Kayla Painter Talks Sound Design, Sync, and Creativity

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Producer, a composer, and academic Kayla Painter is an experimental sound design artist who has a lot to say to the world. Influenced by many of the early Warp Records artists, she uses field recordings and manipulates audio to create intricate, complex, and at times stunning soundscapes. Coinciding with the release of her AA-side Prey at Night/Blood Orange Beach, we spoke to her about her British-Fijian heritage, her thoughts on creativity, and some of the projects she’s been working on.

As a musician and an academic, how do you square your music with your research and teaching – isn’t academia about being detached and objective, and looking in from the outside?

My approach to music and creativity is ever-changing and morphing. A lot of what makes a good producer or songwriter is knowing how to interpret the world around you, and how to represent that in your art. I would say this is also true of learning within Higher Education, especially on creative subjects. One of the main skills you build on in University is application of knowledge. I think going through the process of experiencing something, internalising it, and then using that understanding to apply your new ideas or thoughts to an action is a skill that can be developed and strengthened through practice. I think this applies to various things, whether that be academia, creativity, practical problem solving, anything. That’s what I think anyway. It may be a very conceptual way to think about it, but that tends to be a natural position for me to take!

A lot of what makes a good producer or songwriter is knowing how to interpret the world around you

Another crossover between academia and creativity is learning to organise your thoughts. I used to wait for inspiration to come to me to write music, but now i’ve realised it’s something I have to work at getting better at. It’s actually a lot more about objectivity and perseverance than I once thought. I think there is a very romantic view of what composition is meant to be like, when in actual fact if you look at it objectively it can be broken down into some simple steps. I think it really helps within academia and within creativity to be objective. Within the studio being objective (as much as you can) is so important. It’s the best combat to ego, and will yield better results. Being objective helps in the same way with collaboration, and actually I have become a better producer by being more by being objective and measured within my writing. It doesn’t take away from my style – it’s just allowed me to really own my decisions and frame them in the best way.

Watch: Kayla Painter – Cannibals at Sea: Exposed

Your 2018 work Cannibals At Sea explored your Fijian-British heritage. Can you tell me more about how your background and identity has influenced you and your projects?

I suppose our background and identity influences our projects whether we like it or not. I think Cannibals at Sea was really about me connecting with that background and realising just how much it influences me. Before, I had never really thought that deeply about my upbringing and my life having an impact on my music. It was a really great process to go through. I did a lot of research around my Fijian heritage and my British heritage and drew influences from them to create the EP. I learnt a lot about the journey my family took from Fiji to England, but also what it was like for them living in Fiji. My Nani (Fijian Grandma) always tells us stories. Storytelling was a very prevalent way of communicating understanding and creativity when she lived there.  Hearing about superstitions and beliefs was a big eye opener for me. A lot of the language and stories she speaks of aren’t recorded anywhere in any formal way, so it felt really important for me to do something with that. She was part of a group of people who will one day leave this plane of existence and the stories and ideas will live on through word of mouth and through art.  A lot of the found sounds and sense of unease (e.g. on Sentimental Swagger) are influenced by those stories. 

I suppose our background and identity influences our projects whether we like it or not

The British side of my family are from a working class background. My upbringing in Southampton was reflected in the EP thinking about the landscapes I experienced, the types of stories I was told from the British side, and the more traditional standardised musical songs reflect that on the EP. The track Kenopsia which ends the EP really draws on the difficulties of the two different cultures. It is a rather melancholic track but also uplifting, because I wanted to demonstrate the two very different worlds, and whilst that may, to many people, be seen as exclusively a positive thing, there’s struggles there, like there are in any family story. 

I’m aware that cannibalism is a stereotype or stigma that is still present in the psyche of some Fijians – does it affect you?

Whilst I was doing the research for the EP I learnt more about the history of cannibalism in Fiji.  It was said to have started at sea when people were on long voyages for settlement. It is said to have started with people travelling from other Pacific islands, and because the trips were so long people were forced to eat the dead to survive which then continued on the islands. I wanted a title that reflected the long voyage my Fijian family took from Fiji to the UK – it was 6 weeks on a boat. I also wanted something that felt tied in with Fijian culture. Whilst it is perhaps a very unpleasant side of the history there, I did not want to shy away from that. I very rarely, if ever, have any form of negative comment around cannibalism thrown at me – in fact, most people willing to say something negative about my appearance or heritage are not educated enough to mention cannibals.

