Dedicating his undivided being to his art for the past eight years, musician Cyrano, aka James Vetesse, struggled to realise its authentic identity. The name should not be an empty vessel and was required to compliment the sound while being timeless also; it was essential for him to sense belonging. "I love the openness of a project like Bon Iver, which can range from just him on stage to a whole collective of musicians and artists," he compliments as we prepare to look back exhaustively at the makings of the man.
That all-encompassing eureka moment dawned on him in the throws of a play in a theatre, as if waiting patiently for him. "Last year, I went to see the play Cyrano de Bergerac, which centres around the lead character Cyrano’s love for a girl. Despite his talents as a writer and poet, he is overcome by his insecurities and writes to her through the alias of another man." Engrossed in the proceedings, he began to notice the parallels between the wordsmith and his own relationship with music, "I loved the idea of using Cyrano as my method for sharing the music and words that for years have been only for myself," James joyfully states.
He travels further back into the past and thinks of his origins and family. "Being born in Aberdeen, I’ve always seen myself as Scottish at heart. I moved to London aged five, and it wasn’t long before I was belly drumming to Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses. Growing up, music was always blaring in the house in some form but, Eric Clapton’s Bad Love really sparked my love for music – a killer combination of musicianship and songwriting, with a totally incredible outro. It has it all!"
Like several Scots, Cyrano is originally of Italian descent, joining a list of other performers, including Paolo Nutini, Nicola Benedetti and Lewis Capaldi. Most notably to the impressionable lad would be his Dad’s cousin, Peter John Vettese, the former Jethro Tull keyboardist who produced The Pet Shop Boys, Bee Gees and Carly Simon back in the 80s.
"Music runs deep on my Dad’s side. It’s been at the centre of every family conversation for generations; my grandad and his siblings being musicians in Scotland too." For his father, music was just as prominent in his upbringing as it has been for James. "Just after I was born, he recorded a timepiece of his own called So Little Time that is a real family favourite. It’s certainly a track that fills me with nostalgia and one I hope I can share more widely, especially as my Dad has always hoped Nanci Griffith would hear it."
Disclosing that his brother, being eight years older than him, was the first to learn an instrument, he quickly claimed guitar. Vetesse turned his belly drumming into something more formal, aged eight, taking the role of his brother's metronome and revelling in the repertoire. "Again, my brother's head start in life gave him early access to Ultimate Guitar, and he began writing songs of his own. I’ve always had a love for them and owe a lot to him for inspiring me not only to drum but to write songs too."
"I drummed in bands throughout school and met one of my best friends, former bandmate and long-time musical confidant, who is generally the first to be sent new ideas to veto." James recollects that, up until university, they hung out together most weekends, spending their time wisely by writing new ideas and rehearsing for gigs in London’s toilet circuit. "He really helped form the basis of my sound going forward with a track called Torn that I’d love to release one day too."
Like most bedroom musicians, he only had access to gear that a humble paper-round could afford and decided to buy an MPC 1000, rationalising that drums are arduous to record with clarityl and that he would be best to sample them. "Together with my MircoKORG XL, I made a couple of demos and sent them over to Kit Monteith to ask about recording them with him properly. Fast-forwarding several years, a lot of the original bedroom demos are baked into the tracks on my EP.
Respecting fate, he confesses his belief that, without a doubt, music has been a long time coming. "Aside from my stubborn desire for perfection and the severe demoitis I had during the recording process, I also fell into the time/money conundrum. A lot of the EP was recorded throughout my degree, and, being a broke student in Edinburgh, that meant most of our sessions were spread across several months." Straight after graduating, he took the necessary steps off full-time work, with his target to finish this body of work never wavering.
"I still remember reading how it took Axl Rose 11 years to finish recording Chinese Democracy and thinking it was insane. Now I sort of know how he feels. Hopefully, it’s not as badly received!" he jokes.
Debut single White Wine arose as a digestion of his coming-of-age trip to Los Angeles in 2017, where he stumbled across Tim Ferris’s podcast with Jamie Foxx examining his career and how to think from a wider perspective. James recalls the broadcast that enhanced his attitude, "He talks about artists Kayne West and Ed Sheeran when they first arrived in Hollywood, and it just really got me thinking about being fearless and having a total openness to new experiences. I went there with no expectations, with the idea that I’d just go with the flow and see what happens."
He progresses, "Attaining my visa was such a drawn-out process that I never really believed I was going to get there, until two days after my initial flight out, my passport was posted through my letterbox. I rebooked my flight for a few days later and began searching for accommodation."
Cue one fuming mum uncovering that her darling son had failed to pack and had nowhere to live with less than ten hours until his flight, but to him, that was part of the sport. "Those intro lines in White Wine are really me lamenting that I arrived with no expectations; no one knew me, and no one owed me anything."
Never feeling more present than during that summer, Cyrano concedes that he was floating on air in a dreamland, full of coincidences and the universes' will. "One time, I was walking through Silver Lake wearing my mate CJ’s band tee when a car full of people started hooting and taking photos. A few days later, CJ sent through a screenshot from his mate saying how they’d driven past a fan wearing one of his tees."
