Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Synthesised Sanctuary for the Mind
I caught Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s live show for the first time in London this summer, where she was billed early in a tent at Field Day, competing against brilliant June sunshine. Backed by a gigantic screen of slowly swirling colours, the tiny speck on stage sent out fluttering waves from a bank of synthesisers, cooing into the kind of wraparound head-piece that’s commonly known as a ‘Madonna mic’.
The tent was packed with a throng of the curious and the committed, lilting back and forth with their eyes closed, all seemingly in tune with one another, and with their conductor. Smith had transformed the space into something akin to a giant chill out dome, and her rapid rise through the ranks of experimental music felt complete. Taking a break from rehearsals at her Los Angeles place, Smith is bashful when recalling the scene: “It’s surprising and amazing to me that people come out for shows… or even care in the first place.”
Yet something about Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music has hit home for an increasingly wide range of people. Synonymous first and foremost with the rare Buchla type of analogue synthesiser, having used the Buchla 100 and Buchla Easel extensively across recent projects, Smith draws an array of instruments and vintage machines into her unique soundworld. The twist is a kind of processed inversion, coaxing organic tones out of decades-old machines, while smelting saxophone, clarinet and flute down into unnatural textures.
Smith’s upbringing on Washington state’s Orcas Islands, just about the farthest northwest tip on mainland USA, informs her deep-rooted connection to nature – “other obligations have to wait” if they’re likely to jut into her daily outdoorsy routine – which results in a pastoral feeling present in everything she’s ever released. “I hear people associate the word ‘ambient music’ a lot and that’s really fascinating,” she says, “because that’s not my personal experience. I have a very active being; I physically like to be active.”
The sounds Smith conjures all combine to come over like an acid trip in a park: a broad and buzzy expanse of life, with vivid cel-shaded hues smudged into one another, and glimpses of indistinct sounds and ideas darting through the scene. What truly elevated last year’s breakout album EARS was the application of Smith’s own voice, treated through granular synthesis to take on new forms, anchoring the fantastical swells of synth and woodwind with a tangible, tactile emotional core.
For someone regarded at first glance as an inducer of tranquility, Smith’s schedule since the start of 2016 has been incredibly frenetic. Following the release of EARS, she’s found time to score Reggie Watts shorts and Google’s virtual tours of American national parks; rework Sade, Mark Pritchard and Perfume Genius; release a collaborative LP with cult New Age icon and her stylistic forbear Suzanne Ciani and tour extensively, both as a headliner and support for heavyweight, technically adventurous bands Battles and Animal Collective.
New album The Kid gestated on the road from a simple “place of wanting to make certain crunchy textures” up to a four-stage concept record charting the emotional heft of life-to-death. Smith’s singing is foregrounded and thick synth leads judder rather than glide. Instrumental interludes are meant to represent transformation, while the inlay of the physical record contains an illustrated map – “kind of inspired from Mario and the different worlds” – and by the time closer To Feel Your Best spins off into the ether, you do feel you’ve navigated through something notable with her.
"I had this urgent feeling of wanting to hold onto my kid energy, and make sure that's a priority in my life"
The Kid accurately latches onto and transmits the sometimes awkward but generally free spirit of its title. “I had gone through something that gave me this urgent feeling of wanting to hold onto my kid energy, and make sure that’s a priority in my life,” she tells me. “I wanted to make something that brought that into other people’s worlds. Still having the intensity in the depths of challenges that come about day to day, but to also create an album that, on the surface level of it, always has that playfulness riding through it.”
With about six or seven unreleased albums of less considered material sitting, there’s a sense that The Kid, as well as being an intelligent statement release, represents a way for Smith to be at peace as her own day-to-day routine becomes increasingly scattered. “I have a lot of internal chatter,” she explains, “so making really busy and distracting music helps me feel centred. I take that out of myself and give it to someplace else.” We talk for a while about experiences of travelling, of being inspired by the novelty of it, strangely relaxed in the midst of bustling airport departure lounges. “Sometimes,” she says, “hearing a freeway can be soothing, just because it lets me know that there’s all these other things that have movement, and I don’t need to have as much movement in that moment.”
That cuts both ways: Smith’s high-flying imagination has carved out space for others to find solace in an accelerated and synapse-frying modern world. “I guess my ultimate hope is that it creates a feeling similar to what I get when I go on a hike,” she says, considering her musical ambitions. “That it creates a connection, and that it brings life into an environment. It’s all I can do.”
The Kid is out 6 October via Western Vinyl