Seattle’s Nat Puff – aka Left At London, aka l@l – makes beautiful, often spare pop music. And while the songwriter is open about very personal things in her life, like depression, mental illnesses and her identity as a trans woman, Puff’s music is more than the sum of even these vast and nuanced parts. Her song, “Revolution Lover,” off the Transgender Street Legend Vol. 1 EP, sounds like an early Kanye West track with high-register samples and it’s followed up with the acoustic and drum-driven, “I Split My Ribs Open,” featuring the beloved renowned rapper Open Mike Eagle. Puff’s first EP includes the bubble gum sticky, “Felt Like I Had Died,” and hearing it, you know Left At London is destined for great sonic things. We caught up with the artist to ask her about recording her very first song, spending time in a mental hospital, writing poetry and what the idea of love means to her.
When did you record your first song?
It depends on what you think counts as my first song. Because the first song I ever wrote and recorded was probably around 5th or 6th grade. It wasn’t a completed song but I recorded it anyways. It was for a girl that I liked. Her name was Claire, so the song was called, “Claire.” Frankly, it was a shitty song. It was absolute garbage because I was in 5th grade. But the first song that I ever recorded and released was probably in 9th grade, I want to say. I went over to my friend’s dad’s house. He had a home studio and he really liked my songwriting. I recorded a 7-track acoustic EP that I gave out in my high school years called, Youth Group Computer. I recorded the first song that ever went on Spotify, “I don’t Trust You Anymore,” around May of 2017.
What inspired your songwriting?
A lot of people conflate my songs with transness but the only era of songs that were explicitly about my transness were probably the ones I wrote in high school because I had a lot of transsexual angst. I was writing songs about how frightening it was to be in my position at that time as a closeted trans woman in high school with a bunch of bigots and shit like that. The transphobia that I faced in high school was probably my main source of inspiration then with the occasional song about romance.
But with this new album coming out, I’d say that the most inspiration I get is probably from relationships that didn’t go so well and relationships that did go well – just relationships in general. This first album that’s going to come out soon, You Are Not Alone Enough, is a breakup album. I’m inspired by people who have let me down – I’d say that I’m inspired the most by people who let me down just because that’s how I process those emotions, through music.
You’ve done so much to take control of your life through art. When did you realize you could?
Probably around February of this year. I had always done music and released music but it hadn’t seemed like an absolute – I was dead-set on making sure that I could release the three albums that are already [in the works] over the course of my life but I didn’t understand that that goal was closer than I thought until recently when I quit my minimum wage job to pursue music fulltime.
What was the job?
I was a pizza delivery person.
You’ve talked about spending time in a mental hospital. Did you learn anything about yourself as an artist there?
I’d say the mental hospital is, unless you’re into visual art, is one of the worst inspirations for art and stifles creativity. Not because they intend to but because they make it impossible to. The only thing I was able to do was write poetry and even then my poetry was waning because I wasn’t in a place where I could exactly focus on anything else but poetry. I find the best poetry I come up with is when I’m distracted, and that’s coming from a place of having ADHD. I’d say the mental hospital, although it was an important part of my life, even if it was only three days, I really think that overall it stifled my creativity for a bit and I had to recover from that trauma of being there before I could get back into art. It took me a week or two before I actively started writing anything else again that wasn’t poetry. Poetry was all I really had at that time.
You’ve written two zines. What does poetry do for your creative output that songs don’t?
It allows me to not follow a formula. I’m allowed to be a lot more eccentric. Considering that I want pop sensibilities in my music, I can’t be as eccentric as I used to be in high school. I want to make my music a little bit more understandable to the public. That being said, I still have cryptic songs that will appear on this album and appear on the next couple of albums and that have appeared in my music before. The Purple Heart EP I’d say is pretty cryptic in terms of the lyrical content. I feel comfortably boxed-in with music but poetry is my escape from the box that I put myself in.
Is there a downside to being so open about yourself publicly?
