By Jeffrey Rindskopf
After graduating college, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith spent one year living in a rustic cabin on her native Orcas Island, alone but for the Buchla 100 Series synthesizer a neighbor had loaned her.
“That’s the most I’ve felt like an instrument was a natural extension of my voice,” she says.
Smith had spent the previous four years studying classical guitar and piano at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she also formed the indie-folk band Ever Isles, but then became “addicted” to synth music while exploring the possibilities of her first, but certainly not last, synthesizer.
“It was very liberating for me to feel I could make all these sounds right there, without having to hire an orchestra,” she says.
Shortly after returning the Buchla, Smith received her own, newer model called the Buchla Music Easel. She dissolved Ever Isles and sold her guitar, and in the years since has carved out a new niche for herself composing electronic soundscapes that might seem ambient until one notices that each song comes with its own richly-textured atmosphere.
Despite the shift in instrumentation, Smith’s approach to composition has remained remarkably similar.
“I keep in mind the listener and try to take them on a journey,” she explains. “I always think about it as composition, and I rarely think about if it’s electronic or not.”
Though the Buchla remains her foundation in electronic music, Smith’s roster of tools continues to grow as she familiarizes herself with the many synthesizers made throughout the instrument’s short history. Nor has she abandoned non-electronic instruments in her recording career—on her latest album Ears, released in April 2016, airy synths are frequently embellished with woodwind orchestration, flutes and bass clarinets swirling around an evolving central theme.
The evocative album was written as an alternate score for one of Smith’s favorite films, the 1984 Japanese animated fantasy Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
“It’s a whole visual world I wanted to recreate with sound,” she explains. “It’s all supposed to be taking you through that movie, through that world, and through the emotions I felt while watching it.”
On Ears and previous albums, Smith’s ethereal voice functions as an instrument like any other, blending seamlessly with her sighing synths. This precise balance of sound originates from the same desire to craft not just songs but entire sonic worlds.
“The more I carved away at the vocals, the more that felt like that was their place,” she says. “It’s not supposed to be someone’s point of view telling a story—it’s supposed to be a whole experience.”
Music has always stirred a visual response in Smith, one which she now channels into her songwriting process. First she decides what hue she’s working within, then allows the color to guide her in what sounds to use for that composition. That visual relationship with music also clearly informs her main ambition as a composer.
“I want to do film scoring. I’ve always wanted to do film scoring.”
Smith has scored several short films—including a recent series of 360-degree Google videos celebrating the centennial anniversary of the US National Parks System—but has yet to take on one of feature-length. She and her husband moved to Los Angeles a year ago, but she often makes a mental return-trip to her hometown in the San Juan Islands while composing.
“It’s a very special place to me,” she says, “and it’s kind of the inner sanctuary I return to.”
Before the move to LA, Smith lived for a short while in a coastal town called Bolinas an hour north of San Francisco. There she met Suzanne Ciani, a five-time Grammy nominee with a long career creating innovative electronic music who also favors the rather uncommon Buchla brand of synthesizer.
Both were thrilled to find another Buchla enthusiast in the tiny unincorporated community, and soon agreed to work together as part of the FRKWYS series of collaborative albums from Brooklyn-based label RVNG Intl. The pair improvised using their respective synthesizers for three days, and the result was Smith’s other major release of 2016, titled Sunergy.
As we speak Smith is already hard at work on her next solo release, as well as several new collaborations with other artists, both visual and musical, that she remains tight-lipped about. Though she hasn’t touched a guitar in eight years, Smith admits she might still return to piano composition sometime in the future.
For now, however, her duplex in LA can’t quite accommodate a piano—and anyway, she’s already found her voice in synthesis.