RSVP HERE: Ember Knight Releases CHERYL, livestreams via Youtube + MORE

photo credit: Dustyn Hiett 

Ember Knight is a cult figure for all ages. The LA-based filmmaker, comedian and musician stretches their boundaries to create a playful and sometimes terrifying world where they can express all sides of themselves. Their sophomore album CHERYL, a ballet rock opera album, was self-released on November 10. The record is organized into movements, book- ended by odes to lasagna meals, that tells the story of a mental asylum patient who can’t remember their favorite color. The symphony is a soundtrack written for a film that doesn’t exist, was recorded entirely by Ember Knight in the Echo Park United Methodist Church, and is dedicated to your mom.

Earlier this year, Ember Knight also released a couple episodes of The Ember Knight show, a video series written by Knight and directed by Bobby McCoy that simplifies concepts like listening and telling the truth – the basics we’re taught in preschool that somehow become more complex and harder to execute as adults. Knight reminds me of a gender fluid Mr. Rogers that’s trapped in Hollywood, helping us all reflect on our bad, ego-driven behavior. Now that CHERYL has arrived, we can expect more episodes of The Ember Knight show, which will be especially helpful as we begin to integrate back into society post-pandemic at some point in the future. 

Ember Knight will be celebrating the release of CHERYL with a livestream on 11/14 at 9pm ET via their youtube, and the redacted emotions Twitch. We chatted with Ember about their relationship to color, performance, and what it was like writing and recording a whole ballet themselves.

AF: Can you explain the story arc of your new album CHERYL?

EK: Yes. It’s very simple: Cheryl goes to an asylum because she can’t remember her favorite color – is it red, yellow, or blue? The doctor says, “Oh shit this is very serious – you have to stay here until you remember. And you can only eat lasagna.”

While in her hospital room, she meets the color yellow. Yellow is playful and mischievous, but also sad and tragic. When they try to play, it falls apart in front of her. Next she meets the color red. Red is innocent and enticing at first, then she becomes sexy and voluptuous, dancing with Cheryl. But just as Cheryl thinks they are about to kiss, red turns into a terrifying sexual monster of old age, and Cheryl runs away. Act break, lunch time (lasagna). 

After lunch, Cheryl meets the color blue. Blue is a funny little man, who teaches her to fly and tapdance! She decides that blue is her favorite color. But as he is leaving, she realizes that he’s just a crazy beggar. 

Confused and unable to answer the question, Cheryl ties her bedsheets together and escapes out the window into a Dark Night of the Soul. Now the story begins to be not simple. Anger, jealousy, everything she represses comes out in the darkness of the hospital garden. This part is all emotional logic. Something spiritual happens. When we go all the way dark, we hit the bottom, ricochet back up, and break through into the light. Cheryl cannot escape herself, and she realizes that this is okay. A favorite color is not actually necessary – all these things live within. She is caught and returned to her room, for a big operation where they cut her open and find all the colors inside. 

After the operation, Cheryl goes to dinner (lasagna) and sees all of the colors sitting there, waiting for her. They eat together as a family, and the doctor lets her go. The end.

AF: How was the experience of recording the entire album yourself?

EK: Nightmare! I am a golden god, I did it, I hated it. Never Again!

AF: What was the most surprising thing you learned or discovered about yourself while writing and recording?

EK: That I cannot do ballet! I tried to “learn ballet real quick’” in order to dance the whole record in a video series. I remember thinking; okay, I have four months to be doing pirouettes en pointe, can’t be that hard! And then, you know, four months later I cannot do ONE pirouette, in my bareass feet. 

And yet, it’s that exact insane “let’s go!” kinda vibe that allowed me to wanna make this record in the first place. Because I also decided to engineer it, play a grand piano, and do full string arrangements – all for the first time. How hard could it be? Well, the answer is, it was hard. It took two years and absolutely kicked my ass! But I was able to pull through on the music. The ballet got abandoned. 

AF: Would you rather eat lasagna or casserole?

