Scrunchie jumped on Zoom with Kayce Guthmiller, a budding violist from the Pacific Northwest. She released her debut album, “The Slow,” this year! Scrunchie and Kayce talked about the deeply personal meanings behind the tracks on her album, the process of recording “The Slow” on Whidbey Island, and her history with her instrument of choice, the viola.
What’s your star sign, and do you feel it fits you and your style as an artist? Why or why not?
I’m an Aries sun. And I don’t really have the rest of my chart memorized, though. Recently, I feel like through the pandemic, I’ve come into my chaotic energy, mostly socially, though. And in terms of my artistic style, I think that I am more gentle rather than the flamey, fiery chaotic side. Although, I’ve been listening to this podcast called “Ologies.” It’s great. Would recommend. There’s an episode that they published recently about the necessity of fire and how it is actually a really healing part of nature and necessary. Like a controlled burn.
You recorded, performed, and produced “The Slow” on your own. Where is your headspace at while writing and producing, and how did this process look like for the album?
I started writing the music, I think the earliest track was “Genetic Memory.” And I started writing that in like, 2017. And it was a track that I was working on with my composition professor at university, actually, which is in Tacoma, Washington, where I am. And it was kind of like pulling teeth, you know, because we didn’t vibe super well. So the process of bringing that to the album, for example, was really one of rehabilitation, kind of reclaiming this piece, which is so much about my family and growing up in kind of like, I don’t know, a traumatic home. And then bringing that to this professor and having him kind of shut it down in a weird way. So to bring it to this album proved to myself that I know what I need to do to heal. So I guess that’s just one example.
But I think in a logistical way, learning how to do the writing and the crafting of the music, and then putting on the producer and recorder hat is very different. And I was doing it as a project for my senior year of my undergrad. So it was my senior project and recital. And so, I was getting constant feedback from [that professor] every week. And kind of doing everything for the first time by myself. And so there’s just so much to it. You kind of have to leave what you wrote the songs about behind when you’re listening to them every day and mixing them and recording them. I think that it’s very fitting with this COVID thing that we all are currently experiencing. You kind of have to learn to be alone. I guess that was a sprawling answer.
Is there a place where you feel most comfortable writing? Or do you feel more comfortable as a producer?
Writing for maybe everyone, definitely writing for me, is such an inherent thing, you know? And there’s no wrong way to do it. Whereas there are a lot of procedural aspects of producing… I think that gender has a huge thing to do with it, too. Because when you’re writing, for me when I’m writing, it’s not about like, any sort of patriarchal thing. It’s just me and what I’m making, you know? And then when you get into like, if you go on YouTube and look up anything about producing or mixing or how to do a thing in Logic, it’s pretty much gonna be a white dude showing you how to do it with his shitty beats that he just like mocked up in Logic or whatever. And so there’s that dynamic of it too. But again, it was really cool to experience that and realize that I know what I’m doing. And realize I know that a thing sounds good when it sounds good. And so trusting that was a huge.
And my mentorship that I got through my college, I got mentorship from this really badass woman named Kaylee Eaton, who’s super, she’s this amazing composer, classically trained soprano, and pianist. And she really got me a lot on the gender side of things, and how it relates to music.
I think, inherently, I’m at home in the writing. Because I think that’s where a lot of us start. The production stuff took a lot more digging to kind of feel like it was for me. We all have this access to Garageband and stuff, if we have a Mac or if you’re lucky enough to be able to pay for it, you have all of this technology. And it opens so many doors, but I think it also there are these people that are still trying to gatekeep that. And that sucks.
I feel like the word producer in itself is intimidating. When I think producer, I think like these folks who are like, super involved in institutions, like the Grammys, and I don’t even know if I identify as a producer. I was just kind of doing what I had to do to get my thing out there. And I’m not a huge nerd about like plugins and gear and all this stuff. And a lot of the stuff on the album was just recorded in my, my iPhone voice memos. I think that there’s so much beauty to doing everything that you can with what little you have, and that’s not something that people talk about.
I guess there is something to be said too, about someone who really vibes with all the nerdy shit, that’s super cool, too. I would love to go down the avenue of more electronic music. But yeah, I think that it is super important that start somewhere. And if all you have is your iPhone, people still want to hear what you have to say, so do that. Quality doesn’t matter. It makes me sad to see young artists who get discouraged because they don’t have the shit, you know.
Your most popular track on Spotify, “Genetic Memory,” seems to speak to your brother and discuss hereditary traits, specifically ones that are more emotional and psychological than physical. Do you mind sharing a little more about this track and what inspired it?
