Photo by Jody Evans
North London-based sextet Tenderhost’s debut single, ‘The Descent’, is packed with smooth, theatrical brass, stabs of guitar, and plucked-out strings—all together, it’s a track that wouldn’t sound out of place set against a spy movie’s opening credits. That’s why I don’t quite know what to expect from my meeting with the band’s frontman and raspy-voiced vocalist, Gabriel Levy. Knowing he was previously a member of Sistertalk, who used to perform their gigs in suits, I half-expect him to arrive in one.
It surprises me to see him in colour at first, given that all the band’s press shots come in stark black-and-white. His jacket is a soft brown, and as he settles into the café’s chairs with a cup of tea in his hands, he looks much less sharp-edged than I’d prepared for—indeed, much more of a ‘tender host’. As we start to talk, I find myself even more intrigued by this up-and-coming band, whose path forward is just as unpredictable for him as it is for me, but which doesn’t stop their fans from continuing to follow close behind them.
You’re joining me today as the frontman of Tenderhost—where did that name come from?
At first, I couldn’t think of a name, but as I was writing more and more, my lyrics started to influence what the name would become. I write a lot about mental health and my struggles with it, so I kind of liked the idea of me being the host—the ‘tender host’—of all these thoughts and feelings that seem to take over your body. There’s also a really great verse from David Berman’s ‘Snow Is Falling In Manhattan’, from his project Purple Mountains, which also probably inspired it.
And you have six members; how did you all come together and form a band?
While I was in Sistertalk, I met Nathan Ridley, who I made an album with after Sistertalk disbanded. He’s our drummer, and also an engineer and producer at Hermitage Works Studios. Then I approached Nat Philipps [the band’s saxophonist] and asked him if he knew any good guitarists, and he recommended Tara [Cunningham]. Then I met Johnny [Wickham], who plays bass, since he went to school with my girlfriend. Then there's Alex [Parry, who plays keys], who lived with another of our friends...
So it’s really just a chain!
Yeah, exactly, we all met each other anywhere and everywhere, but we came together and the rehearsals went really well, so that was it, really.
What’s different about Tenderhost compared to Sistertalk? Has your creative vision changed since leaving your previous band and starting afresh?
Yes, definitely. I think Sistertalk was a lot of me throwing ideas at a wall and seeing what stuck. Also, we were able to gig all the time back then, so we became a live band and put recording on the back burner—whereas with Tenderhost, recording is at the forefront because we haven’t been able to gig easily. It’s been nice to do it that way, but we are looking forward to getting out there and playing some shows. I suppose the main difference is that we’re all a bit older and a bit wiser, and our songwriting and lyrics are a lot more honest. And it’s music that I’ve always wanted to write.
You mentioned you often talk about mental health in your lyrics. Do you find that it’s easier to talk about nowadays, in a time when people are becoming more aware and accepting of the topic?
It definitely feels comfortable for me to come out and talk about these things. It’s always important for people to do it, and I think the more people that talk about it, the less stigma there is, and the easier it becomes for other people to share their stories. When I was writing the bulk of my material [for Tenderhost], I was in a dark place—we all were because of COVID—so all of these things bubbled up to the surface, and it was easier to access them compared to when you’ve got the hustle and bustle of everyday life distracting you. It became very therapeutic, for sure.
I read an interview you did back when you were in Sistertalk, where you [as a group] said you want to challenge the usual blueprint of the music industry. Do you still feel that way?
I think that nowadays I’m happy just to let things be and see where it takes me, as opposed to trying to be at the helm the whole time. I got burnt out for that reason when I was in Sistertalk; I was always trying to navigate where we were going. But in any creative industry, especially when you’re starting from the bottom, you’ve got to trust the people that can guide you. Right now we’re working with an amazing team who we trust, and they guide us, instead of us exhausting ourselves thinking about all the things we want to do differently.
I’m quite interested in your image as a band as well; it’s all black-and-white. Is that just because you like that scheme, or is there another reason why you’ve chosen it?
I do like black-and-white… I also think it suits the sound of the project, but I don’t think it’ll always stay black-and-white. I think the colour will come with time.
Moving onto your debut single, ‘The Descent’, how did the band decide on what it would sound like?
I demo everything extensively before bringing it to the band. A lot of the members are conservatoire musicians and are doing gigs throughout the year, so they’re really busy. Expecting everyone to drop everything to collaborate with songwriting is a bit too much. So at this point in time I’m demo-ing everything, and the others throw in their ideas as we rehearse, but the song is finished before it reaches them.
Who would you say have been your biggest musical influences to date?
I love jazz, so I’d say Kenny Wheeler, Harold Budd, The Lounge Lizards, Lester Young, and Miles Davis. But I’ve also always loved musical theatre and soundtracks. For example, The King and I is one of my favourite scores of all time. I also love Sondheim’s lyrics, like in West Side Story. All of that’s really important to me, so I wanted to fuse all of these elements and make something really theatrical.
Now that you mention it, the intro to ‘The Descent’ is very theatrical, with the swell of the strings and the brass.
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of comparisons to either a Bond theme or the Incredibles!
Do you think that living in London has influenced the way you make music at all? What do you think of the London music scene?
I think it’s definitely influenced the way that I think about music. ‘The Descent’ is about agoraphobia and my struggle with my mental health. Living in a big city, things can become so overwhelming, and it got to a point where I was too scared to go outside. So I think that definitely influenced ‘The Descent’ in particular. It’s upsetting, but [writing the song] was the best way of getting over it.
But the London music scene is great. When I was in Sistertalk, it was really at its peak. There were bands who we’ve been really lucky to meet and play alongside—they’ve all influenced my writing for sure. They’re my friends and I look up to them, and it’s nice to bounce ideas off each other. Collaboration with other artists is definitely something I’d like to do more of with Tenderhost.
Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to tell our readers about Tenderhost?
I think the biggest takeaway from Tenderhost for me is just that you should do what you know and love. It’s cliché, but I think it’s really important. The most important thing that I try to do is make relatable things that people can tap into, and feel like they share a similar experience.
Do you have any upcoming plans for the band in 2022?
There’s a lot to come! We’ll be releasing a new single probably in the next couple of months, which I’m really looking forward to. We’re also playing at Green Man Festival and Deer Shed Festival, which is exciting, as I’ve never done festivals before. I’d love to record an album as well—I’ve gotten it written, it’s just about getting the band together. That’s the next step.
To keep up with Tenderhost, make sure to check out their Instagram and YouTube. They will also be performing a free-entry show at the Sebright Arms on 24th March. Details and tickets can be found here.
Edited by Josh Aberman, Music Editor