That is a bit complex. It depends on the day you ask me, honestly. There are certain times when I feel that because I’m so open about my life that I’m unsafe. But at the same time, there are days when I realize that being so open all the time makes other people safer. It’s really a double-edged sword. So, I try to understand that and approach my public appearance – when I’m open about the time I was in the mental hospital, when I’m open about the times that I‘ve tried to kill myself, when I’m open about my transness, when I’m open about my shoddy relationship status, that’s like – right now I’m in a very loving relationship but before, I wasn’t really too open about the breakup stuff. But with this debut album, it’s my version of an autobiography of the whole entire era of 2017 when I was just dating a shit ton of people on Tinder and hoping one of them worked out. But none of them really did. So, it’s a chronicling of all of my relationships, whether short or long, as a general statement.
Overall, when it comes to being open I do it for others and I don’t do it for myself. Or, at least, I try to. Because there are moments when I want to be selfish and share every little detail about my life so I can feel like I actively am – I don’t know, I’m friends with my fans, if that makes sense? To sort of blur that line between fan and friend. To make people feel like they’re invested in my life as a human being beyond just, “Hey, when are you making music? When are you going to make a video?”
Do you have a release date for the new record?
No official release date yet but we’re looking at November for when to release it. Because right now everything except for one song is done. It just has to be mixed and mastered and I have to clear some samples and I’m good.
I love your drum production. It has this great hip-hop sensibility. Is there something especially about percussion that energizes you?
It’s weird that you say that because drums I feel like I have the hardest time with in terms of my production. It’s always what I’m least satisfied with when I actually finish a song.
Yes. I feel like a lot of producers who aren’t focused as much on the drums are usually frustrated by the drums the most. At least that’s what I feel like in my experience. Because the drums are such a mixed bag. I think it’s because when I grew up – my sister is a hip-hop choreographer. So, I grew up with a lot of hip-hop influences. I listened to hip-hop all my life. It’s one of my favorite genres even though I feel weird calling it a genre because the only difference between hip-hop and certain songs on the radio is just the idea that the main person is rapping instead of singing. It’s one of those things where it’s like genres are – basically, to put it in perspective, if Solange were white she would definitely be labeled indie instead of R&B. A lot of the times genres are separated by race where black artists are labeled as R&B or hip-hop whereas some white artists are labeled as indie or pop, or some shit like that. It’s just really bothersome to me but I’m going off on a tangent here.
Regardless, as far as where my drum inspiration comes from, it does come from hip-hop and R&B, whether that’s modern or old. Because that’s what I grew up with and that’s what catches my ear. But I don’t want to be a hip-hop or R&B artist just because that’s not necessarily my place. So, I try to come at it with a feeling that I’m inspired by it but I don’t want to encroach. I try to make it my own so it’s not like I’m trying to steel from R&B and hip-hop culture. It’s more that I’m influenced by it in my own work, if that makes sense? That’s what I’ve tried to do, at least, because I understand my place in privilege in this industry definitely.
How has the internet influenced your work?
It’s impossible to say because I can’t really imagine what my life would be like without the internet. That’s one huge butterfly to start the butterfly effect, you know? I feel like with technology I wouldn’t be able to strive in music otherwise, whether that is through the internet, whether that is through digital production and whatnot. I’m just not a person who easily collaborates with more than one other person. I’d like to collaborate with more people. I’d like to collaborate with a band. But it’s just impossible with the schedules all together and coordinated, especially when everybody’s busy and college-aged in my circle of friends. So, I have a very limited scope of other people I can collaborate with but I have a very wide scope of people who I can connect to. It’s a very odd dynamic but I try to take advantage of it when I can.
What do you dream about for the future?
I just hope that my albums can reach people. I try to – this is going to sound kind of self-centered but that’s what you have to do as an artist is be a little self-centered because, you know, art is kind of a cutthroat industry. But I feel like my albums promote a lot of healing and I want to get that message out as much as possible. So, I feel like, being a person who is out there and open with people, what my art is about, who I am, what I do as a person with mental illnesses and being a part of the LGBT community and navigating the music industry as a person with privilege and at the same time a person without privilege, simultaneously grappling with all those things, I think that overall I try to understand that my art is not just for myself.