Yeah, yeah, I talked a little bit about it. I’m surprised by that track, by the way, that it’s the most popular one. Because it’s the oldest one. And it has that history that I was kind of talking about, of being this matter that was so torn apart in this really academic context. I think the song kind of started to take on something that was more than what I had originally written it about. So that’s a personal thing. And I think it was also one of the first songs that I’d ever written on just my viola with my voice. Because I was always trying to do it with outsourcing, right, like the viola is not really an instrument that people accompany themselves with, in like a songwriter context. I was always like, “God, I have to write the song on guitar, I have to write it on piano.” And then I was just encouraged through my mentorship to just really like… No, you know this instrument you love it., so you should just work on that, and keep looking within and trying to find those answers.
But I guess in terms of the lyrical content, I think you hit it right on the nose. It’s about coming up in kind of a family that has had a lot of trauma, like with substance abuse, and cycles of abuse in many forms. It’s like, “How do you contend with that having not experienced it firsthand?” And then how do you go to break those cycles?”. You learn all these things, I think, passed down inherently. Maybe genetically, it’s kind of woo-woo. It’s like science, about these memories that you’ve seen, that I seem to have, for my family. But I am very impassioned by trying to do that. So I have an older brother, and he kind of…we took super different routes. We have had very different reactions to the same context in which we grew up. I took the very straight ahead academic road. And he struggled a lot more. He was four years older, he is four years older than me. And he was conscious to a lot more of the trauma we were going through. And so now I’m able to look back on it and be so sad for him because he experienced that. And went through it in a way that he knew what was going on, when I was still young enough to not really understand.
I am kind of forgetting the minute details, but when I think about that song, that’s kind of what comes to mind. Yeah, I was also just really trying to flex with like, big words. And like Nick’s Hold on,
Many of the lyrics allude to an introspection on memory, one of my favorite lines is “just how far does memory go/written in our genetic code? / corporeal experience shows/distances our bodies don’t know.” How has recording these points of memory affected how you look upon your experiences?
Whoa, that’s a great question. I guess to take you into the exact experience of recording. I was originally going to go home to Idaho, to record another track on the record on my childhood best friend, platonic soulmates farm, and that ended up kind of falling through due to COVID stuff. So I ended up renting an Airbnb on Whidbey Island and just going there for a whole week by myself with my gear. Being there, with nothing else going on, expecting to get all 10 tracks done. I think I had three days to do it. I kind of had to distance myself from what the songs were about, because they’re so heavy in some places. I think the healing and recontextualization of memory kind of happened once people started giving me feedback about the album. Like even you telling me right now that that line is meaningful to you is like, “Damn, where did that come from?” And I’m in a different place now. You just kind of like, take the art with you that you’ve made, and it sort of falls on your ears in a deaf way. So I don’t know, when you’re doing it all alone, you have to have this kind of professional distance from it. Or at least I did in the making of this album. I definitely still like it. The impression of the songs grew, and they’re still growing with me.
And there’s a there’s a fear of this sort of intimacy too. Because these songs are about real people, like my brothers that and my mom and my dad, I think I mentioned all those people. And that soulmate best friend, her voice is on the record, and her mom’s voice is the one at the very end, like talking about the violin or whatever. And I think I was reading a memoir by Sherman Alexie a few years ago, it’s called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me about his mom dying of cancer. And something that he writes about a lot, and his experiences specifically, have an indigenous experience of his people who he grew up with on the reservation coming after him, because he kind of talks shit, but I don’t know if he would say it that way. But like, you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but you also need to speak your truth. I do wonder… no one from my family, or that is mentioned in a way on the record, has brought it up to me. But I do wonder about my recollection of things, and how that sits with people. Because, in a way, it’s super survival oriented, you know, I had to believe these things. And I had to create this reality for myself in order to survive it.
As we mentioned, you play viola, and your vocal style and range are impressive! What does your musical background look like?
Thank you. I don’t know, I have a very…my parents weren’t musical, necessarily, but my mom’s dad was a touring musician in the 70s. He died when I was 11, but I think about him a lot. I didn’t really get to know him very well. But I think that, that’s kind of like ancestrally, maybe the closest one that I have, you know, and it probably goes back forever. But I think about him, like, kind of hear stories about him, kind of feeling throughout my childhood. And then I got started doing music when I was, I think I joined the elementary school orchestra at age 10. And there was a boy that I was infatuated with, who joined the orchestra to play viola and I was like, “How am I going to get to spend time with this kid?”. And it was in orchestra and he quit. And I kept doing it.
