Credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa
Kilo Kish can’t relax.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Orlando, Florida-raised Kish, consider her CV. Born Lakisha Robinson, Kish defies easy categorisation as an artist. Instead, she’s an alumna of the requisite, heady New York tenure that included a period spent as a fine arts student at the Pratt Institute and a graduate of FIT’s textile design program, all the while working as a model, a rapper and an Internet anointed darling who moonlit as a server at celebrity haunts like La Esquina and Miss Lily’s.
She’s an idiosyncratic vocalist known as much for her breathy cadence as her conversational candour. She’s also a visual artist, an accessories and apparel designer with a capsule collection for Maison Kitsuné under her belt and an aspiring branding mogul with enough ambition that, if sustained, could see likely her eclipse Gwyneth Paltrow in the lifestyle stakes.
Then, after three EPs, collaborations with Donald Glover, Chet Faker, The Internet and SBTRKT, and a K+ mixtape which also produced a digital art zine, Kish completed her self-released first full-length album this year. It has been the highlight of her year to date. But getting there wasn’t easy.
“I wrote this record at such a mentally fucked up time in my life,” read the liner notes from Reflections in Real Time (out now). The album itself is the perfect distillation of a familiar post-adolescent tumult: a revealing hour-long odyssey in 20 tracks that delve deep into Kish’s disillusionment with social media, achingly familiar and exceedingly vapid conversational fodder, identity and existential crises that play out through an equally as eclectic mix of genres. Reflections ricochets from R&B adjacent pop to house, electronica and life-affirming jazz that wouldn’t sound out of place on Broadway, a lot of which comes courtesy of Kish’s producer and partner, Ray Brady, with whom she also recently moved in.
Talking with Kish is an equally as insightful, energising experience. Sitting poolside at her new home in Downtown LA, Kish, 26, recently spoke at-length with GRAZIA between rehearsing for and creating the visual accompaniments to her imminent Australian shows. What follows are her reflections (in real time, if you will) about the album as a living, breathing bildungsroman and the constant struggle between the endless pursuit of perfectionism and her seemingly boundless creativity.
You wrote in liner notes for the album that the creative process of producing the record left you feeling more at peace than you’ve ever felt in your adult life. How do you feel now? “I feel way better than I did when I was making it. But now, it just kind of seems like every stage of life is like a new level in a video game. So you get past some of the things that were hanging you up and then there’s like a whole list of new things to explore and work. Now that we’re doing more shows that’s a new obstacle to explore. My head is not in the same frame of mind anymore and [I have to question], ‘What kind of headspace I want to be in when I perform [the album]. Do I want to go back to that kind of headspace?’ It’s obviously the most personal record that I’ve made and the themes are a bit darker, so it’s really important to me that it gets expressed in the right way – if there even is a right way. Projects like albums are never really finished, even if they’re out. I change words all the time, or re-record background vocals for the show. After a while you have a new take on it. It’ll be really interesting to see how things change over the years; to see how I’m performing this record ten years from now. A lot of the questions I had, I’m still exploring, but I’m just a naturally inquisitive person in general.”
You took the words right out of my mouth. I was going to ask you if you’re of the belief that an album, especially such a personal one, is ever finished or if it’s subject to change either in performance or reissuing – like Kanye did with Pablo or Kendrick with untitled unmastered. “I think Kanye did what every artist wants to do and treat it like a living, breathing project. All projects, they evolve. I think performance allows projects to leave and breathe and evolve with the audience and the setting. It’s like a constant remix process.”
Credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa
Reflecting on the album’s release and how you see it evolving as a work-in-progress, what have you learned about yourself as an artist during the last six months? “I think putting out a record like this that spoke to my personal [life] really cemented a trend that I’m going to keep [pursuing] for the next five or ten years. I really stuck to my guns as to what I wanted to express. I didn’t really think about people [listening to the album] that much and I was more focused on diving deep and seeing what I could pull out of myself. It was much more gratifying, so for me it’s important that I keep digging into to the heart of what [I am] and how much further I can go. For me, what I’ve learned about myself whether I’m on a billboard in Times Square or at my house [is that] I always feel exactly the same, so trying to change that approach is not fulfilling for me. I had to find that and that was kind of the reason why I moved to LA in the beginning because I was doing so much stuff where people would’ve said ‘Oh you’re doing so well and things are going so great for you’ but I didn’t really have any connection to the campaigns or the work I was doing, the random events and all of that. I didn’t feel like I was growing, so I had to search for something to make me grow as a person. This project didn’t challenge who I am – I know who I am – but it did make me just challenge what I was comfortable with allowing other people to know about me.
