Lia Menaker On Her Debut: I Am Kyrøs

Kairos is an Ancient Greek word indicating that a moment is the right time for action. Philadelphia artist Lia Menaker could not have chosen a more appropriate time to release her debut under the name Kyrøs. Her EP I Am Kyrøs was written before many of the events that have called for change in 2020, but Menaker’s prescient music is very much in the here and now.

In advance of I Am Kyrøs, Menaker discussed her new record, breaking personal barriers, a unique style of artistry, and her plans for future music. The singer, whose style is a composite of pop, electronic, and R&B, releases the five-song collection on June 12. This avant-garde blend is what she refers to as “using unconventional sounds and challenging people’s ears.” The EP is available digitally and listeners can catch regular Kyrøs performances on Twitch (@liamenaker).

 

Long After Dark: There are recurring themes of self-discovery and personal identity in I Am Kyrøs. Has writing, recording, and now releasing this group of songs been a cathartic process for you? 

Menaker: Extremely cathartic. I started writing these songs about 4 years ago. I didn’t set out to write an album. I just kept feeling frustrated, or lost, or unsure of who I was or what I wanted… unsure how to navigate the waters of my life. I just kept exploring it all through song. It was like therapy to me… it kept me moving forward with some purpose.

It wasn’t until I wrote the first 3 that I realized they all revolved around identity. So I wrote “Some Kind” next, which allowed me to reflect on it all from this really quiet, peaceful place. That song gave me some closure and understanding around a lot of things I’d felt and suffered through.

Then the last one I wrote, “Imprinted,” felt like a big culmination of all of the songs, feelings, exploration, etc. And then the recording and production stages, when I really brought them all to life, was when I could understand the place all these songs and experiences had on my life – it was like I could finally step back and look at them at a bird’s eye view… without being so stuck in them emotionally. That was a whole different kind of cathartic.

It was the first time I recorded and produced on my own. And I just went for it. I did have some production assistance for sure. But it’s almost all me, and I never thought I could do this. And so recording and producing these really helped me burst through the identity barriers I’d placed on myself for so long. Which is so cool, because – well that’s what the album is about!

Lia Menaker, Photo Credit: Liora Arianna
Lia Menaker, Photo Credit: Liora Arianna

 

The songs in I Am Kyrøs were written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic’s outbreak. How do you feel that they relate to a time when you and your audience are going through a more unified experience than you would have encountered even a few months prior?

I think the songs relate to what’s going on now, because we’re sort of at a point where we’re seeing the broken nature of our systems, and realizing we have to alter our current approach to life. During times of crises, things get real – we start to see things we were able to just ignore or push down before.

We could stay distracted enough to not get real with ourselves. But we’re at a time now where people are scared for their lives, or at best, just uncertain at what the future holds. So I think there’s a hunger to understand ourselves and what we want as we move forward. It’s healing, I think. And with the extra time so many of us have, and all this time in self-isolation, it feels like there’s no better time to reflect on who we are and how we live.

 

You have a unique blend of electronic music and dreamy vocals. How did you arrive at this style as a way to express yourself musically?

Thank you! I’ve always loved warm, jazz vocals. I grew up engrossed in musical theatre, and that included a lot of standards by singers like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald. About 4 years ago, I also re-fell in love with Amy Winehouse and started really listening to her vocals and her style, pinpointing what I was that I loved so much. There’s a mix of this warmth and authenticity, but with a modern edge that just hits you in all the right places. So vocally, that’s really what’s inspired me.

But at the same time, I’m a big fan of using unconventional sounds and challenging people’s ears… and most of what I was listening to seemed to have strong electronic elements. SOHN is brilliant at this. I love how he puts a simple, soaring, haunting vocal over an mix of complex, evolving electronic elements. When I first heard him, it blew my mind – it was like a spiritual experience, and I thought “I want to do THAT!”  Susanne Sundfor’s Silicone Veil album was a big game changer for me too.

I loved the idea of marrying the two worlds – this classic, timeless feel with an electronic modern sound that reflects the times. With so much of our world being digital now, it felt right to experiment with electronic elements. It just feels so much a part of our world. So I started playing around with the Digital Audio Workstation Ableton, and some samples, and beats, and different gear – and it just all slowly started to meld together into a sound that felt right.

In “Imprinted” you sing “I am not what I feel.” What is the inspiration behind that lyric?

Yes! The beginning lyric: “I feel what I am; I am not what I feel”. Those words came to me after I wrote the whole song actually. I honestly can’t remember how I thought of them – but once I did, it felt so right.  It can sort of morph into a few different meanings, but I’ll do my best to explain it without it sounding convoluted. Our ego is very much tied to how we envision ourselves, right?

We think: I feel it, so I am it – we mistake it for an absolute truth. Not to say that what we feel isn’t PART of who we are. But it’s not the whole story. Underneath our egos, and all the things we feel about ourselves, and the reality we’ve decided to create for ourselves, there is much more to who we are.

Our past, our emotions, our stories, our limitations – these things create a reality for ourselves that we feel daily as we live our lives. So while yes, I may feel what I am” – that doesn’t necessarily mean I AM those things I feel. In those lyrics is also the idea that what we feel doesn’t have to be our reality. We can feel all these things about ourselves, but decide to change them. They don’t have to define us.

 

Another set of lyrics that caught my attention was “Stranger in my own skin” in “Stranger.” What were you feeling when you wrote that?

It’s interesting you ask that, because not only was “Stranger” the first song I wrote on this album, I think that line was the first line I wrote! At the time, I had just gotten my Masters in Public Health and moved to Atlanta to start my first real job in the field. I had stopped singing and writing for a couple years at that point, to focus on school/a career in public health.

After 6 months or so, I just noticed how wrong it all felt for me. I stopped and looked around one day and just thought, “How on earth did I get here?”.  I had literally spent my entire life since age 7 singing, performing, writing music, and pursuing all that – but I had stopped it all to try to make some sort of normal, easy life for myself. And I realized I hated the new normal – I craved the music and I had to get it back in my life. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was living in a new city in a part of the country I didn’t connect with, with virtually no family and friends, doing administrative public health tasks in a military-style department of a big government agency – none of it made sense to who I was.

The things that made me ME, and that that made me happy, were no longer in my life. It was like I didn’t recognize myself anymore, and the only way I could describe it was feeling like a stranger to myself – a stranger in my own skin. It was the worst feeling, that I think everyone feels at some point or another – “How did I let myself get here? Did I screw up my life?”. Though in the end, it was all just as it was supposed to be – it was part of the story that I ended up rewriting.

 

What are your plans after I Am Kyrøs is released?

The songs cover so many big concepts that I felt needed to be explored through movement. So I’m working with some  incredible choreographers/dancers to create music videos for 2-3 of the songs. It’ll be mostly them and their choreography – the goal is each one features a different choreographer/dancer, to express their unique connections/take on the music. There’s a lot to unpack in these songs, so I feel like there is so much that can be said physically and visually with them. I’m still in the beginning stages of planning the videos, but I’m already really excited. Some of their ideas have been really amazing!

I’ve also been writing snippets of songs over the past 6 months that I’m really excited to go back and complete. Most of them started as improvisational loops that I did while live streaming on Twitch, so it’ll fun to be able to share the end results to the same people who experienced their beginnings. I’m also working on some collaborations with other artists. It’s been one highlight of the pandemic – connecting with other musicians around the world that are eager to create and collaborate. so I’m working on something with a jazz funk band in Paris, and have been cooking up some ideas with friends on the east coast for other projects.

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