Name: Kayla Painter
Occupation: Producer, sound artist
Current release: Kayla Painter's Somewhen EP is out October 8th 2021 via Kayla's personal bandcamp store.
Recommendations: Agor (album) by Koreless – track "Joy Squad"
I love this album, it feels like a step forward in music – "Joy Squad" is my favourite track. I enjoy how it progresses and builds tension – and the release is amazing.
Visually I loved the film Possessor, there’s a lot to drink in. One of my other discoveries is évolution (dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović)
If you enjoyed this interview with Kayla Painter and would like to find out more about her work, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I have been involved in performing or writing music since I was a child, in school I was in orchestra and Jazz band (where I played alto saxophone), and then went on to play bass guitar in bands as a teenager.
Some of what I think has drawn me to sound was probably my upbringing too, I was bought up in a creative and musical household, so I was exposed to the early Warp record releases, lots of rock n pop, really quite a wide range of music, everything from Aphex twin to Stealers Wheel.
I started getting an interest in production when I was in University. I’d gone to study music as a bass player but the course I’d chosen had quite a unique approach, the lecturers wanted to deconstruct the traditional views on music and really launch us into a different world of appreciating sound. I think that was a key turning point for me in terms of becoming more fascinated with the possibilities of creating with sound.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think I am still carving out my sound. Although others will tell you that I have a very distinctive sound, I am not sure I have ever really settled on a specific avenue or genre, or even sound palette (much to ex-labels annoyance ...)
I was really inspired by Autechre, Burial and Aphex Twin back when I was beginning to learn how to use Logic and Ableton. I was super interested in programming beats with a more collage-type approach. My early music really never sat on the grid (the grid being the way we count music), and that was something that really excited me. I suppose I took that from those artists. I do still play around with that idea, but more recently, in the last 2-3 years, I’ve begun creating more music in a more recognisable rhythm. That has given me more to explore, and more ways of offsetting percussion and beats against the context of more regular timing.
My music is very minimal, and throughout the years I’ve tried harder to have more in it, to make it feel less ‘unfinished’ which is a comment I used to get, but now I’m much more comfortable with embracing the fact my music is meant to be minimal. It’s meant to be deconstructed and experimental, which is why trying to develop it to be anything else didn’t ever work. I like the minimal nature of it as there is a lot of space to think about what you are hearing and enjoy the sonic detail.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I suppose identity and creativity are inextricably linked. I don’t think I really identify as a woman when I write music, I think that’s because I love producing music, it is an innate part of me that is nothing to do with my gender. I remember the first time someone said to me, very delicately, that I should be really aware of the fact that I was a woman in a male dominated scene, and I could use that to my advantage. I remember thinking, what is he on about?! It had just never occurred to me that it might be strange to anyone that a woman produced electronic experimental music.
Unfortunately being a female producer in a male dominated industry is something I do have to think about a lot outside of the studio. But luckily that doesn’t and won’t ever interfere with my production – if it did I would just write under a man's name.
The music I write is often very dark, sometimes aggressive, unapologetic, complex, and not always easy to listen to. I suppose my own identity feeds into that, it is a way for me to express those parts of me that sometimes are not acceptable in society.
I wrote my 2018 EP Cannibals at Sea as an exploration of my mixed Fijian/British heritage, a celebration of that culture clash through a very experimental soundscapey record. My next EP, ‘Somewhen’, is about looking to the future, to an alternative timeline which draws from both my British Heritage and Fijian, to create something new, a universe or time that is already happening out there, somewhen.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I get writer's block a lot and I struggle to break through that. I used to not write for months on end – because I couldn’t formulate an idea about what I wanted to write. That’s changed a lot over time, now I’ll just find inspiration in another way, if I’m not inspired by the music I’m hearing I’ll turn to another source, nature, architecture, films etc.
I also now write a lot of tracks that don’t go anywhere, as a way to exercise ‘bad’ ideas. Before I would force myself to write THE next single, whereas now I’m comfortable with writing 6 tracks to throw away for 1 that might be the next single.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started with just a laptop and using the sample library and midi instruments within logic. My set up now has expanded a bit – mostly because I use a lot of audio, and some hardware synths. So "Unseen and Unknown" (one of the singles from my upcoming EP) is entirely audio, there isn’t a spec of midi in there – over time I think I’ve outgrown or become bored of the software synths I was using. However, that is also partly my fault for never upgrading from Logic 9 or the plugins I invested in years ago.
Now I have a few microphones in my home studio, and a few synths. I use a sample pack of drums I’ve had for years which has hundreds of samples in it, more than I could ever need, but I’ll also go and capture sounds for drums organically sometimes too. I think as I have learnt more about production, I have become interested in being more specific about the exact type of sound I want to use for certain parts of a track – it feels like a natural progression to me anyway.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I think the inbuilt recorder on my phone! That has enabled me to capture sounds I would never usually have available to me in a studio setting.
