A Young Composer Steps Outside Of Himself (And Into Pop) San Fermin's self-titled debut is an orchestral wonder, born in the shadow of looming adulthood. NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with the group's leader, 24-year-old Ellis Ludwig-Leone.
NPR logo

A Young Composer Steps Outside Of Himself (And Into Pop)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/223721263/224523695" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Young Composer Steps Outside Of Himself (And Into Pop)

A Young Composer Steps Outside Of Himself (And Into Pop)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/223721263/224523695" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

And more and more these days, we're getting pitched albums described as chamber pop, music that wraps top 40 hooks in lush, classical orchestration. And this one, by a group called San Fermin, stood out.


ALLEN TATE: (Singing) Get over you like anything I ever could.

CORNISH: This song, "Renaissance!", is the lead track off San Fermin's self-titled album. In an era when an online single or a leaked demo can make or break a band, San Fermin is taking a chance on a full-blown concept album. And it's hatched by a man who doesn't sing but who formed the group and compose their music, 24-year-old Ellis Ludwig-Leone. And it's a love story.

ELLIS LUDWIG-LEONE: Yeah, it's sort of based around the interaction between a male and a female character. The male character is a little more grandiose and is sort of a manifestation of a lot of things that I was thinking about around the time when I was writing when I was 22.


TATE: (Singing) There's a mob at the door. I hear them calling for my head. (Unintelligible)

LUDWIG-LEONE: I just graduated from college. And it wasn't a given that I was going to be a musician or anything. Everything was sort of up in the air. And this male character was sort of a - he's looking for, you know, directions that his life can go and sort of meaningful things that he can find. And the female character is a little more cynical and a little more, I suppose, aloof.

CORNISH: And you hear that in the first song "Renaissance," where the male character is making very sort of dire statements. And then things totally switch gears in "Crueler Kind," which is our introduction to her.


RAE CASSIDY: (Singing) I wouldn't worry. Your melodramas are embarrassing. My cripple Henry imagine menace under everything.

LUDWIG-LEONE: You know, after writing "Renaissance," I sort of had this immediate backlash where I felt like I just need to cut it off at the knees.

CORNISH: It's that little voice in your head that's like, take down the drama, dude, right?



CORNISH: It's not - you're going to be OK.

LUDWIG-LEONE: That's right. Yeah, I mean, her first line is I wouldn't worry, your melodramas are embarrassing, which is sort of how I felt about myself at that time.


CASSIDY: (Singing) Oh, will you give it up this time? Oh, when your heart is (unintelligible)

LUDWIG-LEONE: I mean, I think the big breakthrough for me was actually figuring out that I could write for characters because then I could push these aspects to myself in very different ways and imagine people as if they had made, you know, different decisions and explore a much larger range of emotion.

CORNISH: Now, I read that you went on an artistic retreat to the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies. What was that like? I mean, how remote are we talking? And what did you think you were going to write?

LUDWIG-LEONE: Well, so the Banff Centre is on a mountain in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. It's really idyllic landscape. In fact, it's kind of ridiculous. You know, I'd be writing these songs and then walking to the top of the mountain for my afternoon walks. So it almost felt sort of laughably grandiose.

CORNISH: We're you trying to, like, just get away from your smartphone? Or did you think you were going to write, you know the great American fill in the blank?


LUDWIG-LEONE: Well, I certainly was trying to get away from my smartphone. And they don't have service there, which was like really helpful.

CORNISH: Key to creativity.

LUDWIG-LEONE: Yeah, absolutely. But yeah, I had a pretty strong plan, actually, for what I was going to be doing. I had a skeleton framework. And I knew that I'd want - I wanted to write very quickly, so it's like a bunch of different furniture but - coming from, you know, in the same room.

CORNISH: And you said write quickly. I mean, you wrote a song a day, right?

LUDWIG-LEONE: Yeah, that's right, yeah. Over that summer, I mean, I applied to the Banff Centre. My mom had actually gone there as an artist, and so I had been there and I really - it stuck in my memory as a kid.

CORNISH: And what kind of artist is she?

LUDWIG-LEONE: Both my parents are visual artists. They're painters.

CORNISH: Ah. So you're a rebel.


LUDWIG-LEONE: I suppose you can call it that. But the whole family is - it's sort of the trade of the family. My sister is a painter as well.

CORNISH: Now, today you work in music composition professionally, right? You're helping to write orchestration for operas and ballets and films. And that really comes through, I think, in the instrumental portions of the album. I want to play a song called "True Love Asleep," which is one of many moments on the album that are kind of an instrumental palate cleanser.


CORNISH: So, Ellis, this gets into a more kind of complex emotions, I guess.

LUDWIG-LEONE: I sort of imagined it as a back and forth between the male and the female character. And then I knew that I wanted these interludes as sort of these breaths where even though the female character is being really cynical, I wanted to maybe hint that there's maybe more going on in her mind.

CORNISH: We talked a little bit in the intro about this idea of chamber pop, which, I don't know, you probably hate. Most musicians hate these labels that get put on to their music. But pop is so tight, right? I mean, that's really what makes it. It's just this kind of hard-hitting obvious tight thing, which is also in a way, I think, of as the opposite from the classical tradition.

LUDWIG-LEONE: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting. I think the pop idiom, one of the things that I can really do is just punch you right in the gut. And I don't know if that's totally opposite of the classical idiom. I think it's maybe - I mean, maybe we've become a little more immune to symphony orchestra. But if you imagine being, you know, going to a concert in the 17 or 1800s, that would really, you know, sock you pretty good.

CORNISH: A punch in the gut.



CORNISH: Is there a song on the album that you think does that?

LUDWIG-LEONE: Well, you know, I think "Sonsick" - I mean, "Sonsick" was - a lot of people say that that song sounds really happy and it's like a summer jam. But that was like born out of - sort of the most intense anxiety of probably anything in the record.


CASSIDY: (Singing) Try to fix it up. I found me a hopeless case, oh, oh. I'll fall for you soon enough.

LUDWIG-LEONE: I just came back from Banff actually and, I mean, a lot of my friends were making decisions about their futures and, you know, it was terrifying. It was like you can see all these people make these decisions that are going to affect the rest of their lives and how - where they live, how they live, who they're with. And for me, it was really kind of a - I think it's sort of a panic attack disguised as a party anyway.

CORNISH: A panic attack disguised as a party. Now, this chorus makes more sense to me.


CORNISH: Yeah, yeah.


SAN FERMIN: (Singing) Oh, don't be scared that it's a harder kind of feel. Hold on tight. You must hold on unless you're in it. Ease your mind. And when you think you're thinking clear, it's all right. You really tired in a minute. I just say that it's another on the clock. (Unintelligible)

CORNISH: Ellis, thank you so much for sharing the story of this album with us.

LUDWIG-LEONE: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Ellis Ludwig-Leone, pianist and composer for San Fermin. Their self-titled debut album is out now.


CASSIDY: (Singing) I'll fall for you soon enough. I resolve to love.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.