Mumble Tide is the Bristol duo-come-couple of Gina Leonard and Ryan Rogers, who met through a Gumtree advert. Soon after, the project came to represent a creative freedom neither had felt in previous bands, and they embraced a DIY approach, using ‘90s walkie-talkies and crappy Casio keyboards to make music. At the same time, their songs tend to transcend the limitations of the “bedroom pop” tag: the production is immersive and detailed, while Leonard’s writing is as nuanced and poignant as her vocal delivery. Every single leading up to the release of their upcoming mini-album, Everything Ugly – which follows their 2020 Love Thing EP and is due December 3 – has been captivating in its own way, from the fiery ‘Sucker’ to the propulsive and infectious ‘Noodle’ and the dreamy yet raw ‘Breakfast’. But the rest of the record holds more surprises still – the wrenching vulnerability of ‘Bulls Eye’, the delightful motion of the title track – while existing as part of the same expanding universe, one where chaos and beauty can collide. You get a glimpse of it in ‘Everything Ugly’, where, caught between the echo of her existential thoughts and a triumphant, horn-led outro, Leonard’s voice rings out: “I’m sorry we’re so intertwined/ But isn’t it nice/ How we love despite/ Everything ugly?”
We caught up with Mumble Tide for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the project’s journey, the making of their new mini-album, and more.
Your press bio mentions that you met via a Gumtree ad. Does it feel strange to have your origin story as a band be so entwined with your personal relationship?
Gina Leonard: Our PR guy kind of jumped on that whole Gumtree thing. It was something that came up, and he was like, “That’s really funny.” We hadn’t really thought about it that much, and now it’s come up quite a lot.
Ryan Rogers: I think there was even a point in Mumble Tide – it sounds ridiculous because of how the project’s always been, but there was definitely a point where we were like, “Let’s not make it too couply.” And people just instantly gravitate towards that as a thing.
GL: One of the things which Mumble Tide came from was that we’d worked in bands together that we didn’t feel very ourselves in or completely free. There was pressure in terms of the management and the other members, and Mumble Tide started as a fun side thing that we could just mess around and do what we want with. And then it turned into an actual project, but that was always why the sound is so DIY and why we keep all the rough edges in. Because that’s what it’s about. The reason we’re able to do that is that we’re really comfortable with each other and we can be brutally honest and push things a bit further. Like, I can try and sing things that I won’t make the notes and not worry in front of Ryan, whereas there are a lot of other people I’d be a little tense with.
RR: Yeah, and I can completely lose my head for two days.
GL: Yeah, every track. [laughs]
What appealed to you about the way that you each approached songwriting originally?
RR: I’d been working with Gina’s songs in other projects for a long time and literally thought everyone was ruining them.
GL: [laughs] Thanks.
RR: Gina always writes incredible credible stuff, and all the projects that we’d done I thought were kind of…
GL: Careful what you say. [laughs]
RR: No, I mean, anyone in these projects would say, particularly at the end of them, it was very difficult to get a good, coherent sound. And I think Gina endlessly writes very honest, very real songs that have weird, quirky hooks. And I think because of her music background and what she listens to and what she listened to growing up, no matter what I do with my influence, she’ll never write what you’d expect someone to write over it.
GL: We listened to a lot of different stuff growing up, which is a good thing. But also, when we started working together, we were both enjoying a lot of the same bands. And I didn’t really know anyone at that time that was excited about the same projects at the time, like Better Oblivion Community Centre and Snail Mail, and you sent me Lomelda. All these amazing projects coming through, and we were like, “Why don’t we make something in that world?”
Those references also really give you a sense of the time when this was happening. Gina, what drew you to the way Ryan approaches making music?
GL: He very quickly has a vision for the track, which I just don’t have that ability. Sometimes we write together and I write top lines over Ryan’s riffs, but originally the way I came to songwriting was just me and a guitar. I get whatever it is off my chest, and I’m very focused on lyrics. I get really excited about that side of things, but when I’d finish writing it, I’d be like, “What now?” I know it needs more, but I wouldn’t know where to take it. Whereas Ryan very quickly – you, like, hear arrangements and you hear how it’s gonna sit –
RR: Eh… [laughs]
GL: You do! You get a direction for it. Even if it goes off route and comes back, you get us on track for something. Ryan’s got me into loads of music that I didn’t grow up listening to that I now really love, and I find the process really exciting because he always brings different influences in. He takes these a lot of the time really simple songs, and he’ll make them sound really big.
How do you think your collaborative process has evolved over time?
GL: At the beginning, the other projects were still happening and Mumble Tide was kind of the secondary thing. And now, just through the end of the pandemic, it’s become the main thing, and those other projects have kind of fallen apart. And the fact we can now have a full focus on it, and the fact that we chucked some stuff out and it was received quite well, which we weren’t necessarily expecting, that was really great and exciting. Over the writing process and trying lots of different things, I think we’ve become more willing to experiment and push things further.
