Dan Leno, stage name of a wildly successful music hall star of the late Victorian era and one of Brixton’s most famous exports, is the pseudonym chosen by up-and-coming musicians Raphael Verrion and Sophie Evans. Brixton-based, the pair produce dreamy pop music and are gaining recognition from the likes of Mark Ronson having had several plays on BBC 6 Music. Brixton Blog and Bugle arts co-editor Barney Evison caught up with them to find out what all the fuss is about.
My first question: why have they named themselves after the mischievous, cross-dressing Victorian celebrity, who lived with his family in North Brixton and was commonly known as ‘the King’s jester’? Serving as both a nod to their love of theatre and for their hometown, they display a Leno-esque mischievous streak in their desire to make people think they are one person. Dan Leno resonated with them, and seemed a lot better than the other names they considered. “My mum wanted us to be called ‘Consider the Lilies’ – not cool,” remembers Raphael, shaking his head.
Like the original Leno, the pair are not native to Brixton, but have adopted it as their spiritual and musical home. “We’re obsessed with Brixton. We’re proud to say we’re from Brixton – it has soul and it’s such a warm place.” Sophie drives past the blue plaque on Dan Leno’s house on Akerman Road SW9 every day on her way to work. “I like to think it’s his seal of approval.”
Raphael and Sophie met while working as ushers at the Old Vic Theatre. They enjoy creating music as a pair and Raphael is keen to keep the focus on simplicity. “A song is just a song – you don’t need to embellish it with lots of fluff. The melody and harmony are what’s important – less is more. I think that’s why bands with a more minimal sound are popular, like The XX.” He wants their music to be heard as pop music, and likes to create simple, catchy songs: “I’m a sucker for verse-chorus-verse-chorus.”
They’re hoping to release an EP soon, but their current focus is on their live shows – they’re keen to share their music at festivals and live gigs. “Seeing a live band stays with you forever,” says Raphael, “being able to give that to someone is a gift. That’s what it’s all about really.”
Plus, he wouldn’t want to disappoint his mum. “She comes along to all our shows – she loves it. She’s started to request songs.” She still embarrasses him sometimes though. “She once shushed all my mates while we were playing a quiet song at a small gig we did in Camden.” They laughed about it afterwards though and he’s obviously glad to share his music with his family: “they’ve been really supportive.”
It feels like Dan Leno are just under the radar – they’ve had impressive plaudits from several influential figures in the music scene, and the BBC and Guardian have shown an interest in their work. “We just need to do the right shows, and get the right attention,” says Raphael, “then we might get more people to listen.”
We hope that Dan Leno find a faster route to wider success than their namesake, who spent almost 20 years struggling for recognition on small-town stages around the UK. Raphael and Sophie are ambitious, but evidently grounded and realistic about how they can make it big. “Taking your time is not a bad thing; you need to know you like what you’re doing and that you’re proud of it. We don’t want to think too far ahead and get our hopes up too much. It’s about enjoying it for what it is.”