Duelling identities: A conversation with Kayla Painter

Kayla Painter
Kayla Painter

The best art draws on heritage, a sense of identity. Work that tries to discover the artist’s place in the world through their creativity.

Cannibals At Sea, the latest EP from Bristol-based multimedia artist Kayla Painter is one such personal journey, as she explores her dual identities of Fijian roots and a British citizen in bleak times.

A recent short documentary (which you can view below) reveals the conceptual roots of a highly visual work, a sound painting that draws on Fijian mythology and folk horror narratives evoking the dark side of 1600s England. That is, at least, the conceptual starting point for painters work.

Regardless of roots, the result is an evocative electronic EP that transcends a specific time and place whilst bringing the listener into strangely reassuring familiar elements. Blending organic instrumentation (sometimes the subtle pluck of a guitar) with lush, textured electronics and haunting field recordings from eerie children’s conversations and the sounds of a bath, ‘Cannibals At Sea’ draws you in and envelopes you in its world.

Following on-air support from Gilles Peterson, Painter has just been announced on the bill of the legendary DJs new We Out Here festival in August.

Painter took time to talk through her evocative EP, her identity and her visual art:

How would you describe what you do?

I create experimental music using a variety of found sounds, soft synths and digital signal processing.

You’ve said this record is about exploring your identity – how, and why is this important to you?

All of my previous releases have been about something external, for example, either about a theme (space travel) or an idea about a future landscape, or a dystopian future.  For this record, I wanted to do something more personal.  I feel like I don’t often step out from behind the music to show my face, so that was what I wanted to do.  That’s why its such a different type of front cover too, I wanted to visually represent this record being more personal.

Exploring my identity was important to me because I was going through turmoil due to my parent’s separation when I wrote it.  They’ve been together since they were teenagers, so it really was about me noticing the Fijian side and the British side more explicitly, seeing what attributes had come from where, and processing the two different worlds they came from, and thinking about my place and identity as a result of their marriage which no longer stands.

What did you draw from Fijian mythology for it?

I was reading ‘Myths and Legends of Fiji and Rotuma’ at the time which talks a lot about the islands and relationships with the people on them.  There were particular stories such as ‘The Monster of Cakaudrove’ and ‘Flaming Teeth’ that paint a really vivid picture culturally around some island beliefs.  I drew a lot from the descriptions, I found them inspiring to create rich soundscapes with varied textures and rhythms.

How does your heritage influence your music, does it give you a different approach that solely British artists might not have?

I think the upbringing I’ve had has two very extremely different cultures intertwined, which has given me a different outlook to the next person.  I think everybody has a unique upbringing though, so whilst another artist may not have the same upbringing I don’t think that means they wouldn’t have an interesting or unique approach.  I think my personality is built on a bit of a culture clash that is residing in a small part of my mind which influences the way I communicate, which is evident in the music.

How does this EP balance the two sides of your identity?

It uses a lot at found sounds, nature, atmosphere, storytelling, rough broken or unfinished sounds which I think really comes from the Islander side.  When I’ve been to Fiji, or when I talk to my Fijian side of the family, I notice how hard they worked with their hands to build everything and create everything from scratch.  When visiting I went to see the river that my family washed their clothes in, it really was hard to ignore just how different life was for them.  I think creating and making things from scratch really is part of my nature which could partly be attributed to that side of my family.  The Fijian side of me is a bit crazy, I think that comes out in the precarious nature of some of the tracks and decisions I’ve made producing them.

Then it has the smooth textures, the cleaner sounds, the sounds I’d associate with more western culture, clean, precise and contained.  The use of a violin, of vocals, more standard sounds with more specific purposes.  There’s speech and humour in there too, in the samples I’ve used and how I’ve used them, and that’s definitely from my Dads side (he is British), he has an incredibly dry humour as did my Grandad.  That part of my identity is more practical, logical and straightforward, which I think is where I get my patience to painstakingly drag tiny audio clips around for hours to arrange the perfect beat.

How influenced are you by the current world around us when composing music?

It really varies.  Sometimes, a lot.  Quite often I get a feeling as a response to something happening in the world, and that feeling is then what informs my composition.  When I wrote Sacrificial Magic I was inspired by a lot of folk horror films I’d been watching and time I’d spent in the English countryside, which is how the video came about.

