Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Rick Moody Talk Physicality, Electricity, and Earworms

The electronic artist tells the novelist about the demanding journey she took in creating her new album.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is an electronic artist, composer, and producer; Rick Moody is the author of books like 1994’s The Ice Storm and last year’s The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. In light of the release of Kaitlyn’s new album, The Mosaic of Transformation, (out now via Ghostly International), the two hopped on a Skype call back in March to discuss the fascinating, demanding journey she took in creating it.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor 

Rick Moody: Hey, Kaitlyn, are you in LA now?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I am. What part of the world are you in? 

Rick: I’m in Providence, Rhode Island.

Kaitlyn: Oh, nice, that’s why you’re wearing a beanie. It’s almost a hundred degrees here. [Laughs.]

Rick: It’s almost wintery here right now, kind of awful. 

Kaitlyn: At least it’ll be a really green spring. 

Rick: So how are you doing in your LA quarantine?

Kaitlyn: I’m OK. I have a lot that I’m working on, and I naturally keep myself really busy because I grew up doing homeschooling so it’s just part of me to keep my schedule really full of self-led projects. So I’m doing a lot of that, and making time to check in with how I’m feeling with everything, because it’s a lot to process and I don’t want to ignore it. It’s such a big shift, I wanna leave room for answers to, what can I do to help? And what is the next step in these changes? Because it seems like it’s shifting in such a big way. What about you?

Rick: Well, I just this week got the dreaded call about extended family members getting sick.

Kaitlyn: Oh, no, I’m sorry.

Rick: Yeah, and I’ve got elderly parents, so that’s been worrisome. Providence itself is relatively unimpaired so far, just because it’s small and not too many people live here, comparatively. But a lot of my family is in New York City and Connecticut, and those places have struggled with a lot of transmission. So it was  just inevitable that someone would get sick. It’s just worrisome a little bit. 

Kaitlyn: Well, I hope that they stay safe and recover quickly. 

Rick: So I’m interested in how creative people are adapting their practice to this at-home-almost-all-the-time moment. Can we talk about what kinds of creative stuff you’ve been doing?

Kaitlyn: Right now I’m at a certain part in my process that is usually the exhale, the sharing part, because I just finished making an album and am releasing it. So it’s usually the part where I go out and play it, and I kind of allow that time to simultaneously be the inhale for the next thing that I’m going to work on. So it was interesting to process that there isn’t really going to be an exhale right now — I just have to go back into it. So, I’m trying to keep a practice each day with what it would be like to expand on these songs that I’m releasing, and try to write over them for the live show, just to be like, why not. Maybe there will be a live show in a year, and why not just expand it even more. 

That’s only about an hour of my day. I try to leave that as a daily exercise, just to keep the muscle memory of what I was working on so I don’t lose it. Then usually when I am about to go into a new project, I start a daily practice with listening, so this is actually really conducive for that practice. I usually just put myself into a space and listen to either nothing — I just close my ears and listen and wait to hear what’s there — or I listen to two tones and try to hear music within the two tones. So I’m doing a lot of that, and then giving my music a little bit of a break besides those two practices and focusing on other outlets of creativity, because it kind of feels like I need to clean after each project. I’d rather clean with bad drawings than music. [Laughs.] So I’m doing a lot of bad drawings. What about you?

Rick: I have a three year old, so I’m in that position where a lot of the quarantine has been about spending time with my son. We’ve actually done a ton of bad drawings too. I really love, love, love doing art with him. We’ve been doing almost a daily art practice — he’s at that age where he wants to use art representationally, so I’m trying to help him preserve the abstraction muscle a little bit. Today we used sticks from the yard as paint brushes, and then I have this primitive watercolor box that I bought at Ikea. It’s been a godsend. Those same 12 or 14 colors, so limiting, but he has such a, “Let’s mix all the colors together and see what happens!” kind of approach that it’s been incredibly rewarding. 

Kaitlyn: I like that a lot. 

Rick: I write fiction mainly, but it’s been a little hard to write. I’m still teaching this semester, but I have been keeping a little piece of spacetime going that’s just a catalog of things that I can see and find in the immediate environment of my house that are unaffected by the virus. We have a 300 year old Copper Beech tree in our yard — the beech tree saw the 1918 flu, the beech tree saw the Revolutionary War. So I’m making this list of things, like our tree, that are unconcerned by or unworried by the tragedy happening around us. 

