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Photography Sweatmother

aya is making music that resists mass market queerness

The London-based producer talks her debut album im hole, late-night voice notes, and K-holes

It’s the 2021 edition of Unsound festival and aya (real name Aya Sinclair) is beginning her set. Lit dimly against red light, she emerges from the curtain in a black hoodie that wraps ghoulishly around her face. A discordant hum shudders through the speakers as she stretches and contorts her body. “Me, more, me, more, me, more. Red or blue, me, more, red or blue, red or blue. Red shoes or blue shoes! Red shoes or blue shoes!” she begins, her voice pitched to uncanny proportions. The sonic equivalent of a five-in-the-morning afters, it’s intentionally lucid, sliding westwards from reality and back again. Or, as aya describes it, “intense neurodivergent moments where everything feels like it’s coming apart”. 

The Manchester-born producer, formerly known as LOFT, makes music that feels stuck on the edge of pleasure and discomfort. On her debut album im hole, we see this manifest in experimental electronics, fragmented sounds and sentences that hover between various altered states. This tension can be felt in both the music and lyrics. “I might just slip/ I might just lilter over the edge/ I might just clip the ledge/ The edge on my way down,” she offers on “what if i should fall asleep and slipp under”. Set against a stuttering bassline, she later asserts: “If I were one or the other/I could smother half of myself/ Mother myself for a laugh to a sickening health.”

Existing in the gap between binaries, the product of pingers and parties and ketted nights out, the music is forever twisting and turning. It weaves together disparate thoughts, voice notes, and late night musings, into a cohesive whole – or ‘hole’. Within these personal vignettes, aya grapples with feelings of transformation and loss. But there’s a sense of pushing forward too. As aya asserts in the opening track: “Straighten out your shoulders, love/ Push your head up/ And don’t forget to breathe.”

I feel like ‘im hole’ can be interpreted in so many different ways. Where does the name come from?

aya: The hole is very much voids, holes. It’s depression, it’s sex. It’s all of those things. So it was always trying to find a way of not just calling it ‘hole’. And playing around with different ideas. When I finished the record in Berlin, it was the night that we’d finished all the mixdowns. I went over to John Twells’ place and played it for Twells, Ziúr, Jake Muir, and Josh from Space Afrika. We all sat around afterwards like, ‘I need to come up with a name for this’. There was a moment where Ziúr looks at me all cheeky like, ‘I’ve got it! Why don’t you just call it... Holly Herndon?!’. I had this convoluted thing where I wanted to call it M3: A HOLE 2019, and then Ziúr was like, ‘no that sounds like Grimes’ fucking baby. And then Twells was like, ‘what if simply: im hole’. I’m baby, I’m hole.

I was reading Zeros and Ones by Sadie Plant while working on the record. In that she talks about the idea of the needle passing through the hole and uses this image in lots of different ways, like pulling ideas together but also in a sexual politics kind of way. And this idea of the hole being a site of potential rather than an emptiness is actually really nice. A site that’s brimming with potential. 

And then in her writing, you feel her pulling the needle through the hole and weaving all of these ideas together. I think, with the album being really disparate, all of that’s happening the whole time. There’s all of these different elements but it’s always being sewn back together. Little stems from certain tracks will come back in other tunes and these ideas are being constantly pulled back together.

The theme of stitching and weaving surfaces a lot across the album. Where does that come from? 

aya: There’s a lot of stuff about being sewn up and being sewn into things, like feeling like you’re stuck at the edge of something and trying to push out of it – which I think comes from this mass market understanding of queerness. Or sewing yourself into a corner. But there’s also a lot of things about the seams splitting and it being this psychotic break and intense neurodivergent moments where everything feels like it’s coming apart. It’s finding yourself in situations where your expectations are being met, and then immediately broken apart. And I feel that’s happening sonically all the time. What’s happening lyrically is being represented sonically, which I’m super happy about.

