Actor Allen Leech stars in the awards season favorite The Imitation Game, as well as the beloved British drama, Downton Abbey, where he plays Tom Branson, the former chauffeur turned estate manager. He shows his Irish pride in his song choices, and talks about using music to deliver emotional performances. Downton Abbey just started its fifth season on PBS.
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1. Van Morrisson - "It Stoned Me"
2. The Frames - "Star Star"
3. Fleetwood Mac - "Big Love"
4. Talking Heads - "This Must Be The Place"
5. Radiohead - "High and Dry"
Aaron Byrd: Hi, I’m Aaron Byrd and I’m here with Irish actor Allen Leech. He stars in the awards season favorite The Imitation Game, as well as the beloved British drama, Downton Abbey, where he plays Tom Branson, the former chauffeur turned estate manager. The Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning series just started its fifth season on PBS.
We’re here with Allen to talk about some of the songs that have inspired him throughout his life as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. So first of all, Allen, welcome.
Allen Leech: Thank you very much for having me.
AB: So what are we going to listen to first?
AL: Van Morrison. I’ve been heavily influenced by my dad in what I listened to as I grew up, and he was a huge fan of not only Van’s music, but of a lot of the music around that generation. And, he played the guitar as well and he taught me to play the guitar. A lot of the stuff he started with was the very simple chords of “Brown Eyed Girl” and this song “It Stoned Me” is just partly a reminder of, you know, listening to that first album that I had, which was Moondance.
It’s the first track on that album and I remember listening to it on vinyl, because that’s what dad had it on. And it’s always… I just love it as really a kind of chill, mellow song.
I just think Van Morrison was – is – such an amazing artist, but to think that Astral Weeks, Caravan and Moondance came all in space of three years is pretty phenomenal.
I had the pleasure of meeting him once. He won’t remember because he was so drunk. We were in a place just off Grafton Street in Dublin and we were walking down the stairs. I was in college at the time. It was about four o’clock in the morning, this place was the kind of place that stayed open. He was just behind me on the stairs and I turned around and said, “Hi, I’m Allen Leech.” And he just said, “Will you move on, please?” (laughs)
And I just loved the fact that he, as an artist, he’s an incredibly grumpy man as well. Apparently, his band, who know him so well, he never speaks to them. He just turns up, goes on stage, and they play a round, and he leaves.
But, this song “It Stoned Me” is a great reminder of me and my dad strumming Van Morrison songs.
Song: Van Morrison – “It Stoned Me”
AB: That was Van Morrison with “It Stoned Me” and up next we have The Frames with “Star Star.”
AL: Yeah. Dublin band, Irish musicians who I knew a lot when I was growing up in college in Trinity in Dublin.
They had such a great kind of zeitgeist around them, and Glen Hansard has obviously gone on to such amazing things, winning the Oscar for Once and writing all the songs for that, and starring in the movie. The reason I picked this song is it reminds me of watching them live in Whelan’s, which is a music venue back in Dublin. And, just great Irish musicians and great lyrics.
Song: The Frames – “Star Star”
AL: There’s a great line, it’s like, “star star, teach me how to shine” and I just love that idea that, you know, finding inspiration in what’s around you.
Who hasn’t found themselves staring up at the sky going “what the hell am I going to do?” I certainly have as an actor, so yeah, I found it just a real inspirational song.
AB: That was The Frames with “Star Star.” Moving on, we have…
AL: Fleetwood Mac, “Big Love.”
I have been a huge fan of Fleetwood Mac, again influenced by my mom and my dad, but my mom has always loved their music.
I also love this song because I have a great story – when my sister first brought her now husband back to the house, dad said, in that awkward moment, “play some music.”
I put on “Big Love,” and there’s obviously at the end this quite, um, quite a vocal expression of love – if that’s a way of saying it. And the great thing was, I put it up quite high, so it created quite an awkward tension. I’m pretty sure I played it on repeat until my old man got up and just shook his head, and moved it onto the next track.
AB: Way to welcome him to the family.
AL: Yeah, he’s never forgiven me, and I don’t blame him.
Song: Fleetwood Mac - “Big Love”
AB: Do you find that you use music to inspire your acting?
AL: Definitely. Yeah, I mean, it’s an incredible tool to use to get you in the right emotional state depending on what you’re doing as an actor. And, I’ve been heavily influenced by certain songs in relation to what I’m doing in a certain performance because it can transport you, as music CAN transport you and put you in a different state of mind.
I did it in the TV show you mentioned, Downton Abbey. My onscreen wife passed away, and during that, there were certain songs certainly that I went to get me to a certain state to be upset, you know, and to hold onto that and create memories, and then associate a song with certain memories.
The minute you play that, it’s emotional recall, you know. So, I have used it a lot. And, also then, when you finish a day’s work there’s nothing like putting on some songs that you really love and just let it all melt away, forget about it.
AB: That was Fleetwood Mac with “Big Love.” And so, what’s next?
AL: Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place”. It’s just one of my all-time favorite songs. It’s such a feel-good tune. And I suppose I first heard it probably when I was in college, and it just reminds me of really good times. It feels like a really summer song as well. Whenever April comes in and that tune comes on, it feels like, “yep, right, we’re in the homestretch now” with that song.
Song: Talking Heads – “This Must Be the Place”
AB: That was Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place.” And moving on for the last tune, we have…
AL: Radiohead, “High and Dry”. Hearken back to my days as a teenager, last couple years in school. A lot of my friends, we were all into Radiohead.
This track has always been really special to me. I just love it as a song. I think again, as you say, the lyrics in it are fantastic, great melody. And, I suppose the song kind of instills a sense of real loneliness as well, I think, that song “High and Dry.” There’s a great sense of hope within it as well because, you know, the question of “please don’t leave me high and dry.” I just always loved it.
Song: Radiohead – “High and Dry”
AB: I’ve noticed that there seems to be a theme with an attraction to melody and great songwriting. Would you say that’s true?
AL: Yeah, I love playing the guitar. And loving music and growing up with music, I think melody and great songwriting, as well, I think is really important.
I’m actually worried nowadays. You hear the music that’s being played on the radio in relation to pop music, and where are the classics?
I don’t know where the classics are going to come from, because it sounds so mundane and just so similar, and it just feels like they’ve all gone into computers and found the backing, you know, beats and then whatever goes over it.
And it’s interesting that we keep going back further and further to find the classics rather than stuff that’s around today.
AB: That was Radiohead with “High and Dry.” Allen, thanks so much for joining us at KCRW.com.
AL: Thank you very much for having me.