RR: I think we want to keep pushing the way that we can make it poppy and hooky and something that, like, my dad’s gonna enjoy, but then also mess with it further. Mess with the arrangements, mess with how heavy or how sweet it can be. We just want to keep on pushing it.
GL: We went pretty crazy over the pandemic. I think we both have been pushed over the limits in different ways, like everyone has. And I think now, whatever walls were up have just crumbled, and we can hopefully stray further and feel really free. That’s why the project has been so exciting, for me anyway: I never felt able to let myself be so brutally honest. And singing-wise, with the tracks we’re working on at the moment, I’ve never pushed myself this much. Some of it’s a bit shouty and a bit out of tune or whatever, but in the past it would have been like, “No, no, no, we need to tune that and polish it.” And I’m more comfortable I think now with actually leaving those bits in – you know, I’m not claiming to be a really good singer, but hopefully there’s feeling in it.
You’ve mentioned a couple of times the phrase “brutally honest,” and I think it’s something that comes across on Everything Ugly. I get the sense that honesty is something that’s important to you, not just in your creative process, but also as something that’s in your mind more generally. On the song ‘Breakfast’, you sing, “If you’re honest you’ll come to blows/ Once in a while.” Could you talk about what that line means to you?
GL: Yeah, of course. Well, I think I’m actually not very honest a lot of the time and I get frustrated at myself. I think everyone tries to be tolerant of people and kind and not show they’re truly feeling or how frustrated they are, and I do that. I’m definitely like a people pleaser. And I guess that’s one of the reasons why songwriting is so important, because I probably in life hold things in more than I should, and then it all comes out in quite a rude way. [laughs] But yeah, at that time, I had to actually say some things to people that I knew were not going to be taken well, and I really struggled with that. But writing that song really helped me get through that and come to the resolution that everyone’s so different and it is okay sometimes to not see eye to eye and actually just say how you’re feeling. If it’s going to really affect you and it’s something important, you need to say it how it is, which is not easy. But I really value honesty. I wish I could be more honest outside of the songs, to be honest. [laughter]
Ryan, did you want to add something?
RR: No, I just know the situations that Gina was talking about, I know how much it affected her. I think ‘Breakfast’ captures that mood really well – it’s one of my favourite songs on the whole batch of stuff.
GL: I really love that song. The beginning of it, there’s a sample of these wild swans. I love that in it, because it was so weird, we went on this walk and found this field where – randomly, I’ve never seen it before, and I grew up here [in Cambridge] – hundreds of these wild swans decided to make a home for a bit in the middle of winter. It was snowy and they’re all squabbling at each other, and they didn’t stop for like a week or something, and then they flew away. And then it was back to completely peaceful, just empty fields again. With that song, my brain was like, Oh my god, I can’t deal with all the conflict, all these things people have said and things I’ve said, and then wrote that song. And it was just such a moment of like, actually, it’s okay, this isn’t as big a deal is as you think it is. I just felt that peace… I was like those swans. [laughter]
When it comes to approaching these experiences and constructing a song out of them together, do you have that conversation differently from a creative standpoint, or do you sort of feed off what you already know and have talked about on a personal level?
RR: There is absolutely no conversation or even real thought around it. A couple of people have picked up on me being like, “It’s interesting that the arrangements and the production of the songs kind of echo the lyrical content,” and it’s funny the amount of thought that wasn’t put into that. I think we were literally just making music whilst we were experiencing kind of the same situation, obviously from different angles.
GL: Also, you know how much I hate talking about songs, from years of working together. And that’s something that one of the bands we did, one of the guys would always be picking apart my lyrics and be like, “What does that even mean?” And I would always feel really cornered in a horrible way, because like I said, it’s the one time I’m honest and I let it all out. And I really don’t like having to explain it or sum up a song.
RR: In like a band situation, around a bunch of guys.
GL: Or any situation – like, in this interview, you haven’t been like, “What is this song about?” If you’re like, “How were you feeling at this time?” or whatever, I’m happy to chat like that. But when people are like, “What’s this song about?” – and I have to answer that question, obviously, quite a lot, but I hate it so much. Because I think a song, for me anyway, the purpose of it is to take a massive tangle of confused thoughts and get them out in hopefully an eloquent way, and release something that maybe I don’t even understand I’m feeling. And to have to then take that and be like, it’s about this one thing, is very reductionist. Hopefully it means different things to different people.
