It’s around 10AM in Denver’s holiday clad Union Station, and the place is already humming with travelers passing through and freelancers working diligently amongst the couches. As I sit down with local Denver singer Kayla Rae, we reminisce over what it must’ve been like to have traveled during the heyday of trains. She takes another sip of her green tea before we dive into our thought-provoking conversation on her artistry, the importance of self-love, and the empowering feeling of working with other confident women.
So let’s start with a bit about your background. You’re from Colorado Springs- how was that environment? How do you feel like that shaped you?
It’s kind of a small town, so I had a lot of good friends around me. I went to okay schools, but I liked Colorado Springs because it wasn’t too fast, you know? It was a little more laid back. It was the perfect place I feel like for my mom because there was five of us kids and just her, so a slower city was better ‘cause she didn’t have to keep such an eye on us. She was so busy all the time anyways, so there wasn’t a whole lot of trouble we could get into! But, you know Denver was always the place to come when you were a kid on the weekends or when you’re a teenager and you want to come party and stuff, it’s always like, ‘Let’s go up to Denver, there’s way more happening up there!’ I was a really good kid, I never really got into anything crazy. My sisters were kind of wild but I’ve always been ‘the good child.’ My mom always trusted me a lot, and I think that was because of the friends I had and there really wasn’t shit to do in Colorado Springs! It’s kind of boring. So, Denver’s a lot different.
So were your mom or your friends into music?
My mom used to sing when she was younger- a lot actually- she has a huge passion for singing. But she started smoking when she was really young so she obviously doesn’t have the best voice anymore. She always played really good music when I was growing up, like Sugar Hill, The Carpenters. So she was always really musical, but no one else in my family writes music or makes music, and no one on my dad’s side does either. My dad listened to a lot of jazz and so I was always around good music, but I think I’m the only creator in the family.
So you feel like you fell into creating music naturally?
Yeah, well I think when I was a kid I was writing first as a form of expression, like poetry, and stories, and journal entries, like I always just wrote stuff. So then eventually I turned them into songs because I loved to sing. You know, I feel like I was terrible at it as a kid but I loved to do it, so then when I got older it was kind of just what became of me. It was just who I was.
And then you went somewhere to learn how to produce?
Yeah! So when I graduated high school I actually applied for Berklee College of Music in Boston. I didn’t make it in the fall semester, but I got accepted in the spring, so I started in 2010. When you get there, they give you a Macbook and it comes with all different music programs like Logic, Reason, and Garageband. You take basic classes on music production and music theory, but I was just so excited to have my own software to do it ‘cause I was always in other people’s studios, so I was like, ‘I wanna learn how to make beats and record all my own songs!’ So I would do that- I would just make them. They gave us a little midi keyboard as well and you would just hook it up to your laptop and you could just create and record through your laptop speakers, so I would just make all these horrible sounding songs. But yeah, I was just learning how to produce, how to write and record myself, which I think is mostly why I do all my own recording now, because having that control is a lot better. Then you don’t have to wait on other people’s time.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. It’s definitely easy to link with other people now with social media, but do you feel like your music is more “you” because you have all that control and ability to actually do it yourself?
I think so. It is nice getting to work with other people sometimes because you have other ideas coming into the pot, but it’s also very liberating when you’re by yourself because you don’t have opinions of other people, like, ‘Oh, well maybe you shouldn’t do this,’ you know? So yeah, you don’t have to wait on anybody else. A lot of people are so busy nowadays with their own things that it takes awhile to get stuff back. And me, when I have ideas, I want them out right away. I’m the worst person at planning and making things go accordingly because when something is just buzzing in my head when it’s good I’m just like, ‘Okay, I need to get this out now.’ So it’s really convenient that I have a studio at home and I can do that on my own because I couldn’t imagine having all these song ideas and having to wait to book studio time to do them.
Would you say you’re protective over who you let into your creative bubble?
Yeah, and it’s not even on purpose, it’s just, I need the right energy around me at this time because I don’t want anything to interrupt this creative process. You know? And I’m never too good to take anyone’s advice who would say, ‘Maybe this would sound good this way.’ So I’ll ask that of people that I trust- I’ll play music for them and ask what they think about it. But I think you have to be selective when you’re in any craft.
And your music is pretty personal.
Yeah, sometimes it gets… yeah. (laughs) It’s like therapy sometimes!
That’s good! So would you say you make music for yourself mostly?
Yeah! You know what’s crazy is that I was talking to another artist about this yesterday, I was actually working with YaSi yesterday. I invited her over and we finally got to work together, which is something we’ve wanted to do for awhile. But we were talking about that- about making music for ourselves, and that’s always how it starts. With any person who does any kind of creative expression, you do it because you need to. And I think once people start catching on to you and they start listening and you see people's reactions, you want to do it for them. You want to do it for their praise, but you have to remember that it’s not for anybody but you. And sometimes some songs don’t need to be heard. YaSi and I were talking about that yesterday too, just like that’s such a good point that you don’t always have to share things with people, and that’s how you keep it for yourself. Some people use music to heal, and that’s really what it is for me because, I mean I write everyday but I really do my best writing when I’m sad. I don’t know why that is! (laughs) And so some of that stuff people will never hear.
So when you perform live, what kind of environment do you try to cultivate?
It’s so crazy that you say that, ‘cause as artists we have the power to create an atmosphere. I just want people to feel comfortable- I want them to feel really in tune with themselves and with what I’m saying, and I feel like it’s like that when I perform. I feel like I’m respected up there which means so much, and I feel like I have people’s attention so I can pretty much say anything that I want. I feel really comfortable up there, and that’s how I want other people to feel- comfortable to kind of just get lost in the music for a second, almost like I’m in my bedroom. I close my eyes a lot when I sing, and I think it’s ‘cause I’m taken back there.
