Under the Radar is Highsnobiety’s celebration of upcoming talent. Each week, we’re spotlighting a rising artist who is bringing something new to the world of music and is capturing our hearts and minds (and ears). This week, we’re featuring Okay Kaya, a New York-based singer-songwriter who will sweep you off your feet with her moody smut pop tunes about the many traumas of life.
Normally, a rainy night in Greenpoint would be off putting to the average person, but when you’re going to meet up with Kaya Wilkins then it plays out as the ideal mood setter. The Norwegian-American artist known as Okay Kaya is not phased by the damp weather as she sits alone at a table outside of Pencil Factory wearing an all-white ensemble with black shoes. A cigarette delicately dangles between her fingers that hover above the glass of beer that she sips from periodically. It’s the kind of look that stands out and would easily have her mistaken for a model or a movie star which wouldn’t be far off since she has been featured in many fashion campaigns and recently starred in the Joachim Trier-directed thriller Thelma.
Ever since Kaya released her debut album, Both back in June, she has felt less pressure in regards to the way in which she presents herself through her work. The 12-track project is a collection of “smut pop” music that embodies Kaya’s vulnerability as she grapples with various internal dilemmas from her identity as a biracial and bisexual woman to working through mental health issues and figuring out the best method of birth control. The series of music videos that she created with Adinah Dancyger play off the idea of Kaya confronting her traumas in the flesh and how the dynamics alter in private and public. As she likes to say, “Art is art. Put it in a space where art isn’t made.”
Before Kaya spent the summer breaking out of her shyness by supporting Amen Dunes on an international tour, she performed a few intimate shows with her boyfriend, Aaron Maine of Porches—during the interview, he stops by to pick up the keys to her apartment and afterward he joins us for a round of drinks and enchiladas. Lately, Kaya has been focused on stopping her thumbs from taking full control of her life within the landscape of social media so she can be more present IRL. She tells me how she often plays tricks on her mind by turning her phone on airplane mode. It’s the curse of being a multi-hyphenate in the 21st century.
At the same time, Kaya admits that she’s been flunking in yoga (and exercise in general) because she’s been catching colds from traveling so frequently, though she’s trying to drinking more green juice and cayenne. Later on, Kaya reveals that her sun, moon and rising signs are all in Leo, which she dubs as “super-duper Leo” and is still growing into. She jokes, “I’m like self absorbed as fuck. Super evil.” Of course, anyone that even vaguely knows Kaya is aware that this isn’t true in the slightest—the fact that she still gets nervous when she takes the stage is a telling sign.
Learn more about Kaya from the candid and condensed conversation below.
The last time that we met up the album hadn’t come out yet, and you only had two singles out with the videos. How are you feeling now that Both is out there in the world?
It’s been so good. It’s been weirdly cathartic. It’s all so tricky like we talked about last time. I’ve been getting some really special feedback from individuals who’ve listened to it and that’s all I wanted to do with it was to share it. So it’s been good. We are trying to play more shows and I’m getting myself into shape to do that. But yeah, it’s been pretty good. I’m making way more music now that it’s out. I’m just like, “OK!” It’s like something is released and I can start another project which is really fun.
Like closing a chapter?
Yeah, exactly. I’ve never closed a chapter in music before. That’s why I really wanted to do an album and not two EPs. It’s like the product.
I love the title and this whole concept of duality. I wanted to talk a little bit about that because it has to do with identity and all of these things that have been going on in your life.
Well, I guess it’s trying to fit in the in between and finding your identity in that. Instead of being like, “Oh I have to be Norwegian, I have to be American, I’m mixed race.” That’s been a little tricky to figure out. I’m bisexual and bipolar. Now that I’ve come to terms with all those things I’m like “That’s not even me, the real me.” But I needed to sort it out in my head and sing about it and talk about it in a way that made sense. I think Both kind of does that. I’ll probably still keep exploring what it is to be in the between. I tried really hard with the visuals to sort of explain it somehow, but in a really vague way.
You have your social media platforms, but you still have a real life. How have you figured out that balance?
For me, I am not really about that life. I can see it and enjoy it in other people’s moments that they have on the internet, but I’m just not. I like to share. Actually, I take a lot of photos so I share them, but it’s not necessarily heavily branded. I get more pressure when I’m about to do a tour and stuff to announce those things. I’m down to do that but I’m just not that interested. I’m just really interested in real life. About that conversation.
Going back to the album, I remember you were very anxious about it. How does it feel now that it’s been so well-received?
Great. I’m so happy it was, I don’t really know how to explain it. The minute it came out I was done with it already and there was such a relief. I haven’t really thought about it all too much since. I haven’t listened through, I’ve almost forgotten what I put out there. That feels kind of good. So when people write things about it or do have their own person story to tell, I’m reminded that I did share this little record. It feels good. My baby’s out, I put it up for adoption real quick. It’s a weird thing to do so now I’m excited about the nurturing process again. Me and my baby…
Making the next one?
Oh hell yeah. I finished up seven songs already and I’m like “What do I do now? Do I like wait again?”
I always wonder how that process works. Some people put things out right away as soon as they’re done. Are you gonna wait it out? How do you decide when is the right time?
I think I have to wait and see if it feels right. I love when artists put out a song or some songs or a record when it’s right for them and it’s done for them. Maybe I’ll try to do that because I don’t have as many things to prove in a very ego way. Or, “This is me. I’m establishing this is what I make.” I’m past that phase which makes me more patient as well so that feels good. So I’m not sure… It feels good, finally. I’m not anxious.
