Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Emile Mosseri on Taking Care of Their Creativity

The new collaborators talk artistic routines, self-doubt, and more.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is an electronic artist, composer, and producer; Emile Mosseri is an author and composer who wrote the Academy Award-nominated soundtrack for Minari, along with the scores for films like Kajillionaire and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The two were mutual musical admirers and, after realizing they were also neighbors, soon became collaborators as well. The result is a two-part album, I Could Be Your Dog — the first part of which is out now via Ghostly International — and to celebrate, the duo sat down to catch up about it, and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: So, my first question for you is: How do you take care of your creativity?

Emile Mosseri: Oh, that’s a good first one. I don’t know, maybe self-compassion, and trying not to force it when something’s not there, when I don’t have access to it. I feel like when I was younger, I used to feel like I had to finish things, even if I wasn’t inspired, just to get in the habit of finishing something for the sake of the craft and keeping that muscle strong or whatever. But then I would always love one little piece of a song, or one little piece of the piece of music, but didn’t think the rest of it lived up to that, so I got stuck in this way where I wouldn’t want to finish something and waste the one really good piece with the other sort of filler shit. But now I don’t really force it as much, I’m a little bit more easy on myself with it. I can let something live for a while unfinished. 

I think film music helped that too. Writing music for film helps, because a lot of stuff, like a melody that you can never find the right lyric for or something like that, that’s been sitting around, you would think is in the trash can can be actually, gold in another medium. It could be fresh and new and have new life when it’s set against a picture, you know? The same was true with our thing, too. One thing sort of unlocked another thing. It made it easier to finish stuff because it didn’t feel like it was all on me or all on you — it was two people on the case.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Emile: Anyway, I like that question. How do you take care of your creativity?

Kaitlyn: I guess, something that we’ve talked about before, just always mixing things up to keep novelty present — whether that means mixing up the time of day that I’m working or where I’m working, or the type of equipment that I’m using or what I start with. I think routine tends to squash my creativity, so anything that mixes it up.

Emile: Yeah, it’s the art of tricking your brain into making it feel like it’s not work. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. Once you have routine — routine feels like work, it feels like familiarity, it feels like accountability. You know, you have to get this done. The sort of repetitive nature of that can squash all of the all of the good stuff, the creative juices. It always helps when I’m doing something that I shouldn’t be doing — like if I’m supposed to be making a record, then like, sneaking off and writing this piece of music for this film or something. Or I’m supposed to be finishing a film score, then sneaking off and writing songs. I feel like being sneaky is a piece of it, because you are just doing something that you’re not supposed to be doing. 

I used to teach guitar lessons and to kids — every once in a while, I had a kid that was really inspired and good, but I mostly hated it. But I remember when the kid would go to the bathroom, I would write something that I really liked in the, like, 30 seconds I had to myself with an instrument. I feel like that’s because I wasn’t supposed to be doing that. It’s hard when you sit down like, I gotta write something good right now, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I blocked out three hours to write. It’s really hard to grab stuff out of the air in that space, because there’s a feeling of responsibility that gets in the way. Whereas when a kid that you’re teaching guitar lessons to is in the bathroom, you’re free. Even if it’s only for like two minutes, you’re free.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, it’s like that low stakes, high stakes moment.

Emile: Yeah.

Kaitlyn: What’s your what’s your least favorite part of making music? 

Emile: Whoa. I don’t know. My least favorite part of making music, I think, is when I ask myself if it’s good or not. If that thought makes its way into the process and pollutes the process, which it often does, that’s my least favorite part. It’s like measuring it up against things that I think are great, or thinking or like, I wonder what this person is going to think of this? That’s my least favorite part. But it’s hard, it’s a lifelong struggle to try to turn that part of your brain off. 

Kaitlyn: Yeah. 

Emile: You actually once told me something that really helped me, which was that when you prepare for a show, you visualize an audience, and then if somebody’s looking at you judgmentally in the audience that you visualized, you examine what part of yourself that is that’s looking — you know, because it’s all you. Like when someone insults you in a dream you had, that’s just something you think about yourself. It’s that piece of yourself that’s self-critical or wanting to be great, or wanting to be accepted or wanting to be celebrated.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, that inner pressure is such a hard element to mix in with the creative process.

