Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith wrote The Mosaic of Transformation as a spiritual process, trying to understand the mental blocks that made music, life, and everything else feel impossible.   “This album was a tool for me to heal this mental block by finding a way to embody the music,” she explains. 

Embodying the music is a physical process.  She makes the shapes that she hears in music with her body through a yoga-like discipline.  It allows Smith to tap into the music she hears in her head, first as an inchoate rumble made up of all of the sounds that ever were, then as distinct compositions that she must decode and translate for the physical world.   

Smith noticed this inner symphony first in long, solitary walks and later in concentrated listening sessions, sitting very still, fingers in ears, opening herself up to it.  For her current album, The Mosaic of Transformation, she sought to embody the music she heard, with all its contradictions, in a series of yoga-like poses, one of which is shown on the album cover.  In this interview, we talk about her unusual process, her inner source of inspiration, her gorgeous new album and the way that other people might find similar resonances within themselves if they only stopped to listen.  words/j kelly

Aquarium Drunkard: What is a Mosaic of Transformation? What exactly is being transformed?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Boy, you went straight to the deep question. There’s a lot of different layers to it. I guess the way that I approached it was kind of inspired by music theory, where it isn’t necessarily a linear process. It’s kind of like a braiding that happens. And also, I was inspired by the way that electricity has to be transformed in order for it to connect to an electrical source that is different from it.

At this time in my life, I was being constantly confronted by this mental block. Everything was feeling impossible. And so, I was trying to break that down using music theory, again, as the source of inspiration. With both electricity and music theory, when there are two things that don’t have a connection or a way to connect them, you have to find something that they have in common. You give them a transformer, which is a means to finding connection.

The way that I went about making the album was creating a lot of different pieces, and then later on in the process, finding the way to connect them all. And it was also my way of using this album as a tool for me to heal this mental block by finding a way to embody the music. I worked through the mental block in an embodied way. I wanted to objectively look at this mental block by using this physical practice to make shapes that I thought were impossible. Any time I saw a shape, I thought, that’s impossible, I can’t do that. Then I would find a way to connect that as well. That’s a short version of something that I could talk about for a really long time. 

AD: When you say you felt like things were impossible, are you talking about music or stuff in your life or some combination of the two?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: All of it. It was just a theme that was coming up for me, that I was trying to understand and break through and just learn how to translate it. To me, it was a roadblock, because I didn’t know how to navigate it, so I was trying to find a translation that I could understand.

AD: Do you have any thoughts on where the roadblock came from? Were you going on and doing fine, and all of the sudden this happened, or has it always been in the background?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I guess what’s been a joy for me in life is curiosity and inquisitiveness. And I really like to look at all the information that’s going on inside and outside of me and that was just one that was constantly appearing. It felt like a mystery so I got really curious about it.

I wrote a lot of different versions of this album. The one that I released ended up being the version that felt the least like my healing process and the most like the other side of the healing process. I really wanted it to be like a sonic version of kindness. So, of all the versions that were the healing process, those were the ones that I just kind of kept for myself. And so, to go back to your question of what is the Mosaic of Transformation? It’s a process and the music that I shared was the end result of that process.

AD: I understand that physical movement factored into the music on this album. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened and what you did?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yes. It goes back to that process. I was talking about trying to give that mental block a physical manifestation so I could look at it objectively. Really to look at it objectively and subjectively at the same time. And so, the postures kind of became these symbols for me. Of this mystery mental block of the impossible. And then learning steps to approach it so that it was possible. And then they also represent a poem that is written in the album artwork through the body. 

AD: I was going to ask you about the cover, because it looks like it’s one of these physical manifestations of something.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yeah, and it’s just like the…the term I use is “my heart’s poetry.” It’s the kindness that I felt during this process. When you think something’s impossible, it just means that you haven’t found all of the steps yet, and there are more steps to find to get to that. And that was a process that I went through of just learning about kindness that is present in disconnection and how connection can be found through anything and yeah…I guess. There’s so much that I would want to say about that.

AD: Well, okay, say some more.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: It takes me back to when I was in music school. The lesson that I learned that stuck out in bold is that—a teacher just said it in passing, but it was the thing that I remembered the most from music school—they said that every note and every rhythm can connect. You just have to find the common ground. And that’s kind of been something that I’ve held true. Any time that I feel a dissonance in the environment around me or within me or in the music. In music, there’s always a way to connect them. This album was definitely came out of that process. 

