Kayla Guthrie Falling Star

[Wild Flesh; 2018]

Styles: half-light, silhouette, haute abjection
Others: Lau Nau, Eve Essex, Lizzi Bougatsos, Will Sheldon, Jarboe, Lydia Tomkiw and Leslie Winer

I discovered Kayla Guthrie’s music a few years ago through the recommendation of multidisciplinary artist Eve Essex, someone I deeply respect due to her seemingly limitless range of projects and abilities, spanning sculpture, classically trained bassoon and saxophone playing, electronic music, songwriting, installation, and performance art. Essex has a knack for working across contexts, uniquely merging DIY and institutional gallery settings (seen in her performances at New York’s Artists Space and Berlin’s Harlekin Gallery), performing as as one half of psych/krautrock band Das Audit (with artist Craig Kalpakjian), and maintaining collaborations with James K, Via App, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, and fashion imprint Eckhaus Latta. Upon hearing Guthrie’s music, I was struck by a reciprocal sensibility in her approach to songwriting and in her development of subterfuge between genre and contexts. A musician, writer, and exhibiting visual artist, Guthrie similarly does crucial work in tracing cartography between seemingly disparate cultural worlds, artists, and mediums, always articulating their ever-present contingency. It’s a metier visible in her performance series Intra Phenom, which focused on literary, musical, durational, and performance work by women and non-binary artists, as well as Live Presence, an internet radio show hosted in collaboration with KNOW WAVE. Across Essex’s and Guthrie’s respective practices, there exists a particular methodology that values emphasizing the inter-dependence between mediums in order to mount more effective countercultural postures and to emphasize a broader emerging social context for song in 2018.

Falling Star, Guthrie’s follow-up to 2015’s Blue, stakes out a decidedly organic songwriting position within her otherwise labyrinthine artistic world. The album is a crystalline, shuddering collection of three songs that resonate as a precise vision and concentrated presentation for her work. Knowingly aware of the often over-coded and utterly existential landscape for contemporary songwriting, Guthrie chooses a veiled sincerity, developing a subterranean sonic palette at once understated and socially rich. As a result, relatively simple musical gestures attain grander symbolic interplay and powerful emotional force by staying their course, riding out flows of cooling affect in odd, asymmetric trajectories. The album also summons sounds “as is” and with an overall transparency of origin, all presented in a half-light akin to a cavern with strands of soft light pouring in from unknown origins. In this way, Guthrie’s voice and the album’s characteristically metallic textures oscillate between showing themselves in their bare life and submerging back into a spatialized “outside,” peaking into the EP with a spectral presence — simultaneously luminous and obfuscated in their ghostliness.

Tensely amalgamating the austerity of the gallery with the intimacy of a lamp-lit house show, Falling Star is a tome for how songs can still authentically emerge from within stifled, perhaps even resigned, cultural conditions — in Guthrie’s case the stiff hydra-form of NYC’s gallery culture. In this way, the EP charts a unique flight out of this context in pursuit of something more stable, specifically outside the entangled flows and tired dialectics of contemporary visual arts culture, a context often demanding work with conceptual weight. As if out of necessity, Guthrie herself describes the EP as “between approaching music-making as a conceptual project and as an outsider, to where I am now, with a more organic music production process and a vocabulary of dynamics & textures that is both more expanded and controlled.” Here, Guthrie’s self-conception and use of the word “outsider” is interesting, especially when considering the more often reversed usage of the word as it is often applied from general audiences toward artists who might approach music-making as a conceptual project.

Exploring this tension, and seemingly wanting to flip the narrative, Guthrie musters her work toward a directness of expression that emphasizes and hopes for shared aesthetic experience. This is heard as directly as possible on “But I am,” a dirge-like blues song performed over a spartan rhythm echoing with flourishes of cybernetic texture. Recalling the early work of Gang Gang Dance’s Lizzi Bougatsos, specifically her more unfurled collaborative project I.U.D., Guthrie weaponizes sounds with a similarly gothic orientation that belies her work’s relative simplicity. Herself a polymath at the intersection between gallery culture and electronic pop, Lizzi Bougatsos’s work perhaps exaggerates the resplendent psychedelic anarchy of downtown Manhattan’s 2000s gallery and music scene. Perhaps irked and beholden to a sense of responsibility toward the negligence of these earlier times, Guthrie’s transversal approach takes restraint as a measure for how song can responsibly emerge from the intersections between personal practice and artistic infrastructure. Throughout Falling Star, you can hear this severe concern as empathic — an empathy for producing music that, although idiosyncratic, is constantly opening up, rendering itself accessible, resisting cloistered and exclusive contexts. As such, the dub-like backend and cacophonous impacts of “Thrown” rides on an art-y off-kilter beat; however, the track constantly sews in embellished synths that stride over and soften the rhythmic deviation. The EP’s B-Side, the eponymous “Falling Star” presents microtonal, bowed textures that skirt harrowingly above Guthrie’s relatively straightforward melody. With a monotone delivery not dissimilar to early Liars, Guthrie’s vocal duskiness lurches forward, opening up in into a gently rising parabolic arc of flutes, errant tones, and cymbal washes that fade as a warm, communing coda.

Falling Star’s sleeve artwork features hand-drawn lettering from New York artist Will Sheldon, an artist who has gained notoriety through his celebrated tattoo work at Fun City Tattoo, exhibitions at Cleopatras in Brooklyn, and illustrations on the clothes of Lou Dallas’s recent fashion week show. With artwork featuring mythological shapes, characters, and angst-ridden creatures dripping with “haute abjection” — pixies, magicians, witches, dragons, demons all simultaneously writhing in pain and ecstasy — therein exists a playful pathos in natural consonance with Guthrie’s work. Both artists maintain obvious technical prowess and an “in-the-know” smartness that relishes slanted context; yet, even still, there remains a joy in the making of the work itself, a pleasure in producing gnarled forms that can endure as authentically alluring. In Guthrie’ case, the work is truly listenable — taking seriously the dimming conditions of any limited or exclusionary sphere and opening up with bizarre approachability.

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