The Norwegian-American artist opens up about the build up to her long-awaited debut.
The Norwegian-American artist opens up about the build up to her long-awaited debut.
Text: Sydney Gore
When Kaya Wilkins first spots me through the front window of Le Gamin, she smiles and waves enthusiastically before stepping into the restaurant to greet me with a handshake before sitting down. We start off as two strangers sharing a small plate of oysters and sipping on glasses of white wine at a French restaurant on an unusually warm night in Greenpoint, but within the span of 15 minutes, we’re spilling our worries and anxieties about the future all over each other for the next hour and a half.
Kaya is honest and soft-spoken as she talks about her journey as an artist, which dates back to her childhood in Nesoddtangen where she was raised by her mother, a Norwegian painter. Later on, she tells me that she was the “most expensive child” in her family because she was the only one born out of the country in New Jersey, but she doesn’t have any ties to the state aside from memories of her American father. As time went on, Kaya began constructing a foundation for her form from years of dance lessons and brief stints in bands during her teens. It wasn’t until she moved to New York to pursue modeling six years ago that she started recording under the moniker Okay Kaya though. Eventually, she settled into her tribe of creatives that includes artists like Kelsey Lu, Moses Sumney, and her boyfriend Aaron Maine a.k.a. Porches.
By the end of our snack, I’ve learned a lot about Kaya—after all, there’s only so much information you can gather about the 27-year-old from the Internet because she’s not out here calling the press for coverage of her every move. The most important takeaway from our conversation is that Kaya wants to be known for her music. Even though she’s been on the radar for years, Kaya is still nervous about making her official debut as a musician and releasing this album into the world. She’s certainly been under a lot of pressure getting ready for this big breakout moment, but has managed to maintain control of every aspect of it.
About a week later, Kaya performs at her first headlining show at San Damiano Mission Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York. Even with the support of a band, she almost goes out of her way to stay out of the spotlight even though she’s positioned front and center—Kaya literally winces a few times when the light is accidentally shined too brightly in her face. Rather than engage in awkward banter between songs, she shyly hides behind her hair and quickly adjusts her guitar. The power of Kaya’s voice drowns out the other distractions though, and a few times she even cracks a smile while singing about deviant subjects like IUDs, sex and faking it. (She reassures the attentive crowd that the most offensive song is all in Norwegian out of respect for her holy surroundings though.) All the while, everyone sits quietly and practically holds their breath so they don’t miss a single word that quietly slips out of her mouth.
Last year, Kaya made her acting debut with a starring role in Joachim Trier’s psychosexual lesbian thriller Thelma, but she’s still not used to all of the attention. On top of that, she’s an introvert and claims that she spends at least seven hours a day inside binge watching shows on Netflix like The End Of The Fucking World and Everything Sucks. If you go on Madewell’s website right now, you’ll see Kaya’s face on the homepage in a campaign for the brand’s latest collaboration with As Ever.
“I spend most mornings trying to get over myself/ Most of my nights trying to get on to you,” she sings in the opening verse of her new single “Dance Like U.” The accompanying visual for the soulful, slow building ballad is directed by Adinah Dancyger and picks up right where “IUD” left off—Kaya and her clones confront each other within a large estate, expressing themselves freely through modern dance movements and other gestures with their bodies. “This video works as a visual partner to 'IUD' and continues to explore trauma as a physical embodiment, a resident twin,” says Kaya.
The song begs the blunt question, “Do you dance like you fuck/ or do you dance like you make love?” She explains that it’s all about “awkwardly pursuing someone” and “being so wet the liquid pours itself.” Kaya’s music seems fragile on impact, but it’s covered in thick layers of intimacy that gently sweep you into a deep, blissful meditation. In a way, her voice feels suffocating as it rises and falls behind airy guitars and wobbly synths that nestle inside your ears.
