Cosmo Sheldrake, 25, is a young and distinctive musician, whose playful approach to composition and music production makes his music both intriguing and memorable. However, having spoken to Cosmo, I get the impression that his work is important at a deeper level. His use of sound samples from different objects and animals, all across the world, overlaps with the increasing need for the music industry to discuss questions of appropriation, originality and copyright. It is rare for someone who appears, quite genuinely, not to take himself too seriously to have the potential to be a real gamechanger, and I would not underestimate the power of such a combination.
I came across Cosmo’s music a couple of years ago at a concert of the folk-rock band Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit. Cosmo was both the support act and the keyboardist for the main band. He performed his own music alone, which involved the overdubbing of vocal lines and various sounds and samples controlled by a keyboard and laptop. It is not uncommon or original to hear music which uses samples, but Cosmo’s music stood out because there were few other elements. Even the percussive aspects of the pieces consisted of manipulated sounds.
To date, Cosmo has released a single, ‘The Moss’, as well as a recent EP, Pelicans We. A full album is expected next year. For those who haven’t come across any of this music, I would recommending listening to ‘The Moss’ and ‘The Fly’. The latter is a particularly good example of the depth of sound Cosmo achieves with the overdubbing effect, and the lyrics – taken from William Blake – compares nicely with the elements of the absurd and playfulness in the former.
Like many talented musicians, Cosmo started at a young age, learning the piano from the age of four. This was, he says, in “some part motivated by jealousy” of his older brother who had also begun to learn. At seven he made the transition from classical to blues and by 15/16 he was recording and producing music. It was the scope and diversity of music which was exciting for Cosmo, who stopped formal lessons and instead followed his own set of interests. In particular, he explains, he realised that the piano was “an unwieldy instrument” and you “can’t really cart it around”. As a result, he taught himself a number of other instruments, from the banjo to the didgeridoo, and these often make an appearance in his recordings.
At the moment, Cosmo has a number of ongoing projects which show the range of his interests. He told me that he had been working on making music from the sounds of coral reefs, an idea which started as a commission from the Natural History Museum’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Red List of threatened species. It was clear as he was speaking that the importance of such a project went way beyond being affiliated with such a great institution or any personal gain, but was about an honest enthusiasm for the sounds he would be using. He explained that many of the samples had been recorded to distinguish between Soviet submarines and fish, and that it was possible to discern between a healthy and dying coral reef. Such recordings aren’t simply sounds, and are clearly held in a form of reverence by Cosmo for their historical value.
In fact, many of Cosmo’s other projects are sensitive to the wider social and cultural implications of music making. He has done some work for a youth organisation, which he described as “using the creative arts to create transformative moments”. Furthermore, despite his age, he has been involved with a number of educational projects involving music. He explained that he had held a workshop over the summer with his father, a biologist, and he has presented a TED talk called ‘Interspecies Collaboration’.
Today it is often felt that music is something which somehow transcends the real world as simply an art form. There is, of course, a value associated with this type of interpretation, but it takes someone such as Cosmo to remind us that music can also be powerful in how it responds to history and culture, and how it can call on others to respond to it.
This is not, however, as easy as it sounds, nor are there no problems associated with making music from samples. The sampler, Cosmo explains, “becomes a tool by which you can play the world” and each sample “becomes a whole different thing and takes on a new life and meaning”. The sampler manipulates each sound to a different pitch and duration, sometimes becoming unrecognisable. If, like Cosmo, you are using samples from archives and ethnographic records from across the world, there is a tension about whether it is right to reappropriate what can be an item of personal or cultural significance. There can be a certain amount of “imperial baggage associated with it”, akin to the looting of other countries carried out by England in order to fill a number of the nation’s museums. In one instance, Cosmo explained that he had applied for the rights to use an ethnographic record of a man whistling the song of the Hoover Bird from memory, which had gone extinct before the invention of the sound recorder. However, he was unable to use it because of the customs associated with the man’s culture; such a use would have been considered disrespectful.
For such reasons, Cosmo sees it important to hold in mind the origins of everything he uses and his own personal responsibility for a balance between the old and the new. He told me that he will always try to “tell stories in a generous way that honours where they come from”; holding above all an “awareness of reciprocity”. That is not to say, however, that the music industry is at all geared towards such sensitivity and there is a big problem over “who owns what”: for instance, “I might get sued for using a sample … not by the people who originally sung the thing but by a record label who bought a big lump sum of rights”. It is, of course, to some degree a political problem, and one that has always characterised music, where influences and inspirations travel far beyond social and cultural boundaries, sometimes at the expense of minority groups.
Now is as good a time as ever for someone of our generation to be opening up these questions. Cosmo, like many modern musicians, has even dropped the concept of genre, telling me that the increasing availability of sounds and influences from across the world “have blown a hole” in such categorisation and have torn apart boundaries. He certainly doesn’t try to find a genre for his own music; the world, he asserts, “is so much less black and white … much more just transient”, where boundaries in the arts and even academia are becoming confused.
I would argue that Cosmo’s experience of music is witness to the fact that the world is becoming disillusioned with the concept of originality in art, where it is solely the final product rather than the processes or influences which are important. Where Cosmo’s own work is bold and unique is in how he presents both art and narrative: music which exists simply at the level of being catchy and playful, yet is also presented by someone who is simultaneously committed to telling us the story of how it came into being and the value of its constituent parts. It is clear that such an approach is not easy, but one which the music industry must listen to for it to remain relevant.