Kaitlyn: Oh, wow, I like that. It does feel like it’s a really nice time to reconnect with nature. Where we live, there’s a group of wild parrots that are kind of taking over right now. They’ve always been here, but they’ve really grown in the past two weeks — there’s, like, fifty of them now. It used to be just small gatherings of five, but they’re taking over now and they’re very loud. 

Rick: Are they formerly domesticated parrots, or offspring of formerly domesticated parrots? 

Kaitlyn: I think so. I think I heard that they got released from some sort of arboretum, or something like that. 

Rick: So I read your Guardian piece the other day, and I was really interested in — well, besides the fact that you turned me on to that mbira website. 

Kaitlyn: I’m so happy that you went to that! It’s got so much amazing music that you can’t find anywhere else. I’m obsessed with that website.

Rick: I bought myself a CD of mbira songs, which I’ve been really loving. But I was interested in a couple of things that you mentioned in the Guardian. For example, you described touring as a full-scale challenge to your artmaking. I was interested in that, in how you prepare yourself for that, and what kinds of recovery efforts help balance you afterward. 

Kaitlyn: It’s a really interesting question, because honestly I’m still figuring it out. I have some things that seem like they’re over-prepared measures, but my suitcase is mostly full of, like, if I get sick, then I have this remedy. It’s mostly full of herbs, and things to counterbalance jet lag and just being in closed venues that have weird circulation, and being around fog machines. That was something I actually didn’t think about for a while being a concern to my health; then I started reading about it, and those things are actually really gnarly for you. If you’re touring, you’re around them onstage a lot. 

The biggest thing has been just having a consistent physical practice. That has been the thing that has been the most helpful, because it excites me so much that I want to wake up for it. So I don’t stay up later than I should, even on tour; I try to be conservative of my energy so that I don’t get sick and I’m able to do this physical practice. I feel like it makes it really consistent for me to be able to put my health first, just so that I’m able to do this thing that I love in addition to touring. Now I’m trying to put them together where I have the physical practice be part of the performance, so it’s even more that I have to stay balanced. 

Rick: Can I ask about the physical practice? Because it’s so generative of the album in a way. Or that’s what it seems to me as a listener — the two things are inextricably linked, the music and your physical practice. Can you describe it, and how it turns into music? 

Kaitlyn: It all started from this block I was experiencing after I got sick, where I just couldn’t get past this mental block of feeling like it was impossible to recover, impossible to tour and feel healthy. All these things felt impossible and I was really struggling with it. Something that I learned when I was younger, during the homeschooling — one of the mentors I had was really encouraging about finding exercises that stack functions, so you’re learning and accomplishing things at the same time. So I was like, OK, I’m gonna try to put all areas of my life together into one goal so I can try to break through this impossible mental block from all angles

I wanted something that was a very easy way to see if I’m breaking through the mental block, by picking something physical that I could see progress if I’m able to break through it. I decided to pick hand-balancing, because I went to one of those orchestra circus shows and I was watching someone perform and felt this spark of inspiration that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I didn’t even understand why, I just felt it. I was like, that’s impossible for me to ever be able to do that. It felt like a symbol for what I was going through, so I decided to pursue that. And I’m still on that journey — it’s not like I’m a hand-balancer. [Laughs.] The thing that I feel like this album has helped me with is finding a path to continue through this mental block, and to just move forward through it. 

It also connected with the initial spark that the album came from, which was just the answer to me asking myself the question, what brings me joy? Because I felt like if I was going to heal these physical things in a sustainable enough way to make music and tour, I have to really connect with that seed. The answer to that kept coming back to electricity, and just feeling really connected and in admiration of electricity in its many forms. At the time, I was beginning to understand the nervous system, because part of my health issues had to do with that — it was this big a-ha moment when I learned that the nervous system is the electrical system in your body. So it felt like this really amazing connection to do this physical stuff where I’m learning to work with the electricity in my body, and then go and make music with electricity. It became this devotional act to electricity. 

Rick: When you get to that point, when you have the theme of the album, how do you go from there to generate melodic material? What happens first?

