Combining a unique mix of experimental electronic production and evolving visuals, Kayla Painter is one of the most exciting artists working in Bristol. Soon to provide some insight into her creative process, as well as her live setup, we joined Kayla for a chat about her formative days as a musician, and how she's grown to love the weird and wonderful.
Could you tell us a little about how you first got into music production and the journey you’ve been on that’s led to where you are today?
I started out as a saxophonist and then was drawn to bass guitar. I played saxophone in Jazz band, orchestra, and then began playing bass guitar in bands with friends. I went to university, where the course I studied centred more around an arts school approach, than a traditional university one. That’s where I was encouraged to abandon all instruments and preconceptions about music.
During my time there I opened Logic and had a go at programming some drums. In my last year at university I was booked for a live show, as an electronic artist (I only had one song!). I had no idea how to play electronic music live, so I bought Ableton in order to play the show. Following that I started to produce music and perform in South Wales and Bristol.
It’s pretty common to start out in a conventional manner musically and then veer off towards a left-field approach. What was it that attracted you to the more experimental side of music?
My parents have always had fun playing us weird music and encouraging our creativity. As well as the very classic icons such as Bowie and The Beatles I grew up hearing a wide variety of music. I grew up listening to early Warp record releases as well as Captain Beefheart, Talking Heads and Motown. So I was lucky to have a real variety of music in the house as a child, and on long car journeys.
My upbringing coupled with my education at university, where we were told to listen to Battles, Aphex Twin, Miles Davis, Matthew Herbert etc., is what has given me such a keen ear and appreciation for the left-field approach.
One of the most striking elements of your work is the use of visuals to compliment your music. How do the two influence each other?
I have a real love for old animations and abstract visuals. When I was in university I experimented with stop motion animation myself for several years whilst I was starting to produce electronic music. So I have always had a way of thinking visually when composing. Now when I write music I often think what could it look like as a visual, or what aesthetic it has.
I work with a visual collaborator, Jason Baker, and we have this ongoing dialogue around visual inspiration. Sometimes, things Jason will send to me will absolutely inform the music, and sometimes the other way around. I think it has to work both ways for it to be a strong collaboration.
You’re also a keen field recordist, using everyday sounds in your work. How liberating is it for you to effectively turn the world into your own instrument?
I enjoy using found sounds in my work because it's fun to create with them. Part of the joy in working with field recordings is the life it breaths into a project. Putting air and space into a track can give it a real sense of existing in time, rather than just a two dimensional, or flat experience.
I’ve always admired people like Matmos for their work with re-contextualising sounds. I love the playfulness of capturing your own sounds. I like what found sound says about creativity, that anyone can do it, anyone can be a composer, producer, songwriter, which I think is definitely true.
Like most things in music production, field recording holds an almost endless list of possibilities. What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out?
Not to be too precious! Don’t be put off by thinking you aren’t intellectual enough or you are choosing a sound that isn't exciting or unique.
There is no need to think too much at the capturing stage, it’s just pure creativity and fun. The uniqueness will come with what you choose to do with the sound. I sometimes share my samples with other producers, and we’ve both used the same samples in our own tracks. When you hear the tracks the samples don’t sound anything like each other, they are used in different ways and have completely different purposes.
I think it’s all about having a go and building up a lot of sounds you can use whenever the time is right. I capture plenty of sounds that I don’t use, but that doesn’t make it a less valuable experience. I think part of the creativity is having the awareness to hear a sound you want to capture, and if the process doesn’t go any further than you having a recording on your phone that you don’t use, that doesn’t matter.
Alongside your work as Kayla Painter, you also have a publishing deal with Universal, and have produced music for adverts for Disney and Channel 4. How did that deal come to fruition?
The Universal deal was something that actually came about through someone messaging me on Soundcloud. I often get messages like that, which are just spam, so at first I assumed it was.
It turns out it was an offer of a real contract to write an EP for Universal’s catalogue. It was a great experience, and I learnt a lot from working with them.
With the Disney and Channel 4 work I just went out, literally on foot, and turned up at production houses in Bristol asking for work. I was younger then and I didn’t know what I was doing (I still don’t really know what I am doing now though). I was trying to do something to get me out of my day job in home insurance. I ended up writing in the evenings and weekends for pitches that sometimes were successful and sometimes not. The ones I did get were big names (Disney, Channel 4 etc.) so that gave me confidence.
Before landing the deal, had you ever considered it as a viable career path?
Yes, absolutely. When I was at university I was being told there was money in sync and adverts, so I knew that’s what I needed to try to do.
As someone who not only creates audio and visual works, but also teaches, how important has a multi-medium career been to your creativity and longevity in the industry?
Being a portfolio musician has been incredibly important for me to survive in the industry. It’s no secret that to be commercially successful you need money to back your music. If you don’t manage to get a label on board, or a lucrative publishing deal, then you need to fund it yourself.
Paying for videos, PR, pressing vinyl, whatever it may be, will only be possible if you have a day job or a trust fund to help you. So I’ve continued to work hard to carve out a career that pays me to (largely) still be thinking about and talking about music.
Despite this varied career, you initially left university slightly unsure as to where you wanted to go. What would you say to any students that may be feeling the same way?
Following your gut is important. I thought about doing a masters after university because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t end up doing that because something didn’t feel right about it as a commitment. I am glad I didn’t do a Masters straight away now.
I went on to do one several years after graduating and it was a more valuable experience for me because I had a developed practice by then, and therefore the research and development I was doing was directly feeding into my practice.
When I left university I went into working in home insurance claims, and it was only the hideousness of that job that forced me to research production houses in Bristol and then start turning up at them to ask if I could write music for briefs. If I hadn’t had that dull job I never would have scored the big sync bits of work I’ve done.
I also knew I wanted to stay in Bristol and stay living away from home, so whilst I struggled to make that work (hating my job so much, and really disliking what my life had become), I made it work. If I hadn’t followed my gut and stayed in Bristol I would not have made the contacts that I did.
What are your must-have tools?
In Logic my favourite plug in is Klopfgeist, I use it a lot to make bass sounds.
I love my roll of brown parcel tape that has given me some of my best samples, and some of my stranger performances. My SM58, my voice memos on my phone and my zoom recorder. All are favourite bits of kit.
It’s all pretty basic really, I like to encourage students to use the tools they already have - having expensive gear does not make anyone a good producer.
What non-musical sources of inspiration never fail to reignite your creativity?
Sculptures, architecture and landscapes.
Also many films. Current favourites for visual and musical inspiration are: Mandy (2018), Suspiria (1977), Midsommar (2019).
What has been your proudest moment so far?
Having a single out on Gilles Peterson’s label!
Do you have any final bits of advice for someone looking to find success in the audio industry?
Lots of people will tell you networking is valuable, but it really is. As I have become more experienced in the industry I have realised there is a real skill to networking. The more people you know in the industry the more likely you are to learn new things, be given opportunities, and understand your own industry experiences through others stories. - this can be really helpful.
It is important to get out to gigs, speak to people in the audience, they won’t all be music appreciators - although they are also worth meeting - some of my opportunities have come through very well connected fans!
Some people in the audience will also be musicians, who I would see as your colleagues not your competitors, it is well worth meeting them, sharing music (your own or other peoples), it's great to meet like-minded people, especially if you are producing in a solo project.