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VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today, we’re featuring Kilo Kish’s debut album, Reflections in Real Time.
Kilo Kish has always been in league of her own. Constructing herself from the ground up, Kish’s career in music began over a decade ago, when she was relatively well-known for providing breathy, uninhibited guest appearances on songs with Childish Gambino, Vince Staples and more. Since then, she’s been equipped to create her own multi-dimensional worlds. While moonlighting as an occasional musician with an in-home studio, Kish — born Lakisha Robinson — was also completing her studies in textile design at Fashion Institute of Technology in 2012, both professions possessing a DIY approach that has become routine to her.
As she was steadily creating, the Orlando-born artist was immersed in the transformative New York City arts culture, developing a cult following in her own right with her debut 2012 EP, Homeschool, and 2013 mixtape follow-up, K+. On each album, Kish maintains a laid-back cool over mellow production from Syd and Matt Martians of The Internet, Earl Sweatshirt (under his producer moniker RandomBlackDude) and Very Rare, but it didn’t completely feel like her. Kish had the reins on her songwriting, whether ruminating over unrequited crushes or meandering the downtown scene, but the easy-listening production was slightly too chill for her liking. Kish wanted to get nomadic and did just that. On her conceptually progressive 2014 EP, Across, Kish took it one step further, taking a cross-country drive over dreamy, experimental soundscapes from producer Caleb Stone.
Upon returning to New York City, Kish felt restricted by the environment that shaped her, and looked to Los Angeles. Enter Reflections in Real Time, Kish’s debut album: a sonic moodboard where she was alone in her thoughts, whether probing her social media curiosities or meditating on her life’s purpose. The album — which turned six years old this February — is full electronic reverie, a reintroduction to Kilo Kish on a theatrical scale.
“It’s a little bit hazy now, but for the first time, I was awakened to who I really was. It happened as a result of moving to LA, not being in New York City and kind of being alone for the first time in my whole life. LA really has this solitude to it, and I felt kind of like a single human being in the world on my own for the first time,” Kish said. “Having that amount of solitude really unlocked something in my brain where I could process what I was a part of. I could process the music industry, I could process fashion, I could process trying to make it as an artist. [I could process] my womanhood, my own mind, my own anxieties and fears and worries about making it in your early to mid-20s. The album is really just a mind dump of all of them.”
On Reflections in Real Time, the “mind dump” was, in fact, a funhouse mirror. In an artistic headspace where she referenced visual works from Josef Müller-Brockmann and stark, German graphic design, Kish wanted the album to pervade her mercurial nature, where she was unapologetic about questioning her externalism. Her curious musings landed her at the drawing board, literally, where Kish began the album’s process through her artwork, before she even decided what the title would be.
“At that time, I was just working with what I had. I had a really close friend, [editor-in-chief of PIN-UP Magazine] Emmanuel Olunkwa, and we were taking pictures a lot and trying to strip back my experience into the simplest visual identity and then letting the eccentricities of the way I think shine through. The artwork is really, really minimal — everything around that time was black and white, everything was stark,” Kish said. “I was using a lot of at-home processes, which started the way that I make my album artwork. I would just sit at my desk and paint over images or overlap, collage things, work with the hand a lot, then import those kinds of things into digital spaces like Photoshop. There's always this hand-done aspect to it, even when I’m using digital programs.”
Although Kish’s designs for RIRT were minimal, the music wasn’t. Linking with longtime producer Ray Brady, the sound was grandiose, as Kish shed her once-character as an It Girl and took the titular role. “Reflections was one of the first projects I started working on with Ray, and since then we’ve worked on every project together. His production in general can be intense; the things that we make together specifically can be kind of busy. There’s a lot going on, there’s wild sounds coming from everywhere, things hitting you from the left and the right. That’s a cornerstone of what we like to make together versus my past work,” Kish said. “It was a change in producers and also just a change in exploration. How can we explore spoken word and a musical-like quality to certain songs? How can we add strings and orchestration in a way that makes it like what the song is about?”
