Kayla Painter: Finding Detail in Empty Spaces

It hasn’t been easy approaching anyone to ask how they’ve been doing at this moment in time. There’s a constant fear that you’re treading on eggshells when you question how someone’s creative output or livelihood has been affected by the ongoing crisis that surrounds us, and broaching the subject with those in creative industries is considerably harder considering how much the field has been ravaged by global events. For many, that enthusiasm and optimism that may have been present at the start of 2020 has dwindled to the point of becoming a footnote. However, mere minutes into a conversation with Bristol-based electronic artist Kayla Painter, it becomes quite apparent that there is still a plentiful assortment of things for her to remain excited about.

The recent release of her latest double A-side single ‘Made of Light/Sacrifice the Other’ saw the producer build upon the fervent acclaim of her other recent releases with possibly her strongest pairing of songs to date. Creating a wonderful juxtaposition between the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ nature of the two respective songs resonated with an audience due to the way it mimics what many of us have experiences this year; flashes of hope and beauty intertwined with gloom and horror. The musical dexterity showcased between the two tracks has won Painter many a new fan, but her recent exploits aren’t limited to the craft she puts into her tracks.

It would possibly be fair to say that Painter immerses herself into concepts which can often stretch beyond aural consumption, which is emphasised by some of the projects that she was keen to discuss. At the height of lockdown, she embarked on a short series of audiovisual streams that were broadcast live from unusual locations, complete with projected graphics courtesy of longtime collaborator Jason Baker, and more recently has undertaken a residency on a project between the UK and China which explores the voices and art of both communities. Whatever she puts her hand to is a meticulously thought out and richly detailed affair that deserves to capture the full attention of those who are lucky enough to stumble across it.

Having taken to the Clifton Downs in Bristol at sunset on a sweltering September evening, Kayla sat down with Wax to discuss this abundance of output that has made 2020 a year of incredible growth, as well as the creative processes that characterise her work.

You recently posted another double A-side ‘Made of Light/Sacrifice the Other’, how has the reaction to those new tracks been?

It’s been quite weird with these tracks, I was really nervous because I wasn’t really sure how they were going to be received. I’d put out a double A-side in June and that was really explosive, it got picked up on straight away and was played by Gilles Peterson on the first or second day it was out. This release didn’t have the same reaction, but it’s weirdly built a little bit slower and I’m getting a lot of people coming to me saying that they love this one more. ‘Made of Light’ got played on Radio 1 on the Sunday after it came out which was really nice. It’s been odd because these tracks seem to just grow on you and seep in a little bit slower whereas the other ones were very in your face and people were invested straight away. I think for me it’s been really fun putting these ones out because they’re a slightly different vibe and I’m building on a sound; it feels like I’m going deeper into that sound world and it’s really nice for me to get that out there and feel as though people are connecting with it.

When did it become apparent that these two tracks would work well together as a single release?

It’s funny you should say that, because I was working on them side by side, and I think I would describe them as being two sides of the same coin. One is much lighter, brighter and more melodic, whereas the other is darker, grittier and much more aggressive. I’d have been in the studio one day working on one of them, and then the next day I’d have switched to the other when I got sick of the sweeter sounds and wanted to exercise the more intense side. So those two were kind of written at the same time, and then the other things I had going on at the time weren’t developing at the same kind of rate. These got finished quicker because they almost felt as though they’d been written in reaction to each other.

So the light and dark contrast was pretty much a conscious decision from the start?

Yeah, because I’ve always done two sorts of things – one being more ambient and the other being more dark and off-grid stuff – and this is just a variation on that. They’re very much flipsides to each other.

I feel like ‘Made of Light’ in particular is quite a departure from some of your other recent material – was it quite rewarding to work on something a little different to usual?

It was, and I think a big part of that was working on certain parts within it. There’s this snare that I’ve got on this track that is pitched to different notes so I’ve got this pitch-shifted snare roll on the track to resemble a kind of falling motion, and I think for me that was one of the things in the track that immediately helped guide me as to where it needed to go. It is different to what I normally do, and I love it. It was just having that one small trigger that made me say that I wanted to go all the way with it. At times I did think that maybe it was a little too sweet and that’s why I wondered if people would respond to it in the same way, but it’s turned out to be more popular amongst people who I thought would prefer ‘Sacrifice the Other’.

