Patric Fallon goes for a hike in Los Angeles with a highly distinctive new name in electronic music.
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"Woah, do you hear that?"
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has discovered something. We're on the front steps of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, on a warm afternoon in late February. Tourists laze in the grass and explore the iconic building. Smith isn't taking in the view. She's found an unintentional sonic effect in the architecture of the courtyard. A statue at one end of a pathway has created a resonator with the observatory's massive iron door, and Smith, as she explains to me, found its standing wave. She can hear every sound in the promenade as if it were right next to her ears.
While we spend the remaining hours of daylight together, hiking along the winding trails of Griffith Park, that moment on the observatory steps comes back to me. In the months prior to meeting Smith, I was engrossed with her remarkable new album for Western Vinyl, EARS, trying to unpack what exactly drew me to it. Beyond the music's intricate Buchla sequences, hyperreal sound design, fluid orchestration and uncanny processed vocals, I could sense an artist who was both wise and prone to wonderment. Smith's discovery articulated what I had yet to describe: she's a deeply perceptive person, who not only notices the details of the world around her but understands them and retains their meaning.
"I've lived rurally for most of my life," Smith says, walking up a dirt road. "Besides when I went to school in Boston, a lot of it has been out in nature, and that's definitely what I like to do for fun." She tells me about her interests in horses, hiking and yoga; it was her idea for us to climb to her favorite lookout point in the park. As we go, we chat as much about ourselves as film, music, photography, virtual reality, comedy, food and Southern California.
Born in Agoura Hills, CA, Smith is the youngest of five. She grew up off the northwest coast of Washington state, surrounded by the woods and rocky shores of Orcas Island. Her family moved from time to time along the West Coast, and homeschooled Smith for parts of her pre-college education. It wasn't until her teens that she became interested in music. "I started by helping out a neighbor who was a film composer, and he taught me Pro Tools. For one year I lived in Thousand Oaks [just outside LA], which was awful, but it was awesome because he taught me how to set up gear to record. And then he gave me a Kurzweil sampler. So that was my first introduction to using synthesized sounds, and creating horrible soundtracks."
Smith laughs at the memory, though maybe for its prescience more than its humor. Now living in Glendale, a city on the outskirts of LA proper, she's married to film and animation director Sean Hellfritsch, and has been breaking into the world of scoring with small projects like Reggie Watts' Brasilia. This desire to work with soundtracks has been with her since the beginning. "When I would play the piano," she says, "I would have a whole movie going on in my head, or like a scene. That made me want to compose for visuals, when I first started to experience that I have such a visual connection to sound."
Perhaps strongest of all is her love for animation, specifically the work of Japanese auteur Hayao Miyazaki. "My husband showed me Princess Mononoke for the first time right when we started to hang out," Smith says, "and it just struck a chord in me of how I relate to nature. It has this wonderment that I'm always looking for in films, like a fantastical wonderment." That quality has always felt inherent to the synth music she releases under her given name, a project dating back to 2012, but never so distinctly as with EARS. Later that day, when Smith describes her inspiration for the album and its title—"I wanted a name that made it feel alive, that made it feel like everything was listening and had ears and was alive"—I'm reminded of how she gushed over Miyazaki's animations: "His drawing style has so much movement and so much life in it!"
A long series of events set Smith on the path to where she is today, beginning with the year she spent living at a Krishna temple. "At the time, I was really into meditation, and was learning Kundalini yoga from this place. I went and stayed in an acharya in Venice, the Krishna ISKCON one, just for a year, mostly because I was so obsessed with the pictures." She enjoyed the strong sense of community and structured routines, waking up at 4 AM for the community aarti (singing, dancing and chanting), preparing food and working together, studying and doing yoga. What's most notable about Smith's time at the temple is how it planted the seed of writing her own music. With an air of quiet realization, she tells me, "The first music I created was for chants. My teacher gave me a bunch of chants and was like, 'Here, make soundtracks to these.'"
Though she was fascinated with the Krishna way of life, Smith realized it wasn't for her. She decided to go into formal education, and was accepted to study at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. "I originally went for voice," she says. "After the first semester I switched to classical guitar, and the whole time I was studying sound engineering." Despite the change of focus, which she attributes to not having a voice that fit Berklee's "category for the vocal program," Smith still sings constantly, and makes it a central part of her music and creative process. "The first place that I compose is my voice, the instrument that's always with me. When I'm writing for other instruments it's where I start. I'll sing into my phone and then sing the harmonies. Then I'll [transpose] that to other instruments."
