The very first sounds you hear on Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s album EARS are a series of blippy, space-toned arpeggios which flutter like mechanical butterflies over a surging drone. The sounds, or at least some of them, come from a Buchla 100 synthesizer she’s been playing since she first became fascinated with electronic music. It’s a tangle of knobs and colored wires attached to a small keyboard and if it looks to the casual observer like the flight deck on 2001: a Space Odyssey, that’s okay. It looks like that to Smith, too.
“It’s the first electronic instrument that I ever played, which was a very fortunate experience for me, because it’s a rare synthesizer to come across,” says Smith of her chosen instrument. “It has such a unique faceplate design where it just, for me, it immediately inspires my creativity because it’s so fun to interface with and it’s so tactile. It makes me feel like I’m controlling a spaceship, and not all synthesizers make me feel that.”
Smith grew up on the remote and lovely Orcas Island in Washington State, a place she describes as peaceful but not, as some people assume, isolated. Instead, she says, it’s more uncrowded, a characteristic that has profoundly affected her work. “There’s so much land between each home there. I’ve always felt I could take up a lot of space when I lived on Orcas,” Smith explains. “That was really magical and foundational for how I create sound. That’s what I seek out when I’m creating, is a space that feels safe and private to me.”
Smith went cross country to Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study composition and sound engineering. The challenge then, she says, was to both draw up and disregard that formal training. “I feel like it’s really important to learn all that stuff, so that your subconscious knows how to use those tools and that language. Just like when you’re learning a language. You learn all the rules and then you don’t think about them when you’re talking,” she says, adding, “It’s kind of like what Kandinsky talks about, trying to get back to the baby brain.”
After an interval in an indie folk band called Ever Isles, Smith found the Buchla and began her current journey. She began recorded singles and, in 2012, two self-released albums, Useful Trees and Cows Will Eat the Weeds with the Buchla, guitar, piano and voice. Tides followed in 2014, and then Euclid a year later.
“With Euclid, I wanted to make a record that would be really happy and have a lot of joy in it. I was using geometry techniques that I had learned in a composition class, where you compose for a 3D shape. Basically, you pick a shape and you decide what each component of it is going to represent for you, whether it’s a different rhythm or a different key signature or a different time signature and then you compose that shape,” she explained. “I made Euclid in about three months.”
“EARS was a project that I wanted to spend some more time on to create an arc in the album. I wanted it to feel like you’re going through a sonic journey, like a 3D motion ride through a futuristic jungle,” she added.
“So I did a lot of my own research on what I hear when I’m outside. What I hear when I put my head under water. What I hear when I shake my head really fast. Just to understand what kind of environments I could create. I did a lot of visual research on what I wanted this imaginary jungle to look like,” she explained. “The tools were a bit different because I composed for a woodwind quintet along with the synthesizers. I wanted to work with the sense of air, so that’s why I chose woodwinds and then I did a lot of granular synthesis with my breath to give a sense of air in a lot of things.”