In the fall of 2015, Kiya Lacey was one of three local performers tapped to represent Nashville's burgeoning hip-hop, R&B and soul scenes at Nu Era Music Fest alongside revered national acts Mint Condition, Bilal and Talib Kweli. At the time, Lacey was just a couple of years out of high school, but she was already well on her way to developing her artistic persona: projecting girlish femininity through a self-aware lens, an aspect that finds visual expression in her pink dreadlocks, and burrowing into imaginative, coolly delivered alt-R&B introspection.
Since then, she's only refined her approach, supplying icy hooks on tracks by rappers and producers like Derek Minor and TOKiMONSTA and closing 2016 with an arresting visual EP. Lacey currently splits her time between Nashville and Atlanta, cultivating circles of kindred spirits and collaborators in both cities. World Cafe caught her on the phone and on the move.
You're an artist of the social media and streaming generation. You started leaving a trail of work on YouTube, Soundcloud and elsewhere when you were still in high school. At what point did you begin to feel like your output was being taken seriously?
I think when I first started in high school, I had a lot of support but people thought it was cute and a cool hobby, something I did for fun. I don't think anyone started taking it seriously until I released my first EP, and that was April 2015: Fail In Love. That was the first project I wrote fully by myself and I co-produced with the Wonder Twins and with my bass player at the time, Phil Moore.
We would meet at Cumberland Park [in downtown Nashville] while they were building it — like, it wasn't even complete yet — by the river on the little stage over there. We were like, "One day we're gonna do a show here with all these songs that we wrote." And that ended up actually happening. I ended up opening for Bilal for the Nu Era Fest that Lovenoise put on at that stage. So that was pretty cool.
You went to a private, predominately white, all-girls school in Nashville. What role did that experience play in you beginning to fashion your own identity?
It was very interesting growing up in an all-girls private school and one of, like, 10 people of color. I'm multi-racial. I'm Puerto Rican and black. So growing up in predominately black schools was hard too, because I didn't exactly look like other people. I spoke proper, so I was picked on in the all-black community in the public school. And I went to a private school and then I became "the black girl." So it was interesting not really having like a place where I felt like I could have my own identity. I had to just find myself and get comfortable with who I am. ... I just kind of created my own world, really, and that's what forced me to be creative as an artist.
Wasn't your very first recording project kind of a retro R&B/jazz thing?
Yeah. Two of my teachers — I was in this harmony class with Scott Myrick, and he's also a physics teacher, and my English teacher at the time, Joe Croker — they were working on a country album and I was just doing the demo work for it. We kinda started working on more and more tracks together, and we decided to do a full album of tracks that they were writing. It was a mixture of country, jazz, blues, a little bit of everything. It was a whole Nashville-based project — or one side of Nashville. I'm glad that I put it out, because I was able to get the experience of recording live on tape. That whole project was with a full band and me singing at the same time. We recorded it all together. ... I started getting more comfortable in the studio, so when it was time for me to work on my own project, I already had some experience in that.
At that point you were singing more like a throwback jazz-R&B diva. But once you started releasing songs you'd written to beats, you used your voice differently. Your singing feels much more minimalistic, sensual and relaxed now. How'd you arrive there?
I wanted to make music that could be played anywhere. I'm 21 right now, so I wanted my music to be relatable to my age group. I'm not a pop artist, so I had to find that middle ground. Alternative R&B is the genre that I'm often placed in. It just kinda came from blending both jazz and hip-hop and putting my vocals, the way that I sing normally, to a hip-hop beat or a heavy 808 track. I like how my tracks are almost minimal, like other people can sing along easily. ... Moving into the pop-R&B realm is more fun for me and it's really helped increase my fan base. I don't really like the term "fans," but I got more attention when I started getting into alternative R&B and hip-hop.
Though you don't typically build your own tracks, you choose the kinds of tracks you want to write to, the feel you're looking for.
I'm working on a project right now where I'm very heavily involved in the actual chord progressions and melodies. I always like to co-produce when I'm working on my projects. ... I'm getting more comfortable with it, but that's my goal. I really wanna start producing more.