As she outlines her method, I think of how much it relates to EARS. Smith's music can sound as if it's breathing, from the air of the woodwinds to each composition's organic rhythm. Of course, it's all intentional. "When you're orchestrating woodwinds, for instance, it's good to know where the human breath will allow you to extend the line," she says, sounding somewhere between a music teacher and a bandmate. "I try to sing the part, and if I can sing it, they can play it."
It's nearly dusk as we approach the summit. Hikers congregate in the cluster of picnic tables to gaze at the vast metropolitan sprawl to the south, the Hollywood sign to the west, or the miniature of Glendale to the east. The view is striking in every direction and my mind goes to Koyaanisqatsi, Ron Fricke's 1982 documentary soundtracked by Philip Glass. Remembering Smith's love for minimalist composers, I bring up Terry Riley. "Isn't he everyone's influence?" she jokes, although the impact his music made on Smith was important. "The first piece I heard was A Rainbow In Curved Air, and I remembering just being like, 'Oh... It sounds like the universe. It sounds like DNA.' I think that was one of my first introductions to hearing keyboards in a classical way."
Smith shares an anecdote about when she attended a screening at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco. As is often the case, live organ music was being performed at the front of the stage while people were finding their seats. Smith noted how much the organist was "ripping off Terry Riley." She later looked at her program and discovered she had unknowingly caught a rare performance by the minimalist pioneer. We laugh at the coincidence. But when Smith shares a similar experience it feels more serendipitous: how she became friends with electronic music innovator and fellow Buchla devotee Suzanne Ciani.
"There are these community diners in Bolinas, and my husband and I cooked for one, and Suzanne was at it. I was talking with her, and she looked familiar but I couldn't figure out why. And then all of a sudden it clicked. I told her I play the Buchla, and she was like, 'What?! A person—let alone another female—who plays the Buchla?' So we just hung out non-stop since then." Smith and Ciani were living in the same Bay Area town, their relationship becoming one of teaching, learning and collaboration, with Smith sometimes offering technical assistance. If Ciani had a show to prepare for, Smith would patch her machine ahead of time; if something was wrong with one of Ciani's systems, Smith would research the problem and try to fix it. Their time together in Bolinas sharpened Smith's knowledge and technique, further strengthening her love for the Buchla.
"I feel like it can kind of get addictive, at least for me," she says. "It puts me in this flow state of, like, when your skill level is matched with challenge level. Or the challenge level is just about your skill level, so it puts you in that really present state, where you're trying to keep up with the challenge level. I get addicted to that feeling because it just empties my brain."
Ciani's tutelage had an immediate impact on Smith and enriched her other influences. "I think it was my first semester [at Berklee] that I heard Riley, and then I heard [Steve Reich's] Music For 18 Musicians. For me, that was so visceral, with the phasing, and that was the first time I'd felt that from music, a full body experience from it. I try to use that technique a lot, the phasing and creating a visceral experience." Indeed, those fingerprints are all over EARS, from its wandering arpeggiations to its classical sensibility. Ciani, Riley and Reich are among the most prominent touchstones for Smith's work, but their inspiration blends with other echoes from her musical history, like the mbira, a popular instrument in southern Africa that she discovered at a concert in her early 20s. "I play mbira a lot," she tells me, "and I think that's really influenced my musical subconscious, especially the polyrhythms. I feel like they're so embedded in me that it's just what comes out of me.
"Mbira is the spiritual instrument of how African cultures communicate with their ancestors," she continues. "The really special thing about mbira music is that it creates these overtones that make you start to hallucinate melodies, and they say that when you hear those melodies it's the ancestor talking to you. Then you're supposed to sing that melody." For Smith, those traditions are more than fascinating stories: they also have real applications in how she listens to music and composes. "From learning mbira, it's taught me to pay attention to that part of music. When two notes or two instruments are combining, they have all these overtones that create these other melodies. So that's where I'll use voice a lot: if I'm playing an instrument, and I can't physically play the other melody I'm hearing in my head, then I'll capture it in my brain in that way."
Smith's studied interests and intricate methods are part of a larger dichotomy at the core of her music, where orchestration meets accidents. "I really like that part of music where you feel like it has a mind of its own," Smith told me about her Buchla. "You're kind of riding the line of making it happen and feeling like it's also guiding your experience." Those concepts are reflected in her album's narratives, which she refuses to explain—she'd rather listeners allow the music to inspire their own stories.