Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is one of our favourite contemporary composers, crafting hugely evocative soundscapes and electronic suites on a series of synthesizers. We were thrilled to get to talk to her about wires.
Deluxe: Let’s start by talking about your new record “The Kid” and in particular the creative process. When you are working on a body of work, how quickly does it come together? This time in particular?
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: It changes all the time. Sometimes it will happen overnight. I have very vivid dreams. So sometimes it will happen where I wake up and I know exactly what the next album is going to be and I will see it complete. For instance it happened with “Ears”, where I woke up and I knew I wanted to create a futuristic jungle, just like the movie Nausicaä [“Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” is a 1984 Japanese animated science fantasy film]. Altogether I could hear what it was supposed to be. That was not the case for this one. This one was actually a very slow process. For some reason I got an urge, and this is going to sound really abstract, because I haven’t found the right language to communicate this where other people will understand what’s going on in my head. But I just got a really big urge to create music that sounded like one gigantic frosted shredded wheat.
KAS: So that’s where it started, with this really weird urge in me to create these shredded wheat sounds. So I started with this sound palette of collecting a bunch of sounds that I was making on the modular and all my stents, and I kinda created a lot of orchestral things out of my voice. So the first few months was just collecting sounds, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with them. From there, as I was listening back to the sounds, I started to see kind of cotton candy land colours – really bright colours. So that kind of influenced the rhythms I wanted to make. Then my Dad, during a conversation, started talking about the four stages of life and how he is entering into the fourth stage and his feelings about it. It got me really fascinated about that philosophy and I started listening to Alan Watts’ talks about it and researching more. I got really fascinated with the idea of dividing your life into four stages. Throughout my life, and I feel probably a lot of people feel this, constantly feeling like “Am I any older than five years old?” So that has been on my mind a lot, like holding onto that playful energy, and it’s a guiding force for myself. It’s been something that I have wanted to externalize more and more, and I am very excited about externalizing that. So I guess I would write about this a lot and spread it out in front of me and figure out “What is the through line of this. How can I create a story?” At the same time academically I was being inspired by this book called “New Musical Resources”, which is about the evolution of our hearing as a culture. The book goes up until the 70s, where basically it talks about atonal and micro tonal music is now accepted, and begins at the first time a culture heard a fifth, and how it took a while for our ears to relax into that. I was just excited at where we are at now, and how to challenge our hearing now. So I wanted to play with the idea of splitting our hearing and listening to two conversations at once. So there’s a lot of play in the album about the left ear and the right ear being in very different rhythmic zones, and trying to find a centre spot. This is more in the engineering and mixing of it, where I would try and find centre pans that could keep your brain focused while giving your left and right ear an exercise.
I know that was kind of a mouthful, did that answer your question?
D: Yes, (laughing) but I now have about five follow up questions that I have been jotting down on post it notes as you were speaking. I listened to your album on headphones the first time, because I have small children. I tend to do a lot of the buying in the evening so listen to things on headphones when they are in bed, or in headphones in the car. On listening I found it was incredibly expansive. I am never sure if I am using the correct term with syncopation, but it felt like this. I am throwing my arms around now in different rotations. I felt like there was a lot of different pacing happening on different sides. I can’t wait to go back and listen to it again, with the knowledge that my brain was not going wrong, that was what was supposed to be happening…
“But I just got a really big urge to create music that sounded like one gigantic frosted shredded wheat.”
KAS: For me, that’s where I exist comfortably. I love to dance, and when I dance those are the rhythms that get me most excited, and I got excited about externalising that more and more.
D: I suppose if you were so sensitive about it, you would be able to tell, in some capacity, how successful it was by the “I can’t stop my body dancing to this” kind of impulses.
D: When you had such specific visual expectations of how you wanted it to sound, were you ever anxious about being able to accomplish that?
KAS: You mean, as far as one giant frosted shredded wheat?
D: Yes, very specifically the giant shredded wheat…
KAS: No, anxious is definitely not a word that I would use. I just tend to get really enveloped in it and keep on working at it until I find it. So that is actually a joy place for me, it’s like the research process.