To have more ideas from the outside world, especially from trips to interesting places has inspired my writing a lot.
It’s a very low quality microphone in the phone, but I really like the quality of it, I have recordings in most of my tracks which have been things I’ve captured on my phone!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Writing and composing can be a very solitary thing for me, I don’t like to talk to anyone about it! Sometimes when I am in a phase of writing an idea that I feel really strongly about, and really clearly about the direction - I don’t ever want to tell anyone about that as I find that can colour what I was going to do, and I like to try and get those ideas out in isolation.
If I’m working on something less precious I enjoy sending files to get feedback from peers, sometimes it’s a question of chatting about anything that’s missing from it in terms of a narrative, or if anyone can recommend other music I should listen to that aligns with what I’m doing – to see if I can get inspired to finish the track.
My main source of collaboration, which I throw myself fully into is working with a visual artist for my live shows. That is a real partnership, a two way discussion of how the audio should sit with the visual, what the visual should be, which visual elements can help bring the audio to live and viser-versa. It’s a really mutual process which I get a lot from, and makes for a great live experience – I think anyway!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
On the days where I work as a musician it can be really very varied so there’s no fixed routine. In a typical day I would be doing any of the following: answering emails (this takes a lot of time!), pitching for freelance work, having meetings with clients about ongoing freelance work, writing my own music in the studio, writing for freelance work, rehearsing at a practice space, playing a show, leading a workshop, filming something for press or education, doing a mix for radio, running socials, searching out new music (/researching) and producing my radio show (Worldwide FM) …
I don’t manage to separate my life as a musician from the rest of my life very well, because it’s a business that needs managing all the time. And because it is my passion, it’s always on my mind. However, occasionally I have to take a few days off because it can be exhausting. I also spend time exercising or out in nature where I try to disconnect from the work side.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
"Keep Under Wraps" was a single I released a few years ago. It is an incredibly minimal track, but it has this huge sound. This track was enjoyed by a lot of people who don’t usually listen to my music, it really helped me attract a lot of new fans.
Funnily enough it was one of the quickest piece of music I’ve ever written, it came from a real genuine place and it only took me a couple of days to write it. It was written in frustration at people in the industry who were keeping my work, ‘under wraps’ and not allowing me to release material – it was a direct reaction and rebellion against that – and I think perhaps that comes across.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think for me it is about having some energy, I often work so much that I am too tired to really notice the creative stuff going on in my head. I get distracted by tiredness, and easily get frustrated with the process of writing if I am too tired. If I am well rested I can usually carve out the right mind set to compose.
Strategically I would look to take on one-two less conversations in a week (with clients for example) where I know I will be required to think creatively and reserve some of that energy for the studio.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think I find a lot of music helps me process ideas, and personal experiences, it can just be the music on its own but it can also be music in combination with something.
Listening to music whilst I’m running helps my mental health a lot– and for that I’ll listen to anything – but specifically I have found Caribou, Four Tet, and garage useful. I think music is used by people as a tool already which is why it is so important to support the arts. In the UK the government treats music and musicians as though they are an unimportant additional frill to life – whereas I see live and recorded music as hugely important to individuals wellbeing.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Being aware of what you are copying and why is crucial I think. Borrowing from cultures to celebrate them is different to using a cultural symbol to exploit an idea. The line is very fine and it’s difficult to navigate. I think you have to approach it on a case by case basis.
In some respects, if someone feels offended by something that is their right, and as artists, and human beings, it is our responsibility to anticipate and listen to that, even if we may not understand. It is also important to acknowledge a lot of learning and embracing culture can appear clumsy sometimes.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
When I am writing music I am often thinking visually, so I think that is a big overlap between the senses for me. I have always been a very visual person and even before I was properly producing music I made stop motion animations and I created my own bespoke visuals using handmade props.
As a process now when I am writing music, I often have an idea which is an abstract visual or feeling which I am trying to express in audio. For example it might be a texture, shape or colour and it might move in a certain way of have qualities that I like, which is the information I use to create the sound I want.
I think everyone’s senses probably have some overlap and it’s just tuning into it.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
That’s a hard question to answer – especially without sounding pretentious. In its simplest of forms: I like to create music in the hope it will reach others and they can get something from it.
I think my continued efforts in the industry as a wider body (self releasing music, running workshops, being a totally independent professional musician self managed, self made) only reflect my persistence to not be shut down by being a gender and race minority, and it is also my hope that others will see that and be inspired to do the same.
I really feel that people should be allowed to create music beyond genre, beyond what the industry machine requires – and that’s where I sit. On the peripheries, making something that means something to me, rather than something that fits neatly into a genre in order to target spotify playlists …
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Well, music goes beyond words (especially easy for me to say as most of my work is non-lyrical) it can express the abstract and the ineffable, things we can’t grasp or understand with our spoken language.
That is why it is so important, it is a language in it’s own right, a complex developing one that everyone can connect to in some way.