Okay Kaya's Graceful Ascent
Like Gold In Fire
Written by Andrew Stark | Photographed by Dennis Stenild
Sometimes, life seems governed by chaos. We require escape on weekends or PTO or squandered sick days, a sort of mind- idling fugue that can be found in sleep, working out, movies, the autonomy of preparing meals, the sensory-deprivation chambers of an art museum. This is escape from the everyday, from the grip of white-knuckle commutes en route to some bone-dry workplace where email announcements tacitly insist you attend afternoon birthdays. This is escape from ourselves.
We all feel it: from the ponytailed yogi compulsively cradling her toy breed as if it were a service dog, to the high school kid so fueled by anxiety he feels it in his bone marrow, to the bus stop mutterer wearing sweat down his back like a cape. Even Okay Kaya — the incredibly talented and incidentally beautiful New Jersey-born, Norway-bred, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter — finds her escape in the monistic void seconds after waking up in the morning. “There’s that moment where I’m like, ‘I could just not get up,’” she tells me over the phone from her friend’s apartment in Copenhagen. “For a couple of seconds, you’re just in your body. You’re just you.” There’s a reflective pause before breaking away ... “then you have to check your stupid phone, and all these emails come in. And all of a sudden, you’re out of just being.”
There are shades of this microcosmic in-the-moment sensibility throughout Kaya’s body of work: slow-burners like the smoky “Damn, Gravity” (produced by Rodaidh McDonald of King Krule and The xx) and the tender left hook of “Clenched Teeth” that play like emotional capsules, fragile songs catching big moments like fireflies in a jar.
The right music, however lovelorn, can make any gridlocked car or empty bedroom feel welcome as a womb. Even, say, Kaya’s sparse heartbreaker “I’m Stupid (But I Love You)”, an unalloyed supplication carefully unraveled against ambient shivers and tones — the sound of a heart unfolding. It’s easy to imagine Kaya, hunched over a piano, singing soul-shrugging lines like “I’m sooo stupid, but I love you” with tears quivering in her eyes. How Kaya came to this point — touring with Tobias Jesso Jr., collaborating with Jamie xx — is itself the result of chance, zodiacal forks taken, day jobs endured. Her childhood, for starters, sounds quintessentially, idyllically Nordic. “I grew up on a peninsula called Nesoddtangen, which is outside of Oslo, Norway, surrounded by a fjord,” she says. “I would wear one green turtleneck sweater for, like, five years of my childhood. That was probably when I was most comfortable. I was just trying to wear a sweater and never comb my hair. I think it was a good time to be alive.” I laugh. “But now I change clothes all the time,” she reassures. “I had a bar job when I was 17,” she says. “I remember strange old men asking me to sit down with them and smashing an entire stack of glasses on the dance floor.”
On the phone, Okay Kaya (born Kaya Wilkins) is eloquent and demure, a casual and graceful curser, personal details interrupted by staccato bursts of laughter as she volleys my own questions back to me: the telltale sign of a refined conversationalist. Finally, I ask about her debut album, which has been alluded to in the press for months. “It’s really personal,” she says, “and it means, like, everything to me that I’ve done in life. It’s the hardest and most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”
So, in the face of routine chaos, all that Monday-through-Friday pandemonium, rest knowing that somewhere, by lamp or candlelight, lovesick people like you are bent over their guitars, their pianos, working to create something beautiful. “I would just like people to be able to relate to the album without knowing me personally,” she says, after a pause. “I would like it to be a comforting thing to someone out there.” x