Lydia Ainsworth Conjures Electricity and Ghosts of a Classical Past
Last October, Lydia Ainsworth played a handful of intimate sets at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City. There were more than thirteen hundred artists in town, but her performance was unlike any other. A commingling of deep electronic sounds with acoustics au naturel created hypnotic soundwaves. Her voice, though delicate to the touch, bound the heavy vibrations together. I saw it happen at Glasslands, the seminal Brooklyn music room long a host to up-and-coming independent acts. As the New Year turned in the transforming neighborhood of Williamsburg, the venue lowered its lights for the last time, synchronous with fellow shuttered underground spots, 285 Kent and Death By Audio. If someday a spirit were to haunt these hallowed stages, Ainsworth’s music would be a beguiling accompaniment.
Lydia Ainsworth is a composer, producer, and singer—let’s just call her a pop experimentalist—based in Toronto, with ties to Montreal and New York City. Her music, though, is difficult to place by genre or geography. On her debut album, Right from Real, songs often diffuse jagged melodies evoking the Far East atop skittering drum machines à la U.K. future garage. The record’s magnetic lead single “Malachite” echoes and shimmers; “Moonstone” is, aptly, spacey, and could fit seamlessly in soundtracks to Blade Runner, Donnie Darko, or Drive; while “PSI” pacifies with rhythmic exhales akin to the resting heart rate. To close your eyes and listen is to consider an alternate plane through which Ainsworth explores dynamics between space, sound, and time.
Ainsworth, the daughter of a composer, was introduced to a broad scope of music growing up, absorbing sounds from pop hits to classical arrangements and film scores. The colors of her musical youth were vivd: The Beatles, Ace of Base, Danny Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands soundtrack, Bulgarian choirs, and Ed Elgar cello concertos. Ainsworth took piano lessons before picking up the cello herself at the age of ten. Regimented training, the refinement of technique, however, these were not priorities of a young Lydia. “I would learn all the Nirvana cello parts!” Ainsworth recalls with fluttering laughter.
The cello has a wide range, with space for both articulate melodies and anchoring bass lines; it’s also the orchestral instrument most closely aligned with the human voice. A freshman in high school, Ainsworth was captured by the lyrical nature of the instrument when she saw a video of cellist Jacqueline du Pré (one glimpse at du Pré on stage and you can see why). Such an incredibly expressive instrument, Ainsworth thought. She wrote for small ensembles in high school then studied composition at McGill University in Montreal. Still, like a kid allergic to the tedium of music theory, she felt pushed in the wrong direction. “It was the antithesis of what I wanted to be writing,” she says. “Academic music, at least in my experience, was doing away with all melody.” Instead, she found a home in composing film scores, an interest that had been planted years prior. Ainsworth saw a future but had yet to consider making an album of her own.
A move to New York and a graduate program at NYU marked the next chapter in her life and music. Ainsworth, for whom melodies always came first, now began adding words to her instrumentals. She took lyrical reference from poets the likes of T.S. Eliot. A song-based project, whether intentional or not, was finding its form. The new direction was puzzling but not completely alien to Ainsworth. She loved singing already. Part of a university choir, she had performed requiems, songs of mourning, written by Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, and Anton Bruckner. “I really fell in love with that style of dramatic singing,” says Ainsworth.
Her debut full-length album, Right from Real, is shadowy and theatrical (though hardly mournful). The LP, two years in the making, was released last year on Montreal’s Arbutus Records, an independent label with a history of incubating off-kilter but progressive music acts like Sean Nicholas Savage and Blue Hawaii (Grimes and Majical Cloudz are alumni). Eight tracks on Right from Real weave the listener through a matrix of electronic sounds steeped in the classics. Call her an avant garde pop visionary, but Ainsworth says the synthesis was more a matter of pragmatism and taste.
“The sounds of electronic music? Well, I guess it was just what was at my disposal,” she says. “I had a laptop; I didn’t have a big budget for an orchestra. One of my favorite albums is Vespertine—Bjӧrk mixes the electronic and orchestral so well on that album. I guess it’s all just a confluence of my influences.”
Still, for Ainsworth, the genesis of a song is found humbly at the piano. “It’s always best at a real acoustic piano,” she says. “There’s something about hearing the real overtones that’s so much more inspiring than playing a keyboard on a computer.” Only after working out melodies and chord structures will sample-based instruments via software enter the equation. “It can be overwhelming when you have so many sounds at your disposal,” says Ainsworth, who explains that there’s no one answer but, rather, a moment where it all simply clicks. “I’m never totally satisfied,” she says, but “you do come to a point where you’re closest to that initial spark.” This feeling, of course, is not relegated to the world of electronica, she is certain.
“I was listening to an interview with Patti Smith and David Lynch. She was asking him, ‘How do you start a project, and what does it feel like?’ He said something like, ‘It’s a puzzle that’s in the next room, and I only have the first piece of it.’ I really like that, because it’s a great description of what it’s like to start something. You have the vision of it, but you can’t really see it completely at the start.” This type of idiosyncratic agitation helps drive Ainsworth in the studio and on stage. “I never feel totally confident performing,” she tells, “and I hope I never do because I treat every performance like a challenge. It gives me a chance to discover something new about myself. I never want to feel totally secure because there’s always something to learn.”
Ainsworth’s songs take form on keys, metamorphose via software, then return to real world as something of a hybrid by incorporating live strings and drums to her otherwise digital concert. “Those organic elements help to bring the songs to life,” Ainsworth rightly observes. With this sonic translation, the message is well received. In the dimness of Glasslands, the audience stood transfixed in a placid, but electrified escape.
What is your WILD Wish?
“My WILD Wish. Wow! I saw this amazing documentary called the Fruit Hunters.
If I wasn’t doing music, I would probably love to be a fruit hunter, so that’s my Wish.” —Lydia