Kaitlyn: That’s where all of the mental blocks really came into play. It was really challenging. I felt this deep spark within me toward hand-balancing and electricity, but I didn’t know how to make sound for it. But I heard it so clearly — that was the thing that was so frustrating in the beginning, because when I would close my ears, I heard it perfectly. I was like, OK, at least I have this reference here of what the sound is. So I just would make the physical practice and this practice of showing up to create the music my daily routine. I would show up, close my ears and listen to what was there, and try to make it. I definitely rewrote the album, like, 12 times, and it was really painful how many emotions it brought up of not being able to match it. They both became my symbol of, oh, this isn’t just my frustration toward not being able to get somewhere with the music today, this is deep frustration that is making me sick right now. So I would work on the music, find out what emotions it brought up, and try to find the source of those emotions that was deeper than working on the album that day, then do the physical practice to try to transform it and move through it. Then repeat every day. 

Rick: When you say that you tore down the early versions, did you really tear them down to nothing, or was there stuff that was useful on those early versions? 

Kaitlyn: It was interesting, I kept on trying to get to the backbone. Like, what’s the steady spine of this album that remains no matter how much I carve at it and how much my emotions try to change it? What’s the undertone? That’s what remained — the album that I’m sharing now is the thing that was always there. 

Rick: One thing I really love is the sort of eruptions of vocal material in the midst of the songs. These huge, stacked vocal sections come out of nowhere and are so beautiful. I was wondering how you conceptualized that. Did you make the instrumental music and then make the vocal music separately, and just sort of drop it in the middle? Or did you begin with an understanding that the oscillation between electronic and the beautiful vocal sections? 

Kaitlyn: It was different for each song. For the last song, “Expanding Electricity,” that one was a very clear idea and it took a lot of experiments figuring out how to do it. But it was very much just closing my ears and being like, I can hear it, I know how to do it! Then some of the others were actually more exercises of me trying to connect with my heart. There’s this one called “The Steady Heart,” and the way I recorded the vocals for that was: I did 40 takes — I didn’t write it at all ahead of time, these are all the first 40 takes you’re hearing on there. I would mute the last one so I wouldn’t know what I sang before, and then record the next one and mute it. Then I just unmuted all of them at the end and was like, oh, OK, I guess that’s it! Then they just worked that way. 

Rick: And what about the lyrics? I was excited to ask you about your lyric-writing practice.

Kaitlyn: I tend to write from phonemes, because I feel like the shape of the mouth is so important. So while I’m listening, I wait to feel first like, what is the air supposed to feel like in my mouth? And then I kind of just make gibberish for a really long time. From that, usually a word emerges, so I just repeat that until a clear thought happens from that. 

Rick: When you were improvising 40 tracks of yourself, did you improvise the lyrics too? 

Kaitlyn: So that song — the melody and the words came one day when I was walking, so I already knew the melody and the words, I just didn’t know it was gonna line up. It was just kind of like a mantra that my heart kept singing to me. 

Rick: Did you already have instrumental themes before you got to the vocal sections, or was the vocal section the heart center of the piece? 

Kaitlyn: It’s different on each song. The very first seed of the whole album was actually these pipe organs I had access to in Calgary — it was these old wooden pipe organs, and you could send MIDI to them. So did a residency with them and collected a bunch of these pipe organ sounds. I would go for walks and just listen to them, and start to hum over them. The melodies never came from that, but they came later, where it was fed into my subconscious.

Rick: I was really interested in the presence of the organ, because you’re so understood to be an innovator with modular synthesizer, so the fact that the organ sound is so the center of the record struck me as really important and developmentally interesting.

Kaitlyn: I actually didn’t even know that the organs were there. I got asked to do a residency for their synthesizer collection, and they have an amazing synthesizer collection but I fell more in love with the organs. I know most people know me as a synthesist, but before that I mostly wrote for orchestral instruments. In school, that was mostly what I wanted to do, but when I got out of school, I didn’t have access to that. It’s definitely an underbelly of all of my synth-writing, trying to find that air quality that orchestral instruments have. So the pipe organ was especially exciting to me, because it had that sort of fluttery air sound to it. 

Rick: Can we go back to the electricity question for a moment? I was really interested in what electricity means to you now for the album, and especially in the relationship between bodies and music-making. 

