By Hallie Switzer
The first time I ever heard Kaiya sing was in the auditorium of the Toronto high school we both ended up at. She sang her audition piece and I remember thinking, okay, this girl is good! Years later, I saw her perform at the Cameron House, now as a fully-fledged artist and musician. I remember her playing songs that would eventually make their way onto her album, and being floored by her voice equal parts gentleness and power.
Kaiya's new record CADE, recently released on Fox Food Records, is misty, moody and magical ambient-folk. I was captivated in from the get go. Firstly, because I love a good intro track. It tells the listener; hey, this is an album, a completed piece of art, not just a series of singles. Listen to the whole thing and lets go on a journey together. The first song off CADE does just that, weaves a haunting melody of layered harmonies and gentle percussion, as Kaiya sings, "Put your hand in my hand, for a moment" asking the listener to let go, and delve in. What follows on the 10-song album speaks to something deep inside. Repeat listening, poetic introspection and spontaneous modern dancing may ensue (or was that just me?).
I am always interested in artists that also study their art form in an academic context. Kaiya is currently doing her Master's Degree in Musicology at McGill University in Montreal, with a focus is on African American musical expression & religion, as well as the gender politics of the Freak-Folk tradition.
I had the chance to ask Kaiya some questions about inspiration, balancing the artistic and academic and setting the mood for songwriting. Check out her awesome answers below!
WIMA – What was your intro to songwriting like? What instrument do you write on?
Kaiya – I have been surrounded by musicians and songwriters since my earliest days as my family is comprised of blues, jazz, and r&b performers. My father, Brooke Blackburn, is a guitarist and songwriter, and has constantly inspired me to pursue songwriting and hone my instrumental skills. But beyond the circumstances of my upbringing, my songwriting has been heavily inspired and driven by my love for the work of Jose Gonzalez, Bon Iver, Joanna Newsom, The Weather Station, Feist, Andy Shauf, and other incredible creators. Listening to these artists, I have been motivated to create my own musical tapestries. I started songwriting properly in my latter years of high school when I began collaborating and busking with other musicians in my year.
My compositional process usually begins with the guitar, piano, and/or synthesizer. I usually begin writing on one of those instruments, then I sketch a vocal melody, and fill out the work with other harmonic and rhythmic layers. Narrative also plays a very
important role in my music-making, as each track stems from the conjuring of many images and storylines in my mind.
WIMA – What was your first even performance like?
Kaiya – I probably played little shows as early as my pre-teens at camp and other venues like that. But my first proper show with CADE (the folk quintet which is now myself, Wesley Allen, Adelaide Beach, Josh Bois, and Ian Wright) was at The Common in Toronto, ON (that show was played with Julian Clarke on drums). I can’t remember exactly but I think we were playing with our friends, Whitebrow. It was entirely acoustic. So it was quite demanding vocally but my goodness, it felt so organic and wonderful. My closest friends and family sat in the audience sipping wine, everyone cuddled together close in this tiny hole in the wall. It was perfect. It was then that I realized that if I was going to play shows, I’d want them always to be candle lit and cozy. The environment, for me, has to be conducive for quiet introspection.
WIMA – What was the process like of finding your vocal style?
Kaiya – Good question… I think my vocals have always been inspired by the aesthetics of artists like Enya, Norah Jones, Feist, Marika Hackman, Lauryn Hill, and Dinah Washington. Those are some of my biggest influences. I think when I was a little child, I tried to sound a lot like Enya and Norah Jones because I had those artists always playing in the background, particularly during the calmest, sweetest moments. I’ve been singing since I could speak so those early artists have made a significant imprint on my vocal styling. So, when I began singing and writing songs, I think I was simply emulating them. Then I started developing my own particular aesthetic that was a bit more experimental particularly in annunciation – some people thought I had an Irish accent actually. Then, in my early twenties to about the present, I’ve honed in a clearer, but still ephemeral and soundscape-like, aesthetic. We’ll have to see where my vocal aesthetic becomes, but for now, I find it to be a delicate intermingling of the head and chest voice.