Could you talk us through the genesis of a track – where do you tend to start with an idea and how do you develop on a singular idea?

I started with a found sound – an organ sound. I’ve got loads of recordings on my phone that I’ve made when I’ve just been walking around, and quite often they’ll just stay on my phone as I won’t necessarily use them. I’ll sometimes have a flick through of it when I’m starting a new project and see what I like, or I’ll record something and instantly know what I want to do with it. That can quite often be it for me, even the smallest snippet of sound that only makes up half a bar can then get time-stretched or looped throughout the track. More often than not I’d say that’s how I start, but then I’ll quite often have a beat first as well. I feel that the beat programming is quite unique to me in that I like to create beats that have a bit more of a narrative feel than they would in a house track or something where it’s quite regimented throughout.

What is your process for going out and finding sounds? How often do you go out with that being your intention compared to how often it happens by circumstance or chance?

It’s more the latter of the two, and I think what’s cool is that you can really make something interesting out of any kind of sound, but it’s knowing what to do with it or being able to hear it in some kind of context. For example, being sat on a train and being able to hear a certain rumble when you’re at the station and it’s stationary, or the hydraulics of the door – if you know what to do with it, you can make the most mundane sounds interesting. It’s more a case of being in the moment, hearing something and being able to notice what you could do with it. It’s important to be inspired by that as well, because if you go out looking for a specific thing you won’t necessarily find it. It’s a lot easier to do that once you’ve got the basis of something there and you might think that a particular ambient sound, for example a playground, would fit where you want it to, but a lot of what I capture that makes the tracks unique to me is the sounds that have been found spontaneously. That’s also why a lot of the recordings are on my phone as well because I don’t always carry recording equipment around with me. They’re all quite low quality sounds because of that, but I work with them and produce them to fit to that aesthetic I guess.

Are there any interesting examples from the two new tracks that wouldn’t be instantly obvious to the listener?

[laughs] I don’t know if I’d want to say but ‘Made of Light’ has a very silly sound of me singing, but not to this track. I was singing along to the car radio and I just cut that up and pitched it, but I’m definitely not going to say what the song was because it’d ruin the song if you knew what it was. I can’t actually remember what there is in ‘Sacrifice the Other’ because there’s so many sounds that went into it. One I do like telling people about is in an older track, ‘Keep Under Wraps’, where the snare is actually dry pasta being dropped on a table. I’ve done a lot of recording in the bathroom before as well, where I had a underwater microphone and was able to record things from the outside of the bath or in the water, plus the reverb of the room was cool. Even the smallest things like recording the sound of people outside the front of my house can be great sometimes.

In terms of your musical background, how would you say having not initially come from the world of electronic music informs what you do now?

I guess it has made me more open-minded and more experimental. When I started playing saxophone, it was just because I really wanted to – I was really quite young and just had a desire. I was in the jazz band and orchestra, but then I felt that wasn’t really ‘cool’ as I got older and so I then wanted to play bass and just learnt that. I was lucky because my household was musical so I just do anything with the instruments that were around me. That was what I ended up playing for years, but then when I went to university in Newport, I turned up and they told me that nobody was allowed to play their instrument. Everyone turned up with their instruments for the first lesson and we were immediately told to put them down and follow the lecturer. We were made to perform a piece of music on the patio using nothing but the chairs and tables which was so humiliating, but that was our first day icebreaker. I did wonder what I’d got myself into, but then the next task we were given was to go skip-diving and find stuff to make an instrument and perform with. I cut out about five or six discs of metal and made lots of different types of cymbals so I could bow them and hit them. I guess it was more of an art school than a music school, but then they also introduced us to mind-bending philosophy as well, which with all of the other stuff I just didn’t enjoy it at all. The whole first year was like that, and then in the second year we began doing other stuff. It wasn’t until third year when they showed us Logic and ProTools, and when I realised what you could do with beat programming I was kind of hooked then. I found it amazing that I didn’t have to rely on any other musicians, and I could just do it myself from my laptop. I guess the way my other work has been informed by that is that I’d grown up listening to pop, rock and jazz, but then being given all of this experimental stuff left me with a love of very different melodies and gave me an experimental outlook on things.