EK: I actually do really love lasagna. My mom used to make it, it’s one of her best dishes. But honey, lasagna for breakfast, lunch AND dinner? Too heavy, man. 

AF: What is your relationship to the primary colors and the outfits that each color is represented by?

EK: Each color is a direct reference to an outfit I’ve worn exhaustively. Yellow is the Little Lion (a child’s lion costume I wore for two years in comedy), red is my sex work persona (previously just myself in a red dress, but I exploited and sold this part of myself when I danced/did escort work, and it got torn down to scrappy red lingerie), and blue is King of LA (a boy’s blue tuxedo I still wear, and have worn in The Ember Knight Show). For me, yellow represented sexless trouble, red feminine, and blue masculine. But the real moral of the record is that these are actually all facets of One Real Human – not different personas to chose between. 

AF: Did you ever figure out what your favorite color is? 

EK: No, the answer to the riddle is that it’s a trick question – all the colors are necessary. 

AF: When you’re able to perform in front of a live audience again, what kind of venue and band would you like to perform these songs in and with? 

EK: So ideally this is actually a big theatrical ballet, like the nutcracker. I’d love to arrange it for dance, or even a school production. In this fantasy I am not even directing the music; rather, someone who actually reads music is conducting and dealing with all that. I’d like to translate the lyrics into Italian and have a trained opera singer do all the main vocals, while the story is fully danced as a ballet in front of big colorful sets (probably made of cardboard). 

AF: Has your approach to performing changed since you’ve had so much time to reflect this year?

EK: I think this year has made me realize that much of what I do is selfish. I want attention, I want a career, I want I want, blah blah. What does that have to do with you? Why the hell should you care?  

My best answer in the past has been “I’m providing something new.” As though advancing the field, music or comedy or film, is reason enough to do it. But that’s not good enough for me anymore. I don’t need to provide something new. I want to provide something old. I want my work to be a service that provides energy, validation, and community – the age-old stuff we really need out of a performer. 

After being on stage since I was three years old, it’s been really good to chill for a while. Going back into it, I’m dropping the bullshit. I’m going in to do a job, and do it well. Not beg for love. 

AF: I love the Ember Knight show!! What was the process of making those episodes like and will there be more coming soon? 

EK: I love The Ember Knight Show too. It’s so fun to make, a real perfect collab between me, Bobby McCoy (the director), and Mikey Santos (our DP). I think it’s the best show ever. I’m writing three more episodes for this season, and we’ll make them as soon as we have the resources! I think I’m gonna launch a Patreon for this exact thing.

AF: What is your livestream set-up like?

EK: I have acquired what can only be described as an unethical amount of fake snow. Dude, there is so much fake snow. It’s gonna be a real “mall Santa” vibe – there are hanging clouds, Christmas lights, and as mentioned, like, bounds and pounds of fake snow. So please tune in – I don’t even know if my string section can play in all of this fake snow, it’s truly irresponsible! Somebody stop me!

AF: What are your plans for the rest of 2020 + beyond?

EK: The Ember Knight Show is now my main focus. Finishing the webseries, and then banging on TV executives’ doors in the dead of night and forcing them to watch it. Something like that. 

RSVP HERE for Ember Knight via their youtube, and the redacted emotions Twitch on Saturday 11/14 at 9pm ET.

More great livestreams this week…

11/13 Xiu Xiu, Ariel Pink, Machine Girl, Deli Girls, Dorian Electra, Liturgy, Kill Alters & more via Twitch. 8pm ET, RSVP HERE 

11/13 Lonnie Holley & Friends (featuring Ben Sollee, Dave Eggar, Christopher Paul Stelling, Phil Faconti, Jordon Ellis & Evie Andrus) from Knoxville’s The Mill & Mine. 8pm ET, RSVP HERE

11/13 Queens of the Stone Age via YouTube. 12pm ET, RSVP HERE

11/13 -11/15 Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (solo) via Undertow. 8pm ET, $25 RSVP HERE