D: In my understanding of synths and modular synths, I guess the more skilled you are the more control over things you have obviously, and experience and practice. I wondered if there were ever things that you had created, or tones, that you had struggled to recreate
KAS: To get it exactly the same is always a challenge, but I think that’s where the fun is. It can be of the same texture but maybe not of the same exact personality. Does that make sense?
D: It does make sense, because I want to talk about computers and people briefly, but I think that effectively, using this medium the more human and imperfect it becomes the closer it comes to human gesture. Does that make sense?
KAS: Yeah, I definitely agree with that.
D: With “Tides”, “Euclid”,” Ears” and “The Kid” coming out over three years, it feels like a really prolific period.
KAS: (laughing) There was actually so many more in those years…
D: Do you feel you have periods of writing and not writing, or are you always engaged?
KAS: No it’s always that way, and I think it is where my fun place is, it’s not really work at all. This time period, right before an album’s going to come out, is maybe the slowest time for me because I am focusing on how to perform it live and doing interviews and whatnot, so there’s not as much time for making music. But once I start touring, that is usually where a lot of ideas come, because there’s all that travel time, so I have a lot of time to think and work on stuff.
D: How about using small digital versions of synths? I know they have become hugely popular. Would you consider them as ways to visualise ideas, or is it all in my head?
KAS: It’s a combo of both. They are definitely valuable tools, and when I am on the plane I use that stuff all the time to sketch out ideas. Sometimes I will double it with an analogue sound. They are very valuable tools.
D: So how good are they these days, speaking to you as an expert?
KAS: That’s very nice of you to call me that, I don’t know if I am.
D: Oh for sure, (laughing) I have been watching the videos of you for months and you are definitely an expert.
KAS: They are their own thing. I would never say that they are, um… I like it when you see one that is inspired by the actual synth because it’s nice to have that nostalgia there and see like a “familiar face”, but I haven’t found one yet that I would say – “Wow, that sounds exactly like that”. They usually just sound like their own thing, but I still like them.
D: I touched on it early, but the reason I have always particularly engaged with electronic music, if I break it down, is that it’s working alongside computers. And I love the notion of “2001” and “AI” and the blurring of lines between people and computers. In one of the videos I watched of you performing, you were talking about the voices synths make, and then you were performing with your actual vocals. I loved the blurring, blending, of the two. I wondered where you saw those lines?
KAS: I feel like humans can only create extensions of themselves, they can’t really create things larger than themselves, which is just my opinion of it. It also goes beyond digital and computers. It goes back to the first instruments. When the flute was made it was intended to be an extension of the voice. For me, I try and think about it all as one, and that it can interchange when my physical voice can’t do what I want it to do. Or if a computer or something outside myself can’t emote the thing I want, then I can blend them to have a little bit of both.
D: For me the most poignant moments are the blending, not quite knowing what you are listening to.
KAS: That’s what personally I look for in music and in art and in nature. It’s finding moments when my brain can just receive and not try and analyse, so that’s definitely a subconscious intention that I am trying to put into my music. Because what I look for in music is a chance to relax and receive information and emotion, without wondering “What made that?”
D: I particularly like the spiritual end of it with people like Laraji. Do you know the Light In The Attic record label?
KAS: Yeah, I love them, such good sounds.
D: I think it was the “I Am The Center” record, and “The Microcosm” more recently, that for me highlighted the spirituality within “electronic music”.
KAS: Yeah. I just did an interview with this lady that they just put out a re-issue of her album, called Suzanne Doucet. The way she describes New Age music is fascinating. She says she can hear where the person is at, when they are creating music. She feels that when you are creating New Age music it’s from a mental space that is not a personal space, but comes from an empathetic space, and that you are trying to create space, rather than speaking from a personal space. I thought that was really interesting.
D: I would like to talk to you about synths. I must admit, I don’t know very much about… am I pronouncing it correctly? Buchla… Booc-larr?
KAS: Yeah, it’s “book-la”.
R: I think it was the Suzanna Ciani “Lixiviation” record that was on Finders Keepers in the UK, where they were talking about Don Buchla and synths and stuff, which was the first time I became aware of it. I felt like it was so exciting to discover that record. It certainly sent me on a path.
KAS: Yeah, it’s amazing. She is the best.
D: How was it working with her?
KAS: So much fun, that’s really the word that sums it up, such a brilliant and wonderful person. So full of wonderment - an inspiring woman.