GL: I think it’s also, when you’re in a relationship and doing music, it’s better to not dig too deep. I don’t want to know…
RR: Yeah. [laughs]
GL: I don’t want to be like, “That one’s about this guy,” and you being like, “Actually it’s about you.” [laughter] I don’t want to go there. But I would say, considering how much I constantly think about what I think Mumble Tide should do and what we should do next, when we’re actually doing it, I think about it very, very little. It just kind of happens.
RR: Yeah, same. If I thought a lot about the lyrics, then I might feel boxed in and be like, “Oh, I don’t want to sing about that ex, that might be upsetting to you.” I think to make any art the best you can make it, you need to feel as comfortable and free as possible.
I feel like this relates to the album title, Everything Ugly, which hints at this sense of chaos and confusion, but the music almost ends up contradicting that with the beauty or the sweetness that that comes through. I’m not bringing up this line for you to specifically explain it, but I was thinking about it at the same time: “Art is meant to offend you, but I’ll keep it sweet like cinnamon.” Is there an element of self-aware irony to that, or is it actually part of your philosophy, to turn the ugly parts into something beautiful?
GL: Yeah, that’s a funny line. Someone else picked that out as well. It’s a little awkward… Sometimes my parents don’t love the music we make. [laughs] Overall they are very supportive though. That line is from ‘Too Far Back’, and my mom actually hates cinnamon, so it was something that no one else is going to understand. But yeah, like you picked up, there’s a lot of conflict in the whole concept of Everything Ugly. I think all the good things in life aren’t just sweet, the ugly sides make something valuable as well. I struggled sometimes during lockdown and I think I wrote that when I was feeling quite frustrated.
RR: I love that – all of Gina’s songs are littered with these references that basically only she could get. [Gina laughs] But they never come across like that. Pretty much everything that Gina writes lyric-wise always has about four meanings.
GL: Well, that’s a bit generous.
Ryan, you said before that you also want things to sound rough and experimental in the future, while also being something that your dad might like. Putting it in this context…
RR: Well, my dad would love whatever I did, even if it was stupidly experimental. But what he is specifically very hard into is like, ELO. He’s an ELO superfan, and I grew up listening to a ton of ELO and listen to a ton of ELO now. And basically, their trick is to make everything sound as good and poppy and catchy as it can all the time. I always think, when we do a good chorus, “Oh, my dad will like that.” A track like ‘Noodle’, I’m always like, “I wonder what my dad will think of that.” Because it’s rough in the background, but like –
GL: Did he like that one?
RR: He didn’t like it at first. I remember I played it to him in the car and he was like, “Yeah, not into that.” And I was like, “Okay.” And then he went back and listened to it a bunch and was like, “I really love that one specifically.”
There’s a real contrast between a song like ‘Noodle’ and ‘Bulls Eye’, which is the quietest moment on the EP. The melody weirdly reminded me of something off the latest Wild Pink album [A Billion Little Lights], but without that kind of expansiveness. There are all these layers throughout your record, so I was wondering why it was important for you to keep this one stripped-back.
RR: Literally because Gina endlessly brings incredible songs that are just acoustic. And I will stand by what I said earlier – even the ones she brings to Mumble Tide, anything that I do on them, tend to be ruined. [laughs]
GL: I obviously don’t agree with that at all.
RR: We’d done a lot of really production-heavy, dense stuff, and ‘Bullls Eye’ – I borrowed this accordion for it and we started layering things up. We are also listening to a lot very early Bright Eyes stuff, where it’s him yelling in like a horrible-sounding room. We wanted it to be sparse, but we’d gone back and forth on it loads on whether we like what it ended up being.
GL: Ryan doesn’t even play accordion, you learned it and then just that night recorded it together. I remember after you were like, “I should have practiced it more,” and I was like, “I should have practiced it more,” because it was quite a new song. But I think actually, there’s something really cool about capturing songs when they’re really fresh.
RR: Yeah, a little undercooked.
Can you share one thing that inspires you but the other person?
GL: Aww, that’s a cute question. One thing that I find really inspiring about Ryan is just his crazy knowledge of music, like the library in his head. He’s worked in record stores a lot, and also, you keep on top of so many genres and listen to so much. We drive a lot with the band, and because Ryan can’t drive, he’s like the jukebox in the car and tells me about all this new music. I find that really inspiring, and you always know a bit about the backstory and production. You’re like a little bank of knowledge which I’m feeding off all the time. [Ryan laughs] So that’s one thing.
RR: I think Gina’s just, like, raw talent. [Gina laughs] From day one, I’ve never worked with anyone whose songs move me as hard as Gina’s do. Whether they’re happy or sad or whatever, they are always without a doubt going to move me in some way and make me feel something. I love working with Gina’s songs because there’s a real personality to the music and she’s just completely uninfluenced by outside voices or the stuff she grew up listening to. It’s just her – it’s her writing, it’s her voice. And that’s rare.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.