Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith on Vanilla Ice, Miyazaki Movies, and the Sound of Silence

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith will perform at FORM Arcosanti 2017.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith will perform at FORM Arcosanti 2017. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith doesn't play music so much as she paints it. At work behind her Buchla Music Easel, she crafts songs that twist and turn and are full of strange colors.

The Los Angeles-based composer is a wizard with modular synthesizers, conjuring myriad gorgeous tones and textures with her Music Easel. On albums like EARS, she creates shifting soundscapes that can evoke the sun-dappled warmth of New Age music as easily as they call back to the grimy, harsher sounds of nature. On songs like "Arthropoda", she makes her synth sound like a forest bed of cicadas erupting out of the soil. And while she lets her versatile electronic music do most of the talking, occasionally Smith's heavily processed voice drifts into her songs like a metallic-sounding ghost.

New Times talked with the composer about her upcoming appearance at the FORM festival at Arcosanti, her love for Miyazaki movies, and the virtues of silence.

The Buchla modular synths you play with are incredibly rare these days. Do you get stressed while touring with them?
I’m such a mom about it — I keep it with me at all times. I don’t let anyone else touch it or carry it.

You’ve mentioned before that you often experience synaesthesia while you’re composing music. When you make sounds, are you creating music based on images that are already forming in your head, or do the sounds precede the visuals?
It changes all the time. Whenever I’m making sounds there’s always visuals in my head. Sometimes I’ll see visuals and I’ll hear sounds. They’re always linked in some way.

In past interviews, you’ve talked about how sometimes you’ll hear sounds out in the natural world and try to replicate them in your own work. Almost as a kind of reverse-engineering Mother Nature's music. I was wondering if there were any sounds you’ve heard out there that you haven’t been able to recreate so far, despite your best efforts?
There’s one I haven’t figured out that I’ve been trying to work out. It’s the sound that happens when you’re at a beach with a lot of rocks on the shore and the waves crash onto it. You hear the rocks falling down, and it creates this crazy loud, cascading sound. I was trying to record it, but it’s really hard to capture. It’s an amazing sound — it gives me all sorts of ASMR feelings.

You've also talked about how you'd love to break into the world of film scoring. If you could score any filmmaker's work, who would you want to work with?
I haven’t thought about that! I mean, Miyazaki would be amazing. I love all the films that come out of Annapurna Pictures, I love the Coen brothers, I love Carroll — what’s his name? The guy who did Never Cry Wolf and Fly Away Home?

I have no idea.
It’s so interesting because a lot of the filmmakers that I would love to work with already work with such amazing composers. That’s why I love a lot of what’s coming out of Annapurna because it’s newer stuff that doesn’t already have that partnership of a director and a composer.

What about doing live film scores? Is that something you'd be interested in doing?
Oh yeah, I love doing that! I did it for some Harry Smith films. It was really fun — we did it here in LA, up on a rooftop.

You’ve cited the comic art of Moebius as an influence on your work. What kind of inspiration do you draw from his style?
The thing that I really like about his work is that he always has characters with so much intention. He doesn’t even have to have words there to make you feel that. If a character’s honorable, you can tell that about them without them saying anything. I love his stuff where it’s kinda peaceful and stark, and there’s this futuristic vibe  it feels very potent. It’s also what I like about Miyazaki movies  the intention that the characters have. It’s something that I try to aspire to in my own life.

And in terms of musical influences, what’s been on your mind lately? In the past, you’ve talked about the influence of artists like Terry Riley and Laurie Spiegel on your work. Who’s been bending your ear?
I listen to a lot of African music — the rhythms! I have a radio show on NTS where I play that kind of stuff. For me right now, though, my biggest influence is silence. I know that probably sounds weird. I’m hearing so much music that when I do experience silence I feel really refueled.

That makes sense — it’s like a palate cleanser.
Yeah! And experiencing silence also means that I don’t have to go to sleep with songs stuck in my head. That was plaguing my sleep for awhile.

What’s the worst earworm you’ve had to deal with?
Vanilla Ice. I actually know all the words to "Ice Ice Baby." To this day, it will still randomly pop into my head and I have to go through all the lyrics to make it stop.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is playing FORM Festival on Friday, May 12, at Arcosanti in Yavapai County.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley Naftule