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Versus Issue Cover Feature: Kaytranada

Everybody wants a piece

Words by Mitch Parker
The mood before Kaytranada arrived on set for our cover shoot was tense. There was a mild panic running through our small team and the general consensus was that it could go one of two ways: totally fine or excruciatingly bad. The idea that it could be great or even amazing had already been written off. This mood was the result of months of highs and lows as we worked to make this feature happen. The Kaytranada cover story was on (“He’d love to!”), then off (“He’s burnt out, sorry!”), then on again (“OK, but…”). He was in the country touring his debut album 99.9% and we had just two hours to get everything we needed.

I’d heard conflicting reports about Kaytranada from both media and acquaintances who had met him. Some called him the nicest guy in music while others called him distant and rude. The description that came up the most though was “shy”.

At first, the man who arrived at our studio fitted that description. Then he made his way through the room, a room full of people who knew each other but who he didn’t know, politely saying hello to everyone. Each person was greeted with a smile and a “Hi, I’m Kevin.” The mood recalibrated immediately; the tension was gone.

Kevin had brought his own clothes with him for the shoot. Earlier, his team had asked us not to bother with styling a wardrobe, as he’d be more comfortable in his own. This was another source of our earlier described nerves—it was a cover shoot after all, and not having a styled shoot is almost unheard of. But as Kevin unveiled what he had brought along, he chatted excitedly with our stylist, discussing what of his could work with ours. All our fears had been unwarranted. There was no diva, only a collaborator.

After wrapping the photoshoot, Kevin and I sat down to talk. We were already up to our two-hour limit but he happily stayed longer. We ended up sitting and talking on crappy $8 plastic stools outside the studio for over half an hour. 2016 has been a huge year for both Kaytranada and Kevin, and this was the basis of most of our conversation.

 

A few years ago, Kaytranada was already wildly successful. When Kevin was a teenager, his younger brother had shown him music production software Fruity Loops. He became obsessed with it and developed in to something of a production prodigy. Uploading his remixes to Soundcloud meant he quickly found a following. From there his career trajectory skyrocketed.

His remix of Janet Jackson’s ‘If’ had gone viral. He was touring internationally. He was opening for Madonna in stadiums. But it wasn’t what he wanted. “I didn’t want to be that kind of artist who just tours and tours and tours. I say this without judgement — there are so many artists out there who are touring without any album out, any mixtape out. And to me I just think, ‘what’s the point?’”

Unable to face touring anymore, he refused to book shows. “I guess people from my team just wanted me to make money touring. It didn’t feel right under my skin that I was just doing it for industry people.” He retreated to his studio, the basement of his family home in suburban Montreal, to start working on 99.9%.

Released in May this year, his debut album was an immediate hit with both listeners and the music press. With an album under his belt, people started giving him credit for what he considers the right reasons, “It’s out there so they take me more seriously now. I see the progress of myself as an artist where it’s starting to happen. It’s less Kaytranada the producer and more Kaytranada
the artist. I’m happy about that.”

The irony of that success is that a hit record has to be toured. Although more comfortable with touring now than before: “It feels better, there’s more of a reason why I’m touring now,” it’s still quite obviously his least favourite aspect of being Kaytranada. “I don’t get inspiration on the road, even if I’m in a studio somewhere. It just doesn’t come out. The fact that I’m on tour is stopping
me again from doing what I want to do, which is be in my studio.”

There were two reasons I requested to be the writer on this story. Firstly and mostly obviously is that I am a fan of Kaytranada and his music. Secondly is on a more personal level.

As if releasing a debut album isn’t enough of an achievement, Kaytranada also marked a significant personal milestone this year. Last April in an interview with The Fader he came out publically as gay. I remember reading the article at the time and being completely enamoured. Having come out myself only one year earlier I was excited to have a shared experience with someone I already respected. “To come out in the article was more something I wanted to do for myself. And I knew it was something I wanted to do for up- and-coming artists, especially in the hip-hop world.”

As we begin to talk about coming out, we swap stories and find common ground. While Kevin grew up in a Haitian immigrant household in Canada I grew up in rural Australia, both places where being gay is not common and conservatism rules. As I ask Kevin questions about his family’s response to coming out, almost forgetting we were meant to be in an interview, he politely and kindly asks me questions about my own.