My art is how I process myself and my traumas and how I navigate through my emotional growth and if I am only doing that by myself then I am depriving a lot of people the same opportunities to do otherwise who perhaps don’t have as much as a grasp on themselves as I do. I feel like I’m very blessed to have the ability to process emotions in a healthy way even if my emotions are very painful to experience as a person with mental illness. I feel like because mental illness is so widespread in the community these days just because of traumas we’ve faced as people who are LGBT, as people who are marginalized, as people who understand their marginalization and constantly see it in a wide spectrum with the internet where it’s constantly thrown in your face, and that you are a part of an oppressive regime, I think the ability to understand yourself and grow from understanding yourself is very rare and very hard to. It’s very hard to do for me but somehow I manage to do it in my art.
So, I try to understand that and understand that if I’m sharing my art with people, then it gives other people the ability to emotionally grow faster than I was able to because I didn’t have those songs when I was going through something like that. My three albums I want to release, You Are Not Along Enough being the first of the three, I want to really focus on healing and different aspects of queer life. I feel like once I release all three I’ll be able to let go. I don’t know what’s going to happen after I release those three albums but I know I’m going to release those three albums. Because they’re important to me and they generally promote healing. It’s really something that could change people’s lives. I don’t think that it will change the world necessarily but I do know it will at least change some people’s lives and I’m really excited for people to hear them.
What does the concept of love mean to you today?
The concept of love is very vast and nuanced. I feel like a lot of people don’t really like to discuss love outside of romance because we are force-fed this narrative that romance is the only love that matters. One thing I’ve learned from being with my girlfriend is that – weirdly enough it was being with my girlfriend that taught me this internally, I knew this but at the same time I wasn’t understanding of it that love was something way beyond just romance. There’s the Greek concept where there’s, like, seven types of love. I don’t remember all of them but there’s romantic, sexual, platonic, familial and others.
But I really believe that the phrase, “I love you,” needs to be said more. A lot of people will say, “I don’t know, ‘I love you’ is a pretty strong phrase.” But that’s the exact reason that you should use it! It strengthens bonds in a way that no other phrase has the ability to. That being said, it does weaken some bonds with people who have restricted themselves because of traumas or worries or just general cynicism towards the idea of love, for whatever reason it may be. But I generally believe that love means – how do I phrase this? Love means involvement. You want to be involved in that person’s life. You want to be a name that they remember. I feel very loved in that sense in certain friendships and with my relationship and even in my relationship with my fans. I feel very loved in that sense. But I think about this lyric from, weirdly enough, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
I love that movie.
There’s a line Michael Caine says, which is, “If you want to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.” I disagree whole-fucking-heartedly because I feel like a lot of people aren’t given enough chances to be loved. I think it’s less “you count their friends” and it’s more, “You can know the measure of a man by asking them a favor and seeing how willing they are to cooperate.” I feel like that’s love. And that begins an involvement, a bond.
Of course, these things have to be accessible to a person. It’s not going to be, like, “Hey, stranger, can you help me move?” and they’re going to be like, “Yes, of course!” all the time. But it’s like if you ask, “Hey, do you have the time?” and they don’t give it to you, then that’s being shut-in. And I understand the ability to be afraid of other people because that has happened to me and I have definitely isolated myself. But I think that when we isolate ourselves, we lose the ability to love others, which makes us lose the ability to love ourselves.
I feel like a lot of people use the phrase, “How could you love somebody else if you don’t love yourself?” And I think the more accurate phrase is, “How can you expect to love yourself when you don’t love others?” I think it should be switched because a lot of people blame – I admit, there are absolutely days when I absolutely fucking hate myself. And that’s just fact. I absolutely can’t stand myself. But my ability to love others allows them to love me back, which allows me to see some sort of semblance of value in myself. I feel like that’s an important dynamic to discuss.