Is there anything you want your audience to take out of your music?
Inspiration to do what you want, you know. It’s so hard to get caught up in this world and what you think other people want from you, what they expect of you. I just want my music to represent me fully, and let people know that this is just who I am and it’s okay to be who you are too, it’s okay to do what you love. You know, you can make money off what you love, you can live happily doing it and it doesn’t have to be a struggle for you, you can do it and be free. And that’s what I want from people to get when they see me perform and listen to my music, like, ‘Wow, she’s just doing this for her.’
That’s awesome. So what makes you feel the most empowered?
When I’m working with other women. I feel like naturally, we all just feel like we’re so different, we all feel like no one understands us and we’re just all alone in this world, or maybe that’s just me! (laughs) So when I get around other women, I just feel like ten times myself. I just feel like I can do anything. So I like to keep good solid women around me who also have goals, and they empower me. When I feel really confident in myself I’m empowered, when I feel sexy I’m empowered, and I get all that from [working with] other women. Which is crazy.
So how do you feel about breaking into the music industry as a woman?
I feel like it’s kind of hard because most of the workers in the music [industry] are men. You know, the producers and the engineers, and sometimes they get the wrong ideas when you just wanna work. Like, ‘Nah I just wanna get my shit done!’ But I do think this is a good time for women because I feel like there’s so many women doing so much right now. You have so many women in power: Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, even women on the come up like Tori Kelly, Kehlani, just all these great women in music. I feel like it’s probably going to be a little easier now, you just have to remember to be yourself and not try to be like anybody else.
Yeah, I feel like Sza cracked this huge gate of vulnerability.
Hell yeah, Sza’s amazing. Just so many women doing great things and it makes me so proud, because, I was actually talking to my girlfriend about this, and she was like, ‘You know, the women in this city are doing exactly what the women everywhere else are doing. And who knows what the women in other cities are doing and how they’re coming together and holding each other down and lifting each other up.’ It’s just, it’s a women’s world, I don’t care what anybody else says! (laughs)
What female artists do you most look up to?
All of them, oh my gosh. I really, really love Sade. I think she’s amazing and I used to listen to her a lot when I was younger. I took so much from Aaliyah when I was a kid, like I modeled everything after her it was crazy. And still to this day I watch all of her stuff and it just never gets old for me. I just love how she was so cool, just naturally cool. It seemed like she didn’t have to try, she seemed so sweet. Her music was kinda gangsta, but not really, she was sweet over her music so it was a nice balance and I really loved that about her. Now, I really look up to Rihanna, I think she’s amazing. As a woman in music, in fashion and in business. And she’s been doing this for so long. I really look up to Beyoncé, I love her so, so much. (pauses to think) There’s so many. I think Sza is incredible, I think she is such a good storyteller, you know what I mean? She’s not afraid to write about what she’s been through and it sounds like these crazy-ass stories that you get lost in but you’re also like, ‘Me too, I’ve kind of been through that!’
Outside of the glory and fame of celebrity and things you can get caught up with, where do you really see your music going?
I just want to get a good amount of people who really like it all over the world who I can come to and perform it for. When I think about fame, and the people who have that, I just think about how unhappy they might be, like how much it must to be keep up with always being talked about or people always trying to find you and how that must really interrupt your peace of mind. I don’t want that, it just sounds painful. I just want people who really like my music and who are down to buy it and down to listen to it, and if I can make a living off of just traveling and performing and making music that’s really all I wanna do. The reality is we have to pay to live, and I think you just have to find something you like to do that helps you do that, that keeps you here, that keeps you fed, that keeps you clothed. If you’re good at something and you love to do it then make that the way that you live. I just wanna take care of my family with music and meet a lot of new people and go to a lot of different places. I don’t want all that extra shit! People kill themselves because they’re so caught up in the pressure and I think we live in that world now unfortunately where everyone is being looked at and there’s this pressure to be perfect and to have all your shit together, and it’s like no, nobody is like that in real life. It’s not even about all the attention, like sometimes it’s nice but if that’s all that you’re after, you’re just going to be so unhappy. I think about the things that make me happy, and it’s not that.
How do you stay so grounded? Have you always been this level-headed?
Well, one, my mom would slap the shit out of me if I ever came home trying to be bougie! But I just think, like, it is hard and sometimes I get caught up in it. I get caught up in what people think of me or what they’re gonna think of my next song. I think you just have to remind yourself, ‘Why do I do this? Why do I love this?’ I think it’s an internal thing and obviously the people you keep around you, too. No one in my life treats me as if I’m better than anybody else. None of us should treat anybody like that- we’re all equals. So I think it’s definitely keeping good people around you and loving yourself that is really important. If you don’t love yourself, you’re going to try to find all that from other people. So yeah, just really being comfortable with who you are. I feel like there’s so much to live up to. I don’t want my daughters or my nieces to feel like they have to be something unreal.
If you had a daughter, how would you try to guide her away from that pressure?
I would really just press self-love, because I feel like that’s really where it comes from, is inside. I notice that at times when I don’t feel good about myself, that’s when I try to do more with my appearance or I try to be extra on social media because I feel like I need people to tell me I’m doing okay. But that never fulfills me completely, you know. So I would really just teach her to love herself, and you’re different, and you’re unique, and that’s okay. You’re going to make decisions that people aren’t going to agree with, and that’s okay. I think in doing that you learn to appreciate who you are.
All photos per the author. All videos and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.