Today is International Women’s Day. In 2017, it is crazy that women are still so under represented as to need a day to highlight their value to this world. But we do, and boy will we embrace it here at KMAH, thanks to a project by Bristol based Syncsmith— a hand-forged, audio-acquisition service that is tailored to the Film, TV and Creative Industries— and London/LA collective shesaid.so—a curated network of women with active roles in the creative industries.
Someone very much bucking the trend is Bristol based Kayla Painter. She makes academic, complex electronic music that draws on techno, IDM and ambient as well as composition and sound design. It is lush and dense stuff that she also performs live at places like Glastonbury and Simple Things Festival. As a Masters graduate and multi disciplinary artist, Kayla is also the course leader of songwriting at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), and has recently been awarded her Masters in Music (Mmus) from Bath Spa University.
To celebrate International Women’s Day she has put together a mix of pioneering female artists such as RRoxymore, Anna Meredith, E-Saggila, Nadia Khan, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Beatrice Dillon and more. It is being steam midday to 130pm GMT on March 8th (and will later be added to our Soudncloud) and to accompany it we sat down to ask her some questions about her life’s work, her female perspective on the industry and more besides.
What’s your background, when did you first get into music, what sort of stuff did you like and why?
Music was really central in my upbringing, my dad’s CD and Record collection took up an entire wall of our house. Music was a constant in our household, it was just something that was always happening so I don’t recall ever getting into it exactly, it’s just always been there!
We used to listen to a lot of old rock and pop, and we (me and my brother) would be taken to music events from a young age. I remember going to see Songwriters circle and hearing people like Graham Gouldman (10cc) and Neil Finn (Crowded House) when I was a kid. I had my first festival experiences with my Dad too. Since then i’ve been interested in popular music and would enjoy listening to the classics, Stealers Wheel, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles and so on. I think I liked the reliability and predictability of popular music, it felt safe and easy to understand!
It wasn’t until much later I became excited by the experimental sound world, I think this was probably halfway through my undergraduate degree.
How long until you started making it? What gear did you use, how long ’til you were happy with your sound?
I started making music when I was a teen, I used to write songs on bass guitar mostly. I started producing in my mid twenties, off the back of the experimental arts degree which opened my eyes (and ears) to a whole world of sound and approaches i’d never thought about until then. At that point I was just learning to make basic Max MSP patches, and using Logic and Pro Tools in a fairly limited way.
I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily happy with my sound now, it’s an ever evolving thing (and I’m my own worst critic!), but I do have days where I enjoy my current sound, I think it’s at an interesting place, i’m still stylistically developing but I have a certain ‘sound’ that is definitely mine.
What is your aim when making music – do have a certain way of composing, do you have an end goal in mind, or is it more experimental?
I rarely have a strict end goal in mind, (like making a techno track for example) because that almost feels like I set myself up for failure really, if I focus on the end goal, then the way I get there becomes clouded with thought and I get stuck.
I usually write from a sound I’ve heard or an idea i’ve had, and see where it goes. It can be frustrating though because that means sometimes the track turns out completely bonkers and I wouldn’t want to release it! However I think this is an important part of the creative process, I think I probably need to write music that’s no good in order to get to the music that is!
Tell us about the course you lead in songwriting—do you think anyone can learn how to write or do you need some inherent aptitude for it?
I think anyone can learn to write music. I think there are varying degrees of natural inclination with this sort of thing, but I think anyone can do it. I am a strong believer in teaching with this in mind too, it really bugs me when people make music, or any art, seem exclusive and specialist or elitist. Think of all the amazing art and music we could be missing out on by spreading this message!
And what’s the split of men vs women who take the course? Do you find the different sexes perform, listen, engage differently to each?
There are more women on the Songwriting course, it’s not very balanced, and there are more men on the production course. It’s a shame because I see students struggle (which reminds me of my experience at University where I was the only woman in the group). I have seen over the years I’ve taught a gradual shift in both genders creeping into what was traditionally an all female or all male group.
Different people do behave differently within the educational environment, but I cant attribute anything specifically to male or female in my current position as a Course Leader. What I can say from when I was a student I found being the only female to be intimidating and difficult. I found the rest of the group to be very proactive in taking the centre stage, whereas I didn’t find that easy. That would have partly been because I was outnumbered but also could just be down to my individual personality.
Awareness of the under representation of women in dance seems to be rising, but we tend to just get articles dishing out blame. What steps can be taken to facilitate more women getting into dance music, do you think?
I totally agree, those articles seem to be more concerned with pointing a finger than actually doing anything about it. I think social change like this needs to happen, slowly, steadily, and strongly. I think it needs to happen in the background and to be a shared goal of many. The moment you write an article or start tallying up numbers of men v’s women in the industry I think you lose the point. People get angry and I think sometimes they don’t understand why. The change needs to come from nurturing change, being accepting of men and women taking creative roles in any sector. Shouting about a female sound engineer is only going to attract trolls and angry feminists, it’s unlikely to encourage someone that is quiet and shy that has been interested in a career in being a sound engineer.
I think it’s a complex issue, and i’ve been involved in panel discussions, week long events with women from all over the country, and various other events for International Women’s Day’s since 2008, and each year I feel my ideas on encouraging the change, morph a little with age and experience. As it’s such a complex issue I think my ideas on it will still continue to expand, and I think perhaps an open mindedness to the issue could help there be less of that attitude of blaming people, and more of a focus on understanding the nature of the issue.
What barriers or dismissive assumptions have you come up against in your career so far? What stereotypes have you had to battle against?