Emile: Yeah. The accountability is good when it’s external, like the pressure is there and you have to sort of sink or swim, you have no choice but to make something, and to make something great because it’s a deadline or something. I think that kind of pressure can help just get things done, just facilitate finishing things. But when it comes from inside, it can be really toxic. But, you know, that’s part of the deal.

Kaitlyn: Yeah. I feel like we learn so much about ourselves from those inner-outer confrontations. Every time that I take on a new creative project, I feel like I’m working through some sort of self-work to be able to create something, because I feel like it’s such a nebulous, hard to articulate thing that we’re doing as musicians, or just artists in general. You’re grabbing something that’s existing in a non-physical form and putting it in a physical form, and it seems like it’s bound to get interrupted by parts of yourself.

Emile: Yeah, absolutely. That’s cool, I never heard it put that way. You’re grabbing something that doesn’t exist in a physical form, but exists because it comes from something, from inspiration. There’s only so many notes, too, you know — you’re just putting them together and in a way. Tom Waits said that he always thought songs were just really interesting things to do with the air. 

Kaitlyn: [Laughs.] I love that.

Emile: He says it with his amazing delivery. But yeah, it’s just vibrations, and that’s all it is. You’re just doing interesting things with the air.

Kaitlyn: Have you ever dreamed a song?

Emile: I have, yeah. Sometimes they’re OK. I dream melodies that are OK, if I have the willpower to wake up and record them. I often convince myself, like, You’ll remember this, just go back to sleep, because the laziness in me is really strong. 

I dreamt, once, a catchphrase, and I got famous off of it in my dream — like, I made millions, I put it on coffee mugs and bumper stickers, and I remembered what it was. It was: “Drink now or forever hold your cup.” You know, the message being, I guess, like, live in the moment, live your life.

Kaitlyn: [Laughs.] Yeah. That’s deep.

Emile: I don’t know, I haven’t really pursued it, but I don’t think there’s a lot of money in that like there was in my dream. How about you, do you dream musically? Have you ever grabbed something that you’ve released from a dream?

Kaitlyn: No, I’ve never had that experience. I always have a narrator in my dream, and my dreams are always like I’m in school and the narrator is like, “OK, here’s the situation. This is what we’re learning.” I don’t have the most fun, free form dreams. They’re always very methodical and like, “OK, here’s what you’re here to do.”

Emile: Yeah, that’s good, though. That’s productive. You have a productive subconscious. It’s sort of connected in a way to to like the way that you make music — [it’s] so exciting and so foreign to me. There’s some element of preparation to what you do and foresight to what you do, and then once you create that environment with a little bit of prep, then these overtones and frequencies and things are interacting, and you’re finding the sort of the flow and the music in that. Rather than, like for me, I can hardly even take a breath and plug in a guitar pedal before I just skip over and plug in directly to the amplifier and just try to grab something. I don’t have the discipline that I’d like to have.So to hear that you dream that way, because you are such a deeply creative and inspired person, that you also have the ability to take a second and maybe read a manual every once in a while, that’s pretty impressive to me. 

My dreams are a fucking mess. What I can remember of them, they’re just a mess. And every once in a while, something will be helpful or constructive, but it’s very rare. But it’s interesting that school is a part of it, too, that you have a narrator that’s like school. I have a recurring nightmare that there’s some math class that I haven’t showed up to in, like, 12 weeks and there’s a test. I still have that dream sometimes, even as a 36 year old man.

Kaitlyn: Oh, wow. I think school also has this romance to it for me, because I was home schooled and did independent study. 

Emile: Oh wow, so school was like an exciting thing. 

Kaitlyn: Yeah. 

Emile: It wasn’t, it was the worst for everybody! Nobody had a good time. You didn’t miss much.

Kaitlyn: It’s interesting, I remember when I was doing independent study and I would talk to people who were in school in the same district, I found out later that all the people who did independent study had to read the books from start to finish — like every single page of the textbook — and people who were in school only had to read sections of it.

Emile: That’s probably why you’re able to, like, read a manual for a piece of equipment and I’m not capable of it. Any synthesizer I’ve ever had, I’m only using, like, five percent of its capabilities, because I’ve maybe read five percent of the textbooks.