Coming from a dance background, why singing? When did you veer from dance?
Honestly, I wasn’t that good at dance. I probably could have been, I had tight hips and I was really lanky. I was super tall. I was really interested in the language of the movement, but not really other people’s. With classical I was like “The fuck?” I loved watching it, but for me it didn’t resonate in my being. I started singing before dancing. It feels like it went hand in hand, every way of expressing yourself. But my mom made me, she was like, “We can’t really afford you doing dance and doing this, that, and the other.” So I chose dance and then got back into it in my twenties.
Do you think you’re ever going to be the kind of artist who performs while doing all of these choreographed routines?
I really love it, but I don’t think my music necessarily warrants that so much. Part of me as a female is a little bit like, “I don’t need to do that. I don’t need to put on a show for my music to resonate with people.” It’s like a stubbornness that I have where I’m like, “I can play and sing and let that be strong enough.” Who knows? Maybe I’ll start making different kinds of music where maybe I’ll dance a little bit or like it’s not really about that part of the music, it’s more about the movement. I’m not sure. I do love watching performers dancing and singing. But, yeah, I guess it’s like a stubborn part of me that’s like, “No dude.”
What else are you up to this summer? How are you spending your time?
Just recording more music, trying to see my friends and family, and focus on real life. So not just work. Reading A Bunch of Secrets. Tragic. Just read A Bunch of Secrets. It’s got a lot of strong female characters in one of the scripts that I’m reading. It’s an interesting journey, sitting there with someone else’s work and looking through it.
Are you going to be getting back into acting anytime soon?
Maybe. It’s definitely interesting to express myself in that way as well and potentially be someone else. I feel like in Thelma, which was my first film when I was just acting like I knew, but I liked the idea of being a part of something that’s more collaborative and using this other medium to relate to other humans. It has it all. Apart from books it’s got the inner dialogue which is really exciting. I would love to be part of the film one way or another.
I know you and Aaron bounce off each other a lot and at the show at Elsewhere in New York you performed each other’s songs which was super cute. Do you think you guys would ever do a project together?
For sure. I mean, he’s been heavily involved with Both. He ended up mixing a lot of songs with me and just being around for all sorts of support that I needed. I’ve been helping him with his stuff. We sang on some of his new projects together. I’m sure that we will try something at some point that’s very much like a full collaboration without any other projects. It’d be really cool to at least try. I think it would be good.
Before, you mentioned feeling like you have less to prove. What were some of the things that you felt were being pinned on you or that you had to push away from?
Possibly in the music industry, I’m not sure this goes for everyone, but it can be a little bit like a young person comes and is being developed with some clients like a product that everyone is going for. It’s great if you want to make art that way, but I think it’s been really a test to what I actually want to do and it’s been healthy that I have to go through that. Now that I’m on the other side, it’s nice to make stuff on my own and be in charge of my own visuals. I would love to expand, make more records, and for it to be less nightmarish, but now that I’ve already done it, it won’t really happen again where someone has an idea of mine and it’s just established. We’re all growing and changing all the time, and I would love to be able to grow more and do different things. That’s what I want to do.
What song on the record were you the most anxious about?
“Fake It.” It’s quite cryptic in one way, but for me it’s very revealing of the work to maintain the façade and for whatever reason that felt vulnerable. I was also wondering what it would be like or how it would be perceived making songs that sound quite different from each other in the end even though they’re all very alike in taste and feel. The last two songs of the record simmer down a bit, they’re way more minimal. The song in Norwegian is really personal, but most people don’t understand it which is great. [laughs]
Yeah, I don’t understand because I don’t speak Norwegian so can you explain it a little bit?
What I was exploring with that song is kind of what I’ve been exploring with visually—what it’s like to have something keeping you awake that doesn’t feel like yourself. The feeling of self-loathing in a way or when you have spinning thoughts, you can’t fall asleep, and it lets bad thoughts in. So in that song I visualized that as my twin and basically in the chorus I’m telling her that I’m not able to sleep and that she needs to leave, and I need to be alone, you need to leave me.
I was like, “I don’t know what she’s saying, but it sounds really nice.”
I do like the juxtaposition of how that sounds. Obviously, it’s in Norwegian, but again it’s graphic but cryptic because I leave certain things out, but you get the sentiment. That was a trippy one to release because it’s admitting that you have bad thoughts about yourself or you have some mental health problems.
How has your family reacted to all of this? I’m sure that you’ve been working at this for a very long time, and they’ve probably seen and heard you with all this labor…
They all seem really happy for me. I don’t think anyone’s been like, “Oh, that’s really personal.” My mom’s a painter and then she works as a publisher so she’s a super creative human and she’s been supportive. I can’t believe that I kept it a secret for so long that I made music because I was expecting somehow for it to be ill received because it’s so personal. But it hasn’t been, it’s been chill. My mom’s been cutting out newspaper things and basically like how everyone’s Instagram looks today, my mom has that in a folder somewhere so I don’t have to do it. [laughs]
It’s just funny because I remember the first time we met we were both not in very good moods, but we were like, “We’re gonna do this and it’s gonna be okay.” And it was fine. I feel like we’re both in good places now which is nice that things turned around.
Yeah, thank the lord. Here’s to that!
Revisit last week’s under the radar with Children of Zeus, the duo putting Manchester soul back on the map.