I have come up against sound engineers ignoring me time and time again, I still get it now. They’ll talk to people I’m with (male) before they talk to me, and they will literally talk over my head and ignore anything I’m saying about what I need for sound. I wouldn’t even say it happens less now, I’ve just gotten better at dealing with it.
Problem is, if you are pushy and forward (which is how I’ve realised I have to be) you risk coming across arrogant and rude, it feels, as a woman, that you can’t win in this situation.
I once had a bouncer refuse me entry to a club where I was playing, he didn’t realise someone playing electronic music could be female. I had to stand outside until the sound engineer went to get a sandwich!
The other thing I get more than I like to admit is audience members telling me I’m good for a girl, or coming up and asking me afterwards why, as a woman I’d be interested in writing this stuff. I get belittled by male producers all the time. A gig I played recently I had a guy jump on stage and shout at me repeatedly that it was called a ‘snare’ and I should use it, he was shouting at the audience explaining I didn’t know what I was doing. He continued to stand there laughing and shouting at me. I ignored him, until his performance was gaining more attention than mine, then I left my own headline slot mid performance. Nobody should be made to feel belittled in their own creative space like this, male or female!
There are many more stories like this that aren’t worth the breath to describe. I suppose at times I’ve felt defeated by it, and like I ought to give up as I’m fighting a losing battle, but other times I think it works to my advantage. Sometimes people come up to me and ask me how to do something technical and I’ll explain, and often I get these requests by email from men that are too embarrassed to ask me in front of their mates. So in that sense it’s really lovely people feel that they can approach me because i’m female i’m somehow more approachable and less likely to laugh at them, or deliberately over complicate something to make my music seem harder than it is. I suppose that’s what I have to concentrate on when I think about being in the minority, the good it can do rather than the bad!
Do you look to other women specifically for inspiration, or for advice when you first started? Anyone you feel needs a mention?
Not when I first started producing really. At that point I was too busy having my mind blown by the people I was reading about, at University (people like Strinati, Adorno, Saussure etc). I was a fan of Tina Weymouth as a fellow bass player, but moving into the more electronic experimental realms I was mostly discovering men. It didn’t bother me then because everything about producing was so new and exciting to me, I didn’t really notice that I was a woman in a mans role, that came a lot later when I started gigging and actually put my music out in the public to hear.
I listened to a Resident Advisor podcast several years ago interviewing Nina Kraviz, since then she’s remained an inspiration to me, her ideas and her determination seem to be so bold that she doesn’t notice or care about any sexist behaviour towards her. I am also a big fan of Mary Anne Hobbs, she is another person who has worked hard for her place within the music industry, and she has this accepting non judgemental outlook on music that I find really refreshing from someone so powerful within the music scene.
When you play live shows at places like Glastonbury, do you feel the crowd welcome you and are receptive, or are they surprised to find a woman with such an experimental and academic sound?
It does seem that people are surprised by the sound if they have already seen that I am a woman, as usually from looking at me people will then assume I’m a singer, that happens all the time and it’s really tiresome. In a way I’ve started to enjoy challenging people’s preconceptions, it’s better to feel like you are challenging them then you are not living up to their expectations, which is what I have felt in the past.
When I played Glastonbury I did a dual screen visual show with my visual partner. This involves a screen being placed in front of me (and one behind me), which partly takes the heat off me being a woman. A huge white screen in front of me obscures the audience’s view entirely, and is quite deliberately a way of forcing people to watch the art. That way they are seeing the visuals we’ve created and hearing the music, rather than looking at me and making up their mind about what they are going to hear before they’ve heard it.
I used to find the crowd quite hard to win over, but the more i’ve played and the more i’ve written I think people know what to expect from my sound a bit more now. In previous years my set may have seemed alienating to people as it can be quite hard to listen to, but as people like Holly Herndon rise to the commercial scene, it suddenly contextualises my work for people, they can put me (roughly) in the same category as her, so it makes my job a lot easier.
Of course I get people give me all sorts of comparisons, from Orbital to Autechre, ultimately it’s a way of people understanding what you do, so through whatever framework that’s through, it doesn’t matter to me, but I think this sort of music is becoming more fashionable at the moment, and therefore more talked about and understood.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started out? Anything that would have made life easier?
Perhaps knowing how tough it would be, being a woman in the experimental electronic world, I would have prepared myself better. If I had known just how difficult live shows would be and how much harder you have to work (with some people) to prove yourself because you are female, I would have entered into this world more prepared, more well read on other women, and perhaps would have found connections with other women sooner. Over time I’ve created an invaluable network of artists and friends, but this would have helped me have less nights, weeks and months of ‘giving up’ after coming up against these prejudices again and again.
Anything else in general to add on the issues surrounding International Women’s Day?
Just to reiterate one of my previous points, the gradual change that we need for equality is important, not an angry mob of keyboard warriors. Going out into the real world, in whatever industry, and being great at what you do is so important. The idea of people not pursuing something because of a gender imbalance is sad, these archaic ideas about gender and roles within the arts and indeed society are just that, they are archaic and outdated and gradually less and less people will subscribe to this way of thinking.
Finally, tell us about the mix – where and when it was recorded, who features and why and what the general aim or vibe with it was.
The mix features loads of great artists, RRoxymore, Anna Meredith, E-Saggila, Nadia Khan, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Beatrice Dillon, I could go on! It was recorded over the weekend at my home studio. It felt important to create a mix that showed the talent and diversity of these current artists, those tracks speak for themselves, they are varied, some very bold others more ambient. It felt good to create a mix like this that shows just how much amazing music there is out there, and for people to celebrate International Women’s Day in realising this mix is comprised of strong female artists.