Kira May: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Electronic, vocal-looped nocturnes populated by visions, ghosts, body parts, and wolves.
File next to: Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey, James Blake, and Mike Patton
Playing: WL 607 this Thursday July 24 at the Monarch Tavern with Nat Baldwin and Black Walls.

The music of Kira May broods like a low-hanging fog diffusing moonlight. The versatility of her alto is nothing short of remarkable, twisted and knotted into percussive, rhythmic, and harmonic loops. Kira’s voice is centre-stage on Health (her debut EP) and her delivery is mature and controlled. Supported by sparse and tasteful production from collaborator Charles Tilden, Kira tells vivid stories that unfold like lucid dreams. Images and characters emerge from the shadows and disappear into the ether. A descendent of the lunic blood-line that traces back through Bjork, PJ Harvey and Kate Bush, Kira May took the time to sit down with Po Karim to talk about body parts, portraits, and paradoxes.

The Health EP, released in January of this year, is very cohesive thematically, sonically and lyrically. When you were putting it together, did you have a clear vision for how it was going to turn out?

I did. I’m an English major, and so finding or connecting motifs will never not be a part of my thinking process. But the songs seemed to come together with the same general sound and conceptual content because of where I was in my life when they were being written and recorded. Themes kept repeating and overlapping because that’s where my headspace was. So a lot of paradoxes between the past and the present, or the body and the ghost or the spirit, and what is not tangible — those things kept recurring. At first it wasn’t a conscious decision, it just seemed to be where it was going. Once I caught on to that, I wanted to strike those ties throughout the record.

Did the finished product hit the mark? Did it achieve the vision that you had for it?

I think it did. I recognize that the more time and distance I have from it. One thing I’m noticing in retrospect is that its very shrouded in darkness or mystery… It’s occurring to me just how lyrically those songs use imagery to say what I mean, but it’s almost like hiding the real intent behind the songs and then the image becomes the subject. I mean, I know what I’m talking about, but I think it’s very enigmatic. I think that just reflects where I was at the time — where I was feeling very shaky about music, and very shy. I almost wanted to hide myself as much as I wanted to expose myself at the same time.

Is there one song on there that actually surprised you in the way that it turned out?

“Ghosts” was surprising. It originally had a creepier overall sound, but Charles started playing with guitar lines and it ended up being a lot more fun and energetic. I was really surprised by that turn of events in that song. And then we played with how that could mutate… and that song was a lot different than its original conception, but in a good way — it was a good surprise!

Can you describe your working relationship with Charles?

Yeah. He’s also my partner in life, we live together, and he was previously in a band called Parks and Rec, and he works on a project called Delta Will. When I first started to want to record this EP, I didn’t really know how. I also felt very timid, and so it was important to me to feel really comfortable as I was recording the songs. He has a real interest in production and he stepped up and said, “Let’s just do it at home. Let’s do it together,” and I think that was a great thing for me, because it was really comfortable. He did all of the engineering for the EP, and he plays in my band as well when we do live shows. But it sort of grew organically…I needed some help and he wanted to help me! [Laughter]

So before this EP came out, what were you doing?

That’s a good question! [Laughter] I had really, really bad performance anxiety and could not get on a stage or play in front of anyone. So I was just playing alone in my room. [Laughter] And finally I wasn’t feeling very satisfied with that, so I had to work really, really hard to come out of my shell and to feel confident enough to play in front of people. I started going to a lot of open mics, and doing a lot of personal work. When I found looping, that was like a godsend because I was too scared to play with other people at all. Being able to accompany myself really took a lot of the pressure off and I was able to orchestrate things the way I wanted to while feeling comfortable. And it was all to do with shyness really, which I’m happy to say I’m well on the way to overcoming!

When did you introduce a looper into your music-making?

I guess about two years ago is when I started. And that was again sort of out of necessity but it turned into something really exciting where the more I learned about looping, the more I thought, “I can play alone.” And I really just want to sing. I can play very little guitar, and I used to “sing and play guitar,” but it was not anything special because the guitar playing was so basic. So primarily I just wanted to make vocal works. I wanted to do everything with my voice because that’s what I can do best, and I can express the most with that. And so this was a great journey to discover how I could use my voice in various ways, to orchestrate something bigger that would not possible without the looper and various toys.

I looked at your Tumblr, and you are an extremely accomplished portrait artist. Your technique and colour palettes are amazing. Can you describe what it is about portraits that really captivates you?

I think, because I am also a person, I can relate to the inner workings and the emotional scale of this person sitting in front of me. When I’m painting a portrait, I’m really trying my best to actually access that person. I feel them as much as I can, and there’s something very intimate about painting someone’s inside of their ear, or whatever it may be, where you really try to use their face in order to seek what is happening beneath. What is that person thinking about at that moment? What’s going on in there, what are they looking at? I’m so interested in people, and their physical body is such a great starting-off point to get inside of them.

There are a lot of lyrical themes about the body on the record and also relationships with nature and natural processes. You seem to be really interested with the phenomenon of being alive, like the absurdity of having skin and bones. And it’s almost as if you’re trying to describe a “pure-form,” like a spiritual creature within layers of shells? Am I hitting the theme?

Yes! This is so astute. This is a great question! I think I’m really interested in paradoxes where you have a body to help you express yourself — in fact it’s your only tool of expression really — and yet your body holds you back in a lot of ways as well. I think this ties back to portraiture too because the body houses this phenomenal range of emotions and thoughts and potential, and yet it’s like a cage because you have a lot of restrictions. But it’s also this beautifully empowering thing, because it’s all you have in this world to fulfill whatever it is you need to fulfill in this lifetime. And, I think a lot of the songs, maybe even more than I realize, tie back to that major point where it’s such an opposing force: your helper is also your hindrance. I think that’s really fascinating and really necessary I guess, because if you didn’t have that challenge, what would you be working towards? And I think also that the body’s processes and functions are very reflective of natural processes. Everything is cycling around, everything is dying and reborn…and I’m just rambling now! [Laughter]

What’s on the horizon, for the rest of the year and beyond that?

I’m playing some shows in Eastern Canada. I’m not too sure how far I’ll get. And then I’m working on a full-length album that I’m really, really excited about. So far a lot of it is written and done with now. My goal would be to have it ready for a release next summer. I think I can reach that goal. That’s all I’m thinking about, these new songs and putting it all together, and I’m really excited about that.

What can you say about the new songs as they’ll compare to the EP you have out now?

I feel like the songs on Health have a sort of darker vibe overall. These songs are much brighter, sonically? I’m saying vivid. And I want more…unrelenting. Not like “in your face,” that would be the wrong way to describe them. But bigger, more varied in their approach. These are all very abstract things that I’m saying. [Laughter] I’m a very visual thinker, so I’m picturing them in my mind and there’re like these like bright colours! They’re coming at you!

— Interview by Po Karim

Photo credit: Olga Lipnitski