The artwork for the latest singles consist of self-portraits that Kaya took while she was working on her forthcoming album. In the same vein of Scandinavian design, she cares about the quality of her work and making something long lasting. To be an independent creative in a world that tries to force compromises on you is an act of defiance and that makes Kaya a rebel to some degree. To call her a rare breed is an understatement—she’s got the cool factor locked down and many outlets have already hailed Kaya as the next “it” girl in the industry, but she’s too self-aware to care about any of that stuff. At the end of the day, Kaya is the type of person who will stand in the rain with you while you wait for your car to arrive sans an umbrella and ask if it’s okay to smoke a cigarette in front of you even though it’s not her obligation.
“I just want to make a body of work that’s not necessarily super successful,” she says. “I really want to make art and I don’t know how to do that yet, but I’m excited to try.” Learn more about Okay Kaya’s humble origins in the interview below.
Can you recall your earliest memory of music?
This one was filmed by my mom, but I remember having a dress and liking the way it felt to spin around and see the fabrics going—I want to say it was to “Thriller,” I don’t really know how old I was [laughs]. There’s a lot of memories. I remember getting my first CD which was Aretha Franklin and repeatedly listening to “Don’t Play That Song For Me” and thinking that I never could sing because her range is insane. I just sang the songs inside my head because I couldn’t sing in her range, and already then obsessing over that longing for having your heart broken. I must have been 10 or something.
How old were you when you started writing songs and playing guitar?
I think I was maybe 12 when me and some friends had a band for a minute, but I knew two chords and I co-wrote one of the songs we made. But then I started dancing from 12 to 18. I did jazz, hip-hop, modern, classical and whatnot. I wasn’t that good [laughs], but I was really into movement and choreographing. So I sort of stopped doing anything that had to do with music. Oh, I sang in a gospel choir which was really fun. I didn’t write my first song until maybe six years ago and then I started putting out music four or five years ago, so it’s basically been out in the world since I started writing which is now kind of embarrassing.
What initially brought you to New York?
I started modeling before making music. It was a good ticket out of a very homogenous and uninteresting Norway where I grew up.
It seems like Norway is having a big moment in music right now with artists like you, Anna Of The North, and Sigrid breaking out. Is there something about this area that fosters creativity?
Maybe. I feel like those artists are big, signed Nordic pop coming out of there which is really interesting. I have no idea how that happened and how they broke through. They are so good. They’re like a whole industry that was non-existent growing up. Maybe it’s the Internet or something like that. I think there might be a solitude to growing up in Norway that makes me people create in general and sometimes focus on subjects of isolation and sadness like Scandinavian cinema it’s like super loner. So maybe it’s that, it is kind of isolated. It feels far away from the rest of the world.
I love the track “IUD,” it’s such an empowering song and the message really resonated with me and I think any woman. What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, it was just based on what was happening in my life and considering getting one last spring when affordable sexual health care fundings were threatened. It was something I wanted to sing about and be like, “What the fuck?” I come from Norway too so I was like, “This needs to be talked about.” But I don’t find myself the most eloquent in social situations so it was nice to be able to make a song, make it a little bit humorous, but try to make it beautiful and resonate with people in terrible times.
Could you tell me more about the music video?
I spent a lot of time working on that. The idea has been in my head for a long time. It’s supposed to be a series of videos. What I wanted to explore with these videos is what the psychological condition would look like if it had a physical embodiment, so having this twin that is all your trauma or all the shit that you have to deal with in your life. In the private setting, there's roommates vibes like weird, sisterly and kind of sus of each other, but in public, Okay Kaya needs to braid her twin’s hair and drag her across the street shopping for groceries and stuff. So that was the idea, but it turned into a way more sort of vague, fun thing… [laughs]
Did you film that before or after you were finished with Thelma? The vibe seems sort of similar.
Right after. I was working on it while I was filming, trying to find funding and talking to friends about this idea. This director, Adinah Dancyger, who is primo, reached out and was like “Hey, you wanna work on something sometime?” and I was like “Yes, let’s do it.” I went to this producer that I did a video with [for “Durer”] and it all expanded. They put the best crew together, we were 14 people working on the shoot and I think 11 of us were female which was kind of crazy on a set. I was self-funding it and it was a shit show, but everyone kept it super real. It was a really great experience.