AD: I understand that you see the way that modular synths, one of your primary instruments, work as a metaphor for the way the body works, and vice versa. Can you talk about that?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yeah. It goes into yogic philosophy. Yogic science. And just the nervous system. I’ll just connect it to the nervous system. The nervous system is the body’s electrical system. And the body has its own form of components that when you learn how to use them, you can learn how to compose movement with the body and learn how to freely move the body into different shapes. To me, shapes are the physical manifestation of frequencies. Sound has a physical manifestation. There are lots of examples of that. Like when you look at cymatics, and the way that sound can be physically shown. And so, I guess it’s connecting that, the body also has its own circuitry. It has its own way of being used as an instrument.  

AD: What are cymatics?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I guess the way I’m using the term is just as a visual representation of sound. But that’s not necessarily the clinical usage of that work. There have been experiments scientists put sand on a metal plate to show the shape that sound organizes. But I’m using it in a more poetic way.

AD: Are you using different instruments this time? I’m hearing a lot of brass and strings and flutes. Is that new for you?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: No, I always use orchestral instruments on all my albums. But I did use a lot of new instruments. Because I had access to a residency where they had wooden pipe organs. I used a lot of pipe organs. And then just newer, different synthesizers than I usually use and then a different processing format but I often turn to changes of my instrumentation for each album.

AD: And the orchestral instruments I hear, are there people physically playing them or do you get them out of sampling?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The intention was to write the album for full orchestra, so I wrote all the parts for an orchestra. But then I couldn’t find the resources to actually record it.  I ended up using samples. I’m still waiting for the day when I get to give the parts that I wrote to an orchestra.

 AD: And where was the residency?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: In Calgary, Canada.  

 AD: And tell me about the pipe organ. What do you like about that instrument?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Well, I was looking for a sound that had a flutter, and when I was at the residency, I was playing on some of these wooden pipe organs and they had this fluttery sound to them. So, I ended up recording a lot of music on those because they had that sound.

AD: And I think “Steady Heart” is one that has that sound in it.  

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yes.

AD: That’s one of my favorites. It’s so pretty, and it’s interesting the way the sounds come from all different directions. What can you tell me about writing that song?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yeah. That was one that was actually surprisingly fluid to create it from what I heard inside, because that was one that I…when I was listening internally, I was so excited because I felt that I was hearing sounds in a 360 way, and I felt like I was in the middle of it, and that one, it just happened naturally and I feel like the way that it translated so easily is because I felt it in my bones, like I felt it in my muscles and it was almost like they all remembered everything about how to make it. Yeah. That was one where I was super grateful that it just happened easily. I don’t even remember how I made it. 

AD: I like the way the vocals work on this album. They’re very much used as an another instrument, but they also let you insert a little bit of narrative into it. How do you see vocals fitting into your composing process?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Actually, exactly like that. They’re just another instrument. Because most of the time when I write, I spend a lot of time just listening internally to what music I hear inside. And if I hear vocals, then that’s when I decide to put them on a song. Sometimes I won’t hear vocals.

 AD: So, you hear the music in your head, and try to replicate it?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yeah.

 AD: That’s interesting. When do you hear it? Do you hear it when you’re working or when you’re not working?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: It changes. It used to be when I was out walking. That was the main time I would hear it. Then I was practicing sitting and closing my ears. And that was the majority of how I heard this album. And then when I started doing the physical movement, I started to hear it a lot then. So, when I’m moving or when I’m sitting very, very still and closing my ears and listening.

AD: How much work is it to get what you hear in your head into the world?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: It’s a lot. It’s a practice. It definitely feels like a muscle that I’m practicing. It’s surprising how long it took—I think about this all the time—when I was in music school, it took so much ear training to be able to hear a note in my head and then sing it, and it was the same note. And so it’s just taken a long time to learn how to do that with synthesis, where I hear a sound, and I say, okay, how many sounds is that actually and how are they layered in order to make that one sound. It’s definitely an ongoing process. 

