Kira May is a Toronto-based musician and visual artist whose music explores the possibilities of using voice as an instrument in its own right. Melodic, rhythmic, and textural elements are explored in layers, creating thick and expressive soundscapes. Here, The Missing Slate’s Mavra Bari talks to her about what sets looping apart in the music scene and makes it such a fixture in Toronto’s urban landscape.
I first saw Kira May live in Toronto during one of The Drake’s historical Elvis Monday nights. The venue was packed, the audience bustling, but as soon as Kira’s haunting and sultry voice filled the air, there was an attentive, almost reverent, silence. Watching this diminutive and pretty young lady mesmerize Elvis Monday’s notoriously hard-to-please crowd was proof enough that this girl was something special. Kira’s body was in constant motion—bending, swaying, stepping—with her hands adroitly working on mic, sound machines, and cords. The finesse and grace of her performance reminded me of one modern yet oft-forgotten aspect of underground music – looping. Music legends such as Frank Zappa, Imogen Heap, and Björk have used the technique extensively, but a new breed of musicians which includes Kira May is taking looping to a more sophisticated level, turning it into an individualized and liberated form of expression.
That being said, vocal and music looping still isn’t as prevalent as one might imagine, especially outside North America. It was something I didn’t realize until my British friend expressed bafflement at the show: “What is she doing?” He was completely dumbfounded when I explained the process to him, and though he had been to live music shows around the world, he had never seen a music act comprised predominantly of loops. Sure enough, on asking musician friends and connoisseurs around the world about the music looping phenomenon, I found that only a handful were well-versed in it.
As an avid live-show goer in Toronto, I had come across many breathtaking loop artists such as Armen Bazarian and Delta Will, and the experience of seeing such a solo act is extremely different from seeing a cohesive band’s performance. The connection between the artist and the audience is closer somehow, more profound. There is a pronounced vulnerability that the musician exudes on stage, as energy is not diffused among members but concentrated to a single entity. Moreover, a deep interaction takes place between the artist and his/her mechanical instrument; the human and the machine are inextricable, which makes the performance all the more curious and engaging.
Kira May offered some first-hand insights as to why and how this is so.
Kira, first off, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from, and how did you find your way to becoming a Toronto-based musician and visual artist?
Kira: I’m originally from Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. I remember as a child being so drawn to the city, and so interested in the music there. As soon as I found music that spoke to me, it became a huge part of my life.
I’ve been a bedroom singer and songwriter since those early days of falling in love with music. I have a very shy side to my personality and only recently found the courage within myself to sing and create publicly, but it was a huge struggle. Painting, on the other hand, came to me very naturally and served my need to exercise creativity in the solace of my own private space. I have a deep love for visual art, and studied painting in school. I am grateful for that experience because it allows me to think about music in visual terms, which lends itself well to my process.
Your music is described as “experimental vocal pop” on several forums. Can you elaborate what that means?
My songs are almost exclusively made up of vocal layers. The compositions are generally pretty lush and full, andthe idea behind the project is that most, if not all, elements of the songs are generated by my voice, which is looped and manipulated by a variety of effects. I would call the music experimental because it is driven by exploration and curiosity, and sometimes falls outside of standard pop conventions. But, at the same time, the songs often follow familiar, relatable structures.
There is an array of diverse musical talent in Toronto, but looping artists are really novel and self-contained. What are the benefits and setbacks of being a one-woman show on stage?
I was drawn to looping out of necessity because I was too scared to collaborate with other musicians. The rise of looping was a godsend because it allowed me to create songs on my own without compromising the sound that I wanted. Once I started playing with looping technology I really fell in love with it. I have been a fan of minimalist music for a very long time. I adore Arvo Part, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly and Dan Deacon (who, in my mind, addresses minimalism in a very contemporary way). I love repetitive music with gradual changes that build in intensity because it really allows you to get inside the mood of the music. This approach to music feels so natural to me—I respond so deeply to it. The process of looping lends itself extremely well to this repetitive and layered song-building that really moves me.
There are many benefits to being in control of the sounds, but the major setback would be that a machine can never deliver the energy and presence of a person. Fortunately for me, Toronto troubadour/music-magician Charles Tilden has joined my live show and adds his own spirit to the songs.
Has something ever gone terribly wrong during a show?
Ha-ha! Oh yes. Unfortunately that is the nature of the looping beast. During the Health EP release show in Toronto, we were playing the very last song, which was going to be very large and dense—the grand finale of the performance, so to speak. Somehow a cord knocked a dial on my looper and every layer I had built was wiped out. I thought, we can’t end the show like this! I decided to build it up again and finish the song properly. It could have been disastrous, but I felt like the crowd was with me. And I like to think that the unplanned moments add a sense of humanity to the performance. The good news about unplanned disasters is that you surprise yourself with your ability to handle them in the moment. And when the worst thing happens, you learn that it’s not really that bad, and you become fearless about future performances because you know the worst thing has already happened and you made it work!