I think I tend to write about things I can’t understand.  Composing is a way of externalising some thoughts I can’t express and the process of writing helps me to understand them.

What does found sounds bring to your music?

Using my own sounds is a way of having a real audio signature, I think people know when its a Kayla Painter track because of the way I have treated the sounds.  I think having real sounds brings music to life, too.  My music could be quite cold and clinical without the found sounds, it also gives people a more colourful picture if they hear sounds, especially ones that they almost recognise.

On this record, there are things like, a jar opening, keys rattling, radio noise, kids playing, hitting wood, dry pasta in a bowl, cats purring, marbles in a run.  There isn’t any limit to what I’m willing to try when it comes to found sounds.  I enjoy it a lot.  What is exciting is importing sounds to see how you can manipulate and use them, as sometimes they’ll become totally unrecognisable, other times it’s nice to keep parts of the original essence of the sound.

What role does voice take in your music?

Quite often my voice is used to provide another texture to pieces.  Sometimes it will be arranged to make a basic melody.  With Sacrificial Magic I wanted Neil to sing on it because he has quite an unusual voice and I thought it would work perfectly with the track being hypnotic and creepy.  In some places, the humming or vocal noises (like in Kenopsia) was one of the first things to lay down.  In that sense the vocal was really to show emotion in the track (which is only later enhanced by the strings), I knew in my head how I wanted it to sound and even though I can’t sing properly, laying down bits and pieces was alright.

The EP is quite dark and foreboding, where does that come from? Is there a horror influence in it?

I think there’s maybe a few reasons why that’s the case.  One of the main bits of feedback I’ve had about my music is that there’s a darkness and a depth to it that is unexpected.  I think that’s part of my natural writing style.  But I also think the amount of horror films I’d been watching at the time had a big influence.  I do really enjoy horror, and reading about mythology and superstitions.  My Nani (Fijian Grandmother) is very superstitious and that side of my family believe in ghosts so I think there’s a lot of that in there, ghosts and echoes of memories and weird little flutters of things you aren’t sure if they are really there.

Explain yourself as a ‘multimedia artist’.

I am audio based mostly, but really I do have a very visual mind.  I have made several animations, (stop motion) which is something I love to do.  I think visually a lot, and when I’m writing music I can think about how a sound might appear which helps me to write as well.  I work with a visual artist now, but when I started out I did the music and the visuals myself.  I create the concepts for my artwork and sometimes create the artwork myself, I’ve also written and directed a couple of my own music videos.  So that’s where that comes from.

How important is it that you have control over the music and visual aspects of your art?

Very, although I do enjoy collaborating.  I think Jason (visual artist for the live show) has a very strong understanding of what the project ‘Kayla Painter’ is, so he is great to work with.  We have worked together many years and so the more time passes the more strength there is to the connection between the audio and the visual in the live show.  However, this is a creative partnership so he will come up with his own ideas and we will talk things through, it’s usually an open dialogue unless one of us has a really specific idea about something.  I also ask Jason for ideas about the setlist for shows, and feedback on my tracks, I feel that it’s important to have a bit of give-and-take otherwise the project can’t grow.

What do you feel you are able to achieve with that control?

I am able to bring my vision to life.  I have lots of ideas and I suppose with control I am able to guide ideas when other people are contributing to the music, the videos, the visuals etc.  In some areas when I work entirely alone (on some tracks for example) I will be very cagey about when people hear it, this is because I want to remain entirely in control until its finished in my mind.  Then, I can show it to people and if they don’t like it or they have feedback, I know I’ve already got out what I wanted to say.  There’s nothing more frustrating than getting input from people at the wrong time as if it was when I was halfway through a thought process.

Was there a piece of experimental music that opened your mind to aural possibilities?

It was probably more when I was exposed to thinkers such as Saussure, Baudrillard, and Adorno in combination with Cage’s 4:33.

That may be the most seemingly pretentious answer somebody could give, but it is the truth.  I was exposed to a lot of radical thinkers and artists when I was in University which really changed the way I listened to sound and thought about music.  There’s been no coming back from that, it totally blew my mind and I am so grateful for it as an experience.


Find more about Kayla Painter at her:

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