Beginning with the organ-driven “Thank You!” where Kish muses about “perfecting” her conscious feelings, the album floats throughout complicated self-introspection. On “Collected Views from Dinner,” Kish is a reliable narrator during a chaotic mise-en-scène, closely observing social media influencer bedlam. Toward the album’s finale, Kish (with assistance from Donald Glover) goes into infomercial panic on “Existential Crisis Hour!” arriving into a contemplative pondering: “Will I ever be able to see myself the way others see me?” In the song’s surrealist visual, viewers see Kish aimlessly gazing beyond the camera as breakfast is poured on her head.
But the self-deprecating humor was intentional. “I wanted Reflections in Real Time to be this melodrama on very specific subjects. I wrote down all the titles of the subjects that I wanted to discuss, then I started making songs around it,” Kish said. “The visual identity came a little bit after, but I knew that I wanted to tackle certain subjects and tackle them head-on. Not in a normal ‘singer-songwriter’ way where it’s like, ‘This song is about love,’ but I really wanted to get deep into these specific topics, almost like audio essays.”
RIRT also placed her into the conversation of rising, boundary-pushing experimental music, as Kish was featured on the Gorillaz album Humanz and Vince Staples’ sophomore album, Big Fish Theory, in 2017. Following the release of RIRT, Kish fans got in tune with her performative side as she began her boutique label imprint Kisha Soundscape + Audio and went into improvisational mode, even flailing about during live concerts. Now, she’s thinking of immersive methods to put her music onto even larger stages.
“More and more, I just want to give myself completely. When I was doing performances for Reflections, like a play where I would go through these different motions and I was playing this character on stage — the wall wasn’t really broken. I don’t really speak that much on stage, I don’t really interact with people as much, it’s like you’re watching someone else’s weird world. That was the easiest way for me to perform at first because I’m generally an introvert,” Kish said. “I didn’t really perform for the four years of making music because I didn’t like it. Doing Reflections was the first way for me to try that, and since then I’ve been more comfortable to break that wall and to interact and share my space with other people. In the future, I’m interested in making a musical, in making pieces for theater and I’m starting to think about it a lot more now.”
Continuing the back-and-forth process of design and recording, RIRT has allowed Kish to innovatively have creative control over her vision and narrative. Since 2016, she’s used the album as a basis to propel her nonconforming streak, careful not to second-guess her musical ambitions.
“With Reflections in Real Time, I was trying to define a specific way of being and trying to find the most creative freedom possible in music. With music I’ve made since then, I’ve definitely loosened up a lot in mothe and REDUX — some songs are a lot more palatable and easy to digest,” Kish said. “My feelings about the way I make music — it ebbs and flows. Sometimes I want to be microscopic and sometimes I’m like, ‘Honestly, a good song is a good song.’ Enjoyment in music is also nice; it doesn’t always have to be this creative undertaking.”
Kish admits that it took her a few years to listen to RIRT from an objective place, but now she’s embracing it with the rest of us. Just six years removed from the album’s creation, having it released to double-LP vinyl has been a checklist goal for Kish, who mentioned that Björk’s Greatest Hits was her last vinyl purchase. Diving headfirst into the nuances of social media on RIFT, Kish has also reconsidered her relationship with the digital age.
“I don’t feel as strongly [about social media] as I did when I made Reflections in Real Time. That was [during] the wave of Instagram, and being an influencer was such a hot topic of that time. I just engage with it when I want to,” Kish said. “I try not to make myself feel as guilty about not engaging with it, because I feel like now people are more understanding of the mental health repercussions of being online constantly.”
Prepping her next album, AMERICAN GURL, for March, with structured celestial cowboy fits, Kilo Kish has gotten braver than she was before. Influencing the remainder of her ambitious catalog, RIRT was a sojourn from what listeners expected, and Kish will always keep us on our toes.
“It’s weird and spiritual, but I think the role of every one individually on earth is to express themselves as fully and as truthfully as possible,” she said. “I like rebelliousness; it’s a part of my character to be the wacky one. When I first started, I thought that everyone had to have the same goals and everyone had to achieve the same kind of thing, but then I learned that what’s rewarding for me is to give people a unique experience.”
Jaelani Turner-Williams is an Ohio-raised culture writer and bookworm. A graduate of The Ohio State University, Jaelani’s work has appeared in Billboard, Complex, Rolling Stone and Teen Vogue, amongst others. She is currently Executive Editor of biannual publication Tidal Magazine.