Get Lost in the Euphoric Loops of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Though tourists come and go, only several thousand people inhabit the San Juan Islands. Electronic composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith grew up on Orcas, one of an archipelago of 172 islands situated on the coast of northwestern Washington, pressed up against the maritime border of Canada. By the time you’ve navigated the ferries, it’s over three hours north to Vancouver or south to Seattle. I’ve never been near them, but spending time in Smith’s compositions make me feel as though I might have. Her dreamy, placid loops are uncommonly gentle, evoking undulating shorelines, melodic bird calls, hazy woodlands and mist rising up into the stratosphere.
Smith returned home after studying music and composition at Berklee in Boston. A neighbor introduced her to the Buchla 100, a rare ’60s synthesizer, and everything changed course. There are a just handful of the original Buchla Electronic Music series in the world, but newer models are still handmade. As she became obsessed with unearthing its possibilities, other plans and projects receded. She memorized the colorful chord arrangements, committing their patterns to muscle memory. Her overlapping arpeggiators are layered until songs meander into their own transcendent frequencies. Composing in a cabin swallowed by wildlife, her songs sound like the psychedelic hues and untamed sounds of nature translated into kaleidoscopes and mosaics.
Last month, Smith was in Brooklyn as part of the Red Bull Academy Music series "Beyond the Clouds: Ambient Excursions," which took place at the Bogart House. We talked before her performance about her live setup and the unpredictable ways her life has taken shape.
When you started playing synth, were you thinking, “I want to tour and do this,” or was it something that kind of snowballed?
Yeah, it snowballed. When I first started playing synth, it was just like this wonderment / exploration in my cabin on the Orcas. I had no expectations, no desire to really do anything with it. I would just share recordings with people. I still made recordings every day, and then I would just share them with friends and put them on Bandcamp. I think [2015 album] Euclid was the first thing that a label wanted to put out. But I feel like [2016's] Ears was the first time where I was like, "I want to do this." I’ve always wanted to do film scoring. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do with my music career, for movies or TV. That was one of the things that I wanted to go to school for, and was one of the paths I was following.
Oh, is that why you're in L.A.?
No, but it does make sense. I moved here because my husband is a filmmaker and he’s making a cartoon down here.
Do you ever score his stuff?
Yeah, we work together sometimes, and he made the visuals for my live set.
Do you think studying music at Berklee affected how you shape a song?
Yes and no. I feel like studying music theory, orchestration and composition, and sound engineering has given me so many tools; [it's] helped loads. I use that knowledge all the time, but then I’m also trying to forget it so I can access my creativity. Forget it, but still be using it at the same time. Kind of like any language. It’s not like we are thinking about how we are using the English language; we are just communicating now. So, that’s always my goal: to constantly be learning, but forget it at the same time.
Since you know how to notate music, do you write stuff down?
When I write for other instruments. On Ears, I wrote for a quintet that was all played by one person, but he read notation that I had written out. For the new album, same thing, different set of instruments. It was actually five people playing. So, when it’s for other instruments, I do.
You don’t have any notes for how you play your songs?
Sometimes. It kind of depends. If I have something coming to me and there’s nothing around me to write it down in some other way, then I’ll write down notation. I tend to just, when something is coming out, practice it or play it a lot until it’s in my muscle memory, and that’s how I remember stuff.
Wow, that’s impressive. It seems like so much to remember.
It’s interesting because that’s how I actually started learning music. Because I played — and I still do play — a lyre. In lyre music, there’s no notation for it or anything. It’s only taught by memory from generation to generation, so it’s how I’ve always learned music. Just play it a bunch until you remember it. It’s neat — once it gets into your muscle memory, then it frees up your actual memory bank. You don’t have to store it in your brain anymore.
So, if you have all this stored in your muscle memory, do you improvise some?
I do improvise within a structure, I guess is the way I could put it. Even though I’ve practiced the live set so many times, it’s still not totally in my muscle memory. I still have to practice it once a week or more.
When you're creating a song, is everything analog, or do you create some of the layers with Abelton?
