Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith Is Trying to Feel Like a Kid Again
Photo by Timothy Saccenti

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith Is Trying to Feel Like a Kid Again

The California composer's new album 'The Kid' accesses "shredded wheat" synth sounds, and candy-coated fantasias as part of a lifelong attempt to live in the moment.
October 31, 2017, 2:15pm

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's favorite music to dance to is no music at all. Inspired by a style of dance called Gaga, which prompts dancers with abstract instructions rather than musical cues, she prefers to traverse a room in silence. She feels out the space, moves unconventionally. "I try to find an hour every day to explore movement, giving myself different textures to explore," She explains over the phone from Los Angeles, where she now lives. "That makes me feel really playful."

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In recent years, playing in that sort of way has become one of Smith's main pursuits. As she's started to garner low-key international acclaim for the abstract burbles and swells of her Buchla synthesizer, she's found a niche in a sense of wonderment. Whether she's working in barely drones, fluttering odes to the sea, or even dizzying Sade covers (you'll want to check that one out), there's this sense of wide-eyed discovery at the heart of her work.

She works with electronics mostly, but the music she makes feels more like cartography than engineering, playfully tracing the outer realms that she uncovers through her careful exploration. By her own estimation, the synths she chooses to work with are pretty unpredictable, but that's part of what keeps it fun—never knowing exactly what direction it's going to lead her in. In a way, it'll always feel new. "Novelty is probably my main ingredient for life," she says.

That title of Smith's newest album The Kid is, obviously, no accident either. Smith says that the pieces on this album first crystallized when she woke one morning intent on replicating, with her synthesizers, "sounds that sounded like a giant shredded wheat being crunched." She got there, and her visions for the record only got more fanciful from there. "I just had so many weird visuals of a crazy candyland with pastels and really sugary looking things and really crunchy things," she explains. "That's where I started to expand on the kid energy and the playfulness."

The Kid (released earlier this month on Western Vinyl) is full of that youthful spirit. The twirls of her synthesizers are brighter, sweeter, and more active than on any of her other recorded material to date. She flits merrily between sounds and styles, often at the same moment—utilizing multiple dizzying lines hard-panned to either ear (a practice she says was inspired by a Henry Cowell book and the evolution of human hearing). Even when the overall song plods by at a slow tempo, as on "In the World But Not of The World" she packs in color and detail, layering insectoid chattering and dizzy percussion under horn-like synth lines and her dazed vocals—charting microbiomes with the same glee that she once did mountains.

Some of this fascination with childlike wonder almost certainly stems from a unique circumstance of Smith's childhood. As virtually every article over the last few years has mentioned, she grew up on Orcas Island a small islet of the coast of Washington with a population of around 5,000 people. It was a place free from the immediate worries attendant to growing up in bigger cities—or even rural areas with different wildlife. "There's no poison oak or harmful plants or animals," she says. "You can follow any deer path and feel super safe. I don't take it for granted at all. It's the only place I've ever felt that. Safety."

So she was free to explore nature, which she did constantly. She also says she rode horses, dreamed of doing gymnastics in the Olympics, and fantasized about being a stunt double in movies despite being "really shy about performing or being seen." When she was a teenager, she says that changed, and eventually she'd go on to make folk music before she gained access to her first unwieldy Buchla rig, which ultimately set her on the path she's on today.

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That feeling of boundlessness—when every experience is a first, when each day offers the freedom of the unknown is something that she's strained to recapture since. Though she declines to offer specifics, but she was inspired to seek that feeling out following the loss of someone close to her. "It made me think a lot about life and death," Smith says. "It really planted this intense feeling of 'I don't want to waste a second of my life not having fun and enjoying and finding playfulness in everything.'"

That ended up manifesting not just in the novel sounds of The Kid, but in its philosophical underpinnings as well. The four sides of the record is organized into four distinct cycles, each corresponding to a phase of life, from birth to death. But in sound, it sort of runs contrary to what you might expect. Earlier tracks—which correspond to infancy—are weighty, deliberately cluttered, and occasionally dour and unsettled. Later tracks—which mark old age and death—are full of joy and hope of renewal. "I Will Make Room for You," the record's second to last track, is full of fractalized spirals of stringlike synth sounds feel like a springtime thaw, as Smith sings comforting mantras like "I want for you to feel your best." It's not your typical elegy.

It's in part, Smith says, a mirror of her own creative process—that the early stages are the scariest and the ends are times for "renewal and regeneration," but it's affected by how she interfaces with the world too. Death beget life. Energy has to go somewhere. When things sit still, nature moves in.

"I don't ever even try to kid myself that I know anything," she says. "But I see it all the time with plants, with gardening and making compost and food. If I leave to go on tour or leave in a few days, the first thing that I feel when I come back is that there's a lot of things in my house that haven't been touched. Especially when I lived on Orcas and Bolinas, [California] when you live rurally. It's crazy how much nature moves in within even a week of you being gone: spiders, grasshoppers, moss. It's a constant restoring."

Despite the lightness that these moments hold on the record, I ask her if the idea that when we're gone, nature will just move back in like we were never here, scares her. "I have a lot of fear about the ocean even though I love it and I grew up near it," She says. "It's so powerful and it's completely humbling. It doesn't care at all about me."

The world's scary, she admits, but there's also nothing we can do about it, which is why cycling back and getting in touch with your childhood wonder is so important anyway. "I'm working on channeling that fear into trying to be fully present and get carried away in the moment," She says. And for the moments that doesn't work, you can always unplug, open the windows, breathe, envision new textures, and let your body start to move. It feels nice, which is sometimes all you need.