You mentioned in another interview that you're building your own recording rig at home. That makes sense to me, because there's an intimacy and introspection to your lyrics, melodies and delivery. I can picture you holing up and working in solitude. How close is that image to the reality of how you actually work?
I really like to record alone in the dark. I have lava lamps. I like to have projections of little videos of jellyfish. I like it to be very calm. I like it to be very few people around. Sometimes if I have to go to a studio, there will normally be maybe two or three other people. But I'm not really the big-crowd type as far as when I'm recording, because it's a very vulnerable place for me. I just want to let everything out that I have to say and edit it later, without any boundaries.
A lot of the tracks you've written to land on the side of pop-R&B that has icy electronic flourishes and a broody quality to it, not unlike the vibe I sometimes get from an artist like Tinashe. What have you been looking for from your co-producers?
I often just look for things that are very melodic in tone. I'm very into building my harmonies, so I want something that is not too overpowering to where I have no space to create. But I like very eerie sounds, very dark sounds and I like to build from there. We might start with a simple piano chord progression and I'll start writing to it and we'll build a beat from there. I definitely like heavy drums and bass. I really wanna get into electronic, more dance music, because I don't want to get trapped into just the sultry, slow energy.
You got one track by tweeting a call for submissions. Have you found other collaborators, like the Wonder Twins, in the local scene?
Actually, they DMed me on Twitter. A lot of the way that I met people is through Instagram and Twitter or people just DMing me. I created an email [address] and I just tweeted it; like, you can send beats at any time. The day that I tweeted it, there were, like, 150 submissions. Sometimes it seems like there's not that many people paying attention, but you really get to see it when you put out little stuff like that. I'll tweet, "Lookin for a beat like this." ... Some people are kind of upset about how social media is making everyone an artist. I really feel like it's bringing a lot of talented artists together.
One of your most recent releases was the three-song visual project Earth, Wind And Fire. In a couple of those videos, you play the role of a woman who's dominating her male lover, getting revenge. Because it came out at the end of last year, the same year as Lemonade, I couldn't help but think of the similarities between your bat-wielding scenes and Beyonce's. What is inhabiting a part like that about for you?
I feel like it was my first step into breaking the boundaries put around me. A lot of people are familiar with me and my pink hair and the sweet look that I have. And it was a reminder that I shouldn't be placed in a box. I feel like it's a great time for women to realize that they do have power.
... We were having a lot of fun shooting that video, but it was also almost dream-like. Those are personalities that do not represent me as a person, but it was more for me stepping out as an artist and for me to be able to create freely. Sometimes artists feel like they have to stay within their genre and their look and have a certain color scheme at all times, and I don't want to have any of those boundaries placed on me.
You also did a behind-the-scenes video talking about what you were saying in those songs. It feels like you're meditating on the nature of millennial relationships.
The Earth, Wind And Fire project [lays out] the three phases of a toxic relationship. So "Earth" was laying the foundation, when you're getting comfortable with telling the person what you want. Some people have really high expectations for their partners, which leads to "Wind." So "Wind" is like the back and forth. You might ask the person whether they like you, or not know which way to go. Sometimes you don't hear from them for a while, and then sometimes you feel like they're the love of your life. Which leads into "Fire," and that's what keeps the toxic relationship going, the physical experience, and you go right back to the "Wind." It's kind of to create that repetitive cycling system, and that's what I do in the video as well. The video begins with the ending [of the story], so it just keeps going in a circle. I feel like a lot of R&B used to just be about love and passion and heartbreak, and I'm interested in the in-between and how you get from point A to point B.
At this point, you're splitting your time between Nashville and Atlanta. What has that done for you?
I really love the Atlanta culture. I moved here for personal reasons at first. I had met a few producers here, but it was more so to be around my grandmother and just get a little different experience. I've been in Nashville my whole life. ... But it's so easy to connect with people that are on a similar path. I met so many photographers, set designers. There is a DJ collective called WERC Crew and there are a lot of parties out here that I really enjoy going to and I've met a lot of people through them. ... My first show in Atlanta was with Afropunk, so that kinda just kicked the door open for me.
I hope you won't give up performing in Nashville too.
Oh, never! Nashville is always home. I do a lot of work with producers [in Nashville] and I like to work with them face to face. So I'm back and forth all the time.