You can really feel that tension when listening to it. It’s like, there’s these binaries that are continuously being interrogated and obliterated.

aya: Absolutely. Me and my partner have an ongoing joke phrase that we keep coming back to, which is, ‘maybe we should complicate our understanding of this’, rather than having these very strict hardline understanding of things – which is something that I get really upset with online politics. So often, when it’s like, ‘oh fuck this person, they're a piece of shit’. It’s like, maybe let’s have a slightly more complicated understanding of what’s going on here. Like, maybe things can be not just good or bad. Maybe things can be messy. I think that’s really important.

The lyrics have such a poetic quality to them. How do you go about approaching the writing process?

aya: Creating friction between things is really useful. Again, it’s a slightly more complicated understanding of things. There’s a lot of automatic immediate writing that happens that then gets condensed down and refined. I’ll have a piece of music that comes from the same kind of magical kind of space, the same emotional space. Like, this is hot in the same way. Or these are sticky in the same way. Or there’s something gloopy or moist about both of these things. And so it makes sense to develop them in tandem. So then I would record a voice note on my phone and bring that into Ableton, and then I’m working on the instrumental and fitting that around it.

“There’s a lot of stuff about being sewn up and being sewn into things, like feeling like you’re stuck at the edge of something and trying to push out of it – which I think comes from this mass market understanding of queerness” – aya

Weaving all those disparate mindworms together in one cohesive whole must’ve been hard.

aya: That’s the stitching. It starts with feeling it together, and then it’s the attacking stitch, and then all of the seams come together. And it’s this finished product. All of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got this little shoulder bag that I’ve made out of depression’.

There’s this bit in “Emley lights us moor” where you’re reading out a phone note that says, ‘the vibe hath changed’. What’s the story behind that?

aya: Me and Iceboy (Violet) would meet up at my flat during lockdown when we were really not supposed to. In the video for "Emily lights us moor", that track is all about us making a piece of music out of the stuff that we were talking about and the room that we’re in, because it was always meeting up together and being like, ‘this nasty-looking guy looked at me like this today’. That’s what the lyrics are about for both of us, these nasty kind of dysphoric experiences. Then finding solace in each other’s company and trying to discuss this stuff while also taking absolute rails of K, and just slowly becoming incomprehensible, and then passing over into the kind of hallucinogenic, completely dissociated states.

How would you describe your state of mind while making the album?

aya: I started all of it when I was still living in my old flat in Manchester – on the eighth floor. It’s an old council flat, I loved it. I had got to the point of having seven or eight tunes that told me what the parameters were. Then I moved down here with my partner, got a studio, which I was sharing with Tom Lea from Local Action, and that became our little lockdown mini party space, where we just sit in and drink and play tunes. It was the ultimate way to let off steam.

The switch between these two spaces – the kind of completely free associative, insane K hole land of my old flat and then moving to the studio, where it was cold as fuck. It was December and single pane windows, but they don't even close properly. It pushes you into that slightly less cosy space. It’s like, you’re here to finish the thing. I pretty much exactly finished the record in the time that I had left there. Then we lost that studio because it’s been repossessed.

How different would you say aya is from LOFT? 

aya: I think the whole thing about getting rid of LOFT was, as a name, that was a shortening of an older name that I’ve had since I was 16. And it just ceased to mean anything to me anymore. I think there was something about the identity of that music and myself – how I identify myself has completely changed since then. There was this kind of break where it was like, this doesn't mean anything to me anymore, I need to move onto something.

Musically, it does feel really different. The music that I’m making now is so much more personal and so much more honestly personal. I’m really putting myself on show with this record in a big way. 

Personal in what sort of way? 

aya: The lyrical content is dressed up in maybe slightly abstracted language, but the actual subject matter is stuff that I would find very difficult to talk about. Here is all of the stuff that makes me tick that sits close to my heart is all being recombined. This is just me in 39 minutes and 14 seconds.

The album comes with an accompanying book. What was the intention behind this?

aya: It’s a physical manifestation of the record. I’ve always been insane about certain ontologies of sound. The way that we choose to package and present them has to be represented in the music. The thing that physically represents the album has to just be the lyrics. That’s what makes sense to me. It's this idea of it being a kind of document. It’s like a diary.

im hole is out now via Hyperdub