I think that's how we can have difficult conversations in a safe way, and come to a place of peace.
I was bullied relentlessly every day at school. The upside of this was that I studied hard and made damn sure I had the qualifications to get out of the working class Staffordshire place I grew up, but as a child and teenager I lived in fear pretty much every day, avoiding town centres and playgrounds where I'd get taunted and harrassed. In the penultimate piece C'est la vie of SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt I talk about how acute this societally-endorsed persecution was at the time - a girl in sixth form said I should have 'HIV+' stamped on my forehead, and two boys in a chemistry class sexually abused me in front of the rest of the class. These were not one off incidents (and it would be no excuse if they were). To grow up in that environment when this kind of attitude was normalised was horrific. It's had life long consequences, there's no doubt, particularly on my sense of self worth, intimacy, and relationships.
Why return to it now? To heal, I suppose, to expose it, to own it. Finish it. Oh, and actually I think the pop songs I wrote are really bloody good and they should not be hiding in demo form on CDs and tapes in my drawer. That too.
What’s next for you and/or the project?
The three music tracks are now available on Bandcamp for the very reasonable price of £2.22. The film SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt was premiered at SUPERNORMAL Festival in the Queef tent, and the track New Cross is going to be part of a Tethered Publics exhibition app. I've got probably about 15-20 tracks to revisit, and I've been getting help from ace musicians Gerry McNee (aka Itchy Ear) and Jan Pulsford to gently coax me along. I've had an enormous amount of confidence building to do, and I'm so grateful to these, and other amazingly talented people who have been helping me.
Currently, I'm a PhD practice research student at London College of Music. There’s multiple benefits to this as the scholarship allows me to focus on my practice, the research is focussed on how I can self-compassionately traverse my lived trauma through my artworks, and going foward - I can work up these 30 year old songs in state-of-the-art studios for free. What you hear here though was all done at home on Garageband, and what you see was made on my mobile. So, more to come. I'm planning an album of songs and performances.
SHAMES: Looking Never Hurt is part of a larger multidisciplinary work I'm working on for the next couple of years, SECRETS+SHAMES=SELFS. This is a four minute extract from SECRETS, a performance installation collaboration with Gerry, Kelly O'Brien and Andrea Edwards that was made in a Britten Pears Arts funded Snape residency earlier this year. The trilogy is iterative and is made of many component parts that can be recordings, performances, film, writings, installation.
Personally, I think the full work would go well in Tate Britain.
Photo credit: Naomi Woddis