Kaitlyn: To be honest, that’s why I wrote the album, because it was so hard for me to put into the English language. I felt my answer to everything in sound where I couldn’t quite figure out how to put it into words. But I want to try to see if maybe it’s gotten any better. [Laughs.] I guess my appreciation for electricity is that it’s what animates life; it’s what creates movement, and it’s what brings life to our devices and what brings life to us. Whenever I try to say it in the English language, it feels so simple, but it’s just my appreciation for the energy of life, but whenever I try to put it into sound, it feels like I have so much to say about it. So I think that’s why I chose to write an album about it, through sound. 

Rick: Does that thought about electricity have a spiritual footing for you? 

Kaitlyn: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to know what one person’s context for spiritual thought is. To me it’s actually just the foundation of life, it’s part of nature. I think electricity has multiple layers and it can have a spiritual aspect to it, but a part of the physical practice was me appreciating it in the sort of grounded, earth level of it — this element of nature that’s in everything, and what better way to learn about it than to learn about my own nervous system and my own electricity. 

Rick: In your Guardian piece, I was also really into your critique of earworms. You said that there’s certain music that you won’t listen to — and this is how I interpreted it — because you get earworms from listening. I thought, in part, that you were talking about four-on-the-floor dance music kind of stuff that can really get lodged in the head. But I find the earworm critique absolutely fascinating because it’s a problem area for me too. A lot of popular music I cannot listen to, because if I listen to it even once I’ll have to listen to it for, like, six days, especially at night when I’m sleeping poorly. The only other person I know who has talked at length about this problem is a serious music composer friend of mine — a modernist non-tonal type of guy. He says he does what he does because it’s the only music that he can listen to without getting earworms from it. Is your struggle similar?

Kaitlyn: That’s actually why I love mbira music so much, because my brain just surrenders and receives sound; it doesn’t try to follow it. I love polyrhythms for that reason, that my brain feels like it can just be like, OK, there’s just a bunch of stuff going on. I don’t need to know what’s happening. That’s something I’m always trying to create in my own music as well, to create a bunch of unstable sounds, so many that they become stable and feel like they’re their own moving rhythmic system that you don’t have to follow. Mostly because for my own sake, I don’t want to listen to something over and over again with a rhythm that I can really keep track of with my brain. The way that I play, I keep track of it with my muscle memory from practicing it so many times, but my brain is left out because of the polyrhythm, which something I always try to keep in my music so that I don’t have to have the chatter. For some reason, whenever there’s something my brain understands musically from going to music school and just studying music, it likes to talk to me and I don’t like hearing that. Like, this is doing this and this and this, and I’m like, no, go away. [Laughs.] 

Rick: You mean, oh, it’s all 1-4-5, or something? 

Kaitlyn: Yeah, it’s starts to get all music school-y. But I do really appreciate pop music, so I’ll give myself these windows where I’m allowed to listen to it. Like, if in the car for a very short amount of time, I’ll let myself listen to it. But I also grew up in a house where my mom was singing constantly what she was doing, and that’s very much a part of my behavior. Without even thinking about it, I’m singing all the time, and if I start to have a lot of pop songs in my listening repertoire, my husband gets really annoyed because I’m singing them all the time. [Laughs.]

Rick: [Laughs.] Can you expand on this muscle-memory approach to composition? Is it as if you say, I wanna put my pinky on this key, and my index finger on this key, and that’s how you remember the piece? Not what the melody sounds like? 

Kaitlyn: I rely more on my muscles and my bones and my nervous system to tell me how to write music than I do on my music theory. I use it if I need it, but I find more comfort in letting my body lead the process. It feels more like I’m choreographing a dance that way, and I feel like it brings out more novel decisions, like I get to be in the witness brain space while I’m creating if I do like what you were saying, where I’m just like, I want my hand to reach over here so what could I do for my hand to reach over here. I really like creating from that place.

Rick: The new record also seems to me that it’s all one piece — do you think of it as separate songs, or is it all one piece? 

Kaitlyn: For me, it’s different phases in my journey. But they’re all saying the same thing, and they all have reoccurring themes within each other that are all the themes of electricity. 

Rick: It’d be really cool to do an orchestral version of this someday.

Kaitlyn: I know, I wanna do that! I wrote out all the parts for it, because my initial idea was to get an orchestra to perform it for the album, but I didn’t have the financial resources for that. So I was like, OK, I’ll just write out all the parts so if an orchestra does want to perform it, I’ll have it all ready to go. If whoever’s reading this knows of an orchestra who wants to, the parts are ready. 

(Photo Credit: left, 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)