There’s an endearing modesty to 24-year-old Liyah Knight when she speaks, a characteristic often hit or miss with fresh-faced artists, accompanying only those that don’t see music as just a means to an end, but as an avenue for self-discovery and self-work. In this process and through her art, not only does Knight represent the psyche of a lot of kids in their 20’s, but she also cavorts around the idea of the popularized ‘genreless artist’, dipping not only into R&B but also pop and folk.
Her EP Nesting, a victorious 6-track release, has been two years in the making. And as it’s title suggests, inspired by the famed ‘Russian Nesting Doll’, explores the plurality of a person’s layers. It’s the first major release for the Sydney artist, having only liberated her debut single ‘Mine’ a measly 3 months ago, however, is filled to the brim with thoughtful, provoking lyricism, in the process skittering between complex ideas of self-love, belonging, and dominantly, self-reflection.
In celebration of the launch, we got to chat to the self-examining, self-described ‘dork’ to get the ins-and-out of Nesting, how the process pulled her closer to finding her truest self, and how music connects her to her own vulnerabilities.
Congratulations on all of your releases so far, it’s only been about 3 months since your first release?
Yeah, it’s been about one song a month.
What’s the reception been like?
Yeah, I think it’s been good. Essentially anyone saying that they resonate with the song, I’m stoked about! So yeah, it’s been amazing to see the support locally.
So your EP Nesting, it’s almost like a coming-of-age story, someone trying to figure out themselves and their place in the world, which I think a lot of people in their 20’s can probably relate to. What informed the EP, or what was the inspiration behind it?
So Nesting, the idea of it is that we have multiple layers to our identity, and I think it was a journey to stripping back all of those layers, to the person you are for other people whether that’s in relationships or within society. And I guess just getting to a place where you just know what’s underneath everything. So it was definitely a coming-of-age thing. I don’t think I’ve really finished growing up [laughs], but yeah it was a really cool experience.
It was 2 years ago that you started making it. What was it that prompted you a couple of years ago to start making the EP?
So I’ve always written poems and shit, but I’ve never really done anything with them, they just stayed there. I actually played basketball overseas for a few years when I was in college and something just didn’t hit as much as it did to sit down and write a poem, it felt so much more fulfilling to me. So I came home with no idea what I was gonna do. I was studying Journalism, so I worked in Journalism for two years, and eventually, I just bit the bullet and I was like, “Why don’t I write music, why wouldn’t I take a chance”. So I went to TAFE for a year to do sound production, because I was like, if I want to make music with people I wanted to understand how it worked and I wanted to be able to communicate that. Then Nesting just kind of came about as I was finding myself with making music, and then once we started putting it together —it’s almost like Frankenstein putting it together — we were like, “That’s just what it is”. So I definitely didn’t go in with any intention of this is exactly what it’s going to say.
Does the title ‘Nesting’ have any meaning behind it?
Yeah, so Babushka dolls, I’m very visual and I just like the idea of unstacking and reassembling things and I think that’s what we do with our identity over and over again, we just pull layers apart. And it sounds a lot better than ‘onion’ that works in the same way. But yeah, that was the kind of visual representation of what I felt like the EP meant.
What would you say your favourite song off of the EP is?
It changes on my mood, today it’s ‘Energy’. I think ‘Energy’ was the turning point for me where I just kind of felt like I was talking to myself. I went into the session with Cyrus [Villenueva] and I was like, “I wanna write a love song but I want it to be to myself”, and yeah, that’s essentially what ‘Energy’ is, it’s like talking about that whole thing where it doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or who you’re around, you’re never going to be alone because you’ve always got yourself. That can be scary and daunting because you know you have to hold yourself accountable and that’s something I also learned during this process, to hold yourself accountable and the responsibility. You have to really get to that core and do all that work.
After 2 years of working on the EP, do you still connect with all of your songs or have you grown past some of them?