He recalls a memory that slotted perfectly into place. "Another time, my best mate from home came out to visit, and we thought we’d play some basketball like tourists." They rode an Uber down to the court, thinking they could buy a ball nearby. "The driver said, “I gotta ball in my trunk, how much?” We pitched him a cool $10, and I jumped out of the car a little on edge to go and check it. The boot was completely empty, except for a brand new basketball!"
"It’s in the pre-chorus that I found the words for the night that really inspired the concept though. What had started as a drink after work with a new friend became a 6 am night down at Santa Monica beach via a film premiere and tacos in Hollywood. I loved the fact that I had arrived on the other side of the world by myself and now found myself in deep conversation with someone new, finding our philosophies aligned." Precious fragments like these occurred in Los Angeles, and he wanted to pay homage to them the best way he knows how: song.
The single is a sensual, echoing and trendy bundle with a fair amount to tune the ear in to. A slight leaning to jazz due to the inclusion of brass, there is heaps of agility in the melody resulting in gorgeous electro-pop. Our savvy singer points out. "The original demo was born out of frustration from not being able to play Spit It Out by The Maccabees on piano. I chopped up a drum break onto my MPC, adding some delays and reverb to give it that swing and just started jamming along in my bedroom."
"Once I took it to the studio, I started throwing down some vocal lines while thinking back to my time in LA and what it means to be a consequential stranger; the lack of expectation either of you has of one another is part of what I think makes those friendships so special." He seized a late-night drive atmosphere and spent endless trips home recording voice notes trying to capture the mood. "What I was left with was a lot of very noisy and rather boring recordings that didn’t make it in the final version, for the benefit of everyone."
However, there was a breakthrough during a flight back from New York where he wrestled with the structure, wanting to avoid any predictability while still making it ripple, and started playing around with the arrangement on his laptop. 'I began talking to the girl next to me who was curious to hear what I was working on; I think with the hope that I was someone more impressive," he modestly states.
"I’m sure most musicians can relate to that feeling of showing a demo to someone who is expecting a finished, mixed track who is inevitably underwhelmed by the missing vocals, looped up drums and out of tune guitars." Thankfully she was encouraging and contacted him after the flight lifting morale by encouraging him to keep going. "To me, these are the consequential strangers that you take so much from and what I wanted to reflect in White Wine."
When recording commenced properly, James predicted that it would be neat to multi-track everything. He panned one take in each ear: if you listened to the track entirely out of one speaker, you would essentially be listening to a different performance of the same song. "I took my demo to Oli Barton-Wood, after being blown away by his production on Nilüfer Yanya’s Miss Universe back in 2019, especially on tracks like Melt and Tears. That’s when we got Jazzi Bobbi involved, who also plays in Nilüfer Yanya’s live band and makes great music of her own – her sax and backing vocals took White Wine to the next level."
"I then shared the track with Sam Johnston from Leif Erikson, who added some Nelly inspired acoustic guitar, and we honed in on the lyrics and structure one final time. After that, I did my routine post-production tinkering and added the Dad Chord – taken from a voice note of a chord my Dad came up with when I first showed him the track and my favourite moment in White Wine." The final step was to hand it over to Jamie Ward, who applied his magic to the mix to ensure everything was cohesive before Felix Davis mastered it at Metropolis Studios in London.
Artwork photo of Los Angeles from 1973, taken by a close friend’s grandfather.
Having the pleasure of knowing and adoring musician, director and producer Kit for around eight years, Cyrano cites him for turning his sonic game on its head with his music. "I took some loops and demos to him after hearing his stuff with Trophy Wife, which I loved and went from there. Originally, I only intended to record a single with a B side, but with every ear break from the main track, we’d get excited about something else and soon I had my EP."
One of the main sways of Monteith on the writing was steering James away from using guitar and introducing him to the Rhodes piano. "Keys are now my instrument of choice to write on, shifting my focus from being a drummer to a multi-instrumentalist. His positivity and enthusiasm gave me a lot of belief in my music and made it feel so important." He ends by noting him missing the energy of the Safehouse studio and hoping that they can make their way there again in the not too distant future.
"From the outside, music often feels far more straightforward for most musicians and getting to this point where I’m happy to release my tracks has been a real battle for me. I’m really grateful to Kit for his mentorship and to Jamie Ward, who helped realise my vision for each track in his mixes."
Cyrano's debut EP flowers later this spring called Consolations, inspired by Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy. The work discusses how ancient philosophers viewed themes such as love, anxiety and inadequacy, and Vetesse wanted to write his own set of consolations for others to find solace.
"The tracks are ordered to follow the arc of a night, starting with being in line to a club and ending in your armchair, waking up to a reflective dream. Hopefully, it’s clear why my music is for the late-night overthinkers! I'd like to make all my releases share a story and give people more than just a song. With everything feeling so disposable at the moment, my focus is on creating music that inspires some thought."
With most of 2020 confined to our abodes, Cyrano concludes on what is in store for him this year in, with all hope, a more eventful period to write home about. "I’m really excited to be joining Leif Erikson on tour this Autumn and have a bunch of tracks I’d like to record over the summer to coincide with those shows. 2021 has been really inspiring for me so far, seeing many of my friends start to release the music that they have worked hard on. A few honourable mentions include Alec, CJ Pandit, Drew Jodi, and, of course, Kit with his solo album. There’s some great stuff coming from my friend LUKA too that I can’t wait for you to hear."
LISTEN TO WHITE WINE HERE
Article by Beverley Knight