Dollars to Pounds: Palmistry

Palmistry’s got the whole world in London. He talks producing for Triad God and singing Whitney Houston.

January 23, 2014

Palmistry's got the whole world in London

Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

Sat in the corner of a café in Camberwell is Benjy Keating, a relatively young producer, singer, and visual artist who goes by the name of Palmistry. He’s come to our interview armed with a laptop loaded with new and unreleased music. “We’re in a world where there’s just too much information out there,” Keating says, “But it’s cool if you’ve got something to show. My goal today is to play you some stuff.” Halfway through the conversation he plays me a new song that he made with a group of Chilean MCs that live nearby, a sensitive heartstring-tugger built on a zumba reggaeton beat.

I first heard Palmistry’s name pop up through his musical and visual work with Vinh Ngan, aka Triad God, a Cantonese-language MC who released a Palmistry-produced album, NXB, through experimental label Hippos In Tanks back in 2012, but it wasn’t until his recent single “Catch” that I really started to pay attention to what he was doing. “Catch” channels the rhythmic energy of dancehall through Keating’s emotive, melodic composition, Auto-Tuned vocal, and ultra-modern production aesthetic to make one of the most affecting pop songs I’ve heard in a while. It’s complemented by a hypnotising, slow-motion video co-directed between Daniel Swan and Keating himself. Palmistry’s latest single, “Lil Gem”, has a simple visual directed entirely by Keating, which sees Triad God burning incense and laying money and drinks at a shrine in respect to his family members. These visual aesthetics are just as important to the Palmistry project as the music.

Looking further afield, Keating is a member of and occasional collaborator with a small but increasingly significant community of musicians, artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers, such as Felicita (the two lived together for a while), SOPHIE, Felix Lee, fashion boutique Primitive London. When Keating starts talking about their work, he’ll go off on a tangent, using words like “inspirational.” “emotional” and “respect.” “It’s a friendship,” Keating says. “A certain group of artists and friends, loosely connected, influencing each other.”

With a new single, “Lil Gem”, out now via Italian label Presto!?, and a mixtape of almost entirely original material due to land shortly, Palmistry talked about his world and his obsessions.

How long have you been making music as Palmistry? I didn’t start producing properly until maybe, like, 2010/11. I was living with Dominik [Dvorak], who produces as Felicita. We were both interested in electronic music, and we were helping each other, and working together a bit as well. I wasn’t really knowing what I was doing [at first], we were just messing around, but taking it quite seriously. When I started making electronic music, I was making, like, Burial rip-offs—but not, uh, very good, or anything.

But didn’t everyone of a certain age start by making Burial rip-offs? Exactly. So I was making stuff like that, and garage-y stuff, and R&B stuff. I started putting vocals over my tracks; it was quite lo-fi.

And that’s interesting, because your music nowadays sounds really modern, and a lot more hi-fi. Hi-fi is hard to do. It’s easy to do lo-fi, but hi-fi is quite a challenge, production-wise.

I heard that “Catch” was co-produced with SOPHIE. I know SOPHIE a little bit, and Dom’s pretty good friends with him. He’s someone I find quite inspiring as a producer. He invited me to his studio one night and asked me to play a song and he put a load of stuff over it quite quickly. It was cool. We just had a few hours jamming, and I just took it away. He added an amazing little twist. But it’s mostly Palmistry, with some sounds that he created.

I brought his name up was because his stuff is really hi-fi. Yeah, no one’s really doing what he’s doing; he’s pretty next level. He’s, like, an intimidatingly good producer. I’m excited to hear his new stuff.

Living with Felicita and all, I didn’t know if you shared ideas about making music. We were working together for a bit. We had similar ideas—we both just wanted to make interesting music. We were both into noise, we were both into garage. I really respect him. Dom’s the most uncompromising guy. His music’s quite hard to listen to; you’d listen in the same way you might watch an experimental filmmaker—hard work, but more rewarding. The thing that’s crazy about Felicita is that he can make these pop gems really quickly—like “Jing” is a little pop gem that he just knocked out—but he’ll just throw away, like, 90 percent of his material, because he doesn’t wanna be like that. I respect that. He’s way more uncompromising than me. I’m into making pop stuff, in more simple terms.

And you’ve also worked with Triad God a lot… Yeah, we’re still working together. I met him, and he said he wanted to be a rapper, and I said, “Cool, I make music too.” We did this quick EP and I was really into the tracks on an emotional level, and I was really into him as a character, and we ended up making this record together for Hippos In Tanks. Vinh just spits, and I’d make music out of his a cappellas. He’d just sing into the laptop mic, and we’d make a track of that. Vinh’s great.

"I live in Brixton, and at the moment I’m working with some Chilean dons who live next door to me."

Is collaboration a big part of what you do? I love collaborating, because it takes me out of myself. As a producer, I really feel like I need help finishing [my tracks]. I have a lot of go-to people. I can’t do everything in-house, I have to outsource a lot! Collaborating really changes how you work. I live in Brixton, and at the moment I’m working with some Chilean dons who live next door to me. They’re amazing, they just rapped in Spanish over an instrumental of mine. It’s so emotional; I was really into it. They're really inspiring. They make music as Thursty Moore, and Ulique and Blaze Kid, and there are names that I’m yet to discover here.

With the Chilean kids, and with the Triad God work, would you say that there’s a global undercurrent to your music? It’s not like a fetish, or anything. They’re Londoners, and they represent London, culturally. London is nice, because I can meet and work with a lot of people. I’m inspired by a lot of non-English speakers. I’ll play you some of it now, it’s super emotional…

I’ve noticed you’ve said that word quite a lot—“emotional.” Yeah [laughs] It’s because these kids, they talk like that. Everything’s “emotional.” But they say that in a jokey way—you could have a hole in your trousers and they’d be like, “That’s an emotional hole.”

It’s like we were just saying though, you’re getting that emotional resonance without using the English language. People have obviously produced Spanish rap before, but for me it’s new. I forget what it is, but there’s a name for when you hear stuff in foreign languages and like the sound. I’m obsessed with the sound of foreign languages, how the words fall into place when put to music. I think if you hear something in English, the emotion can be quite contrived, but by using a different language you can get over that barrier. And maybe that’s contrived too, but I can live with that.

Because they could be talking about anything, and I wouldn’t know what they’re talking about unless if you translate it into English. It’s so funny with Vinh—a lot of his lyrics are just expletives in Cantonese. Literally the worst words you could say, the most offensive things. There’s one song called “Pok”, and it means, like, “Go fall over and die,” like our version of “drop dead,” but in a much more violent, sinister way. He cracks me up. It’ll be a really sweet melody, but he’ll be talking all nonchalantly about these violent things.

What’s the story on your video for “Catch”? Me and Daniel [Swan] directed it together. Visuals are probably my biggest inspiration, more than music. I don’t really listen to much music now—I mean I do, but through friends. Like, Ulique & Kami [Thursty Moore] would show me and play out their favourite reggaeton, so I’m really into that. I’m into visuals from having friends who have really good taste and who got me into things over a long period of time.

I read that you and a lot of artists are linked to the clothes shop, Primitive. Yeah, I’m good friends with them. A lot of my friends are young designers and visual artists, and Primitive have been really active in bringing us together. It’s run as an art space, and they do shows – my first gig was actually with them. It was with Dom, and I was singing a falsetto Whitney Houston cover. The worst thing anybody’s ever heard. That was my first Palmistry show.

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Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Palmistry