The first time Kyla La Grange heard of Kygo was when fans started tweeting her telling how much they loved his remix of Kyla’s single Cut Your Teeth. Kyla doesn’t always like remixes, but fortunately she loved this one: “It’s tropical and balearic and makes you feel like you’re on a beach which is a really unexpected way to take the song.” By that time, Kygo’s bootleg remix had already followed Kyla’s original version to the top of the Hype Machine charts. Now it’s an official single with a video, and it just won’t die, charting across Europe, receiving 25 million streams to date across Spotify, YouTube and Soundcloud, and growing each week.
Cut Your Teeth has turned out to be a pivotal song for Kyla in more ways than one. It was the first track she produced with James “Jakwob” Jacob, remixer of everyone from Ellie Goulding and Lily Allen to Usher and Lana Del Rey and an artist in his own right. Originally she’d been invited to write and sing on a track for Jakwob’s own project. “We got on really well, and I loved his production so I asked him to produce one of my new songs with me, Cut Your Teeth,” she explains. “So we did the song and I played it for my manager and A&R team, and they all loved it.”
As a result, Jakwob and Kyla ended up producing all but one of the tracks for her second album together, and Cut Your Teeth became the first single and title track. It is the first time Jakwob has produced a whole album for a single artist. Kyla recorded two further tracks with Jas Shaw of Simian Mobile Disco and one with Igor Haefeli of Daughter. Whoever was in the studio hot-seat, the sessions were uniformly trouble-free.
“It was so painless,” she says of the making of this new record. “My first album Ashes took years, and it was a real struggle. I was miserable for a lot of it. I was obsessed with relationships on that album, so it was all about heartbreak. When you’re unhappy that’s all you can write about, but this time I wasn't depressed. That frees you up to write about other things. Doing this album was much easier.”
In the aftermath of the release of Ashes, Kyla, who was born and bred in England, went to South Africa, where her mother's side of the family are from, and stayed with grandparents and an aunt during Christmas. Feeling relaxed and far from the pressures of the music industry, she began writing songs again. Only this time, she swapped her guitar for Garageband, and a relic from her youth: “My mum found an old keyboard from when I was 12, with all these crap but really good sounds – xylophones and kalimbas and ‘80s samples – and it was really fun,” she recalls. “It reminded me of when I was younger and I would force my friends to go into my basement with me and write songs in a corner.”
Using this old technology had a beneficial effect. As Kyla explains, “It sparked off a lot of songs from that time, of when I was growing up and hearing these stories that other kids tell you, and of people I met as a teen.”
As the songs took shape, it soon became apparent that Kyla’s second album would comprise a series of reminiscences and observations about her childhood and adolescence, and of the characters who populated them.
Kyla jokes that she has done things the wrong way round – she should be experiencing difficult, not easy, second album syndrome. She describes the sound as spartan pop that blends together sounds both organic and electronic, with guitars, bass and drums as well as synthesisers and various keyboards. Jakwob handles the programming while the musicians from her band also appear in readiness for the moment when Kyla performs the album live.
The album title suits the songs, she says, because of “the idea of formative experiences”. The title track is about “a kid being reprimanded”. Fly is about bullying. White Doves casts back to a strange, scary event from her childhood when she “sneaked into a room where a man was rumoured to be buried and stole sweets.” The eerie, if not the supernatural, is a sort of leitmotif. “I used to play a game called Matchy-Matchy where I’d tell my friends that someone would come and kill them in their sleep,” she says, although she does add by way of reassurance: “It was more mischievous than malicious.”
If this new album has a theme, it’s past events whose reverberations can still be felt well into adulthood. There’s The Knife, “about people who allow a relationship to define them, so that when it ends they have nothing left.” Maia concerns “a fear of death and the world ending”. I’ll Call For You is about “being young and scared of dying” – the five-year-old Kyla remembers crying out from her bedroom, for her parents downstairs, fearful even at that young age of oblivion. Never That Young takes an askance look at marriage. Cannibals is about “people being so wrapped up with each other it’s as though they’re eating each other.”
“They look at things that were horrible at the time, at the bad things people do to each other,” says Kyla of the new tracks. But the point is, she’s recollecting in relative tranquillity.
“There are a couple of unhappy songs on the new album but they’re mostly observational,” she clarifies. “There isn’t the intensity of emotion of the first album, which was so strongly felt. That was teenage despair. This one is more, ‘Oh god, I’m actually alright.’
“I’m in my twenties and content and I feel like, ‘Phew, I’m glad that’s not happening now!’” she continues, laughing. “I’ve felt much more settled and happy for the last year than I’ve ever been. All the interviews around my first album were like, ‘Why do you write such unhappy songs?’ ‘Because I’m unhappy – why do you think?’ Ashes was me getting stuff off my chest, crying as I wrote. I was so wrapped up in the whole thing. This has been so much more creative and nice. It has been a freer process.”
The songs are deftly produced, sparse but effective, with a couple giving the observational lyrics an epic feel worthy of an ‘80s power ballad – Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart, Heart’s Alone and T’Pau’s China In Your Hand remain touchstones from Kyla’s youth.
“I bought China In Your Hand from a market when I was ten and played it on repeat,” she remembers. “I used to do a Napoleon Dynamite-style dance to it in my front room, singing the chorus at the top of my voice. I still love that chorus, and I always will.”
More often than not, Kyla explains, the music is stripped-down, less layered, and suits the notion of tentativeness and nascent experience contained in the album title.
“I wanted to keep some of that ‘I’m-in-a-basement-with-Garageband-and-a-shitty-keyboard’ feel,” she says.
She’s come a long way from Ashes, that’s for sure.
“I started out completely folk, playing acoustic nights, and the songs on the debut started with me and an acoustic guitar before they became rocky and big. This time the songs began with me finding a beat and using that to set the tone and build a story around it.”
But, she insists, for fans of her previous work, this isn’t entirely a case of Kyla Gets Happy.
“I’m happy personally but I’ll always be drawn to writing about darker things because writing about happy things is pretty dull,” she decides.
We know now where her new music came from. But where will it take her?
"I'd love to work with Kygo again – his approach to dance music is something I really admire. It's happy and upbeat without being cheesy, and he uses space so well; I also like the way the Cut Your Teeth remix retains so much of the original yet sounds like a totally different animal. I think it would be really interesting to collaborate with him on something new."
She adds: “I can’t believe I’ve got to make music in my twenties – it’s so cool. I’ve never been one of those artists whose reputation is based on hits or hype. I never had great expectations. I just like writing and making music. And if my music does well, amazing, because that means I’ll get to make some more.”