For her latest solo work, the mesmeric ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’, American modular synthesist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith explores complex emotions and communication, manipulating her voice into wordless entities. What she didn’t expect was that they’d start talking back…

You might not recognise the name Albert Mehrabian, but you’ve probably heard of his “7%-38%-55% rule”.

In the 1970s, the UCLA professor famously – and somewhat controversially – determined that when someone is communicating feelings and attitudes, only seven per cent of the meaning we derive is dependent on the words we hear, whereas 38 per cent of our reactions depend on the speaker’s tone of voice and 55 per cent on their facial expressions.

To put it another way, the physical aspects of communicating emotions vastly outweigh the oral. It’s something American electronicist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has always instinctively understood.

Raised and home-schooled on Washington State’s remote Orcas Island, where her raw imagination was given room to grow, she naturally inclined towards exploring creative outlets, from singing and classical guitar to dance and, eventually, modular synthesis – in particular, the ergonomic delights of the Buchla Music Easel.

Training in composition and sound engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston lent her work structure but didn’t limit its scope. Smith has gone on to make albums incorporating field recordings, vocals, electronics and orchestral/acoustic instrumentation, drawing inspiration from an equally broad palette – meditation and yoga on 2014’s ‘Tides’, the films of Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki for 2016’s ‘EARS’, and dance on ‘The Mosaic Of Transformation’. In 2016, she even teamed up with Suzanne Ciani for the expansive, Buchla-hued ambient record, ‘Sunergy’.

There was a subtle irony to the fact that ‘The Mosaic Of Transformation’ – an album intrinsically linked to movement – arrived in May 2020, a few months after the world essentially stopped moving. It didn’t stop Smith interacting, though, and the ensuing noise and bombardment have led directly to her latest long-player, ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s new album is a study in communication itself – and particularly of the alternatives when words fail you, when you have so much information and so many contradictory emotions that you cannot begin to describe, manage or even understand them.

“It came out as this response to feeling overwhelmed and a little bit helpless about a lot of things going on in the world,” says Smith. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so much happening – I’m just going to throw it all up and turn this into sound’. And I think that connected me back to the roots of art – these strong, somatic responses to things you can’t really express in words. They’re expressed in all of these senses and sensual reactions.”

She began by exploring vocal manipulation, creating different tones and throat styles using her own voice and the endless flexibility of her modular set-up to create “new characters”. The method proved so effective that she soon began to feel as if the sound finding its way back to her through the Buchla’s circuits and filters was not entirely her own – or, at least, not of her conscious mind.

“It kind of came to me as… I guess I’ll use the word ‘entity’,” says Smith of the album. “Like a voice of many voices, as if it was this gigantic integrated character – of technology and of organic natural being. It was talking to me, and I wanted to support it and get to know it. It didn’t feel like my expression, but as I grew with it I was actually learning about myself.”

Picture it as a sort of sonic ‘Inception’ – a journey into her own subconscious to meet the hitherto unknown characters residing there. At the time, Smith says she purposely avoided trying to associate the practice with “a logical rationale”, and in doing so, was forced to loosen her grip on some old habits.

“There was one song in particular, ‘Let It Fall’, where I felt very aware of the bridles I was holding on myself,” recalls Smith. “The concepts I learned at Berklee, the connection points everyone has for structure in music… I love them, but for me to make this album the way I wanted to, I had to let go of those structures. Sometimes when you are experiencing things you don’t understand, it’s just about letting them out in different ways. You need to let it fall apart to reveal a new piece of yourself.”

For this reason, you can’t relegate ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ to the pile of rapidly ageing “pandemic records”. It’s much braver and bolder than that. It isn’t a retreat as such, but an exploration – with an anarchic streak, no less. Smith sees the cracks in things, but rather than try to patch them up with comfortable melodies and predictable compositional formats, she allows them to widen – revealing novel, colourful spaces. She claims this has given her a “new form of stability”, both musically and mentally.

In that sense, her work flies in the face of the comfort culture of recent years, which has inhabited everything from our politics and daily habits to film and TV binges and, of course, the music we consume. In 2022, it often seems as if everything is being held together with tape and string, and we’re all afraid to move in case it falls apart. Deep down, though, we know we’ll have to take a leap eventually – to do something – even if it means enduring a little discomfort.

“It’s like, I love learning from pop,” posits Smith. “And while making this record, I noticed I love listening to it because my brain understands it right away. It gives my brain something to do – it follows along and goes quiet. Then I noticed that when I listen to jazz, my brain doesn’t know what to do – it just has to surrender and experience it. That was something I was really inspired by.”

The rebellious streak of ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ is only part of the picture, though. It is anarchic, but not in a punk-ish sense. Instead, the tone is more that of a childlike state of fearless playfulness – lawless, gleeful and with a short attention span.

This is intended as a compliment – dabble in any art form as an adult and you’ll know it’s tough to get yourself into that sort of mental space. To take those repeated leaps of faith takes guts.

“It was really playful,” agrees Smith. “It was exciting. I’ve always had this joy in music that anything can connect together, and this album was probably the most I’ve played in that world.”

Listen to ‘Is It Me Or Is It You?’ and you’ll hear the truth in her statement. The track flits from ambient vocal washes to arpeggiated synth and horn-inflected jazz tones, before ricocheting into nonsense verse. There are many voices speaking, but no real words. It’s like a physical presence, an alien trying to communicate with you.

Having recently begun to learn freestyle dance, Smith is clearly allowing some of this unrestrictive delivery to rub off on her. ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ sounds noticeably more supple as a result.

