In Search of Power Outlets With Low-Key Ed Sheeran Fan Lydia Ainsworth
My meeting with Lydia Ainsworth kicks off with a scavenger hunt for an electrical outlet. My phone's on 8 percent battery — this is why you charge your toys before interviews, kids — and our original meeting spot (a crowded greasy spoon in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood) doesn't have any in sight. Some musicians might scoff at this pathetic situation, but not Ainsworth. There's a big smile on her face as we wander aimlessly around the nearby Pratt campus, asking security guards and students where we might find an outlet. Ten supremely awkward minutes later, we spot our prize: a lone two-pronged outlet tucked away on the third floor of some nondescript academic building, in an abandoned, eerily silent hallway. I plug in and we slump to the floor, leaning against the wall like two students waiting for office hours.
Ainsworth is currently on the road supporting her new sophomore album, March's Darling of the Afterglow. It's her first North American tour, and she's brought a team of dancers, string musicians and rock sidemen to ensure that her maiden voyage holds up to the album's lush, ornate pop standard. Our meeting came one day before she took the stage at Brooklyn's Baby's All Right; in addition to discussing Darling and its associated trek, we chatted about sexism, the art of pop arrangements and Ed Sheeran.
Darling of the Afterglow is available now on Arbutus. Get it here.
You're pretty new to the festival circuit. You've mentioned in interviews that performing in that setting has had an impact on your vocal approach. Could you elaborate on that?
I was writing my first record before I had gone out to perform it. I'd been performing at tiny clubs for three to five people, so I never really had an opportunity to practice singing in a live setting. Then, I ended up playing festivals like Roskilde, and those experiences taught me that I need to learn how to project. Also, singing night after night built up my vocal muscles and confidence.
Was it hard to translate these lush, multi-layered songs to a live setting?
At Roskilde, I played with a cello, a violinist and a drummer. I have a voice effects unit that I can manipulate during the live set. Roskilde has the best sound team ever, so it was great to perform somewhere where they really take that seriously.
Until now, you've never done a full-length North American trek. How come?
Well, actually, I couldn't get a booking agent before my album came out. [Laughs] When it came out, it was almost too late to book a tour, so we decided to do a few festivals and a European tour instead.
What's the setup gonna be like for this tour?
This tour, I'm going to meet a different cellist in each city. I have scores prepared. It worked out really well in D.C.; unfortunately, it didn't work out for Philadelphia. I have a drummer with me, and two dancers, and then I play keyboard and sing with an effects box. I really like to have the string element.
How are you finding these people?
I have a lot of instrumentalist friends from university, and they know people, so they send out the word, too.
I was speaking earlier in the year with Katie Stelmanis from Austra — who, like yourself, landed on CBC's list of "6 Canadian female producers you need to know" — about the double standards faced by women in your field. Does recognition of that sort, along gender lines, ever scan as a backhanded compliment?
I think that it's important to have those lists; they give visibility to women in the field, and that can be huge for any young girls who might be reading. But as you say, it might be a little bit of a backhanded compliment. Why don't they just do a list of the best producers and include some women?
What, if any, changes have you made to your artistic approach in the two and a half years separating your debut Right From Real from Darling of the Afterglow?
I've learned that the most important thing is to always follow my instincts, and that can be very challenging. At the core of whatever I'm writing, it's always to express emotion, so stylistic things can wait. It's more about how to express myself in the most honest way I can. I always keep that in mind, but through practicing, programming and arrangement, I've developed other skills as well.
One of the recurring themes on Darling of the Afterglow is sight. "Afterglow" is about a woman seeing in 3D for the first time, while "I Can Feel It All" is about a statue you saw in Los Angeles. Is it safe to say that sensory overlap was an interest of yours this time around, at least from a lyrical standpoint?
Definitely, yeah. I'm always wanting to explore that feeling of a first experience. Every first experience is the most heightened experience: your first love, your first loss, the first time you hear your favorite pop song. I love to explore that through the senses: visual, auditory, tactile.
You got your start in soundtracking, fashioning sonic art to complement visual art. Has any of that seeped into your own music?
When I write a film score, I'm trying to serve the director's vision and narrative. The music is manipulative, in a way — you're trying to convey emotions you want the viewer to feel, whereas in my songwriting, I'm not trying to project any type of mood onto the listener.
Sort of like a Rorschach test?
Well, if you had to attach a specific emotion or sentiment to this album as you experienced it, what would it be? What was your emotional state like when you put this LP together?
It's just life. There are ups and downs. I'd say this is a surreal scrapbook of the past few years of my life. The song "What Love Can Mean" ["WLCM"], the last track I wrote for the album — I had had a dream about my grandfather, who passed away about 10 years ago. When you wake up from a dream, it's usually foggy and you don't really remember the specifics, but that day I was thinking a lot about my grandfather. I hadn't written a song in a while, and I was thinking, "Oh, you should just try and write anything. It doesn't matter if it's good or bad; just try and get something out."
This never happens to me, but I wrote the synth line, and the melody, and some of the lyrics all at once. So, it's grandfather talking to me; it incorporates the sentiment of a poem he really loved by Robert Burns — "My love is like a red, red rose" — so I think it's a nod to that, as well.
Earlier, you referenced that giddy feeling you get when you listen to a song you really like for the first time. What was the last song that stirred you to such a response?
[Laughs] This is kind of embarrassing, but it's Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You." I love that song so much, but so does everyone, I guess, since it's the number one song all over the world. I love how it builds — the production is amazing, the rhythmic melody, his scanning of the words ...
What do you think of the lyrics?
I mean, he's not the most attractive or cool-looking guy, right? It's ballsy of him to own that "sexiness." [Laughs]