Would you say that your third year of university was essentially the turning point where you realised that this was the route you wanted to take?

For ages, I just treated it as being what I was asked to do for the module and I thought I’d just see what it would give me. I think it fell more into place once I’d left uni and got a gig at Simple Things Festival. It had actually started with another show for a thing called Fear of Fiction, which used to be a promotions company in Bristol. After playing that I realised that this could be a thing, and then through that I got the Simple Things gig, where I began to think it really was a thing. It was something I really wanted to try and do, whereas in uni I think I thought of it as a chance to experiment and nothing more. I think I only wrote three songs while at university and then did a very rudimentary audiovisual show for my final project. I guess I’m still in those areas now, but much more in a place where I feel comfortable.

Were the first shows still quite daunting?

Yeah, it was pretty horrible playing pub gigs with Jason (Baker, visuals) bringing in a huge projector, but it would be three indie bands and us, and it would be really hard to not feel like an idiot. These days, having an audiovisual element is a lot more acknowledged, although it still hasn’t totally found its place in the live scene. I guess it’s more of a bridge between different forms of art, but that did make it hard for people to take you seriously or even book you.

You speak of having a musical family, were they quite open-minded when it came to listening to things as well?

In a way, yes, but it’s only been in the last year or so that they’ve begun to understand that I’m a producer, and they still don’t really get it. They’ll still tell me that they love it when I play bass, but that’s clearly not what I do anymore. They appreciate it more for sure, and I guess they’re open-minded in their own way, but what my dad did show me was early Warp releases and would force me to sit down and listen to music. It was quite intense really; he’d sit me down in the middle of the speakers and say that he was going to play me a certain song and I’d have to sit there. In whatever way, it has had a huge effect on me. I guess when you’re growing up you can kind of take it for granted, and you don’t think about how other people didn’t grow up having the same situation where you were made to listen to full albums in the car and be quiet when listening to it.

During lockdown, you began running a series of ‘site-specific performances’ – live-streamed audiovisual shows broadcast from remote or abandoned areas. What made you want to explore this idea?

I guess what we wanted to do was connect with people in a different way despite all the restrictions. It just didn’t make sense to us to just project onto a wall in a flat while the whole world was empty. The first one where we projected onto an abandoned space was all about embracing this really odd time where everything was quiet and everybody was inside. In a way it was really nice, because we didn’t go about getting any permission to do it, and the fact that it was only there for a short time and then it was gone felt like a magical moment that I had got to share with people. I think obviously what everyone has lacked in lockdown is having that experience of a gig together, and while doing it through a livestream can be okay, it felt necessary to do something that was easier to connect with, like a location in Bristol.

The extra level of immersion really did add more than your average livestreamed lockdown show, didn’t it?

I hope so. With the other one we did which was across a landscape, because it was happening at a very specific time where you would be able to see the sun set, we thought it would be great because everyone would be experiencing sunset at this time in this part of the world. It just gives that extra layer of connection beyond if I were to just DJ in front of my houseplants.

Was there also an element of also wanting to offer something you couldn’t get with a regular show?

I think I really enjoyed doing it for that reason, because nobody else was doing it. I think it has more scope though and we could do more with it, but the thing we were most cautious of was doing too many and having it become something less special. It was also a lot of work to put together, especially the one in the field. We had to hire a generator, and again we didn’t get permission so we actually had someone turn up and say that we couldn’t do this because we didn’t have permission. That element of danger was also really fun but also involved meticulous planning, so if we do another one it would have to be something just as impressive and exciting.

You’ve also found yourself involved in the Distant Dialogues project in China – how did you become involved in this and what it entails?