While we’re talking I can see that even months later he still feels the euphoria that comes from having a burden-free mind. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who’s ever come out: the excruciating build up (in both of our cases up until our mid-20s) to finally feeling comfortable with yourself.

However; while coming out might have changed the world for Kevin, it’s yet to affect Kaytranada. “Being gay doesn’t have to be in the mix of me being an artist. It’s more my personal life.” While he’s still figuring out exactly what role his sexuality will play in his creative career, others wanted more immediate action. “I remember seeing comments about the ‘You’re the One’ video that recently came out. It was about a straight couple and some gay people were pissed. I’m not going to rant about it but this is the kind of pressure I get sometimes about ‘why doesn’t he do it this way because he’s gay?’ I just want to be myself.” It’s a balance many people struggle with: your obligation to the gay community and your obligation to yourself. “Maybe one day I’ll make something about being gay that’ll be more important than one music video.”

Finding your way as a gay person can be a daunting process. After all the stresses of coming out are over, the freedom of acting on your words can be intimidating. For me, the first time in a gay bar, or using dating apps, or even just flirting with guys in general was terrifying. I can’t even imagine how intimidating it would be to navigate an established scene like gay dating when you’re a world-renowned producer. “When I confirmed to myself I was gay, I was like oh shit what do I do now? How do I be gay? What are the steps to start dating guys? And for me it was a big stress because I was already Kaytranada; some people knew who I was.”

These days it’s a little easier for Kevin; he sheepishly admits that he met a nice guy online who didn’t know about his relative fame. Seven months later, they’re still together and he even brought him on tour. “He’s the best,” Kevin says with a smile so sincere he’s beaming.

When we eventually realise that we can’t talk forever we say goodbye, hug, and I wish him good luck for that evening’s show.

That night is Kaytranada’s second sold out Melbourne show. The crowd is eager, drunk, high, and happy. A guy behind me climbs up and stands on a bar table twice, only to be removed by security both times. The set gives the audience everything they want, while still having a few more unconventional choices to keep Kaytranada himself interested. During some in-between moments when the music was darker and less familiar, the crowd cooled from a boil to a simmer. They were still following, but eager for the highest highs to return. They want all sugar, no medicine.

Fittingly, the track that started it all for Kaytranada comes last in his set. When he drops his infamous Janet Jackson remix, I expect the crowd to go insane. The reaction is large but less than expected; everyone’s too busy grabbing their phones and pressing record.

On stage, Kaytranada is a man at work. You can tell he wants everything he does to be done well. You don’t get this far by not caring. While most of the time he’s busy with equipment, after a few moments he lets the vibe take over and throws down some moves to the crowd’s delight. From the back, I spot the same smile I saw earlier in the day, remembering the way it sits in the corner of his mouth. He might dislike touring but it’s obvious he loves music.

When the show finishes, the sweaty crowd files out of the basement venue and upstairs to the street’s fresh air. I overhear a couple of girls talking about the fun they had and how much their friend who missed out on tickets would have enjoyed it. “I’m surprised they didn’t add a third show, I think
it would have sold” one says to the other, who nods. I think she’s right; it probably would have sold, but I can’t stop thinking about how much Kevin would dislike the idea. Earlier in the day, he told me that his ideal is one show per city, “less is more”.

After this run of sold-out Australian and New Zealand dates Kaytranada has a couple more 99.9% shows before his touring schedule is blank for a while. “I feel like my time is shared with so many people out there, so now it’s going to be my time to relax. I can’t wait. For me I can’t wait to go back to my house and to work.” This means album number two and some collaborative projects he’s been wanting to work on. Whether those projects have anything to do with recent pictures of him in the studio with Andre 3000 he won’t be drawn on.

Fine or bad, something or nothing—these are the options we thought we’d end up with from Kaytranada. In the end we got neither. Instead, we were lucky enough to get a little piece of Kaytranada; something so many people want.

As a performer, he’s expected to bare his soul to us and play the hits on demand; in his private life, he’s navigating his way through a new reality as an openly gay man. He’s always been quite clear about what he’d rather be doing: making music in the studio. Shouldn’t that be enough for us?

This feature originally appeared in the Versus issue, available here.

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