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Robert Leslie on Lockdown Dates, Dream Collaborations, and “My Bananamoon”

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“My Bananamoon,” a song by the New York singer-songwriter Robert Leslie, has an unfussy, old-fashioned beauty to it. It boasts the kind of graceful chord sequence that you’d hear in traditional pop standards, and the lyrics have a classic, AABB rhyme scheme. But it’s not exactly a throwback, either: it feels reflective, elegant, and quietly modern. After all, the moon that shines over the glass buildings and bodegas of modern New York is the same moon that shined over Tin Pan Alley a hundred years ago. A great deal has changed between then and now, but the tides still make the East River rise and fall, rise and fall.

“My Bananamoon” finds another constant in city life, too: loneliness. Not always bad loneliness, mind: Leslie admits that there are nights where he wants to “crawl up inside [his] mind,” after all. But there are also nights where he just wants to enjoy himself, which isn’t easy when “the daytime has no shape” and nosy neighbors watch from their fire escapes. It’s the sort of thing that’s always present, and made even worse with the recent pandemic forcing the city to a standstill for some time. Thankfully for our song’s narrator, however, there’s a chance at happiness: a significant other, luminous as the moon, who he invites to go out with “dressed up so nice”. It sounds sweet, aided by those gorgeous, Beach Boys-esque harmonies, but more than that it sounds innocent in a gentle, unforced way. Listening to “My Bananamoon,” it’s easy to believe that love and happiness is possible in our modern world, just as it was in the old days: with the same benevolent moon smiling overhead.

“Bananamoon” is such a lovely, vivid word. How did you come up with it?

I’ve been using the word for years now and I’m not sure why – the first time I remember really digging into it was one night when I was out drinking with friends on a rooftop in Brooklyn and I spotted the moon just creeping up over the horizon. Something about it just set me cackling. “LOOKIT!” I was yelling, “THE BANANA RISETH! UP SHE GOES!” that sort of thing. It was just a perfect banana shape. I took a bunch of pictures of it and since then I’ve sworn that while others might get their rocks off during a full moon, it’s the bananamoon that gets me going. But I’ve had that association since I was a kid, I think.

 By extension, how did “My Bananamoon” come into being? What inspired it?

It was a lockdown tune. At the time I was living with my girlfriend Ariel and a good friend of ours (photographer Emmanuel Rosario, who did much of the visual work on the project). He decided to spend most of those pandemic months staying with his partner who had a large apartment to herself, so Ariel and I had an unusual amount of alone time together. We had our glooms and separate worries but we also made a point of sometimes getting festive, dressing up to go out on the town, and just roaming the empty streets together drinking beers and savoring the emptiness and loneliness together. We’d never go meet anyone, just cruise around empty playgrounds and vacant lots. I’d always meant to write a bananamoon song – had gone through a few failed attempts even – and this is the one that stuck. I like the contrast of us and our earthly monkey troubles and a great big enticing banana hanging benevolently up there, way out of reach. There’s something sweet and touching about impossible temptation. Like Pierrot crying because he’s in love with the moon.

Tell us a bit about how this song came together music-wise?

I initially wrote the song on guitar and it was just me and that guitar, recorded pretty lo-fi on cassette. But after sending the demos around it caught the attention of producer Perry Margouleff who put a lot of money and clout into it. The piano is played by Jake Sinclair, producer of Weezer and Panic! At the Disco. He also sings the harmonies. The bass is by Tony Garnier, who has been Bob Dylan’s touring bassist for 30 years now. And it got the full proper mixing and mastering treatment. So it’s sort of like I’ve seen it from both sides. Honestly I like the DIY approach. I still enjoy the original demo. Giving up control over the production for the finished version was tough, but I have to admit it sounds a hell of a lot better than that old tape demo.

This song has a gorgeous chord sequence. Did it suddenly come to you, or is it something you found while noodling?

The musical structure borrows a lot from John Lennon, I reckon. I love his song “Julia”, there’s a lot of that in it. And I was listening to his Plastic Ono Band solo album a good deal during lockdown. Great lockdown album, that one. There’s a bit of “Hold On” in there, and “Isolation”, and all that. And the completely arbitrary key changes are pretty Beatles-y. But yeah, noodling around. What I love about the Beatles is the way that they manage to sell these bizarro key changes by just kinda going for it. It doesn’t always make total sense if you pick it apart, but it somehow makes for this yearning leaping feeling when you go for a key change that you maybe can’t back up with music theory but you can back up with the lyrics and feeling of the song.

Who would be your dream collaborator on a project?

I’d love to work with Perry again, of course, he performed miracles – along with everyone else on the record. Next on the list would be Shawn Everett. I don’t know of anyone who has such a satisfying way with sonics. Everything he touches just sounds so damn lavish in ye ear. As for other artists – I think I’d really enjoy working with Weyes Blood, that voice of hers, my god. Or Big Thief, Adrianne in particular. Gals with deep soulful voices who have harmony in their souls… I love that dynamic. Probably to do with my teenage obsession with Emmylou Harris’s parts on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. There’s a bunch of dead people I wish I could’ve collaborated with, but I guess there’s not much use in going into it.

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