Kaitlyn: I’m that way too, though, I don’t actually read the manuals that often. Sometimes I do, but I feel like it’s so much more fun to just learn it through a relationship, like through a friendship. Like the synthesizer is your friend.

Emile: I love that. But I do think there is something to be said for having some discipline, or just taking the time to unlock more out of that relationship with the instrument, whether it’s a synthesizer or a piano or guitar or your own voice. I’ve found that in the past, through studying or learning songs or learning pieces of music that it can enrich your own musical vocabulary. 

I do do it sometimes — not with synth manuals, I’ve never done that — but with learning songs. Or to go back to your first question, taking care of your creativity — there was a time where I wanted to write something every day, I wanted to finish something, but if I couldn’t, if I wasn’t feeling inspired, then I would use that time to just learn a song. You know, any song that I always wanted to know all the lyrics to, or or learn a chord progression or melody. That’s still time that’s usefully spent.

Kaitlyn: Yeah, because then it’s embedded in your muscle memory.

Emile: Yeah. 

Kaitlyn: Have there been any auxiliary activities from your youth, or recently, that have inspired your music? Like anything outside of music.

Emile: That’s a good question. I think about that a lot, because during the pandemic, we weren’t experiencing that much. So like, what are you writing about? Where’s the music coming from if every day is the same and you’re in your house, you know? I don’t have any specific experiences that unlocked music for me — it’s usually another person or, like with us, it was you and your work and your music and what music you’ve written in the past and the music that you sent me. And for a film, it’s what’s happening in the story that sort of kick starts the creativity or unlocks the melodies. 

But an actual experience that’s not music related, like playing paintball or going swimming or playing tennis or something — I haven’t had that experience. Maybe because I don’t do those things. Maybe if I played tennis more, I would. I don’t know, it’s a good idea just to get out of your routine, I think.

Kaitlyn: Oh, my gosh. The tennis ball sound is such a good sound.

Emile: It is, yeah, it’s a great sound. Tennis is also fun every once in a while — I play tennis with my wife once every two months for, like, half an hour. We’re both miserable at it, just like completely worthless at it, but it is fun because you’re kind of like doing something together, but you also have space. We haven’t gotten to the place that we actually keep score, we just kind of hit the ball back and forth. But it is sonically nice, the sound of the ball on the strings.

Kaitlyn: The nylon or whatever it is.

Emile: Yeah. The tennis racket is like a guitar — you know, as kids, you flip them around and pretend to play guitar on them, like a washboard kind of sound on the strings. 

Kaitlyn: What do you like to do to get amped up?

Emile: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t usually have to get pumped up for anything, I guess. Before the pandemic, before we played shows with the band, we would get pumped up like, “Let’s do this, let’s go!” It was fun, that moment — that’s the thing I miss the most about playing shows, is the moment right before you play a show and there’s people pressed up against the stage, and you’re about to do something where you kind of turn your brain off and do this thing. That moment of anticipation right before is, like, actually the most powerful drug, I think, and the thing I miss the most.

Kaitlyn: Yeah. Do you feel that before writing something? Is there that suspension feeling?

Emile: No, never. There’s other rewarding things about writing music and releasing music, but there’s no substitute for that.

Kaitlyn: Yeah.

Emile: Did you feel that the other night at The Ford [in LA, where Kaitlyn played with Julianna Barwick]? 

Kaitlyn: Oh, my gosh, I felt so many things that I forgot about. For one, I felt incredibly nervous, because it had been three years and I never took a break when I was growing my live experience — like from my first show in a classroom when I was at Berklee, or my first show for my family, from then on, I never took a break. So I had to do so much inner navigating before I played, because my hands were shaking, soI was like, OK, I gotta sort this so that it doesn’t get in the way.

I actually had such a profound experience watching Julianna play before I went on. She helped me really finally break through stage fright. Because I’ve had stage fright my whole life and my way of coping with it has always been to give myself a lot of things to do — so I think modular is really helpful for that. And when I was listening to her, and just having such a long break from playing, I really got to soak in just the experience of how fun it can be to connect with people in this way. I felt like I finally got centered in being able to enjoy the experience of playing music for people rather than just like, Oh, my god, I hope this goes well, because usually that’s how I’m feeling before. Just like, Oh, my gosh, so many things can go wrong. Fingers crossed it doesn’t

Emile: This way, you felt like you could actually tap into being present in that moment and enjoying it, and not just letting the anxiety drive the bus? Were there moments while you were on stage playing that you felt like, Oh, wow, I’m back home?

