The pastoral, gorgeous modular synthesizer flutter of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's critically acclaimed Ears became a crossover avant-garde success in 2016. Since the beginning of that year, she's toured with Animal Collective, hit the European festival circuit, collaborated with Google on an interactive tour of national parks and released an LP collaboration with electronic music hero Suzanne Ciani. Acclaimed by critics and embarking on a headlining tour in November, Smith is experiencing a level of attention rare for experimental musicians. When did she realize that was happening?
"I don't think I've realized that yet," she says with a laugh. "It's still really, really surprising to me that people want to listen. And I don't take that for granted at all. At every show, I feel really shocked every single time. I'm like, 'Whoa, there's people here.'"
Ears took inspiration from the bucolic surroundings from her rural childhood spent up and down the west coast, including Washington's isolated, mountain-heavy Orcas Islands. On recent tours, she still tries to take time to find "the natural wonder that's next to me," including seeing glowworms on horseback in New Zealand and visiting the fjords of Norway. Her Skype call to Rolling Stone was from Croatia, where she loves how easy it is to float in its clear, salty water. People have told her they listen to her music while traveling or hiking.
While her sixth album, The Kid, due October 6th, continues making idyllic arpeggios via the arcane 1973 analog synth, the Buchla Music Easel, its concerns of identity and self-awareness are more internal, and its sound world is more lush.
"Ears was made with the live show in mind first. So, I basically wrote it and practiced how I would perform it and then just pressed 'record,'" says Smith. "The Kid was … very different. It started from textures. I just got an urge to create really crunchy textures that, kind of, gave me a feeling of like, frosted shredded wheat. [I would] listen to them, and kind of let my visual brain start to tell me what the world was gonna to look like for the album."
The album was composed with her Buchla and effects-treated voice alongside bassoon, trumpet, cello and flute.
"I especially wrote a lot of layered parts for trumpet, because I had an aversion to trumpet for a very long time," says Smith "And I wanted to get past that, and figure out how to find a way to like trumpet. … It has such [an] intense attack. And I'm one of those people that gets startled really easily."
"But it was also inspired by this book called New Musical Resources [by Henry Cowell]. The book is, basically, a study of how our hearing as a culture has evolved. … I was curious where our hearing would evolve to next, and wanted to play around with the idea that our hearing would be able to split so we could hear two different conversations at once. And so, I played with that a lot on the album ... of having the left side and the right side feel like they're pulling for your attention in different ways."
The Kid is a 51-minute musical journey from birth to death, the four stages of life represented across four sides of vinyl. Smith talks about about a "gradience" from the heavy, clumsy sounds that represent birth and lighter sounds that represent death. The dreamy, cosmic ambience of "To Feel Your Best," which you can hear below, is the album's final track.
"Well, that's actually more, like, the sub-theme," Smith says about the album's life-cycle narrative. "'Cause for me, the main theme is about remembering and how often you forget your kid energy as you get older. And then, you have all those moments of like, 'Oh, yeah. That's my essence and my playfulness.'"