I think definitely the origins are like social for me. And then I was just lucky enough to go to school, a public school that had a well-funded music program. And then I went to an arts high school. That was really, really special. My graduating class was 23 people. We all got to know each other really well, I was the only violist there the whole time. Meanwhile, being involved in classical community ensembles and stuff. But this high school focused a lot on creative music that kind of was genre-less. I think there was a lot of internalization of the classical doctrine and the jazz doctrine. But I think that people kind of lived in the spectrum of that too, which is where I feel like I existed. And that’s what kind of like informed me at arts high school. And then I moved on to university of Puget Sound, where I was studying as a classical, conservatory violist, like learning excerpts for orchestra auditions and being in symphony and being very involved. And that was not the vibe. It was really tough, because I was really just kind of doing something where people were just like, “You’re good at this, you should do it.”
I knew that I wanted to do music forever, but felt like that was kind of where I was being led, so I was doing it. And then I just kind of got super fed up there and was like, “This needs to stop.” I did a junior recital there, where my viola professor told me that I should get someone else to sing my songs, because I was never gonna make money with my voice. It was pretty absurd. She meant well, you know, but she just grew up in that classical world where you’re good if you’re a classically trained opera singer, or you’re good if you’re this really virtuosic, technique-oriented violist. I blame her, but I don’t. That was like a signifier that I should move on. And that’s when I decided to go to Cornish, which was just really life changing. I had a semester and a couple months, and then COVID happened and I was doing it all online, I graduated in the spring. But through the mentorship of Dr. Eden, who I mentioned before, and another violist named Heather, I just was really set up to start listening to my intuition and what I had to say, and it didn’t take the form of like, “Here, you’re learning this repertoire.” It was like, “What are you doing?”. I think I really had to know what I wanted. And at that point, I learned that, because of experiencing something, that I didn’t want to do classical training. I don’t regret that time at all. But the viola thing, there’s still lots of unlearning to do about the pitfalls of classical music. And the gatekeeping in a male dominated, white dominated arena that is that.
And then in terms of singing, I’ve just always been singing, and over the last few years, I have been coming into learning how to use my voice in literal ways, and also self-advocacy ways, and I think that those things inform each other. Mm hmm. I’ve never been vocally trained. There’s some insecurity about that, for sure. I just knew that if I followed the authentic thing, then people would hear it and hear that. And that’s how I hoped to reach people. So absolutely. That’s the story.
Your instrument of choice is clearly the viola, and most of the record is a partnership between its plucking and your harmonies. So you mentioned it started with a boy, but how have you grown to love this instrument?
I think one answer is that I’ve tried playing guitar, and I just don’t know what to do with six strings. Like the viola has four and that’s enough. Another answer is that I have a memory of being in the music store when I was a kid with my grandfather, who so graciously helped me rent my first instrument, and he was like, “You should really like play the violin, you know, they get all the melodies, that’d be cool.” And I was like, “It’s too high, dude. It’s too high pitched, I can’t practice, it sounds bad.” I don’t know if like certain kinds of people are attracted to the viola. I guess I’ve met a lot of violists who are kind of like-minded in that. They aren’t really diva personalities. And I don’t know, maybe I’m talking myself into a hole. I hope neither of you are violinists. I have so many violinist friends who are super chill.
I think another thing is the range of my voice and the range of the viola are pretty much the same, like, the C string goes a little bit lower than I can sing. And obviously, I can’t go all the way up either. I think it’s just not a not super well known instrument. And it’s kind of just luck. And coincidence that I just so happened to pick it up. And one thing led to another and I never really quit. And then I just found these great people who structured my mentality about it differently. And now I just feel so comfortable that it’s like too hard to be new at something to switch. I think that the process of like, reclaiming something that felt like a chore to you also gives you a special kind of kinship, like practicing classical excerpts is something else.
Your song “Frankie” contains some disconcerting notes amidst the melody, as if to communicate a sense of urgency towards the listener. Would you like to share a bit more about this track and what it means to you?
