Much great music is inspired by heartbreak, tragedy, or triumph, but Okay Kaya’s stirring new album Watch This Liquid Pour Itself has a decidedly different concept at its core: bile.
“I’m just trying to make something beautiful from something that is not beautiful,” Kaya says over the phone a week before the release of her anticipated sophomore LP. To the artist born Kaya Wilkins, the bile referred to in the album’s title is something — a thought, a feeling, an observation — that inevitably must exit the body, and the role of the music is to provide a structure for that release, like the nozzle of a showerhead controlling the flow of water.
Kaya is a singer, songwriter, and producer based in New York, but originally hailing from Sweden. Gifted with a voice capable of still, ethereal beauty and bone-dry sarcasm, she quickly earned fans and critical favor a few years back for stripped-down songs like “Damn, Gravity” and “I’m Stupid (But I Love You),” which combined a moody, simmering slowburn quality with the glacial cool of Kaya’s vocal delivery.
She says was initially unaware she was crafting the follow-up to her acclaimed 2018 debut Both until she had written “like 40 or 50 songs” and began to determine which she felt were most vital. From there, Kaya began to play with and manipulate the production, saying that she’s long been drawn to a level of contrast between a record’s sonic trappings and lyrical content.
“I tried to really stay with the songs that felt that urgent,” she explains. “That became the collection of songs: the one that felt purgy, urgent, and that made it a cohesive thing.”
The 15 songs that comprise the album cover a litany of topics, from an amusing sign she saw in New Orleans for a children’s clothing store called Baby Little Tween to her stint in a psychiatric center following an episode triggered by her bipolar depression. Kaya is a candid songwriter, unflinching in her details and language choices, but also wickedly funny. Her breakout solo song “IUD” uses clever wordplay to highlight the inequity in safe sex practices between men and women. Similarly, tracks on Watch This Liquid Pour Itself like “Psych Ward” and “Guttural Sounds” dispel stigmas in important ways and never feel heavy-handed.
“I think a lot of the record is me ridding myself of shame, and that kind of happened in the course of my last record as well,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why are all these things so problematic to me? Why can’t I talk about having this experience when I have to talk to people all the time about the songs that I write?’”
While she covers these profoundly personal, fraught topics, Kaya is equally inspired by the mundane. Everyday imagery can make for evocative symbolism in music, but her goal on much of Watch This Liquid Pour Itself is to find the meaning in the object or experience itself, not just use it as a conduit for some cosmic idea. The vegan peanut butter chocolate ice cream referenced on “Asexual Wellbeing” is simply a late-night treat for her and the song’s subject. “‘Asexual Wellbeing’ is about wanting to do really normal things and finding them meaningful and lovable,” she says.
“It’s existential in a way, but it’s not trying to be abstract or painting a picture through what it would look like to see someone peel an orange or something like that,” she says about her writing process. “[It’s about] being like, ‘Even this little tiny thing has meaning.’”
She says she goes through her days “collecting all sorts of words and visual things,” jotting them down with the eventual intention of summoning them in the songwriting process. For instance, she loves to observe street signs, which can encapsulate the wit and brevity her music has in spades.
“My favorite thing to do is walk around cities and see what people come up with to sell whatever they’re doing. It’s smaller than a poem, smaller than a tweet,” she says. “The smallest punchline is a sign.”
Watch This Liquid Pour Itself is sweeping in its sound, featuring four-on-the-floor synth pop (“Asexual Wellbeing”), power chord rock (“Psych Ward”), and dusky lounge jazz (“Popcorn Heart”). Though some tracks are sonic outliers, none of them exist in isolation. That’s thanks to Kaya’s penchant for playing musical matchmaker; she pairs off her songs by personality, putting them in conversation with each other.
“A song has a personality and then I find a partner for it,” she says. “If you listen really closely, you might be able to figure out who belongs to who on the record.”
She says that having a companion was essential in the selection process for what made the final cut, along with that feeling of tension release. She doesn’t give specific examples of pairings, but possible unions on the album include “Guttural Sounds,” a wounded and confessional track about feeling unappreciated as your base self, and “Insert Generic Name,” a wry record about the death march of a fictitious relationship with a fictitious “Stacy.”
Kaya thinks often about songwriting as a kind of “sublimation” of her feelings and experiences. She says that by and large the lyrics paint a straightforward picture, but that experimenting with production and other sonic elements is what keeps her music from being “completely a ‘dear diary’ kind of thing.” While an incredibly thoughtful conversationalist, Kaya acknowledges that she is still getting used to talking about her music without the artifice of the song itself.
For Kaya, the album format serves two primary functions. The first is as an archive for what she is feeling and experiencing at a particular juncture, and the second is as a vessel for “little stories within within within within within within.” The world she creates on Watch This Liquid Pour Itself is rich with detail and character — listen closely and you’ll hear Stacy pop up again, this time in the form of an Italian Greyhound — and built to be engaged with on different levels by her audience.
“You can either listen to the song and be like, ‘Oh, this has a nice little bop to it,’ or you can zoom in a little closer, and then you kind of get more of the lyrics,” she says. It’s like the way you can walk past a sign in your neighborhood 50 times before one day, inexplicably, words that stick with you will crystallize out of what once was a neon blur.
What elevates Kaya as an artist is that she’s not making a value judgment on the listener’s intent, but providing a deep and vast font for those who go looking. We all produce the same kind of emotional bile that Kaya is referencing in the title of Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, but few are able to shape its release as precisely and creatively as she can.
“I think the purpose behind the songs is for people to connect, but that’s not up to me,” she says. “I feel like I’m just leaving it here, and you can do whatever with it.”
Header photo by Coco Capitán.