What’s the story behind the artwork for “IUD”?
I take a lot of photos. I don’t know if I would call myself [a photographer], maybe I’ll make something out of it someday. I feel like my brain just needs to do stuff and it’s all in the same taste like I take pictures, I make a song, I dance. It’s just some sort of energy that needs to come out. I’ve been taking all these self-portraits and they’re random. That was shot in Los Angeles when I was doing a recording session last February. There’s plenty of them to come which I’m excited to show, but I like to show the pictures that are not of my face as well.
My personal favorite photo is the self-portrait of you with the face mask on. Are you into skincare at all? Do you have a routine?
I really have been so terrible at general life for a really long time, but my friend Michel, who is the makeup artist, introduced me to a whole routine of acids and everything so I try do that. She had some good products for me and I just started using them. It feels like I’m taking care of myself while I drink a bottle of wine with my face mask on. It’s self-care, it’s important. It’s good to have control over something, especially in these days so you’re not totally helpless.
This is random, but what is your astrology sign?
I’m a Leo… I guess I’m just waiting to grow into that. I definitely am [a Leo] in terms of I exert passion and I feel like you kind of have to be arrogant in one sense to take all of the creative control in all the things that you’re doing, but that’s probably it. I wish I was a Taurus!
Tell me about the process of putting together your debut album. Is there an overarching theme that threads all of the songs together?
It’s tricky. I’m super vulnerable on this album and in real life, so it’s hard to talk about it this way. It’s not something that I feel comfortable with sharing even though it comes from a really strange place. I guess the past three years, after the singles came out, I had some writing sessions, I had a manager and I didn’t really feel comfortable in the spaces that he put me in. There were a few really strange circumstances where he would be like, “Go work with this producer, but say that you’re single.” I tried to do that whole shtick for almost three years, but I was thinking about “What is my music and under which circumstances do I want it to come out? What do the songs mean and how do I make it completely authentic?” It didn’t feel good for me so I came back to recording at my apartment and then I started seeing Aaron [Maine]. After a lot of failed attempts at producing and trying to take back the control and work on my craft and write songs in my bedroom, I had a lot of time to put this record together. There’s a dozen songs that I picked and work together, they’re like a little time capsule. I can’t even really remember how it felt, but it was a long frustration so I just took it into my own hands.
Yeah I wasn’t going to bring it up, but how do you feel when people mention your relationship?
It’s weird to bring up. It’s a little tricky to work around. I produce myself, I make the songs myself and Aaron helped produce a lot of songs, but I feel like the way everyone talks is like, “Oh, so he’s the one that made it sound this way.” I don’t want to pigeonhole myself, but also he is a massive inspiration and collaborator. Going out with another creative person, you really value your time. It’s important to treat your job as a job and work during the day, that’s something that Aaron’s taught me. He just makes the day better. He just left for tour so I have a lot of free time now. I’m working a lot, I recently wrote another album.
I really respect how you do all of these other things in order to support yourself as an artist. How do you manage to do it all?
I don’t know, it’s so rewarding though. I’m hoping that it will be more rewarding... There’s definitely a lot of music coming for people who are wondering.
How do you feel about that whole “model-turned-singer” label?
I don’t really mind being a multi-hyphenate or whatever, that’s chill. But that’s probably the part where I feel the most disconnected. I came here and got a job doing e-comm for Urban Outfitters and it was amazing, and then I made music. It was a day job. And then after I found music, I signed with a different agency and they gave me the possibility to do fashion week and I was doing interesting, creative stuff. Now it feels different, but it was always stressful. It can be amazing financially, but for me it hasn’t been very stimulating. Sometimes I get to shoot with a great photographer and I’m extremely stoked. I like collaborating. It’s just a job that I do where I’m not really there for my personality.
Are you excited about your upcoming live shows?
I’m so nervous. I have a band this time and they’re amazing, they’re my favorite people but I don’t know them that well yet. I was super lucky to have one of them reach out randomly after seeing them at a show. It’s coming together really nicely, but I think we definitely could have used a few more weeks of rehearsal.