in conversation with Lydia Ainsworth
Where does inspiration come from and how can you maintain it? Canadian singer-songwriter Lydia Ainsworth’s music defies easy classification. She talks to four by three about her album Right from Real, working on and dreaming about the future and how to maintain your creativity over a long period of time.
Having recently returned home to rave reviews on her stint at this year's SXSW in Austin, Texas, songwriter/producer Lydia Ainsworth has had a whirlwind seven months, since the release of her debut album Right from Real (Arbutus Records) in September 2014. Based in Toronto, Ainsworth started out in film scores, during her studies at McGill and NYU and upon graduation started work on a collection of songs, which would come to form her debut. We caught up with Lydia via Skype, having just completed her first European tour, to ask her about her music, aspirations and inspirations.
The release of Right from Real in the autumn of 2014 was the culmination of a three year journey for Ainsworth, who made the transition from film scoring to songwriting at the request of a friend, who had asked her to perform at a party. ‘I didn’t have material, so I wrote a couple songs, pulled together a small ensemble of players and just ended up enjoying the process of writing so much and then realizing it live with a group of people, that I decided in that moment that I wanted to make an album’. The arbitrary nature of her beginnings as a songwriter heavily belie the strikingly confident tone of her debut album, where every song fuses the contemporary and the classical with startling, yet effortless, acuity. The formative influence of scoring for film is immediately apparent through the densely evocative production of her album. From the surrealist twilight party of Malachite to the chugging monolith of Moonstone to the soaring heights of The Truth, Ainsworth’s songs all have undeniably distinct cinematic personalities, without ever losing their individual, and strangely elusive, character. ‘Every song to me, is like a universe unto itself’ she tells me, ‘yet they all relate to each other’.
When listening to her music this description feels justified, as every track is inextricably linked and complemented by every other track. Each song is a self contained world, musically referencing everything from 80’s balladry to Puccini-style opera to contemporary bass music, yet molding and displacing those influences into something dynamic and unsettling, while never veering into pastiche or homage. The music on Right from Real is densely packed, a finely tuned Swiss watch of moving parts and it is a testament to Ainsworth’s talent as both songwriter and producer that these songs never lose themselves in the gentle chaos of her record, as on stand-out Malachite, in which a sinister synthesizer march coexists alongside delicate raindrop keyboard stabs, creating an aura of nonchalant mystery that is reflected wonderfully in Ainsworth’s vocal delivery, sharply mischievous one moment, a blue sky pushing through the reverb in the next.
The intricate musical and technical grandiosity of Right from Real was complimented beautifully a few months later in a spare rendition of Chris Isaak’s iconic Wicked Game. A song that has taken on a lifetime of associative connections, both on a cultural and, potentially, a personal level, Ainsworth somehow manages to instill it with a freshness and urgency, cutting through the complacent bonds of nostalgia, to add another little universe to her resume. Despite the vulnerability inherent to the song and its lyrical content, Ainsworth has never sounded stronger, her vocal prowess confidently stepping out of Right from Real’s mist of reverb, the minimal backdrop of keyboard and occasional swathes of synthesizer only serve to underscore the sense of beauty and foreboding she imbues into the well worn lyrics, rekindling the original’s dichotomy of desperation and acceptance. I ask her if this more spare, vocally focused approach is the first step in a new direction for her music. ‘Well, I can’t really say for my next album, but for that particular song, that was a major reason for choosing to cover it, because a lot of the songs on my album have so many layers and there is so much going on, I wanted to attempt to try something that would be challenging for my vocals and challenging as an artist to express myself with my vocals. That’s why I chose to cover it, the melody and the lyrics are so direct, I felt like they don’t need much to purvey a clear message, you just need a good vocal take (laughs).’
The worlds that Ainsworth creates, despite their dense soundscapes, often seem remarkably insular. This hermetic ambiance is aided by her aurally and lyrically ambiguous words, astrological and mystical allusions mingling with more direct observations and narratives combine to create a sense of solitude in her music. This is perhaps not surprising, since Ainsworth worked solely on every aspect of the record, from writing to mastering. Asking Lydia whether this sense of solitude is important to her, she replied ‘I don’t know if it’s important to me, I think I work best when I’m challenging myself’ she says, ‘I have a background in film scoring, so I do work well in collaborative settings, but for this album and these songs, it felt like I wanted with all the music, I wanted it to come from me. It’s a challenge and I like a challenge and I like to learn from those challenges.’ She continues enthusiastically ‘I am working on new songs and have several demos that I’m really itching to fully flesh out in a studio. I was trying to write some lyrics on tour, but there was quite a challenge, as my driver, for instance, was listening to crust punk the entire time and it was pretty hard to write lyrics over blaring crust punk (laughs)….’
When speaking about her background in film scoring, she mentions that one of her favorites is Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love by Paul Thomas Anderson. It is easy to see how both the film and the score would appeal to her sensibilities, the film itself is an entire world unto itself, much of which is driven by Brion’s frenetic score, undulating between soaring classicism and glitchy neurosis; so densely packed, at times it threatens to boil over, mirroring its protagonists inner and outer turmoil. I ask her if she’d like to return to film scores in the future, her response prompting relief, ‘Oh yeah, definitely! I would love to. If there is a great film, I’m definitely open to doing that!’
Shortly before our interview, I caught her show at the Sebright Arms in London, a low-ceiling, cramped affair, which at first sight I thought would undermine the panoramic vistas of her music. It’s always an interesting experience seeing an artist perform for the first time. After spending months immersed in their music, the identity of the artist and their music somehow become fused with one’s own life, the associations one forms with it, the images it conjures in one’s mind, while that bond can sometimes find itself at odds with the actual reality of the artist’s performance and presence. So when I stepped into the cramped, chatty environment of the venue, I couldn’t help but fear how it would impact the music. My fears were quickly dispatched though, as Ainsworth warmed into a lovely set, defined by care and openness, a tender intimacy that was somewhat different to the album, but wholly welcomed, permeated the dark room, silencing the small crowd with its sincerity. ‘I would definitely love to have more live players, I usually play with a violinist and I’ll have a violinist and a cellist with me at SXSW, but it’s definitely something that I have at the back of my mind, as I’d love to have live visuals as well and a theatrical component to the music,’ she explains when I ask if she’d like to expand her live act. ‘If I had a budget, I would have a choir and a string section and you know, all that kind of stuff (laughs). But it’s also been a great learning experience to try and be really economical with the ensemble and work on other things, that maybe I wouldn’t if I had those things at my disposal. I’ve really been focused on my voice and trying to express myself in the best way I can.’
Making the most of things seems to come naturally to Ainsworth, who has garnered a significant amount of critical adulation in the months preceding her album’s release and one can only surmise that she’ll continue challenging herself and us, her audience, with increasingly impressive and life-affirming universes. I end our discussion on a quote from the late, great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, in which he speaks about the greatest challenge facing an artist is to follow through on the divine spark of inspiration and to maintain the initial joy of discovery throughout the creative journey mired with setbacks, potential compromises and the unavoidable distractions of the everyday. I ask Lydia if she relates to this, having worked on Right from Real for almost three years. ‘I can totally relate to that. It’s always easiest to begin something, because that’s the natural feeling, you have this elated feeling of inspiration and joy when you have this spark at the beginning and the hardest part is finishing something. Some of the songs took twenty different productions, completely different productions, like for ‘PSI’ I went through so many different styles of arrangements, from a very strange new age opera style for one of them (laughs), another one was like a four on the floor, dance song.’ She pauses for a moment and then adds: ‘I’m really keen on working at something every day, even if it’s just a little bit, even if you don’t have the inspiration, because you never know when something will hit. I know a lot of people who don’t want to do something if they don’t have the inspiration, they don’t want to work on something too much, but I feel like it’s important to give yourself that window of opportunity, you never know when something may shine through.’