Willow Kayne: “This record was me hitting back to the doubters – it’s absolute revenge”

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. With a fearless debut EP – and, er, the help of a "scentologist" – the Bristol artist aims to make their upcoming slate of live gigs a night to remember.

Your opinion don’t mean none ‘cause we don’t care… We don’t give a fuck, wish you luck with your judgement”, is how Willow Kayne opens her debut EP, ‘Playground Antics’. That record, which NME described as a “pick’n’mix approach to pop”, is a hyperactive blend of garage, punk, jungle and the most consistent thing about it, is Kayne’s self-belief. It’s a perfect introduction, and the type of fuck-the-world mindset you wish all emerging artists had the confidence to vocalise

Kayne first started experimenting with ambient beats and sparse bedroom ballads in 2018, when their new computer came equipped with music-making software GarageBand. A torrented version of Logic followed, leading to a series of glitching pop tracks with vocals recorded using entry-level headphones. “I didn’t put much effort in,” Kayne tells NME over Zoom. “I always just saw it as a hobby. My sister does classical music and that seemed like a scary world with all the theory involved”, but this genre-splicing world felt like an exciting playground where she could concoct her own rules.

She uploaded the tracks to SoundCloud with the confidence that comes from knowing that “no-one’s going to hear it anyway”, but Kayne was soon “blessed” by the algorithm and was invited to play shows in London alongside similar experimental underground artists. ‘Gibberish’ came next, a banging hip-hop track featuring a made-up nonsense language, that sets out her stall: “when I chat shit / the tracks bang”. Kayne says that moment “really opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. I was scared about putting it out because it was so different but a lot of people got it.”

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Willow Kayne
Credit: Jack Bridgland

The bassy funk of ‘Two-Seater’ announced her signing to Sony Music in April 2021 before the fearless clap-back of ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ followed in July. In September, she picked up the second ever Rising Star Award at the Ivor Novello Awards (previous winners and nominees include Mysie and Holly Humberstone) and won the chance to work with disco don Nile Rodgers. “I’m just constantly sending him music. He’s so supportive.” They’re heading into the studio together as soon as he’s back in the country.

That same month Kayne was featured on the soundtrack football video game FIFA 22 – a slot many rising acts covet – alongside the likes of Glass Animals, Little Simz and Sam Fender. “I got bombarded by kids saying my song [‘Two-Seater’] was shit,” Kayne told NME last year. “But I’m the one on the soundtrack so…”

It’s that energy she used to fuel ‘Playground Antics’, a project she gleefully describes as “absolute revenge”. She was “a weird kid, always in my own little world but I knew that one day I’d do something sick. I could just feel it in my bones. This record was me hitting back at all the people who told me I couldn’t do it”.

‘Playground Antics’ was inspired by early ‘00s alternative artists like Gorillaz, MIA, Santigold and Arcade Fire but curated by someone who’s grown up incredibly online. When talk turns to genre, Kayne sighs: “This bloody question. I don’t think I know, I don’t think anyone else knows and I think that’s alright”, she says.

That same defiant attitude is scrawled throughout the lyrics of ‘Playground Antics’. “All of this hate keep on coming / I must be pretty or something,” she snarls on the electro-punk thrash of ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’, a track written in response to the toxic comments section beneath her music. “I don’t even know many of their names / but I know that they all know mine”, she sings on the grunge-pop anthem ‘Jealous’.

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“If I’m not feeling great, I want to make music that makes me feel invincible. I don’t want to push this narrative that I don’t ever feel sad – of course I do – but my way of dealing with that is to act as confident as possible. It’s important for people to feel like they can tell others to fuck off”, she says. “It’s something people my age definitely need to do more.”

On Thursday (Feb 17), Kayne will play her first-ever headline gigs in London and Bristol. It’s something she describes as “a dream” and she can’t wait to find out “what my fanbase even looks like”. She’s also been working with a “scentologist” to make a series of smells that will be released into the room to match the vibe of the song – the aromas, for now, remain a secret. “In the future, if you smell something similar, you’ll be taken back to that exact moment in my show”, Kayne says.

This multi-sensory approach was inspired by an accident Kayne had when she was 15 that “left me blind in one eye and for a while, I had to be in complete darkness. Because of that, all my other senses went crazy and I want to try and explore that with my art.” So what colour does her new music conjure? “The new project is very orange. It’s different, but it’s me and I’ve never felt this ‘me’ in my life. I’m feeling really, really confident about it”, she says. But would you really expect anything else from Willow Kayne?

Willow Kayne’s debut EP ‘Playground Antics’ is out now

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