To those who may not be familiar with your genre or looping in general, how would you describe the process of creation and performance?
My process is very much anchored in playfulness. I sit down on the floor with my equipment around me and just explore ideas as they come. When you are just playing for the sake of play itself, you lose a lot of self-consciousness and can be completely true and authentic without any pressure, and I think that’s how you can get into a flow state. When you’re in the flow state—that’s when the really good ideas come! When an idea gives me a really excited feeling, I know I should go back and work on it, flesh it out. I work with very minimal equipment, and working within set limitations is a challenge that I enjoy. It also makes the process manageable, not too overwhelming. Like, “How much can I do with the least amount of stuff?” Working within boundaries allows you to explore all of the possibilities that exist there. I’m developing new material now and I already know that I will need to add to my arsenal of gear. It will be fun to work within new parameters.
What sets looping apart from using other instruments? Do you think it’s more or less work or a completely different experience altogether?
I wouldn’t say that it is more or less work; it’s just a different kind of work. When you’re looping, your attention is a bit divided—rather than just channeling all of your focus into your voice, or your guitar or whatever you play, you are monitoring the recording and playback of all of the layers. But the bonus is that you can maximize your sound by adding harmonies or other elements that wouldn’t be possible in real time, unless you split yourself into multiple people. An instrument is just a means to the end of self-expression, and in that sense, the looper sort of becomes an instrument in its own right.
Your debut album was released January this year. Tell us about ‘Health. It’s an interesting album name, could you expound on why you chose it?
The songs on Health came together at a time when I felt very lost. I felt conflicted about a lot of things and very divided, like my body and mind were a type of wilderness that I was trying to navigate through music. The album came to be about the wilderness of the human landscape, health being the goal. The EP considers paradoxes—the pulls between the present, past and future, and the animal versus the spiritual. I wanted the EP to feel a bit haunted, because it is very much about being haunted by our ghosts—those challenges that we must face and bring into balance in order to feel peaceful. Health seemed like the best title for this collection of songs because it was the goal of the album, and also very self-fulfilling. I felt that I had faced a lot of my demons while making it, and felt like a healthier human as a result.
Your music has a definite haunting quality and darkness to it. Where do you think that quality comes from? Is it deliberate or inherent?
The moody nature of Health happened naturally because that’s where my headspace was at the time, and I decided to go with what felt natural. I kept seeing this image of a dark forest full of animals and ghosts in my head. I saw dark blues and greys and silvers all over the songs. Ghosts were a huge conceptual part of this album, and by that I mean the people and memories that haunt you because there is some part of your healing that you have not addressed. The body of work that I am currently working on has a much brighter sound because I feel differently now, and the concept behind these new songs calls for a more multi-faceted approach.
Any pearls of wisdom for other aspiring musicians who want to try something new?
I definitely encourage exploration. As a listener, it’s so exciting to hear music that is unlike everything else I’ve heard. My journey has taught me to trust my instincts, and do what feels the most natural. The goal is to be authentic and sincere with your explorations; people will always connect with truth.
[toggle_box title=”Working with Kira: In Conversation With Randal Harris” width=”Width of toggle box”]
Randal Harris works at Exclaim! Magazine – Canada’s Music Authority, and was a band promoter for years with his own company, Wreckingball Entertainment. Harris hadn’t promoted a band directly in quite a while, but when he heard Kira’s music he decided to become her manager. He had some things to say about Kira and the underground looping scene.
What made you choose to represent Kira?
I had been a concert promoter for years, and had seen many bands come through and play for me that I knew were destined for greater things. But for whatever reason I never felt inspired to want to step in on a more managerial role. It was different with Kira. I think Kira’s music is incredible, and I see her as someone who will only grow and become better. There is a huge drive in Kira to create, and it comes from a place that is not motivated by wanting to be wealthy or famous, or even cool. It’s motivated by necessity; in the same way I eat breakfast every morning because it keeps me feeling alive, Kira creates. Something that comes from such a genuine place deserves to be supported and it’s rewarding to be a part of something like that.
What would you say about the Toronto underground music scene, and where do looping and vocal experimentation figure into that?
In regard to looping, I think it’s a really fascinating thing. I often hear comparisons from people who see Kira perform, and the names that are often dropped are artists like Imogen Heap and Bjork. These names are all flattering, in ways I can’t even express, but in truth, I think the biggest thing they have in common is the instrument they use. From there, each of them is different in their own right. When an artist uses a looper, it needs to be seen as an instrument. Everyone plays it differently. And I think as time progresses it will be regarded more fairly in that way. When I see someone play guitar, my immediate thought isn’t “he reminds me of Jimi Hendrix,” so hopefully as it becomes mainstream, the looper will be regarded in the same way and seen as more diverse.
There was a time where this way of composing music wasn’t an option. And I think brilliant creative minds can finally feel empowered to create music, even if they are unable to play a piano or guitar.[/toggle_box]
Mavra Bari is Head Creative Writer at White Rice Communications and talent scout for The Missing Slate’s Spotlight series.