Kaitlyn: Yeah. It was definitely one of those moments where it felt like a decision before I played of like, This is my life and I’m going to choose to enjoy this moment instead of get consumed by anxiety and just savor it, because I don’t know when I’m going to be able to play another live show

Emile: You’ll play many, many more.

Kaitlyn: I hope so. It was super fun. I have one more question for you: Going back to how do you take care of your creativity, what do you feel like is the meaning of making music? Why do you feel like it’s important to make music?

Emile: Oh, wow, you saved the biggest one for the end. I’m trying to figure out how to answer without sounding so cheesy. The first thing I think of is that it’s not a choice — you feel like you have to do it. But that sounds kind of like what everybody says, and it’s self-important or something, to say it’s your calling.

To me, it’s the the thing that I like equalizes me. I don’t really know how to go on vacation — I recently did and I had an amazing time, but I don’t know how to be somewhere without an instrument for two weeks. I think making music, at its worst, can be wrapped up in your self-worth, like you’re only as good as your music. At its best, it’s like a way that you’re actually putting something out into the world that’s connecting with people. It’s really hard for me sometimes to distinguish between the two. Like the sort of narcissistic side of putting something out there and it being celebrated, or however that manifests, and the part of it [that’s] playing a show or releasing music and connecting with people. Because they’re like cousins, they’re very related. When somebody tells you that you’re great, or when somebody tells you that something that you wrote helped them or meant something, they’re very related. But one of them feels pure and the other one feels somehow perverse, you know? 

Kaitlyn: Yeah. 

Emile: It’s really sometimes hard to distinguish between the two. But I’m working on that more, to actually be compassionate to the part that me that would call that perverse. Because we all have an intrinsic need to be seen that we sort of develop at a very, very young age with our parents — they see us, and we see that they see us and there’s that social transaction that we are trying to recreate musically. Any artist is trying to be seen, otherwise we wouldn’t record our music or we wouldn’t play shows. We would just hang out and bang on pots and pans in a room or whatever. The whole point is to be seen. So to be compassionate with that part of yourself is, I think, important.

Kaitlyn: That’s beautiful.

Emile: How about you? Do you do you feel like you can articulate what making music means to you, or why you do it? Or how you would survive without it?

Kaitlyn: This is going to sound really lame, but the first movie I ever went to go see in the theater was Lion King, and I remember experiencing a trailer — and a good trailer has this ability to capsulate an entire scope of someone’s journey in a minute or so — and I remember feeling the feeling of that journey every time that I saw a trailer. I remember every trailer left me feeling ready for a montage. And that kind of began my own journey of just loving how music creates feelings, and just how I think feelings are such a gift that we all have, of just being able to maneuver through all these different landscapes of feelings. There’s so much beauty in every feeling. So I guess that’s what I connect to music the most. And I guess if I wasn’t doing music, I would probably do dance — something else with feeling. 

(Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson)

The composer/electronic musician/healer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album The Mosaic of Transformation on Ghostly International is the follow up to the critically acclaimed 2017 album The Kid.

For her, expressions found in the physical body’s relationship to sound and color became the foundational frequency of the new album. A bright, sensorial glide through unbound wave phenomena and the radiant power discovered within oneself, with a distinct healing quality to it that existed long before society’s recent shift. Katilyn continued to explore the endless possibilities of electronic instruments as well as the shapes, movements, and expressions found in the physical body’s relationship to sound and color. It is this life-guiding interest that forms the foundational frequencies of the new album.  While writing and recording, she embraced a daily practice of physical movement, passing electricity through her body and into motion, in ways reflecting her audio practice, which sends currents through modular synthesizers and into the air through speakers.

Not a dancer by any traditional definition, she taught herself improvisatory movement realizing flexibility, strength, and unexpectedly, what she calls “a visual language” stemming from the human body and comprised of vibrational shapes. Understood as cymatics, as she says, “as a reference for how frequencies can be visualized,” much like a mosaic.

(Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson)