Interview with mai.la
A reversed, garbled synth patch brings in stabs accentuating the rhythm, an entrancing voice floating in the sonic air. There’s room to breathe, each layer shaped and defined in an uncluttered yet indescribably off-kilter space. Liquid relief sweeps in, but only for a moment until it snaps back. Suddenly, an explosion pushes through, filling the space with a controlled flux of overflowing texture…
This is the complexity of the opening track of Los Angelos-based duo mai.la’s debut EP ‘Blush’, intriguingly titled “Maybe ୧(ಠ益ಠ)୨”. Finding viral success with their first single “Ready” in 2016, Katie Moore and Cait Cole were approached by Harrison from ODESZA who had heard them on Soundcloud. Since 2018, they have been a part of Foreign Family Collective, an outlet for musicians and visual artists including acts such as RUFÜS DU SOL and Louis Futon. However, this project is just the concrete manifestation of what they had started together years prior.
“We’ve been making music together since we were basically kids,” Cait tells us. “But when we officially started the band, I had just begun my journey as a producer/writer after years of classical training. Katie had been singing for years, but she was eager to start something refreshing as well. We started experimenting with more avant-garde vocal sampling and arrangement. One night in particular, I remember listening back to one of our early demos together and being like, ‘Wait, is this actually…super cool?’ and both of us realized how special it really was.”
Special is one word to describe their music, with words like “experimental”, “eclectic”, and “tender” coming to mind on first listen, too. “The band formed when Cait and I realized [that we] carried two halves to a crazy combo move rooted in our own purest form of expression,” Katie recalls. That expression, for them, is pop at heart, innovative in form.
“I think [a] pop core is inevitable because we love a catchy hook,” she continues. “Then comes the embellishments, or how we build a world around the hook. That world has got to emulate the layers and layers of perspective surrounding the song’s theme. We expose ourselves to so many realms of expression. [Our] palette is just a melting pot of sounds that remind us of a specific feeling or sensation.”
So inside this manipulated, jumbled world, there’s a strong emotion to be felt. It’s a mesmerizing contrast, and a careful balance that for many artists is hard to establish. “Rather than writing the best beat you can and putting a track on top, we use a DAW as an extension of the instruments contained within it,” Cait observes. “Playing Ableton like a guitar. The emotion will be there as long as you feel it, and everyone onboard feels it, while it’s being created.”
Their music has a kind of calculated unpredictability, demanding for the listener’s undivided attention, new details emerging on every press of the play button. “A lot of our palette comes from our roots,” Cait describes. “Starting the band with wildly twisted and manipulated vocal samples as the core of the tracks, as well as me being totally broke at the time and using cheap, obscure plugins, definitely put us off to a weird start, and we never really put that down. When we discovered analog gear, that only added to what I would consider the inimitable state of our music.” In their tracks, the two have managed to make cheap sound polished, wacky sound purposeful.
The project is a close collaboration, with any disparities only adding to the contradiction of the music. “We both sing and write for the band, and I produce as well,” Cait explains. “I always joke to Katie that she’s like an emotional oracle, this raw ball of feels that can just spew it all out into the world. I get really lost in the music a lot too. We do a solid job of keeping each other grounded, in different ways. This gives us the freedom to mess around with pretty off the wall or unconventional ideas and not fall too deep into the vortex.”
“Both of us enter a zone [where] we allow each other to deep dive, flesh it out, and come together when the thought is whole,” Katie adds. “It’s never surprising to us when each of our ideas lines up perfectly with the other after we’ve laid them on the table.” For mai.la, there’s really no right or wrong – only a synthesis bringing limitless possibilities.
Their debut EP developed by finding strength in duality, placing raw elements in programmed, processed surroundings. “I would say the organic elements fell into place naturally,” says Cait. “We don’t do a lot of premeditation when we create, but we do have an affinity for organic sounds because, often, they support a more emotional environment. Anything real that you create, no ones and zeros, will feel more real to some degree.”
WIth its striking character, the collection of five tracks inspires curiosity relating to the duo’s influences and inspirations. “I’d credit David Lynch for creating the space in our heads that a lot of this EP came from,” Katie responds. “Especially surrounding the idea of creating an immersive world. It was also just a wild ride emotionally when we met Jordan Reyes and Aaron Harmon, two producers that we worked on this project with, because they exposed us to so much art in such a short amount of time. I also want to credit anime in general – it was around this time that Cait and I went full weeb, and I think that art style influenced a lot of our transitions and little moments in the production.”
And through all of these sounds, their lyrics are a force to hold it all together, capturing the abstract outline of an experience. Cait describes their writing process as immensely therapeutic. “I would say it’s most akin to a diary. Plenty of feels and crying and anger and sadness and pulling off scabs.” After the fact, others’ reactions to the music are always surprising and rewarding for them to hear, being unique to each individual who approaches them. Katie notes, “That’s the cool part about it all – people being able to take your words and sounds and apply it to themselves.”
Evoking these reactions is the ultimate goal that drives many of their artistic choices, including the tumblr-esque images of their cover artwork. “We try to keep it all a package deal so that maybe, if you were looking at our imagery, the feeling of the songs we create might immediately come to mind,” Katie details. Cait calls it their “visual thumbprint”, which is not just a result of being art junkies, but a statement of a desire for people to be unafraid of their emotions. “Lately, in the past few years or so, we’ve been fascinated with nostalgia and really trying to indulge in it. It’s such a bittersweet tension in the back of your chest to remember.”
Looking down the road, Katie sees the band in a similar place to now: infinite exploration. “Sitting in a dark room going down some rabbit hole making something crazy out of it, Cait and I screaming and giggling all excited.”
So when we ask the natural question of, “Where to next?” their answer is, “Who knows.”
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