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A Home with a History: Kiiōtō’s Rohan Heath and Lou Rhodes on the ways senses and spaces shape their music

Written largely in a Regency house in Hampstead, the couple’s debut album as a duo, ‘As Dust We Rise’, is an image-rich storybook of sorts, informed by both memory and the material world. Ahead of its release, Rohan and Lou discuss the connections between creativity and context, performing an exclusive stripped-back version of one of their songs especially for Inigo

Grace McCloud
Film and photography
Elliot Sheppard
Phil Jones
A Home with a History: Kiiōtō’s Rohan Heath and Lou Rhodes on the ways senses and spaces shape their music

In the introduction to A Natural History of the Senses, the author and academic Diane Ackerman writes: “There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses.” Our senses, she says, “define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter.” It’s why humans take mind-altering drugs, spend money on expensive scent or listen to music. I imagine it’s also why we might make music. Rohan Heath, keyboardist and multi-platinum songwriter – best known for 90s hit The Key, The Secret – certainly thinks so. “Making music helps us make sense of our lives.” His partner, Lou Rhodes – Mercury-nominated singer/songwriter and founding member of Lamb – nods in agreement.

We’re at Rohan’s home in Hampstead, north London, one of the fine-boned early 19th-century townhouses that people stop and stare at when making their way to the heath. Every corner here is beautiful. It is a place where quiet arrangements of treasured tchotchkes fill glass-fronted cabinets, where velvet meets linen meets silk. Smudgy abstract paintings glow in the watery light that slants through eight-over-eight Regency sash windows. I put it to Rohan that he has an eye as well as an ear. “Oh yeah – I’ve got the voice and the looks,” he jokes, pauses and then says, more seriously: “It’s all information to the brain. When you see a car coming, you hear a car coming.” Lou picks up his thread: “It’s all creativity.”

That creativity is what I’m here to discuss. The pair are – as newly founded band Kiiōtō – about to release their debut album, As Dust We Rise. The title, they tell me, comes from the fact that, when they met two and a half years ago, they had both all but stopped making music. Rohan was writing a book and Lou was doing an MA in poetry. “We’d settled, like dust,” Rohan explains, “and then we came into each other’s lives and whipped things up.” Now, the flurries have settled as songs – by turns poetic, plaintive, moving and visceral.

Interwoven in Kiiōtō’s music are tales rich and strange, peopled and full-coloured. The first release – Josephine Street – for instance, first recorded as a voice note on Lou’s phone, tells stories straight from the New Orleans thoroughfare; Ammonite, meanwhile, focuses on Mary Anning, the Victorian fossil hunter. HEM, the song Rohan and Lou performed and recorded specially for this feature, is another good example of Kiiōtō’s lyrical immediacy. Its haunting opening line alone – “I was born in the living room. My mama nearly died there…” – is imbued with a lingering power, quietly conjuring life, death, past and memory within the confines of four metaphysical walls. “When we write songs,” Lou says, “we’re also painting pictures.”

More physical spaces have played a large part in the creation of the album. While Rohan and Lou don’t live together (Lou calls an 18th-century house in rural Wiltshire home), the writing of As Dust We Rise has seen them spending more time together in London. Recalling her first visit here, Lou says she was struck by the “many ways it was like a home from home for me – the way we live, our aesthetic, the fact that there were books everywhere, the fact that we both had these displays, like cabinets of curiosities…” Both she and Rohan have a tendency to hold on to things, they admit. Rohan goes to a cupboard and pulls out a tiny model of a person with dangly legs, brought back from Mexico, and an Ethiopian beer can, the design of which he just loves. “These are our histories, in a way,” he says gently. “Our lives are made up of the things you decide to keep and those you choose not to,” continues Lou. One gets the sense she’s talking as much about the writing process as she is belongings.

Rohan, who has lived in this house for 12 years, is keenly aware of his place in its history. He has a handwritten chronicle of the building and the street, taking in the three spinster sisters who first lived here, the cobbler who lived next door and the glazier next to him, among others. “When we write songs here, I’m conscious we’re in a place in which people have gone before us,” he says. Are the songs on As Dust We Rise, then, part of that story? “Oh absolutely. They are the mark we’re making in the history book.”

To Rohan, rooms – your place within them, the things that surround you there – are hugely informative when it comes to writing. “I can remember where I wrote all my songs,” he says, explaining how the memories only become more potent the more successful the songs become. “When they’re hammered back to you on the radio, you lose them. But the memory of where you were when you wrote them becomes stronger.” Lou thinks the fact she and Rohan are both “real home birds” has something to do with that. “I think people quite often assume that musicians are always going out. But we’re way beyond that. We just love to be in our home space, writing, playing music, listening to it.” Creativity and the context, naturally, become intertwined. “My happy place is when I’m cooking and Rohan’s playing the piano,” she continues. Whatever the creative act, she seems to suggest, it’s all part of what Diane Ackerman calls “the textures of life” – one big sensory world, assembled into meaning.

‘As Dust We Rise’ will be released by Nude Records on 12 July. Its lead single, ‘Josephine Street’, is out now.

This July, Kiiōtō are headlining and curating Timber festival in the National Forest, on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border

Kiiōtō’s website

Kiiōtō on Instagram

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