Interview

Q&A: Lydia Ainsworth On Her New Album Darling Of The Afterglow

Lydia Ainsworth’s 2014 debut album, Right From Real, is a mystifying piece of pop experimentalism, blending fibrous synths with classically-inspired strings to create something that’s at once both ornate and ominous. The Toronto-based musician studied film composing at McGill and New York Universities and, appropriately, her songs sound like they could soundtrack a movie comprised entirely of long tracking shots down dark, winding roads. That haunting, widescreen focus carries over to Ainsworth’s forthcoming sophomore album, Darling Of The Afterglow, on which she sharpens her pop skills and back-breaking beats while still holding onto the orchestral flourishes that make her music truly soar.

Lead single “The Road” is one of the best songs she’s ever made, a billowing cloud of unanswered questions and an arresting piano plink that tie themselves in knots around Ainsworth’s sky-high voice. The rest of the album follows suit, matching that towering ambition. In the same way that her debut set out to distinguish the right from the real, Darling Of The Afterglow attempts to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, finding a larger truth that’s more indicative of the whole than plain old reality could ever be.

“Into The Blue,” the third single from the album (which we’re premiering below), is an arresting kick against a current that’s dragging Ainsworth down. The beat is shadowy and waterlogged, and the only time it comes up for air is in the chorus when Ainsworth sings, “Drifting down below/ There’s a place in my mind that I go/ Where I feel renewed…” Sometimes a world of our own creation is the only place where we can feel truly safe — she says the song is “about reaching the very bottom of one’s emotional depths to achieve purification from fear” — and on her new album, Ainsworth creates enough comforting fantasies to make us all feel at ease.

Listen to “Into The Blue” and read an interview with Ainsworth below.

STEREOGUM: How did you approach this new album differently than your debut?

LYDIA AINSWORTH: With Right From Real, we released it as two EPs, but I envisioned it as a full album. I had written all the songs prior to releasing the first half of it, so it was conceived as an album in and of itself. But it took a long time to put together, and the songs were kind of disparate. They were little projects of mine that I was working on in between film scoring. I was in school at the time, so I was just learning how to use my voice. I barely performed at all. I played a few shows while I was writing it just to work out the form and structure of those songs, but I was very new to it.

This time around, I knew that I wanted to write another album. I guess I started some of the songs during the same time period as my first one, but after the release of Right From Real, I went on tour for the first time, and I ended up playing some festivals. That experience really taught me a lot about using my voice in a way that I had never used it before. I recorded almost all of Right From Real in my bedroom, and had rarely sung in public before. So it taught me a lot about how to communicate with an audience, and I brought those experience into the studio this time around. That’s a major difference between the two albums… I’m just a little more confident in my voice now.

STEREOGUM: What’s your songwriting process like? What’s your go-to instrument when you get an idea for a song?

AINSWORTH: Usually, I have to have some kind of sonic tapestry programmed to start… Maybe it’s just one sample that’s inspiring to me, maybe just a pattern that I’ve recorded into my computer. I always use Logic, and play stuff into it with a MIDI keyboard. I’ll play around with ideas on that, and if any of those ideas stick — maybe a chord progression, usually inspired by a melody — then I’ll write the lyrics. It’s pretty rare that I’ll have a whole idea of a song — lyrics, melody, and chords — all at the same time. Though in the case of “WLCM,” which is short for “What Love Can Mean,” that song was made in a bedroom in LA, and I had already finished the album, but it came out in one go almost. Everything at the same time… That’s pretty rare for me, a special kind of thing that happened…

STEREOGUM: Did you write a lot of the album on the road, or primarily in one place?

AINSWORTH: I started a lot of the songs away from my home in Toronto. I gathered a lot of ideas away from home, and finished all of the songs in Toronto. I was in LA for a bit… I thought I would like to songwrite for other artists and get really into pop songwriting. So I explored that, and I really loved doing that — writing with other artists and writers. I ended up writing a few of the songs for my own album through that.

One song that I started on the road was “I Feel It All,” which I wrote while I was on tour in Europe. I was listening to a podcast that my drummer put on about a woman who had a stroke, but she said it was the most amazing feeling because she had lost the ability to see in 3D. She could only see in two dimensions, had lost the ability to remember anything at all, so she had to relearn how to see in 3D. So that’s what that song is about.

STEREOGUM: Do you feel like you write a lot from different perspectives moreso than your own?

AINSWORTH: I think it’s a mix on this album. But it helps to see through different perspectives to more clearly see your own situation.

STEREOGUM: I know you take a lot of inspiration from art. What do you think it is about the visual sphere that inspires you to create something musically?

AINSWORTH: My grandmother was a painter, and my mother was a set designer for Fraggle Rock and kids shows and a bunch of other things, so I’ve always bee surrounded by visual things growing up. My grandmother was an amazing painter and sculptor, and our whole house is covered in her amazing paintings, which are mixx between Matisse and Van Gogh … really impressionistic, abstract stuff. They’re really beautiful. So maybe that’s a part of it? I’ve always been drawn to paintings, maybe because of that.