So the project is funded by the British Council, Merrie Records and Worldwide FM, and takes three artists from the UK and three from China. Each artist had to write an artistic brief and that artistic brief goes out to the opposite country’s audience. My brief has gone out specifically to Chinese audiences, and then they send material to the record label out in China who then pass it onto me, and then those responses are something I interpret however I wish to make a track. It’s the same with the Chinese artists who have responded to a UK audience. Being involved in it has been absolutely mad and also lovely at the same time; it’s been quite fulfilling meeting these participants via Zoom, and the ideas of those artists and the people behind the project have been so interesting. The whole cross-cultural collaboration has felt really important in a time where there’s a rhetoric being passed around in western media about China that puts the country in a bad light, where in fact there are billions of people there who are totally not to blame and should be able to connect with other people, and I feel that this is a really nice project to be involved in.

In terms of how it came about, Worldwide FM (Gilles Peterson’s radio station) had a list of artists that they sent through to Merrie Records in China, and they selected me. All I know about the actual inception of the project is that because Worldwide FM broadcast in a lot of countries where it’s more like ‘pirate radio’. They’re very concerned about trying to break down barriers, especially in countries where there are political agendas that might stop artistic expression. It’s been great working with them, and the idea was essentially born out of the British Council giving them funding for it on the condition that they didn’t do anything illegal. We obviously had a lot of discussions about what we can and can’t say, which was also eye-opening for me – it’s a totally different world.

It’s also surely wonderful to be part of a project that embraces the music and arts from a country that despite being a huge force in the world doesn’t get much artistic exposure in this part of the world too.

The thing is, I’d never have known how to discover these artists otherwise because of the restrictions of Chinese social media. There’s a whole world of creativity out there, and there’s people making stuff that we just won’t ever know about. I’ve asked for music, photographs and poems – basically any type of media to ensure there’s a wider pool of people responding. I didn’t want to alienate anyone who might not have wanted to record anything. The brief that I wrote was about vulnerability because I thought that it was interesting how a national identity can have this vulnerability over other countries’ perceptions of them, and I think these sorts of things can trickle down into the individual psyche. My project boils down to exploring that within those individuals, and the feelings of vulnerability that they might have. Some of the stuff that I’ve received so far has been stunning, and I’ve asked contributors to stick to their native languages and provide translations, but that can create this most unusual construction of words that could be really cool to work with. I’m still working out how to interpret that, but it’s super poetic and metaphorical, and even the simpler things are put in ways you wouldn’t think to say.

Having explored your own cultural heritage and identity in your Cannibals at Sea EP, how has this project posed a different challenge in exploring others’ identities?

It was weird when I was asked, because I just felt as though it was too good to be true. I feel like I’m getting a lot out of it though, even from the start of the process. The whole thing has been mind-blowing to me, from meeting new people to exploring all of this material. The way people are living their own complex lives in a very different political state is fascinating to me. Whilst there’s nothing I can do about it, at least I can learn about it, which I’m very grateful for.

Can you see your involvement in this project having a long-lasting impact or influence on your own music moving forward?

It’s definitely a life-changing thing to be involved in and will definitely change the way I approach some things and perhaps the way I think as well. I guess once you have your eyes opened to something you can’t really undo that, so it’s nice to have those deeper thoughts about something. I’m not sure how it might affect me creatively, but I think that’s probably to be seen when I finish the track and hear other people’s tracks.

Coming back around to your current releases, having recently released a number of double A-side singles, are you seeing these as individual projects or are you planning to have these come together as part of a wider series or project?

I don’t know, I did think about having all of these tracks come together to be part of something bigger, but really what I want to do is write an EP, and I feel like that’s what will come next year. When I realised that this year would be a write-off, I didn’t want to spend time putting an EP out that wasn’t going to be able to be enjoyed live. Having released my last one in 2018, two years felt like quite a big gap so I just needed to keep putting content out, hence why I’ve done the double A-sides. That and a return to videos are what’s next for me, I really miss that. A lot has changed since I last released an EP so I’ll probably want to make it a bigger moment or celebration, but I guess it remains to be seen how next year will be. It’s horrible, but you’ve got to just keep going in the hope that at some point it’ll just level out.

Words: Reuben Cross Photography: Amia Watling Visuals: Jason Baker

Kayla Painter’s music, including most recent single ‘Made of Light/Sacrifice the Other’ can be streamed below and purchased via Bandcamp.

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