When I was going to Cornish, there was this great coffee shop that I was going to. And it’s like, quite literally a story about a barista that lured me into apartment and was like, “Do you want to walk my dog?”. And I was like, “I fucking love dogs, of course.” And so we walk the dog around the block. And then he like, “I’m gonna show you how to bring the dog home.” I was like, cool. And went into his apartment, which is like, right next to the campus. And I brought the dog in. He’s like, “Take your shoes off.” And I was like, “Bro, like, I’ll do whatever you say, just so long as you don’t straight up kill me.” I mean, not to make light of what could have been a very serious situation. But yeah, he basically confessed this weird attraction to me. And I was in survival mode. And then right after it happened, I walked back home. Everything’s fine, by the way, nothing really serious happened, I was able to navigate myself out of that situation. And then I went to Carey Hall, which is the campus building where the music happens at Cornish. And I just wrote that song in like, 20 minutes there at a piano. Because my instrument wasn’t with me. I think what was the most shocking about that situation was the fact that I feel like I have a pretty good gut about people, especially about dudes, you know? And to have built this kind of “arista-and customer” relationship with this guy. And then think that this was another
“dude and dog walker” kind of professional relationship. It just really threw my world to be like, “Your gut wasn’t right about this one.” And so, I mean, luckily, it turned into a cool song, I guess. Be careful.
Several songs off the record were recorded in a variety of settings, such as an AirBnb on Whidbey Island, beyond your apartment window, and the farm. How do you feel that these environments impacted the album, and do you feel an attachment to places as part of your songwriting?
For sure, yeah. Something that I spent a long time talking to my mentor about was thinking of your recording space as an instrument. So when you’re living in a city, you know, like Chicago, there’s all of this sound. And I think it can be really frustrating to try to block that out and make your song your recording space, like perfectly isolated and clean. And we just kind of decided, “It’s the pandemic, you’re at home all the time.” It’s a really impactful thing to be able to trigger that sonic memory of, like, hearing the footsteps of the people living above you, or hearing the birds outside your window. And it just brings you right back to that place.
So it’s kind of only for me in that way, which I think that projects should be and can be only for you. And then I think the album, as a whole, is a love album, to this farm that was a place of true solace for me growing up. And I can’t even put into words how much it saved me and was given to me so readily throughout my adolescence. I think that I just had to write an album about it. And I will say, I think it’s “Robins in the Ash” that’s the track with a lot of birds. Like I visited during the pandemic, and I was just kind of singing to myself. And taking a walk with their family dog Stanley, who’s Goldendoodle, and she is amazing. You can kind of hear her collar twinkling, you can hear her running through the grass on the farm. And then I’m walking to this river that goes through their property. And you can kind of hear the water sound get, more noisy and the sound of the Redwing Blackbirds, which are one of my favorite bird calls of all time. It’s so visceral for me. And I think that it makes this album function as a time capsule. And, you know, “The Slow,” being like the slow of when your whole world gets interrupted by a deadly pandemic. And we just have to rest in this slowness together. Or else we’ll go crazy. So, I guess trying to make the best out of like a weird situation.
I’m curious about the conversation clips included in the beginning and end of the album. What was the context and why did you choose to include these moments in the record?
The first one is called “The Slow,” right? I guess the thing that has the least context around it for, I would assume like a listener, is the speaking right? Where Amy’s mom, her name is Meg, is…I was sitting at her grandfather’s piano, and I was off this walk that I was just talking to you about. And I was pumping down the harmonies that I was hearing in my head as I was singing to myself, like on this piano. And this house is so full when people are there, it’s so full of life and community. And Amy’s dad, by the way, built this house. Like, from the wood floors, like cut the trees down, milled the lumber, all of the cabinetry is by hand, this is a really special, spiritual place. I think most people could feel that, going there. And so I’m sitting down at this piano that’s been in Meg’s family for a long time, and she’s talking to me about how everyone has come home at this point to hang out and quarantine, right? And so she’s so grateful that we’re all there, for matters of like health insurance, you know? Like if we got COVID or if Amy and her sister who was there got COVID, at least they would be able to get medical care because they were in the state in which they have their health insurance, you know? And so and then at the very end, she says, “You have to find silver linings.” And that’s my Beyonce, “make lemons out of lemonade” kind of thing. And that very same voice memo that I was recording to get my ideas down is what I added to the end. When she’s just telling this really sweet story about Amy who is a violinist, and she was playing her mom’s violin that was named Charlotte and kind of commandeered that from her mom. I don’t know, I wanted to make something that was a tribute to them, because they are a second family. They are a family to me. And then of course, like all of the nature sounds, that’s all really kind of subconscious meaning to me, and I just think aesthetically, and sonically are very beautiful for others. So very selfish stuff. You know, it’s all very self-serving.