LEYA's Harp and Violin Duets Explore a Surreal, Unsettling Beauty

Two mainstays of New York's underground scene share the hallucinatory ballads they've made together on their debut 'The Fool,' alongside a strange video for their Eartheater collaboration "666."

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May 10 2018, 2:00pm

Photo by Theo Cote.

The chosen instruments of Marilu Donovan and Adam Markiewicz—a harpist and violinist, respectively, who record together as LEYA—carry with them certain connotations. Both are seen as invocations of the divine, as high-minded tools to train your ears toward the heavens. It is a fact that they both seem aware of, in the music they make together, but they treat those tropes as potholes on their journey through the outer realms of experimental music—acknowledging their presence and gleefully stepping around them.

“Whenever I tell someone that I play the harp, about 90% of the time, they respond with ‘Oh wow, how beautiful!.’” Donovan says via email. “Which, yes, the harp is really beautiful, but it can be so much more.”

Donovan and Markiewicz allow themselves to explore the full scope of that word, “more,” on their debut album The Fool, due tomorrow May 11 on NNA Tapes. It’s an eight-track collection of slow, drawn-out melodies, conjured from a Donovan’s detuned harp, Markiewicz searching string parts, and droning voices, both their own and those of friends from around the New York underground like Eartheater, PC Worship, and Sunk Heaven. They occasionally indulge the celestial glissandos you might imagine, but more often they embrace a more complicated tonality and melancholic pace—the predominant moods seem to be confusion, uneasiness, on songs like the spare closer “Cats,” I hear emptiness and loss.

“This is heavy feels music and is meant to take us somewhere else,” Markiewicz says of the project. “That place only exists for me within a mixture of traditional beauty and weirder beauty.”

The pair met years ago in New York’s DIY scene “through a long string of friends of friends,” Donovan says, and bonded early on over the fact that they both went to music school—she for orchestral harp and Markiewicz for jazz. They new each other for years as operators on the fringes of New York’s freak scene, but when they first played together something clicked. “It was pretty apparent that there was a very strong connection between us in the writing,” Markiewicz wrote. “Marilu shares my sense of really luxuriating the sound and getting it right but also keeping things a little rough and real.”

They settled on the idea of trying to write songs in a way that wasn’t “overwrought,” which is where the name came from. They say it’s a quasi-portmanteau of Lil Wayne and Sia’s names (though pronounced “Lay-uh”), two artists who, Markiewicz says, “share a kinship of writing quickly.” The Fool came together according to those principles, thrown together whenever they had time amidst other projects—Markiewicz is a member of the Dreebs, a more rock-oriented but no less unsettled band, and Donovan is a prolific collaborator and solo artists. “it really is just an easy, friendly hangout vibe kind of thing,” Markiewicz puts it succinctly.

The sound of the record crystallized when Donovan settled on a unique tuning for her harp the first time they played together. Inspired by a James Tenney piece she’d recorded, she detuned her harp on the spot—“very haphazardly,” she notes—and built a chord progression around it, cementing it as the more-or-less permanent tonal makeup of her instrument for this project. Consequently, Donovan’s parts on songs like “Swoon,” the first they made together, are clusters of notes that aren’t obviously consonant. When she plays these nearly discordant, absurdly fast run, it has this sensation of trying to stand still after spinning around really fast in a desk chair. It’s possible to find your footing, but the playing forces you to work hard at it.

But it also offers simpler pleasures too—there are melodies of “Swan Lake” that sound like the sort of pop chorales that Björk has occasionally indulged in. In our email interview, Markiewicz repeatedly refers to what they do as a sort of pop music. “After coming from a pretty traditional musical background, keeping it real chill is key,” Donovan says. “Although we are classically trained musicians, and we do play harp and violin, we exist in a community of friends playing in punk or noise bands. The harp, in particular, has this edge of exclusivity that I've never really felt comfortable about.”

That tonal balance is something they seem to strike both in their collaborations—which nod to that community of similarly minded avant-pop boundary treaders—and in the visuals that have come alongside the music. The videos for “Sister” (directed by Kathleen Dycaico) and “666” (directed by Eartheater, who also sings on the track) explore both the allure and surreality of embodiment, the pressures of labor, the ways in which we interact with both natural and domestic spaces. But the latter also features a person in a Slipknot t-shirt watching their friend and/or roommate spin on a pole in a small, cluttered, dodgily lit apartment, which is kinda funny in its warts-and-all depiction of the beauty of movement. The visuals are straight-faced, but there’s a knowingness to them that keeps them from being too academic.

“I think it just conveys the vibe of who we are as people,” Markiewicz says. “Neither of us approach music in an institutionally-minded way. I think we both try not to be stiff in the things we do. We like to party, y'know?”

All of this to say, LEYA is a strange and endearing project, so you should listen to their debut (and watch the unsettling video for “666”) up above. The Fool is out tomorrow but you can pre-order it right now.