STEREOGUM: Your sister [Abby Ainsworth] directed most of the videos this time around, right?

AINSWORTH: We were really lucky and got a grant from a Toronto organization called MuchFACT, so we got a little budge to make “The Road.” I wrote a pretty detailed treatment for the application, and we had to stick pretty closely to it. That was based a lot on Greek paintings. My sister was amazing at executing it, and incredible at directing it. It was her first music video, too. She’s in the food world mainly — she produces content for In The Weeds, which profiles foragers and chefs. This was her first theatrical endeavor, and she did a great job. We did the same thing for “Afterglow” — I wrote a really detailed treatment for lighting and everything. We just see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. We don’t need to verbalize what we’re thinking together, so it’s really nice working together.

STEREOGUM: I feel like in the video for “The Road” especially, it sort of mimics what you’re trying to do with your music. There’s that scene in the disco where you’re wearing these austere outfits, which taps into the classical side of your music, but you’re marrying it to the pop side of things by setting it in this club environment.

AINSWORTH: That’s cool that you picked up on that. Even for the dance, I asked the choreographer to pull from Baroque-style dance. I love that mix.

STEREOGUM: Coming from a classically-trained background, why do you think you gravitate towards pop structure and pop music as a way to get those sounds across?

AINSWORTH: I’ve been a lover of pop songs for my whole life. Ever since I was 12 years old and I got a CD player for my birthday, I was in my room listening to whatever I could get my hands on. When I went to university for composition, I was almost stunned at what we were listening to. All this atonal and contemporary music — I was like, oh my god, what is this? The craziest thing I had heard up until that point was probably Björk. I was really taken aback by the avant garde music we were being made to study. It was amazing… But my first love was pop song structure, and I’ve always been obsessed with songs. So when I was in university, I didn’t really connect with that kind of music at all, so I turned my focus to film scoring, which was more tonal.

STEREOGUM: You recorded most of this album in the studio as opposed to your bedroom this time around, right?

AINSWORTH: It’s kind of half and half… Part of it was recorded at home, and then I went to the studio and we recorded drums and bass, and then I sang everything in the studio.

STEREOGUM: How focused are you on the arrangements when you’re actually in the studio? Is there room for improvisation.

AINSWORTH: Form-wise, pretty much everything is mapped out. There’s some room for experimentation, but I usually have a good idea of what I want to achieve just because the expense of renting a studio is so high. But, for instance, on “Spinning,” I had imagined that the bass player would play electric bass, but he also brought his upright and we ended up trying that out, and I was like, woah, that creates a totally different sound and texture and that’s awesome. So there’s room for that kind of stuff.

STEREOGUM: Thematically, are these songs are all tied together in any way in your mind?

AINSWORTH: I don’t know if I could reduce it to one thing… It’s almost like a scrapbook of life and musicale experiences over the last few years — losing friends and gaining friends, love, life in general…

STEREOGUM: You were inspired by a specific statue for the title of the record. What drew you to that statue, and how do you think that experience speaks to the album as a whole?

AINSWORTH: The album title comes from the lyric in the song “Afterglow.” I was living in LA at the time, and walking around that beautiful lake in Echo Park where that beautiful statue is. It was sunset. It was as if she was singing the lyrics of the song that I had just started earlier that day. I felt very alone, and kind of isolated in that place in my life at the time, and I felt like she was giving me a lot of comfort. She was assuring me that everything was going to be OK — “You’re the darling of the afterglow/ You can take from me what you want…” As for the title I didn’t give it much thought as an umbrella title for all of the songs, but I guess now that you’ve asked… Maybe it’s just her singing to me and calling me the Darling Of The Afterglow. Maybe I am the Darling of The Afterglow.

Tour dates:
03/15 Austin, TX @ Valhalla (Arbutus – 1:30AM)
03/16 Austin, TX @ French Legation (Pitchfork – 4:30PM)
03/17 Austin, TX @ Hole In The Wall (Austin Oasis – 7:00PM)
04/19 Washington, DC @ DC 9
04/20 Philadelphia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
04/22 Brooklyn, NY @ Baby’s All Right
04/24 Allston, MA @ Great Scott
04/25 Montreal, QC @ Bar Le Ritz PBD
04/26 Toronto, ON @ The Garrison
04/28 Chicago, IL @ Schubas
04/29 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St. Entry
05/02 Seattle, WA @ Barboza
05/03 Portland, OR @ Holocene
05/04 Vancouver, BC @ Fox Cabaret
05/06 San Francisco, CA @ Swedish American Hall
05/08 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
05/30 Brighton, UK @ The Joker
05/31 London, UK @ London Fields Brewery
06/01 Paris, FR @ Escape B
06/02 Antwerp, BE @ Trix Bar
06/03 Rotterdam, NL @ V11
06/05 Hamburg, DE @ Uebel & Gefährlich
06/06 Cologne, DE @ YUCA
06/07 Berlin, DE @ Kantine am Berghain
06/08 Amsterdam, NL @ Sugar Factory

Darling Of The Afterglow is out 3/31 via Arbutus/Bella Union.