It’s a combo; it just kind of depends what the project is. Some of them are all analog, just like all in one piece, and then sometimes I do create something in Abelton. Sometimes I’ll use software synths and then run them through hardware. I’m one of those composers that I like anything that sounds good to me. It doesn’t really matter to me if it’s analog or digital. My preference tends to be towards analog, but it’s not a blanket statement. It’s just whatever sounds good in the moment.
Some people are so hardline about it, but I think the most modern way to think about music is to use everything that’s available.
Yeah, it’s all about creating something you like. If you’re too dogmatic, in my opinion, it can be very limiting.
Do you have examples of songs that are purely analog and ones that are a combination?
Yeah, loads. All of "Labyrinth" on Euclid is all analog. It’s all the Buchla Music Easel. On Ears, there are so many that are hybrids. There are a lot in there where people think it’s a sustained flute. In [2016 single] Wetlands, there is a more sustained flute sound, and that is actually my voice being sampled and going through a granulator in Abelton and stretched out. There’s also a quintet on that one, too. So, it’s kind of confusing people.
When you are playing new gear, do you always use Buchla as part of the compositions?
Not necessarily. For a while, it was the only synth I had, and now I have more of a collection, and I’m able to go to residencies and ask people to borrow stuff. It depends if I’m going to play it live. I like to use the Music Easel live because it’s so compact.
Is it hard to play a live show? Do you expect that is is not going to be the same every time?
It always keeps me on my toes. I don’t want to say it’s hard. It’s the perfect amount of challenging that it keeps me in a flow state. I’ve just practiced it so many times, but it still doesn’t come out the way I intend it to. It will still surprise me, and something new will happen.
I noticed you have a big MIDI controller when you play live. What do you use it for?
I use it for my voice. It’s a bunch of real-time tracks. Live tracks of my voice. There’s 27 of them that are all record-enabled. When I’m touching the pad ,I’m turning on and off different harmonies with myself that I’m doing in real time. I tend to write modul harmonies, and there aren’t really harmonizers that can do that. Harmonizers are normally set to a key, so it’s really hard to do modul stuff with them.
What is the rest of your setup for a live show?
The computer is just my mixer. I have everything going through Abelton so I have control of what the sound is like, and I don’t rely on a sound person. Then I have MIDI controllers that are just an extension of the Buchla. I’m sending MIDI out, and I’m also sending audio out to different audio followers. What else? That’s it? My headset mic. My Madonna microphone. [Laughs]
What about recording? Do you record your own albums?
I always do everything at home myself. I’m trying to promote more ladies who do everything themselves.
This is getting nerdy, but do you use headphones or monitors when you're recording music?
It depends. I have monitors that I love. They are Genelecs; they are so good. I really like them a lot. Then I always check in headphones. It just kind of varies.
Do you mix and master your own albums, too?
Mix, yes. I don’t master, but I’ve finally found a mastering person that I really like. I’ve been traumatized by mastering sessions for a really long time. I finally found a woman in New York who I think is amazing. It’s Emily Lazar. I’ll always pick whoever is the best for it, but I definitely am intentionally seeking females 'cause I wanna [know] where are the other lady engineers and producers.
Even if you aren’t trying to think about gender, it’s something you're eventually faced with in the music industry.
It’s crazy 'cause I try not to focus too much on this, but it is really fascinating to me, how in the beginning of making music, I had a collaboration with a guy, and anytime I’ve had a collaboration with guys, it’s almost immediate that people think the guy did everything. It’s such a fascinating experiment. So, now I’m super careful about that. I don’t want to say that as a blanket statement. I know that Björk has talked about that.
Are you happy with the amount you’re traveling and playing shows, or is it too much?
Yeah, I mean I love playing shows so much, and eventually I want to do more score and composition work. And then the shows that I play, have them be at a certain time. I’m one of those musicians that, I love to wake up early. I love my sleep. I love cooking food at home. So, I like to think about how to make it sustainable, but I do love playing shows.
Not the touring aspect?
It just depends. If it’s set up in a way where I go for two weeks at a time, then that’s totally manageable. Usually, since I’m in L.A., I have the time change on my side. So, it kinda depends. When it’s [an] early flight after a late show, that’s when I’m like, "I can’t do this."
Last question: I have to know, do you listen to hip-hop?
Yeah, I love hip-hop and R&B. I listen to a lot of different music. I love any music that has a triplet feel or a swing to it, or polyrhythms.