11/13 – 11/14 Open Mike Eagle, Robyn, Rico Nasty, Colin Stetson, Tycho, Baths, Algiers, Alex Mali, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and MORE via Adult Swim Fest. RSVP HERE

11/14 Emo Night Brooklyn via livestream. 10pm ET, RSVP HERE

11/14 Heathered Pearls, Baltra via 6pm ET, RSVP HERE

11/15 Hollis Brown (tribute to The Velvet Undergound) via City Winery TV. 7pm ET, RSVP HERE 

11/16 2020 Ain’t Canceled: Braggadocious Black Girl Magic via 5pm ET, RSVP HERE

11/17 Taj Mahal via Mandolin. 9pm ET,  $20, RSVP HERE

11/19 Marissa Nadler, Hilary Woods via BABY/tv. 8pm ET, $5, RSVP HERE

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith Details New LP and Caribou Tour

Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson

(Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this piece venues have shuttered and tours have been canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, including the Caribou tour mentioned below. They are working on rescheduling those dates, but a lot is up in the air! Here are some ways you can help support musicians and related industries during the crisis).

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith is excited. When she heads out on tour opening for Caribou, beginning March 16 in Hamilton, Ontario, the L.A.-based electronic composer will perform with the Buchla Lightning wand, which will control a box of sounds near her that she spent “months and months” programming. “For a while, I was trying to come up with ways to not look like a dweeby wizard while I was using it,” she says by phone.

When it comes to synths, though, Smith is a bit of a wizard. Working with an assortment of gear that changes from album to album – modular synths and rare, vintage instruments are often a part of the process – she creates layered, emotional electronic music that conjures images of nature and cities, isolation and crowds. She can take listeners on journeys through space and time, weaving the history of synthesizer music through pieces that otherwise sound contemporary. She’s essentially building imaginative worlds through music.

Self-taught in piano and classically trained in guitar, Smith had initially envisioned a different musical path. “I studied sound engineering and learned how to write for orchestras,” she says. After finishing school, though, Smith hit a creative hurdle. She didn’t have access to orchestras and classical guitar, but, she adds, that style “wasn’t the sound that was supposed to be expressing the music that I was feeling internally.” She was ready to change career plans when fate intervened. Smith’s then-neighbor showed her his collection of Buchla synthesizers and eventually lent her one. She took it back to her cabin on Orcas Island in Washington, where she grew up and was living at the time, and spent a year teaching herself how to make make music with it.

“The moment I said, ‘okay, I give up,’ the pressure was gone,” she says. “I started to explore music every day in such a slow, experimental way that I had no expectations of anything. It felt like the opposite music process from what I was doing before, where I had all this pressure on myself to build these songs and create this architecture out of music.” Smith would listen to a single tone for hours and began to connect it to what she learned in school, figuring out how to share the sound that was made by the instrument. “It became really effortless,” she says of making music. “The pressure wasn’t on me to create these things. It was more about me sharing what I hear.”

Since then, her creativity abounded through singles, EPs, full-length albums and other projects. Smith collaborated with the pioneering composer Suzanne Ciani in 2016. She launched the multidisciplinary arts company Touchtheplants, though which she released Listening, the first in a series of pocket-sized books, which comes with a deck of cards featuring listening exercises. Last year, she re-released one of her earlier synth albums, Tides: Music for Mediation and Yoga, which she originally created when her mom, a yoga teacher, asked her to make a soundtrack for class. Smith has also led guided meditation events.

Her influences have come from various disciplines and she says that her “biggest muse” is dance. “I would feel that [dancers] were communicating something that I was feeling inside that no one else could communicate,” she says. “I still feel that way.”

On the road with Caribou, a wave of Smith’s Buchla wand will summon songs from her forthcoming LP The Mosaic of Transformation, set for a May 15 release via Ghostly International. She says that it’s also a chance to test out some of the live elements for a later solo tour, but the initial idea for the project came to Smith at least five years ago. “I wanted to make an opera, just in the sense that there are recurring themes and recurring characters with sounds that come in and out throughout the album,” she says.