AD: I think “Expanding Electricity” is probably the most ambitious of the cuts on this album. It’s got elaborate arrangements and a multi-part structure. Can you tell me about the process of writing and recording this piece?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: That one was the hardest. That one, for sure, represented impossible to me. It just, honestly, it kept on expanding. Every time I would listen to it, I would say, okay, that’s the full version of it, and then I would close my ears again and then I’d be like, oh no, it’s just multiplied! And it was hard for me to keep track of all the parts that I was hearing. And it was the first one that I wrote. And I wrote it from beginning to finish before I made any of the other ones. It was the first one I heard. And it was one that had that energy of excited urgency when I was hearing it, where it was all I could think about all day. I was trying to get out the part that I heard so that it could make room for me to hear the next part. It felt kind of like a magnifying glass that was zooming out. Each time I went to go and listen to it. And then eventually, it finally got to its biggest version of itself. But it was like simultaneously so enlivening and energizing to write that and exhausting at the same time.

AD: Do they leave you alone after you’ve gotten them down? Do you still hear them?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I guess I would use different language. It is a cyclical process that starts from this sound that sounds like all sounds combined. Where it’s just like almost like this rumble noise, and then it turns into music, and then once I get the music down, then it goes back into that sound of all sounds combined. And to me, that’s a really peaceful sound. And so, I love when I am hearing that. I feel like I could listen to that forever.

AD: It sounds like you’re tapping into something that’s there anyway. Do you feel that way?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yeah, it feels like that. This is something that I’ve actually started to do with other people, which has been really fun and joyful, to watch other people explore this. Because to me, it feels like it’s like listening to the overtone series within myself. Because all resonating bodies which are found within boundaries, like boundaries that they’re hitting off of, they create these distinct resonating points. And then it cycles up and down. It’s so beautiful if you look at it. Just if you look up mathematical charts of the overtone series, it’s like this beautiful spiraling and braiding that happens. And I feel like we all have that happening within our own bodies, and that we’re each unique resonating bodies, so we each have a different version of that. And so, I feel like I’m just listening to that, but I’m not …I guess I’m not really sure about anything.  

AD: I was thinking that women have been so important in the development of electronic music—you’ve got people like Wendy Carlos and Delia Darbyshire and Susan Ciani and others who are just now getting their due. Are there women composers who inspire you? Do you feel like part of a tradition?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: There are so many female composers that inspire me. Meredith Monk really inspires me. More current ones, contemporary ones, are Caroline Shaw, Meara O’Reilly inspires me and then as a part of a legacy, I feel like just like feminine energy in general, whether you’re female-bodied or not, the lunar, feminine energy to me has a lot to do with listening, and so I feel very inspired by feminine energy in that sense.

AD: Yeah, I think this whole thing of listening to your physicality and trying to figure out what’s in there rather than imposing order, that seems like a very female approach to things.  

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Yes.

AD: I know this is a weird time, and it’s probably not the best moment to ask people what they’re going to do next, but do you see your work heading in a specific direction from here? Are there things that you want to try to do that you haven’t done before?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I know that I really want to explore the voice more. I feel like developing this way of physical practice during this album really taught me a lot about how I want to use the voice. The way that I practice, this physical practice, is find the spot that’s uncomfortable and weak and then spend a lot of time there, and explore it and let it tell me what its strength is, instead of me telling it what it’s supposed to do. I feel like I really want to approach the voice like that.  I haven’t really explored my voice yet. I feel like I’ve had a lot of patience for exploring sounds out of synthesizers and different instruments, but I haven’t had that patience with my own voice. So, I want to definitely spend some time with that.

AD: Neat. How are you doing with the social isolation? I know you grew up in a really quiet, lightly populated place. Does that make it any easier?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Orcas Island was very social. It’s a really tight knit community. But also, I have definitely a lot of familiarity with filling my days with self-directed projects. So that in that aspect, I feel comfortable in my normal space. But I’m also going on distance walks with one person at a time, and that’s been very lovely and actually like one of my preferred ways of hanging out with people, connecting with people, just one on one. So that’s been nice.

Where I live, I have a few friends who live in the same compound. I live in a duplex, and there are a few buildings behind me, and some really close friends live there, and we have a shared garden area. We’re kind of quarantining together. We don’t go in each other’s houses or get close. But also it’s really unpredictable, like it is for most people, and some days it’s really emotional and challenging and there’s not as many distractions for when that happens so you’ve just got to go through it.  

AD: What do you think will happen to art and music as a result of this period in our history. I know people are really struggling. Is there any upside?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I don’t really know. It’s something that I’m asking myself constantly right now. Especially with performance, like what’s the next step for that? It feels like there’s more to it than these live streams. I don’t feel like that’s it. But I don’t know what that is yet.

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