“I think in such a curated world where nobody really has to be themselves anymore, you can kind of just point out whatever you want people to think about you, even though this is a super curated conceptual project, it was way more open than I wanted it to be when I set out to make the record. Every time I felt a twinge of, ‘Uh, should I keep that in?’ I just kind of was like, ‘Yes, keep it in’. All of those parts where my body was like, ‘No, no, no’, I just did it anyway. Making this particular record is the only way and the only reason why I’m comfortable with performance now because it’s already out there. All the things that worry and bother me are available for everyone to see. There’s no faking that no matter how cute I look in a picture or how I might seem. Those are all still underlying parts of my personality that I have to work through. A project like this allows you to have a conversation with yourself. It opens up space for you to get in and explore more. That’s what I look for in continuing as an artist – to experience and push forward and find some kind of truth out of what I’m making.”
Credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa
Now that you’ve laid it all out there on the record, and every part of your is available to see, what has been the next biggest personal obstacle you’ve encountered in the last six months since the release? “Because it’s such a personal project, I’m kind of getting burned out doing all of the visuals and being such a control freak mommy about it. For some reason, I feel like because I made this thing I’m [the one] who has to carry it all the way through. Which is not true. I’m getting to a place where I’m open to the interpretation of directors and other artist and allowing them to pull from it how they would. Making a project that is so personal and specific poses a challenge for a broad audience to grasp it immediately. I think it’s one of those projects where if you don’t understand why I made it and you’re just listening to it on Spotify then it [might be jarring]. It’s something you have to sit with. These aren’t radio or club songs. It’s vibey and it provokes a lot of questions in yourself, so if you aren’t trying to go down that rabbit hole it might be a hard project to listen to.”
This has obviously been a really big year for you in general, and the culmination of a lot of really intense creative work. What has been inspiring you again since ‘Reflections’ entered the world? “I just moved like two months ago and my new apartment is so bright and great. I’m living with my boyfriend now, who produced the record. We’re just starting to work on new music and we’re coming out with stuff that’s way lighter than Reflections. I’ve been producing a bunch of products Downtown, more so on the style side of things. Reflections was a very heavy, intense project, so sometimes I just want to look cute and make clothes. I’m working on a sideline of bags and things. I’m taking it really slow, it’s very chill. Everything is produced in Downtown LA so I’m right around the corner from a lot of [seamstresses]. I’m just going to give it to friends in the beginning, [then] take it really slowly and shoot a campaign. I’m also flushing out Kisha Soundscape and Audio, which is like the label component to the brand. I’m building the scaffolding for a lot of projects that will probably bloom over the next three or fours years. It’s been really fun.”
I was looking at the Kisha website before and there’s a countdown that’s about to expire. What’s that counting down to? “I don’t know! [Laughs] It’s just an infinite countdown and then it restarts again. Originally it was counting down until May because I was going to release some stuff then but then I thought, ‘I can do a better job with this’ and I need to take a lot longer with samples and just make things that I really love. That’s another thing that I’m learning as a working artist now. I’m so detail orientated [and] I could make a brand at any point in my life but I think that starting it now is great because I’m able to play around and enjoy the fun parts. With music, making something public for the world changes the situation completely. Making music, I didn’t really have that grace [period]. I didn’t have a band in high school or make music any time before my first project, which was the first thing people knew of me. I didn’t get to explore, you know? So before I start trying to get [Kisha] is every store, I just want to have fun and explore the best parts of having a brand before it becomes a job.”
Credit: At left, Emmanuel Olunkwa and Mounir Taieb-ouis
Have you made any new connections this year that have made you want to adjust your course going forward? “I’ve been working with Vince Staples, one of my good friends, so he’s the only person I’ve been working with over the last six months. We’ve been working on some stuff for his new EP. Ray and I are trying to start a band together too. I’m exploring different sides of my own music and other ways of making music – learning guitar, training myself a little bit more and understanding how it’s made. I’m definitely open to working with other people, but I think my friends and other artists know that I’m just always in my house. I don’t really seek out that many people to work with unless it’s for a very specific thing for a project, like ‘Oh his voice would be perfect to say one line in this one random song’. At the moment I’m making songs-for-songs sake, which is a very different of working for me – it’s a little freer. Usually I’m like, ‘I have to stick to a very rigid code of how this has to be made.’ I make books and give them to people and I’m very specific. But this time I’m like, ‘Let’s see what happens’.”