R: In your field I think she feels like such a Titan. It must have been so exciting to work with her on the split record.
KAS: So exciting to be a part of that, yeah.
“I feel like humans can only create extensions of themselves, they can’t really create things larger than themselves, which is just my opinion of it.”
D: I mentioned watching videos. It seems so graceful what you do, in terms of moving things and the gestures you make, plugging things in and out. Without meaning to sound funny - how nerdy/techy are you?
KAS: ( laughing) That’s such a funny question to answer. I would say probably 50/50. I am definitely always thinking about the technical side and I studied engineering in school, and the composition, so I am always thinking about the notation and the music theory side and the orchestration. Also the technical stuff. That being said, I am also very much in the belief system of what Stravinsky and Picasso would say, the “getting back to the baby brain”. I have talked about this a bunch – I always talk about this. Learning as much as you can so that you can forget it. Basically it’s like when you are learning a language, you study that language as much as you can, but then you never think about that stuff when you are communicating. You just think about what you are trying to communicate.
D: You grew up in Orcas Island. How was that as a place to grow up?
KAS: It’s the best place I’ve ever been to. Even after all the places I have been to, and all the places I still haven’t been to yet, I still feel it’s my favourite. It’s a very creative place where it’s easy to find space, like psychic space to explore your creativity. One of my favourite places to explore on Orcas, which unfortunately burnt down so is no longer there, was this place called the Exchange. It was a pretty large, indoor/outdoor space where the rule was, if you brought something you could take something. So it was like a trading place. That’s where I would always get my tapes and records. It was infinite fun because you would find the weirdest tapes and records and you wouldn’t really have to risk too much to get it. And you could just listen to it and put it back.
D: Would that have been your first experience of a “record shop”?
KAS: Yeah. And then the next place I lived, Bolinas, had a smaller version of that called the Free Box. Another place I lived in New Mexico had a similar thing. All the small towns usually have something like that.
D: This is a first for us. Of all the people we have spoken to for the magazine, you are the first “exchange” rather than the first purchase. Do you remember the first one you got, and on what format?
KAS: Yeah. It was a tape and it was The Proclaimers – “I Would Walk 500 Miles”. Do you know that one?
D: I would have never guessed that in…
KAS: … and then Vanilla Ice.
D: (laughing) That is such a double good one. So how about these days, do you have any particular shops you are fond of?
KAS: I really like Mount Analogue. I live in LA right now and have a show on NTS, so I go there a lot because the studio is in Mount Analogue. I feel like they have a really nice curated section. Have you been in there?
D: Yes. Beautiful. There has been so much thought put into the vibe. The space feels as important as what’s in it.
KAS: Yeah, I agree.
D: How about on your travels, where have you come across?
KAS: I tend to go in them a lot but don’t let myself buy anything because the way I travel is so minimal. It’s so dangerous. I have some friends who carry an empty suitcase, just to fill it with vinyl. And they do that thing where they call and make an appointment with those people who have shipping crates.
D: That’s pretty serious.
KAS: I would say that on my travels my favourite thing is to find something. It’s really amazing to me is that no matter where you go there’s always a hip, rad record shop, an artisan coffee shop, gluten-free bakery. I feel like that’s everywhere now.
D: What do you really look for in a record shop? What would make a shop special for you?
KAS: I thought you were going to say “in life”! (laughing) Wow. I tend to go for African music, and I am always looking for mbira music, which is always hard to find on vinyl. So firstly I look for that... Wow, does anyone answer that question with “Themselves”?
D: (laughing) That’s amazing! Like, where have you seen your record?
D: Nowhere! You are kidding me.
KAS: Only in Mount Analogue.
D: Well I had a shit ton of your record, also, there’s a shop in the UK called Norman Records and you were their Record Of The Year last year.
KAS: I was? That’s so nice. What!? I am so amazed with them.
D: Kidding, you didn’t know? They are called Norman Records and they are in Leeds in the UK. Good shop.
KAS: That’s so cool. I like Leeds. A friend and I were walking down the street there and someone came up and told her she looked like David Attenborough, which is one of my favourite memories of this last year. She looks nothing like him, very far from that.
This interview was published in issue 14 of Deluxe.
Portrait photo by Tim Saccenti.