I tell Lydia Ainsworth how the vibrancy of her songs sparks my imagination. I ramble about it to her in purple prose about the vivid imagery cast by her album Right From Real. She’s glad, she says, cuz that’s the point.
“When I’m writing any kind of music, I’m trying to tap into another level of perception,” said Ainsworth. “Or a different spectrum of feeling; one that allows you to use all your senses.”
So it’s assuring to her when I tell her about seeing dreamy storms of color or having certain senses stung into life when listening to her single “White Shadows.” To achieve an emotional connection and a visceral reaction with her music, she said, has always been an aim of hers as a composer.
The Toronto-raised, classically-trained singer/songwriter had already established a sturdy résumé in composing music for films and multimedia projects when she broke out last autumn with her dark and alluring blending of electronica and baroque-pop. One of her teachers at NYU, Joan La Barbara, specialized in extended vocal techniques and encouraged Ainsworth to start singing in her work. Her celestial voice would wind up being an integral element embedded into the mesmeric motifs of her debut full length Right From Real (which came out on the notable Canada-based label, Arbutus Records).
La Barbara would introduce Ainsworth to lots of experimental composers of wordless-music and luminaries of New York’s minimalist movement such Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, Steve Reich (and even La Barbara’s own music). She developed a deep appreciation for the visceral impact of wordless vocal delivery, its ability to provoke with its atmospheric, almost tribal melodies. Sutured into the background, behind layered synthesizers and acoustic string instruments swirls an intricate, wordless libretto.
The stark and profound requiems, “the power of the choir” in works by great composers would also play an influential role upon Ainsworth’s music. “Verdi’s Requiem, that’s my favorite. I love requiem’s in general.”
She started playing the cello as young as 10 and attended Etobicoke School of the Arts through her teens. She readily admits how terrible she was, at first, on cello. “I would play to all my records, figuring out Beatles’ string parts and Nirvana cello lines. I’ve always been really obsessed with music. I think it was seeing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, going to the ballet with my mom, I was obsessed with (Tchaikovsky)’s music.”
And, of course, the exhilarations of singularly imaginative film score would shape her future. “Edward Scissorhands,” Ainsworth says. “The score of Danny Elfman. That was the first score I listened to where I said: Wow, this is something so amazing, I would love to do something like this. Because songwriting is kind of an evolution out of my love for film scoring.”
Ainsworth casts an ornately cinematic sheen of furtive strings over the archetypal electronica landscape, with violins and cellos interweaving their melodramatic counter melodies over the kinetic beats, fuzz-fringed fx samples and twinkling billows of synthesizers. The musical architecture of her compositions can seem like fantastical (and sometimes feverish) lucid dreaming, chopped-up, pitch-shifted vocal samples spurt in and out over jittery drum tracks while sumptuous strings curl their way through a brambly field of buzzing synths. But these experimental-pop trips often blossom toward crescendos that demonstrate the purity and impact of her beautiful voice.
There are elements that are as soothing as they are startling, meditative, and then sudden, like dreams that can drop off into the unknown, with you floating into this dark middle ground.
Essentially, as expected from a film scorer, you can close your eyes and easily conjure a montage to set the song to, with fully realized moving characters or haunting neverland-ish landscapes. But we’ve covered its effects already; more than anything, Right From Real has an understated grandness, as breathtaking as some baroque-styled performance for a theatre’s stage, yet intimate enough for soundtracking a night’s drive of ponderous solitude.
In fact, as Ainsworth was secretly crafting the songs for her debut, she would test them out on drives around Brooklyn. “I think that a good song has to sound great while in a car, something you can drive to,” Ainsworth opined. “That signifies that you’re onto something.”
Years ago, before she had any aspirations to perform or tour, Ainsworth was asked to play some of her music for a friend’s party. She didn’t have any material, though. So, she wrote a few songs, assembled an ensemble and performed what would be, essentially, her first live show. And she fell in love with the experience. “That exchange of energy with a group of people and just seeing a song come to life, not just in my laptop computer. To have a human connection with the music, that was important to me.”
She closely guarded the eight compositions that would compile Right From Real over the next two years, mostly because she didn’t want to share anything that wasn’t completely finished. “Because I know in my head how it should sound, but if I’m still on a path to finishing it I don’t want that path to be influenced in any way by someone’s reaction to it. I’m still that way. When (Real) was mastered, totally finished, that’s when I started to send it around, guarding it like a little baby, still. It ended up being heard for the first time at the Arbutus offices and they really dug it.”
Ainsworth is set to perform at four major festivals this year, two in Europe, two in Canada, including Roskilde and North By Northeast. These will likely be the largest audiences she’s ever encountered through her performances.
“That thought…didn’t even cross my mind yet,” she chuckles. “But now that you mention it…yeah, now I’m gonna get nervous.”
Despite namedrops of Steve Reich, Giuseppe Verdi and people comparing her Bjork or Fever Ray, Ainsworth said that, above all, she was just writing her own vision of pop music. “I was inspired by pop song structures and pop songs in general. So, it’s completely different in the form, compared to film scoring, as well as the actual vision of how I want it to sound.”
But she must have relied upon certain “visuals” to help conjure this “vision.”
“I would put my demos up against short clips from online, like slow motion breaking glass. Sometimes I need that visual to help with the feel of the song, that aspect is important to me.”
So I tell her how surreal it is that, even if we haven’t met, she can still write music that evokes these vivid mental images for me, images I can’t explain, like half-familiar pieces of déjà-vu. She tells me she’s just read a short story dealing with memories and childhood that introduced the term “infantile amnesia” to her. It’s this theory that, when you’re a child, around ages 3-5, you haven’t learned how to remember things. “So, you’re experiencing things that, later on in life, you might not remember because of the learned behavior of remembering strips away things that are unnecessary,” Ainsworth said.
“So, I’m really interested in tapping into that area, where maybe now as an adult we’re kind of casting away, unconsciously, that area that you just haven’t tapped into, yet. With my music, that would be the ultimate aim, to allow the listener to experience things they haven’t yet, or can’t in reality, in the moment…”