With all of these projects on the go at one time, do you ever see the possibility of failure in any one part of what you do? “Honestly, the way that my brain works, I see every [possibility]. There’s so many ways of looking at things that I kind of tend to see in a different perspectives, which makes things hard to choose at times. I’m a perfectionist, and I don’t want to be one, but if I’m being real, that’s what I am. And perfectionism and creativity don’t go hand-in-hand because you can’t have freedom and perfectionism at the same time. They don’t work. Failure is something to lean into. I’m kind of getting there with that, but I just like doing a good job and doing the best that I can. If it falls short, it falls short. There’s so much that I want to do but there’s also a lot of time. For a long time, I felt like I had to make all this stuff happen at the same time. I’m more lenient on myself now. It’s really not possible if you’re going to do all of it yourself. It’s near impossible. Something is going to lag. I’m way more chill about it – which is so not chill by anyone else’s standards – but I try my best to be lenient with myself.”
Credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa
When is your birthday? Because you sound a lot like a Virgo. “Virgo is my rising. I’m a Taurus – May 10.”
I think those tendencies are near universal between Tauruses and Virgos, and they can be really counter-productive. “I think a lot of the genius or beauty of art comes from the imperfection, the par that you didn’t expect to be there. Perfection wipes away any smudge of humanity. I’m trying to take a more Wabi-sabi approach to creativity, like ‘Everything is imperfect, everything is unfinished’, and it’s slowly taking, but growing up I was mainly super academic. The only real way that I was able to perform was to get straight-As. The fact that I ended up doing art was such a fluke. For the most part, I feel like creative personalities are always to the left of things. I just happened to be both, which is great when it comes to studying and holding yourself to a standard but it’s also kind of intense when you’re trying to vibe out at a show or relax at any point in life.”
Credit: Emmanuel Olunkwa
Once you’ve found that time to relax, what are you looking forward to next? “I’m looking forward to putting out more videos and making more music. I’m definitely looking forward to coming to Australia and doing Camp Flognaw, a lot of my friends are playing that. I’m looking forward to travelling and seeing how the Australian shows go over because I’ve been working on a new live set. I want to get feedback by looking at peoples’ faces. I’m excited to get out into the world. I’ve been feeling a little spinster-y, so I’m excited to be with people.”
Is that how you derive a lot of satisfaction out of what you do? Seeing your friends enjoy the work at your album listening party, and like you said, before, seeing peoples’ faces in the crowd? “I don’t get that much satisfaction from it, no [laughs]. I get the majority of it from the actual process and conception of the idea. I’m very heady in general so in a show setting I’m thinking about so many things at the same time that I’m not really in the moment enough, to gauge what’s going on with people. I get satisfaction from one-on-one conversations, if someone can relate to something I’ve said because then it’s a discussion and it’s surprising. From a show, you can get a vibe but you can’t tell until you’re speaking with people. Once [a project] is out in the world, I’m already working on something else and getting that satisfaction from another project, even if you don’t feel like finishing it [before moving on]. That’s another obstacle, like what we were talking about before, you still have to complete all these projects.”
You now live and work with your boyfriend Ray Brady, who also produced the album. What does such an intense creative process teach you about your relationship with another person? “It’s fun. It’s hard. It’s so many things operating at the same time. I think it’s great because you come into it knowing so much more about a person and they can kind of finish your thoughts, your aesthetic, what you’re going for and who you are in a different way to how you know yourself. It’s subjective and objective at the same time – they’re like another part of yourself that’s not you. We fought a lot during the record but at the end you have a project that you really both care about and then you get to go to different countries – he plays with me too – and experience that together. It’s kind of like a fun vacation you get to experience together but while you’re doing it… it’s really annoying. But then you do it again. While I was making this I was like, ‘We’re never doing this again,’ but now we’re doing it again.”
Kilo Kish performs at Red Bull Music Academy Weekender this Thursday September 8 for Night Moves featuring Kilo Kish, Bok Bok, Kllo, Marcus Whale, KUCKA, Cliques, Lewis Cancut, Low Ton and more. Tickets available here.
Tile and cover image: Emmanuel Olunkwa