Interview: Okay Kaya

OKAY-KAYA photographed by Tim Barber. 2015.

OKAY KAYA, aka Kaya Wilkins, is onto something special. Born in New Jersey and raised in a small town just outside of Oslo, Norway, the 24-year-old first moved to New York City to pursue a career in modeling, but she ended up creating and releasing music for her friends (see “MIX VOL. ONE”). That change sparked “Damn, Gravity” — her first official single which was produced by Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, King Krule) and was eventually a catalyst for other songs, such as “Clenched Teeth”, “Durer” (sung in Norwegian), and a recent cover of Curtis Mayfield’s 1964 classic “Keep On Pushing”.

Kaya’s current take on alt-pop is drastically different from her brother’s black metal band, but up close, it’s easy to tell she was born with a passion for songwriting. During our recent interview, she stressed that she’s still experimenting and working on her debut — one that may or may not feature Jamie xx, her future tourmate M83, and other creative minds that are truly capable of capturing her ideas. It’s a meticulous step towards releasing “a complete album”, but as Kaya puts it: “I’m a bit nerdy about it”.

Do you think that having an understanding of different forms of art and movement can be helpful when you’re building a foundation in songwriting?

Definitely. I think a lot of mediums go hand in hand that way. To fully understand movement you have to understand sound.

You moved to New York a few years ago to be a model, but instead you began a career in music. When did you realize that songwriting was something you needed to pursue?

I guess I just had a lot of melodies in my head and I didn’t realize why I was so frustrated until I started writing and wanting to share it. So I kept doing it; it was a great way for me to connect with people and feel connected somehow.

What made you choose to step away from the fashion world?

I never really wanted to do it. I don’t really care that much about fashion as I simply did it to make money. I’m starting to care about it more and more as I’m meeting more interesting people – photographers and other artists like that. I stepped away from it because being a model isn’t really stimulating for me. It’s a great thing to do, but I definitely needed to find some way to express myself — you’re literally a mannequin and you have no creative say. Sometimes it’s great, as it’s been really cool to see how photographers work, and I’ve met many other good artists through it.

What was it like growing up in Norway?

Cold (laughs). I’m sitting in Norway right now and it’s really cold and I don’t want to leave. But it’s also really nice, I guess. It’s a small country; there’s loads of salmon and trolls and fairies running around, and fjords and stuff like that.

I read somewhere the town you grew up in has a population of about 12,000 people?

It might be more than that now, but it’s small. It’s a peninsula [called Nesoddtangen] so you have to take the ferry – not a fairy, like the boat (laughs) – from Oslo and then take a bus. I grew up in a little green house in the middle of it. It was really nice.

Is there something about the city that inspires you in ways that your home in Norway didn’t?

Definitely the amount of people and diversity. When coming to New York, I felt like there were so many different kinds of people and it was inspiring because I wasn’t used to that many people. I think I wanted to go to a big city because I grew up in such a small town. It’s also good knowing I can go back home, even if the city is overstimulating at times. Like I know I have a home on a quiet peninsula in Norway.

Do you have to be in a certain state of mind or mood to write a song? Or is it simply a matter of focusing?

I feel like I’m always in the mood to write a song (laughs). I guess a song comes in chapters almost. There’s a couple sentences or a melody and then once more sentences and melodies start to form in my head, then the song is ready. I don’t even know how it happens, it’s like waiting for all the ingredients. It seems like it’s all in my head and then it pops out when it’s done, like something out of a microwave (laughs). I’m sorry I’m so spaced out right now. I haven’t talked to anyone in a long time.

How did you and Jamie xx meet?

He heard my music and was working on a ballet [Tree Of Codes] with Wayne McGregor and Olafur Eliasson, and I flew to London and sang and played guitar in the ballet as he was scoring it. We hung out for 10 days and made an hour of music together and we’ve been friends since. He’s incredible to work with. All those artists were, it was such a cool experience.

Rumor has it he’s collaborating with you on your forthcoming debut album. Has working with a trusted friend made the writing and recording process easier?

I don’t really know what’s going to happen with my album but he’s definitely someone I would work with as I think we have similar tastes. Working with him is easy and I would definitely do it again, but I don’t know when that’s going to happen.

Why do you say that you’re not sure about what’s going to happen with your album?

I’m still unsure of how I’m going to do it. This is a really important thing for me (laughs) so it’s taking some time to figure it out, with regards to what I want it to sound like or who’s interested in working with me to achieve that sound. It’s my debut album so I’m just taking my sweet time which is why I don’t know what to say. I’m just trying to figure out what I want it to sound like sonically and who’s going to produce it, if you know what I mean.

So you’ve written everything and you’re just looking for a producer?

I’ve written more than one album, that’s for sure. So now it’s about finding which songs fit together and if the songs will all be recorded in one room or if I’ll record with multiple people and where I would do it, and how I’ll make the sounds compliment each other and so on.

It sounds like you’ve faced a few challenges so far, but what would you say has been one of the biggest ones in regards to putting this debut project together?

I think my own insecurity has been my biggest challenge to be completely honest and that’s something that I’m working on. It’s really cool that people are interested in listening to it, so I should just accept that, but I guess the insecurity stems from having high expectations for myself and I think that’s a good thing. I’m really excited to show people more songs. Believe me, there are a lot!

You often speak of stage fright and nervousness, yet you chose to make a career out of being a performer. Can you explain that choice?

Everything I do is somehow based out of fear and trying to conquer it. Singing about the things I sing about is me trying to deal with my fears, as is trying to go up on stage. I feel like I have to do it. I hoped that I would get better at it, but it seems like this is the way it is. Maybe I’m just a nervous person. Once I’m done with the show or if I can feel the vibes — like someone there can relate to the show or they come up to me and talk about a song — that’s why I do it. It just makes it so worth it. It’s awesome.

How has challenging yourself to face your fears helped you grow as a musician?

It’s helped me grow as a person in so many ways and I guess performing has helped me grow as a musician because I know what songs people will relate to in a live performance and that’s really cool. I know that it’s okay to be me and that people can still relate to it, and I don’t have to try to be something else. That’s a really good thing because it makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing.

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