Entertainment

LA-Based Low Leaf Makes Music That Speaks To People’s Souls

Raen Badua

“I feel that every person that’s drawn to the arts has a certain function within culture to really move things forward.”

Low Leaf is a multi-instrumentalist producer, singer, songwriter, musician, and artist. That’s how she described herself to me, in that order, as I called in from Manila at 9 A.M. Where I was, the sun peered between two skyscrapers.

She was speaking from Los Angeles, where it was 6 P.M. I could tell from the video call as the golden sunlight beamed on her brown and magenta ombré hair. She wore a teal tube top with accordion folds, hoop earrings, a septum piercing, and Swarovski crystals between her teeth.

Low Leaf told me that since moving to Pasadena, where the sun shines differently, she doesn’t spend her mornings guessing the time anymore. Pre-pandemic was also a very different time. She was a very different person.

“I used to be so caught up in the idea of my rituals that when I didn’t feel like doing them, I would still do them,” she says. When we refer to this “pre-pandemic” period, part of it means the relentlessness that punctured our rituals then, whether in work or rest.

And like most people, this pandemic has involved unreeling this relentlessness or “slowing down.” To Low Leaf, slowing down manifested in the form of tending to her fruit garden which, she told me, is part of her “vision of what success is.”

“Sometimes, I’ll catch myself complaining because I don’t have my garden poppin’. But I’m like, okay. Obviously, you still have weeding to do! I’m just finding pleasure in where I’m at in that process. And if it means weeding, then that’s where I’m at.”

In many indigenous cultures, the role of artists in a tribe is to be a vessel to the “spirit” world—something Low Leaf always found admirable. By fully immersing in a spirit, artists lose themselves to become the “living embodiment of that divine force.”

“I feel that every person that’s drawn to the arts has a certain function within culture to really move things forward,” she said. “They also have a role in translating what’s happening at a collective level in a way that speaks to people’s souls.”

The mission of an artist is easier said than done. In 2011, when the Low Leaf project began with her debut EP Chrysalis, she was a nomad navigating uncharted territory. This territory is understood retrospectively as the emerging LA beat scene—a genre of electronic music inspired by the beats of hip-hop, R&B, and jazz (and not the beats of techno or IDM music).

One of the LA beat scene’s most influential venues was Low End Theory at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, which closed its doors in 2018. Named after the second studio album of A Tribe Called Quest, the venue was among the first to platform artists like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Anderson .Paak.

In a beat scene of drum machines and samplers, Low Leaf grappled with her place as a live instrumentalist using electronic synthesizers—particularly the harp, piano, and guitar. Yet she rubbed shoulders at places like Low End Theory. Along the way, she met people who affirmed her place as an artist.

One of those people was Ras G, the Low End Theory resident who passed away in 2019, someone Low Leaf considered her mentor. There’s an awareness as a touring musician of feeling “weird when people look at [you] funny.”

But she remembered a moment during her 2014 tour with Ras G and Zeroh, her significant other and fellow musician, surrounded by an “energetic shield where other peoples’ glances weren’t penetrating.” It wasn’t pride, she explained, but a grace that inspires her to this day.

“Just being in his presence was such a huge, impactful experience,” she says. “Because he exists, my existence must make sense as well.”

In 2014, Low Leaf released AKASHAALAY, a “spiritual tribute” to the Philippines in 10 tracks. Yet, for much of her life, she has also grappled with her place as a second-generation Filipino-American from the San Fernando Valley.

The myth of the Filipino identity, especially among the diaspora, is riddled by a longing for a distant motherland. Infrequent visits to the Philippines kept its spirit alive in Low Leaf’s mind. Yet, this feeling of belonging or home is as transient as memory, an idea she’s trying not to overly attach to.

“In the grander belonging and existing, it’s such a trip, you know what I mean?” she says. “Like, I’m still getting acquainted with my own body.”

Low Leaf is currently working on a project that is a cross between a mixtape, an EP, and an album. The project involves a lot of what she called “shadow work,” referencing the psychoanalyst Carl Jung on discovering the dark side of oneself. It’s her first time tapping into certain emotions for inspiration, instead of going through life and writing from a place where she felt better.

The latter isn’t a bad thing. In fact, there’s a high level of inspiration that comes with revisiting old work, which can feel shameful or embarrassing. To Low Leaf, each project—whether an orchestral masterpiece or a track made in 48 hours—is an energy capsule of its time.

“From a production standpoint, I appreciate that I needed to say things in a certain way because that was true to my soul back then. It makes me appreciate all the aspects of me that want to come forward and have their time in place to say what they have to say,” she explains.

It also makes her think about the timelessness of art and creativity. “In a sense, everything we’ve ever created is still living and can impact someone as potent as it could 50 years in the future, or five months ago, because time isn’t linear,” she says. “Everything is just present here now. So, I could feel weird about going back to my old stuff. But personally, I get really inspired by my archive. I feel like my highest self left behind notes that I couldn’t even understand until years later.”

The little time we spoke left us with even more to talk about. Divine appointments wait, she says, with people she hasn’t met. Two days later, I stumbled upon a vinyl copy of her latest album Baker’s Dozen at Treskul, a records bar on Boni Avenue. I’d visited numerous times. I never noticed it there. Yet, it made sense seeing it—in that place, during that moment.

Everything, so it seemed, was in its right place.

A version of this article was originally published in Vogue Philippines’ September 2022 Issue

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