WIMA – Do you have a songwriting ritual?
Kaiya – I almost always write music late at night, in a very meditative state, and often just before menstruating. This just happens to be a bit of a pattern – it’s not always the case, but I do find that before menstruation, my emotions are vey much brimming and pouring out of their poorly constructed cases. In these meditative evenings, I try to channel this emotional outpouring into constructive sonic expression. It very much is a ritual. It can be a very frustrating time, but when it works, it’s golden. I light candles, I get out the best possible equipment I can to capture the right sound (my compositional process is very tied in with my recording process). When the song is completed and the rough take is recorded, I then send it around to my dearest friends and hear their critiques.
WIMA – Is being a woman an important part of your identity as a musician? If so, how?
Kaiya – Very much so, although I don’t know exactly how to express the entanglement between my gender identity and musical expression. Perhaps it has primarily to do with my decisions in the music industry. I was scouted for a few different record labels in the past, but I wasn’t comfortable with being in a corporate room filled entirely with men, where I was the only female voice, functioning as a kind of creative commodity. I have been reluctant to release the CADE LP because I have had a hard time finding the right label and the right environment to release this music. I finally have with Fox Food Records – a very respectful, open-minded, accessible, and forward-thinking label.
I suppose my gender identity is also wrapped into my lyricism, and the style of my music, a style very indebted to the women composers of the Freak Folk tradition (artists like Vashti Bunyan and Sibylle Baier). My lyrics are almost always in the second person perspective and are sung from a woman’s perspective. The lyrical voice is usually directed conversationally to a lover, a partner, or a friend. In that sense, I suppose I am trying to access my own uniquely female interiority.
WIMA – I am always interested in artists that also study their art form in an academic context. How has your area of study impacted you as a musician?
Kaiya – I’m conducting my MA right now in Musicology on the Freak Folk tradition, so my research has definitely fueled my own creative pursuits by just bringing me closer to the artists I love, and allowing me access to their creative process. But academic work is its own beast. It is not as meditative or spiritual as composition can be. However, it encourages deeply analytical thinking, so every piece of music I make, and every decision I make regarding my presence in the music industry, is heavily influenced by the things I’ve learned through academic research and analysis.
My thesis focuses on the feminist revisionary practices of the women of Freak Folk. I’m trying to understand how their slightly avant garde musical expression mirrors their reaction against the patriarchal atmosphere of 1960s/70s counterculture. I like to think about the ways in which musical form mirrors social phenomena. So, I suppose, when I’m writing my own music, I have all of these larger processes in mind.
WIMA – How do you balance the academic and artistic sides of your life?
Kaiya – Naturally, I only write music at night. So, that does allow for a clear division between the two pursuits. As I put my books and screens away in the evening, I can relax and enter a different sphere of being when I begin composing. But of course, my academic work takes up a large part of my time so these days it is quite difficult to make meaningful music with the little extra time I have. I’ll be finished this MA in August 2018, however, and once that date arrives, I hope to pursue film composition and other music making more full-time.
WIMA – What were your inspirations for this record?
Kaiya – Feist, Noah Gundersen, Norah Jones, Enya, Lauryn Hill, The Weather Station, Merival, Bon Iver, Fionn Regan, Emilie Nicolas, Kings of Convenience, Jennifer Castle, Little Dragon, Jose Gonzalez, Radiohead, Junip, and perhaps a little bit of Rhye.
WIMA – What would be your dream show to play?
Kaiya – I would love to write a film score and perform it live with the film projected behind myself and my fellow musicians. That would be a dream. I played something small-scale like that once in a forest where we had a projector set up. I would love to do something like that on a larger scale. I would love it to be both electronic and acoustic, with perhaps Four Tet and Bonobo there to help out.
WIMA – If you could share CADE with 3 people in the world who would they be?
Kaiya – Off the top of my head, Four Tet, Alela Diane, and Michelle Obama
Thanks so much Kaiya!