The lore of Woodstock, New York is a magical and ever-intriguing thing. Situated 43 miles northwest of where the culture-defining music festival of the same name took place in August 1969, it is in this mountain town where a liberal, hippy spirit lives on through a radical population of musicians and like-minded creatives. Over several decades, the area has become a haven for collaboration; the world-renowned Bearsville Studio is where the late Jeff Buckley recorded 1994’s seminal ‘Grace’, and the space has also played host to the likes of R.E.M, The Pretenders, and The Isley Brothers, among others.
For singer-songwriter Jayla Kai, it is imperative that her locale’s pro-community ethos remains alive and well. When she takes NME on a (virtual) tour of the winding hills around her family home on a particularly blustery morning, it doesn’t take long for the 18-year-old to explain how her story exists adjacent to those who she grew up with. “This is a place where people are so open to connection that they’ll take you to their studio, just because you started talking to them in the street,” she says.
Over the past five years, Jayla has embraced every single opportunity that this freedom has afforded her. At the age of 11, she learned how to play the guitar and bass, and started writing the songs for her recent debut EP, ‘Epitome’, at 15. A single term at the Woodstock campus of the Paul Green Rock Academy – an outgrowth of the institution that inspired the iconic 2003 comedy School Of Rock – followed, before her bass teacher introduced her to local producer Manuel Quintana. At first, she was concerned that her “young and non-threatening presence” would hinder her ability to relate with Quintana, but she would be proved wrong: he was instantly onboard with Jayla’s youthful and searingly honest alt-rock vision.
“The legacy surrounding Woodstock is definitely a huge part of both my music and my everyday life,” she says, excitable and inquisitive. “But even more present than that are the mentors that have shared whatever access they have with me. It’s really easy to take the support for granted – but I can’t wait to get to the stage where I’m going to be the one amplifying other artists.”
Jayla’s skill is in making even the most specific lyrics relatable: “I’m sorry, I swear I meant to paint the sky/But your face fits so much better there”, she sings of the intensity of a first relationship on ‘I Can’t Lie’, an emotionally wise, lo-fi indie tune that recalls the unguarded nature of Snail Mail or Soccer Mommy. It’s this willingness to be so brazen and vulnerable on record that has led her down unexpected avenues. When Four Tet – born Kieran Hebden – first heard Jayla’s observational, slyly funny songwriting through a mutual connection, he felt compelled to get in touch. It wouldn’t be long before she plucked up the courage to ask the London-born dance legend (who has lived near her for close to a decade) out for lunch.
This meeting would turn out to be pivotal for Jayla. When Hebden asked her what she wanted to achieve out of her career, she came to a firm conclusion. “Above all else, I identify as a songwriter, so I want to develop myself as a performer,” she reiterates today. “Even if I could push a fame button right this second, I would not go there yet.”
She says that the individualist attitude that Hebden has carried through a two-decade-long career inspired her to create all of the assets (music videos, single artwork et cetera) for ‘Epitome’, all while juggling a tech internship. He was also the first person that understood how Jayla has had to grow up quickly; she was homeschooled throughout her teenage years, and the lack of socialisation – with the exception of extracurricular dance and art classes – meant that she “didn’t have a lot of things that [she] wanted despite the number of resources around [her].” She elaborates: “It’s not that I never had friends – there was just no best friend, no real bandmate. I haven’t really been in many circles outside of music.”
Living in Woodstock doesn’t exactly help in that regard. But with her college studies ahead of her, Jayla is looking towards connecting with “other young adults who are really rooted in what they’re doing”. Before then, however, she wants to pay forward everything she has learned from her support network before she moves away from home, starting with teaching aspiring bassists how to play Sleater-Kinney songs.
She concludes that the EP is a product of the come-what-may mindset that Hebden has helped her to develop. On the wistful and pretty ‘Anthropology’, she sings of how she doesn’t have “faith that there’s some man above”. In context, the lyric came from a realisation that the collective generosity of the place where she was born has put her on the right path in life.
“I am critical of religion in my music because I feel like I instead exhibit a lot of faith in people, rather than cosmic purposes,” she says, chuckling softly. “My community is guiding me towards wherever I may end up, and to be able to recognise that at this stage in my life is so significant – it’s a gift.”
Jayla Kai’s ‘Epitome’ EP is out now via Everybody’s Music