Lydia Ainsworth - Uncharted

UNCHARTED: How Lydia Ainsworth discovered her sound at the back of the orchestra

The composer-turned-songwriter talks intuition, understanding strings by being bad at cello, and Norman McLaren.

- Oct 1, 2014
Uncharted is Chart Attack's showcase of independent Canadian artists we think you should hear. This week, Arbutus Records singer/songwriter Lydia Ainsworth explains how learning to collaborate with others helped her develop a sound all her own.

Lydia Ainsworth's remarkably accomplished debut LP instantly establishes her on the precipice of quasi-mystical electronic music and soaring, orchestrated indie pop, but talking to the Montreal singer/songwriter about her musical history gives the impression that she’s come this far almost serendipitously.

At age ten, Ainsworth was sent home from school with a cello. Even though she played it poorly, she still considers it a lucky break; it ultimately opened her up to a future in music. By high school she was scoring her friends’ film projects, an interest she took with her to McGill, and then to NYU, thanks to a grant from the Canada Council For The Arts. While studying film scoring at NYU, it wasn't her individual talent that shone through, but her ability to take direction from her collaborators. She describes the process of composing for someone else’s film as one of learning to let go: “You have to understand that it’s not your baby, it’s theirs.”

Ainsworth’s solo debut, Right From Real, is very much her own baby. It’s a stunning debut, remarkable enough for its craft, but also for maintaining incredible confidence and focus throughout its eight songs. Working as a frequent collaborator has made her a more malleable performer. Surprisingly, the icy electronics never clash with the warmth of the string instruments. Instead, they meet at a soft, diffused point, a quality I describe as “balanced,” but one that she attributes to intuition.

As we spoke in the Arbutus Records offices at Pop Montreal, it quickly became apparent that Right From Real’s development from an idea to a fully-fledged album was not serendipitous at all. It was tied to her growth as an artist.

Is the cello still your primary instrument?

Lydia Ainsworth: No, it’s not at all. I've barely played in like five years. Just off and on. But I think it’s helped me understand composing for string instruments, especially since when you’re really bad at cello you get put at the back of the orchestra. That perspective was really interesting for me. It was very easy for me to let the cello go. It was very painful to play. I had the wrong, most terrible technique. My bow hand would be all crooked and painful. Now I write with piano.

What made you want to write a pop record?

I’ve always loved pop. I grew up listening to it my whole life.

When you’re really bad at cello you get put at the back of the orchestra. That perspective was really interesting for me.

I always loved to sing, but I never really recorded myself until filmmakers began to start asking me to use my voice in the scores I was writing. So that became more of a textural element in the scores that gradually progressed to songwriting through different avenues.

I was studying with a composition teacher who was also a vocalist in New York. I started writing a lot with my voice. A friend asked me to perform at a party of his, and I didn’t have any material, so I wrote a couple of songs for that. That was my first foray into songwriting. I performed them with a little orchestra, and it was just so much fun.

I read that you wrote this album in secret. Why's that?

It was something I didn’t feel like sharing at the time because I didn’t know where it was headed and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the demos at the stage that they were in. It was really only after they were mastered that I started sharing them. As I started to perform and started to collect more and more songs I became more passionate about completing it as an album.

Is there an underlying concept to Right From Real?

When I set out, there wasn’t, but over time it developed this common thread of trying to see the magic in the mundane. I think the title, Right From Real, embodies that.

The colour of malachite permeates a lot of the visual elements of the record, from the song "Malachite" to the album artwork. Was that planned?

No, but the limited edition release of the vinyl will have a malachite swirl. It’s green and black. It’s going to be awesome!

Lydia Ainsworth | Malachite

You've written for contemporary dance and the video for “Malachite” features a lot of dance and movement in it. Do you consider movement when you're writing a song?

Not really. I begin with a melody, always. For the songs on the record, all of them varied. For some of them, when I was working on the production and it wasn’t really going my way, I would watch the songs to certain video clips online. That actually did help me with getting the groove. I wasn’t looking at dance, though. Visual things did help. Actually there was one clip, “Pas de deux,” which is an animation by Norman McLaren that features two dancers. For “White Shadows” I was watching “Pas de deux” over and over again, and that was really inspiring to get the mood of the song. I guess dance does somewhat influence the sound of the record [laughs].

Listening to the record, there seems to be a fine balance between strings and samples. Were you trying to achieve that?

I always imagined performing the songs with strings. I wanted some kind of string element in the songs. It was never an issue of thinking of balance, but people have mentioned that to me: “oh I really like the balance.” That’s an interesting comment to me, because balance wasn’t a factor when I was writing the record at all. I just went for what felt good with the instrumentation. It was just intuitive.

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