Has the music of the South Pacific influenced you in any way? And if not, what music has?

I don’t know. I think perhaps subconsciously. My mum likes the Fijian songs her Dad would sing.  When they arrived in England they would have probably heard and seen Hindi movies too. I don’t think that influences me in an obvious way, but I think it’s all in there somewhere. My dad is a huge music fan and always played us records growing up. He has a vast music taste, and a lot of the stuff he played us as children was influential to me, in the very concept of songwriting and communicating sentiments through music. That would be anything from Stealers Wheel, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, The Kinks, Toots and the Maytals.

The music that more obviously influences my writing would be stuff from Autechre, Burial, Aphex twin, and the early Warp Records releases. Other big ones were Boards of Canada, Plaid, Brian Eno. The ideas expressed in electronic music around the machine, and failure within the machine (glitch) I found really interesting. I also really liked what almost seems like limitless possibilities within programming. That’s why a lot of my earlier beat work is not easily translatable to a live drum kit. I think if you are going to create something on a computer, you may as well use it to its potential and go beyond what is possible within human performance on instruments.

Tell me more about the sounds you create. What are you currently most interested in musically?

I create my own sounds using field recordings – I like to manipulate and recontextualise these.  Taking sounds out of context is quite fun because you can be so creative about how you use it and what purpose it provides. For example, there’s a snare drum on one of my songs that is actually just a recording of dry pasta being dropped in a bowl.

I think if you are going to create something on a computer, you may as well use it to its potential and go beyond what is possible within human performance on instruments

The other approach I use quite a lot at the moment is taking a sound like a vocal note, and using that for a variety of things. It may end up being part of a percussive kit, if it’s cut and EQed right, or it may end up being time stretched and looped to create ambience. I think using audio recordings is something I find really exciting. I really enjoy exploring the quality of sounds under the microscope, so to speak, and working with that to create something new. 

Watch: Kayla Painter – Sentimental Swagger (Brownswood Basement Session)

You do a lot of work in sync. How did you get into it, and what do you get out of it?

During University I did my first bit of work for sync. It was for an animation that got used (and is still playing) at aquariums around the UK. I just thought it was a good fit for the type of music I write. I’ve always been interested in visuals and have made a few stop motion animations myself, so pairing my music with other visuals seemed to make sense. It is a competitive field to be in, but I just continued to be persistent and once I landed the bit of sync with Disney, I found it a bit easier to secure other pitches.

The more you do that type of work the more you improve at interpreting what you think the brief means as well.  I find it a really good way to learn new skills. A lot of people say that sync work doesn’t have the same return as writing original music for release. Whilst they may be on to something, I still take a lot from writing for sync. I find it really enjoyable, and it’s interesting to make something that will be used in a different way to my commercial releases.

Tell me more about your work with Future Bubblers.

I was lucky enough to be selected as a Future Bubbler a couple of years ago – its a talent development program run by Gilles Peterson. It was a real honor to be chosen to be one of the ten musicians selected. It has been an amazing experience. It has opened me up to a network of really genuinely nice people – sometimes they are hard to find in the industry. Their ethos for Future Bubblers, and everything attached to it (Brownswood and Worldwide FM) is all really fantastic. It’s all about representing music from around the globe, celebrating, nurturing and just enjoying really good music in a variety of ways. 

It’s much less focused on the older models of labels and A&R and so on where artists have no rights, and no say in anything. I have learnt a lot from the Future Bubblers team and the other artists involved. It’s given me opportunities to record in the Brownswood Basement, play Worldwide FM parties, do guest mixes for Worldwide FM, play We Out Here Festival, attend talks held by Brownswood, and much more.

What’s next for Kayla Painter? 

I have just released a AA-side, a two track release, Prey at Night and Blood Orange Beach. It’s been a really rewarding release because I had no idea how it would be perceived in lockdown but it is doing really well. 

I also performed a live streamed AV set in lockdown, projecting into a derelict space.

I am planning to do two more performances this year, all being well. I am in the process of developing the next two shows and working out the logistics of how we (my visual partner and I) can create something even more stunning that people can watch from home (whilst the venues remain closed). 

I expect to have two more releases this year, both of which won’t take the standard format.  But I don’t want to reveal too much so I won’t say anymore except that I am really excited to share it with people. 

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