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San Fermin is the chamber-pop brainchild of Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a young classical composer from Berkley, Massachusetts, now living in Brooklyn. The Yale graduate, who will appear with his band at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Nov. 14, is one of a crop of classically-trained composers with their hands in pop projects, among them the singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane and modern classical phenom Nico Muhly.
San Fermin’s self-titled album debuted in 2013 and met with instant critical acclaim, thrusting the still-incipient band into the spotlight. Ludwig-Leone views his success not so much as a rebuff of classical music tradition, but rather a serendipitous side-effect of the changing music industry.
“Basically you can just do whatever you want and put it on the Internet,” he says. “If you’re a person who likes music, there are endless opportunities for you now. If you want to want to make a song with weird strings and a folksinger, that’s something that you can do, and I think one of the best things about the time that we’re in now is that that’s fine. No one at a record company’s going to be somewhere telling you, ‘Well, that’s not going to sell.’ Selling records doesn’t matter as much now.”
Ludwig-Leone grew up playing in rock bands and says that merging pop, rock, and classical composition was a natural choice for him.
“I feel like people are always worrying about the state of classical music and it’s like, well, you know—whatever. If you’re writing music, you should just write music that you want to write,” he says. “And the first question that you should have is, ‘Is it good?’”
Here, we look closely at four songs by San Fermin and the metamorphosing process that brought them to life:
For Ludwig-Leone, writing “San Fermin” was a curiously backwards process: holed up in a studio by himself, he composed the album over the course of six weeks, with no idea how many or which musicians (other than lead singer Allen Tate) would be involved. With the album’s success, he was suddenly forced to adapt it to live performance. After a year on the road, the ensemble has solidified into an eight-piece lineup: Ludwig-Leone on keys, Tate and Charlene Kaye on lead vocals, Rebekah Durham on violin and vocals, John Brandon on trumpet, Stephen Chen on saxophone, Tyler McDiarmid on guitar, and Mike Hanf on drums. Needless to say, the arrangements have evolved considerably—partly to compensate for a smaller group of musicians and their individual talents, and partly as a function of performing in rock venues.
“It’s actually really funny to listen to our record now, because it sounds so different from how our live show does,” says Ludwig-Leone. “It sounds different than how I even think of the music now. I think it was actually a really crucial thing for us to sort of turn this thing into something that feels like music you could actually hear on a stage at, like, Brighton Music Hall or something like that, rather than a concert venue, a seated kind of thing. It really has changed a lot, and pretty much all for the better, I think. You feel like you’re able to inject a lot more life into these songs when you play with a smaller ensemble.”
Take, for example, the song “Methuselah:” once a serene acoustic ballad with surging strings, it has since transformed into something more visceral. An acoustic guitar has been traded for an electric one, and without the option of lush orchestration, brass and drums are tasked with adding depth. The line “When I’m lost with myself I see lions,” originally a passing remark, is punctuated by the intensifying thump of the bass drum. Suddenly, a wistful meditation on mortality and loneliness takes on a sense of urgency.
With so much possibility at his fingertips, Ludwig-Leone must execute a delicate balancing act. The more expansive and intricate the arrangement, the greater the danger that lyrical themes will be lost, melodic ideas buried.
“I definitely err on the side of too much,” Ludwig-Leone admits. “There’s a really important process to that—often the singers will help me with [that] a lot—which is going in and stripping out all the unnecessary stuff and just making something that feels to-the-point. That’s a really important part of the process that I’m still working on. Because it’s so easy to write something big, and lush, but it’s really hard to write something that feels like it’s done right, rather than show-offy.”
The album’s lead single “Sonsick” is not so much a happy medium between restraint and drama, but an exquisite merging of the two. The song brings into sharp focus the desire to fall in love and settle down, dredging up a kind of terrifying cynicism from beneath that sugar-coated dream: “I’ll fall for you soon enough/ I resolve to love/ Now I know it’s just another f---/ ‘Cause I’m old enough.” On the album, singers Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe (of indie pop group Lucius) anchor “Sonsick,” while drums and horns offer alternating support—delicately at first, and then with greater intensity. Eventually they join forces, sending the song into aching, spiraling throes.
Ludwig-Leone is not a confessional songwriter. When he was composing “San Fermin,” he wrote parts for two voices—male and female—and put them in dialogue with each other. The album doesn’t tell a straightforward story per se, nor do the voices embody static characters. At times, they seem like they could be lovers, at other times strangers.
“My limitation, which is that I can’t sing, has actually become a really good thing for me,” says Ludwig-Leone. “Because it means that I’m not writing confessional songs. That’s been really important because I’ve learned to kind of compartmentalize and make songs that are about something specific and smaller and let them build over the course of the record, rather than put them all in one song. Having Allen and Charlene sing these two parts was a really important discovery for me because I realized that the back and forth between them could sort of build this record. And that it was less of a narrative and more of a bouncing ideas back and forth, and that generated the momentum.”
That contrast is thrown into relief right away, in the transition between the first two songs, “Renaissance!” and “Crueler Kind.” “Renaissance!,” which is sung by Tate, engenders a vast dreamscape colored by anxiety and quick dynamic shifts: “There’s a mob at the door/ I hear them calling/ For my head/ And they’re scaling the walls/ I’m still dreaming/ Magnificent things.” The song crescendos with the hopeful line: “Please come wake me up/ I’m waiting for your love.”
With jarring bluntness, “Crueler Kind” offers a droll parry from the female singer (Wolfe and Laessig on the album, Kaye in the current lineup): “I wouldn’t worry/ Your melodramas are embarrassing/ My crippled Henry/ Imagine menace under everything/ I wouldn’t worry/ I’m not about to fall in love again.”
It’s this emotional alacrity, this back-and-forth, that defines “San Fermin.” What Ludwig-Leone proposes, with such grace and dexterity, is simply this: if a person contains multitudes, so, then, should music.
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