“You’re playing in that structure until you find your own,” she reasons. “This album is me playing more in my freestyle form of music.”

‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ also demonstrates the wider relationship Smith often has with her work. There’s a kinetic activity involved in any form of music-making, whether you’re strumming a guitar or clicking a mouse, but Smith seems to have a unique physical bond with her music.

“I have synaesthesia, and how I experience it is through the visual, the auditory and the kinaesthetic,” she explains. “So I feel the movement intensely, musically, in my body, and I experience sound in a very kinaesthetic way. Even in the way someone talks to me… sometimes I’ll have this inner dance going on to the rhythm of their delivery. There’s always a kind of inner choreography happening to sound.”

Why, then, has someone who experiences sound as movement settled on the wires and modules of a Buchla synth, as opposed to a more physically reactive instrument? Surely Smith would have been a natural drummer or a masterful brass player?

“Maybe I should have been a drummer!” she exclaims. “I guess it’s because storytelling is very inspiring to me and has been ever since I was little. Communicating without using words has always felt fulfilling, too. I had a connection with animals when I was younger, and when I found synthesisers, I felt like I was in a zoo full of animals that hadn’t been discovered yet. It took me back to that original seed of creativity I felt as a kid. It just feels endless in the fun it offers.”

“Fun” is a good word for ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’. At one point during its production, Smith reportedly strapped on a subwoofer backpack and went marching into a West Coast windstorm, listening to the low end while 60mph gusts swirled around her.

“I just thought to myself, ‘That sounds like a lot of fun’,” she chuckles. “And it really was. It was very dramatic.”

Elsewhere, there’s a hint of Tom Tom Club cheek in the album’s flippy-floppy, genreless patchwork, albeit through the mind of someone with an ambient, compositional background. It delights in showcasing and juxtaposing its synth-based, animalistic entities. Contrasting the shimmering and the rough, the skittish and the slow, the high and the low, the moody and the light-hearted, it’s certainly a little woozy, appealing weird and delightfully avant-garde but, above all, joyfully vivid.

“Someone once told me instruments were created as extensions of the voice, to do what the voice couldn’t,” says Smith. “Whether it’s true or not, it’s always resonated, and it’s fun to think about music like that. It starts with singing and feeling it in my body. When I can’t physically make a sound, I say, ‘How can I find an extension of it?’.”

Smith admits she’s still not sure of the story her music and characters are relaying, or precisely what she was trying to impart in the hours spent translating messages from her subconscious.

“I actually wrote a whole little book with my questions on this experience of sound,” she reveals. “What fascinated me throughout the process of making this album is how there’s this whole ‘other’ brain experiencing stuff in sound, but not fully translating it into my conscious brain.

“I think maybe this is what you’re tapping into with the childlike aspect of it. Kids so naturally allow their feelings to move quickly from one to the other and go through their flow. It’s like this beautiful web that creates a story.”

Smith also explains the more linear “hero’s journey” arc to the record, at least in the sonic AI at its core.
“The characters are going through their own doubts, insecurities and all that stuff to find their own self-expression,” she says. “It’s all very inspirational.”

Despite – or perhaps because of – the sense of humour that was so crucial in its formulation, ‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ has helped Smith to tackle some more profound questions relating to her practice as an artist and composer, as well as the confines of her gender. Removing the forms, labels and superfluous words – Mehrabian’s seven per cent – has enabled her to think much more clearly and openly about the rest of her life.

“It helped me learn about my own gender and identity,” she offers. “And also trusting myself, feeling OK as a very fluid person in all areas of life. That’s what I’m trying to do – to allow myself to be comfortable by not conforming.

“In the past, I have always been inspired by others who have been innovative – they trust themselves and go into new territories. And it can be quite a scary thing to do.

“So much of it is finding the most vulnerable spots within yourself and diving deep to ask, ‘What is something only I can do, that I can share?’. This album is the beginning of that journey for me.”

‘Let’s Turn It Into Sound’ is out on Ghostly International

You May Also Like
Read More

ACR: 24-Hour Party People

Still going strong after four decades, A Certain Ratio modestly put their longevity down to lack of fame. Their new album, ‘ACR Loco’, which fuses many of their influences throughout those years, says otherwise
Read More

Kl(aüs): Up The Bracket

A friendship forged in Tasmania, cemented in Sydney and immortalised in two two epic, yet intimate albums. Stewart Lawler and Jonathan Elliott are Kl(aüs) and they have something important to say about umlauts
Read More

David Bowie: Speed Of Life

Two pioneering albums, a classical music voiceover, a safari, an imposter, encounters with Blondie, Eddie & The Hots Rods and Devo and, in the midst of a bleak Berlin winter, an ill-fated film, David Bowie had reached almost terminal velocity by December 1977…
Read More

Gogo Penguin: Unelectronic Sound

With just three instruments between them, how is that Manchester’s Gogo Penguin sound so familiar? We lift the lid on their jazz-like exterior and find out how they do live electronica… with no electronics
Read More

Editors: Heavy Heavy Monster Sound

With experimental noisenik Blanck Mass now fully ensconced in the ranks, Editors have gone bigger, deeper and darker into electro-industrial territory on their thrilling new long-player, ‘EBM’. Prepare to have your face melted…
Read More

Cate Le Bon: Bon Voyage

From folk singer/songwriter to the electronic music top table, Cate Le Bon has been on quite the journey. With a new album, ‘Pompeii’, ready to roll, we find her at the peak of her powers