She was also inspired by electricity and learning about the spine and the nervous system, as evidenced by the LP’s ten-minute-plus lead single, “Expanding Electricity.”

The album came together, in part, because of a residency Smith had at National Music Centre in Calgary. She was able to work with their collection of rare instruments. “They would send me a PDF of their collection and every day, I would tell the engineer there which instruments I wanted to play with and they would set up a room with all the instruments and then leave me to record in there,” she says. “It was very heavenly.”

Smith often relies on residencies at cultural institutions to gain access to the instruments that she uses on her recordings. “For a very small amount of time, I tried to collect rare synthesizers,” she explains, “and the responsibility of keeping them in good condition is so overwhelming that I decided to just use residencies.”

Having access to the Music Centre’s collection opened up possibilities for Smith in terms of composing, but when it came time to record, Smith had to improvise once again. “I was going to record it with a real orchestra and I had all the parts written out and ready for it,” she explains, “but I couldn’t get the funding together, so I processed orchestral samples along with the synthesizers.” However, she points out, if she does have the opportunity to perform with an orchestra or ensemble in the future, she already has their parts written.

“I change my whole live set up each album,” Smith says. In some instances, she had a vision for the live performance before she began recording. Other times, she has thought about the performance of the work while she was making it.

“[Transformation] is pretty different from any live experience I’ve done before,” she says. She’s been working on ways to incorporate performance art into her sets and making “extensions” of the songs rather than simply recreating the album.

As for the wizard connotations, Smith says, “Now, I’m just embracing it, that that’s what I’m going to look like. It’s fun.”

LIVE REVIEW: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith @ Knockdown Center

When Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith met the Buchla 100 electronic synthesizer, it was love at first listen. She was studying composition Berklee College of Music in Boston, intending to use vocals, classical guitar and piano in her work; she had even formed an indie-folk band called Ever Isles. But the Buchla 100 changed the way she wanted to make music; the vintage modulated synth offered a seemingly limitless array of sounds and possibilities, and Smith’s musical arc was forever altered. With the release of EARS last April (her second via Western Vinyl), Smith broke a glass ceiling of sorts; most of the more well-known names in ambient and experimental music belong to men like Brian Eno, Tim Hecker, Max Richter, Tom Carter, Keith Fullerton Whitman, William Basinski, Daniel Lopatin, Christian Fennesz, Nicholas Jaar, Axel Willner. Women in ambient music – like Moog pioneer Wendy Carlos Williams, Laurie Spiegel, Grouper’s Liz Harris, Julianna Barwick, or Noveller’s Sarah Lipstate – seem to be fewer and farther between, but Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s gorgeous, burbling soundscapes help bridge those gaps.

Smith told Redbull Music Academy that she often composes visually, creating rhythms that mimic visions and colors in her mind’s eye. These translate, eventually, to the visuals she uses when she performs live. At Knockdown Center on Friday – a hundred-year-old former door factory in Maspeth, Queens – Smith hunched over her Buchla Music Easel (a smaller, more accessible version of the Buchla 100), its glow softly illuminating her face from below with an otherworldly light. Behind her, videos of refracted light broken through various prisms swirled and swelled as Smith recreated tracks from EARS and Euclid, her 2015 release, the music floating through the rough-hewn space as purple spotlights flashed outside, the low-end rumbling along rafters and rusty support beams.

Like that refracted light, Smith’s patches spun and shuddered, dimming and then shimmering with bright surges. Thick globs of bass seemed to drip from the ceiling and then yawn open, fusing with patterns of woodwind overlay, Smith twisting knobs until the space was throbbing. She sang into a headset, manipulating her vocals so that in addition to her breathy natural register, there were underlying robotic and alien tones in lower and higher registers – not quite in harmony with one another, but sliding across one another like the reverberations of a tuning fork, at once glassy and metallic. The brilliant melding of human and machine made Smith’s music seem less coldly futuristic and more like a delicately rendered moment exactly for now, still warmed by flesh and blood but with aspirations for cosmological expansion.