Watching Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith navigate the knobs on her Buchla synth is mesmerizing—not just because the hulking machine looks like something swiped from the set of Star Trek, but because so few people know how to operate the obscure instrument at all. Produced in small quantities in the ’60s and ’70s, Buchla modular synths were beloved by West Coast electronic pioneers like Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani, but when digital synths began to dominate in the ’80s, many of these tough-to-mend analog machines fell into disrepair.
Smith, who recently relocated to Los Angeles from her native Orcas Island, took up the Buchla just after graduating from Berklee College of Music and has evolved into one of its most important modern champions. In 2015, her shimmering breakout album, Euclid, caught the attention of avant-garde and electro-pop fans alike. Since then she’s churned out a host of effervescent LPs and singles that have proven the antique instrument’s relevancy time and time again. On October 11, she celebrates the release of her most accessible record yet, a pop-inspired effort called The Kid. We asked L.A.’s resident synth wizard about her instrument, her influences, and her upcoming tour ahead of tomorrow’s multimedia performance at the Pico-Union Project (1153 Valencia Street).
How did you first come across the Buchla?
My neighbor in Orcas Island, where I grew up, lent me one after finding out that some of my composition influences are Terry Riley and Steve Reich. He had been a teacher at New York University, teaching in their electronic music department, so he’s been collecting Buchlas for a while. He lent me one and just let me explore it for a year and a half. I taught myself in my cabin.
What attracted you to the instrument?
I composed for orchestral instruments and was studying composition and sound engineering in college. What I found appealing was feeling like I had an orchestra at the tip of my fingers. I didn’t have to worry about taking up people’s time and could explore endlessly. It works well with the mindset that I have when creating, which is constantly asking myself, “I wonder what would happen if I did this, or put this together with this?”
You’ve cited a lot of pioneering women in electronic music—like Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani—as influences. How have they impacted your work?
I’m not specific to gender for who influences me. It’s pretty equal. But I get asked a lot about who are females who’ve inspired me, and those are definitely some in the list. Their music is amazing. I like to emphasize that I’m not drawn to them specifically because they’re women, though, they’re just incredible composers.
Who are some of your other influences?
There are so many, and it’s still growing. That’s a practice I like to keep very active—constantly finding inspiration. One that’s a pretty steady constant for me is African music. I’m almost always listening to mbira music or marimba music. Also I like listening to a lot of tabla music. Moondog is a really big influence for me—every single one is a hit. D’Angelo, huge influence for me. David Bowie. Steve Reich. Philip Glass. Meredith Monk. All over the place. I have some kind of hard boundaries for things I don’t like. Blues, I really can’t get into blues. And there’s a certain type of rock that has a specific rhythm-and-the-blues turnaround that I feel very allergic to. Otherwise, it’s pretty open—I like things that wiggle.
What concepts you were thinking about while working on The Kid?
The concept that it started with was a texture. It came from my sleep, which happens a lot to me when I’m making music. I had this really intense urge to make sounds that reminded me of a giant frosted shredded wheat being crumbled. And then it kind of naturally grew from there that the storyline was going to be from birth to death, taking you through the four stages of life. It’s all about remembering your kid energy and your playful energy along the way. This came from things that were relevant in my life—I was experiencing a lot of grief. The person who I lost in my life was such a bright, playful person. I really wanted to embody that feeling.
What should people expect from your tour?
I’m so excited about the visuals for this album. There’s been a lot of energy put into getting them synced up. And I’m really grateful that the person who made them will also be opening for this tour. Hopefully people come earlier to see Cool Maritime and Maria Usbeck, who are the openers. I love Cool Maritime’s music and definitely admire his craft because he made the visuals for my set. And Maria, I haven’t met her yet, but her music is rad and I like it a lot.