Cosmo Sheldrake Interview

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of English musician, composer, and producer Cosmo Sheldrake, whose improvisational work blends music from various instruments with audio samples from natural environments. His multilayered, multi-instrumentalist compositions have received much notoriety. Cosmo is also the youngest son of British biologist Rupert Sheldrake and voice instructor Jill Purce, and the brother of mycologist Merlin Sheldrake, who I wrote previous profiles about.

Cosmo Sheldrake was born in 1989 in London, England. With a father and brother who are visionary scientists, and a mother who is a sound healer, Cosmo grew up in an extremely creative environment, where art, science, and spirituality were an integral part of his home life.

Cosmo started making music at a young age. He learned to play the piano at the age of four, and at the age of seven, Cosmo made the transition from classical music to blues. By his mid-teens, he was recording and producing his music. Cosmo said that the piano was “an unwieldy instrument” and you “can’t cart it around,” so instead, he taught himself several other instruments, which play a role in his music today.

Cosmo studied anthropology at the University of Sussex, although he said that it was the scope and diversity of music that was exciting for him. He stopped taking formal music lessons as a teenager and instead followed his own set of interests. In 2014, Cosmo began releasing music, when his debut single, The Moss was released. The song received good reviews, and that year, The London Telegraph described him as a “musical visionary.”

In 2017, Cosmo’s debut album, The Much Much How How and I was released. It was written under the influence of a diverse group of musicians— ranging from The Beatles and The Kinks to Moondog and Stravinsky— and was shaped by his study of anthropology, his longstanding interest in ethnomusicology, and a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. 

Some of Cosmo’s other albums include Ear to Ear, and Let the World. His multilayered, whimsical, and imaginative music uses sound samples from different objects and animals from around the world. Although he sometimes performs his music alone, with a keyboard and a laptop, Cosmo now plays about 30 instruments, including jazz and classical piano, banjo, double bass, drums, didgeridoo, penny whistle, and sousaphone. He uses a digital loop station to make creative adjustments to his voice, and he is capable of Mongolian throat singing and Tibetan chanting. Cosmos’s music is really fun and upbeat, positive, feel-good sound therapy that always makes me happy when I listen to it.

Cosmo has provided music for film and theater, including the score for a series of Samuel Beckett plays at the Young Vic Theater in London. Sheldrake performs solo, and sometimes with several bands, including Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit and the Gentle Mystics. In 2019, his song Come Along was featured in an advertisement for Apple’s iPhone, and subsequently, this song charted at number 39 on the U.S. Digital Songs chart.

A reviewer in The Guardian describes Cosmo’s music as having “a whimsical kind of intelligence… and [his songs] talk about everything from the way moss grows on the north side of trees to what it’s like to be a fly— and the melodies… exude waggish mischief.”

Cosmo is also passionate about fermentation. He and his brother Merlin built a small fermentation lab, where they make various ciders, and have recently started producing their own uniquely fermented hot sauce under the label Sheldrake & Sheldrake.

I first met Cosmo when he was six years old, while I was staying at his home in London when working with his father on the book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, for which I did California-based research. Cosmo’s playful creativity was evident even then when I first spent time with him as a child.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Cosmo Sheldrake by Richard Ainslie:

Ainslie: Is it a different musical headspace when you are freely improvising?

Sheldrake: Absolutely. That’s when I feel most alive, most present, most focused. It’s almost meditational. You have to say yes to anything that pops up. The second you say no, you’re done for. You have to absorb and incorporate everything, even if it’s a mistake. No is a resounding, clanging shut-down door and close windows feeling, and in that vulnerable improvising state it’s the last thing you want. In a compositional headspace, apart from anything else, I get racked by much more self-doubt because I have longer to think about things. Improvising there is no time to hang around. You say yes and move on. And I do miss that headspace because it’s the nearest you get to inspiration. Well out of your comfort zone where you find new ideas.

Ainslie: A lot of your music is inspired by nature, have you found any new ideas connecting with it deep in the countryside?

Sheldrake: Well, I’ve been completely immersed in birds. There’s a bird table right outside my window. When finishing “Wake Up Calls” [his latest album composed from birdsong], and being able to strap microphones into the hedge and listen as if I was in the hedge has connected me. This house I’m in now is off-grid, so I’ve noticed the seasons changing more, and it’s powered by a diesel generator. I have a battery-powered studio and solar panels, and there’s no central heating so every morning I have to chop wood, spending 30 percent of my energy just on keeping warm.

It’s healthy in some ways. So much of my time here has been taken up not with nature but with electricity. I say that, but also I have been enjoying the different rhythms of life, and thinking about where electricity and heat come from and how much we are using, constantly. I have to decide between working into the night or having power to work tomorrow, and where best to use the energy. Completely renegotiating my power relationship. But I’ve been incredibly grateful and very lucky to have this little cottage.

by David Jay Brown

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