I probably don’t do as much of that ‘Tipsy’ business, I’m more on the self-worth path, so not really getting crazy. But I don’t think it’s aged because it’s still like a chapter. I don’t think any of them have really aged, because I can vividly recall all the experiences. ‘Mine’ is one of those nerve-hitting ones, but that’s where it was at that time.
You started writing from an early age to express yourself, according to your bio’s across the internet, what kind of things were you writing back then?
I was just a dork, I was such a dork, I would just sit in the library and write to myself. I’d literally have a conversation with myself in a book, fucking weird. I did that but then I’d write down, you know, a list of goals and shit. Some of them were weird, one of them was like, “One day I’m gonna share my words with the world”, and it didn’t say how or anything, it didn’t say it through music or anything. But I also wrote a bunch of poems, I used to read a lot of poetry, so yeah, just writing and things, thinking, ‘Yeah, that slaps,’ but not doing anything with it, because I didn’t know what to do.
Did you ever try and turn any of them into songs?
Not back then, but in college, I started playing around with Garageband, just a very makeshift situation, but I had one of my teammates that sang, and it was so funny cause they were all these super personal poems and I was like “Hey, can you sing this for me, can you sing my life story?” cause I just didn’t have the balls to try it myself. So that would have been when I was 19, and I’m 24 now. But actually singing, I probably started that two or three years ago, like I recorded myself singing, and I wasn’t stoked about it but thought we can work on it.
So going back a few years, what was life like growing up?
So I played a lot of basketball as a kid. I was a late bloomer, I started playing basketball when I was like 14, and then by like 16/17 I was playing Junior Australia, which was pretty sick. So that consumed a lot of time and outside of that, school was always first, ethnic parents bro. I was always setting really high standards for myself that came through my mum, she’s very much about that, she’s like if you’re capable of doing it then why don’t you do it.
So that was kind of the mentality that I had, it’s always just been mum and I. ‘Mine’ was actually about my Dad, cause my parents divorced when I was 1, because of that house arrangement, it wasn’t ideal or healthy. I used to see him once a fortnight until I was 14 and then I got to choose and I was like ‘Hmm yeah, I don’t really need that’. But we just had a really interesting relationship where he’d actually only seen half of a basketball game before, like my whole time playing. That’s like on that song ‘Mine’ where it says, Your last name on my jersey/ Guess it’s mine now. It’s that whole thing of like you haven’t been a part of my life but you’re still a part of my life and I have to accept that.
Music just kinda crosses borders and it’s like this is no longer just a song, this is very personal, and if I can share that, then I hope it can encourage other people too. It can feel very alienating when it feels like you’re the only one going through something, especially when you’re a kid. I think it’s the fear of sharing that vulnerable side of yourself and you just keep all of those layers on, then you’re just going to be boiling, and you’re never gonna close that distance between your truest self and other people. Nesting was the journey of closing that gap.
Music was that link to those vulnerable feelings for you?
Well it’s been like, I know these feelings are here and I know I feel vulnerable but Imma just suppress that shit, but I guess music, it’s the most fitting way that I’ve found to express it. I’ve found in sport, it kinda goes against the grain and this is something in sport that we’re working on at the moment, you’re supposed to be tough, you’re supposed to be strong, to be emotional, and I came across it so many times when I was in college in my final year. I had a mental breakdown and you know, you feel like you’ve failed because you’re supposed to be this strong, relentless athlete and it was just really hard to express that, and I was like, “Damn, it shouldn’t be this hard to be real about all of this kind of stuff”. So music is probably like one way I’ve found I can still be strong, I’m sure you can do it everywhere but it’s probably the most accepted realm to do it. You can be strong but you can also be vulnerable at the same time, and that’s like art in itself, it’s okay, it’s an accepted thing.
Yeah, it’s interesting that art seems to be one of the only realms where you can be really emotional and people completely accept that, but I guess that’s just been the space that’s been created.
Yeah, isn’t it funny how it lives so long. Art is one of those things that just lives forever. There’s music that we listen to from the beginning of time and we’re like, “Wow, we resonate with that and it’s stuck around that long cause we care, and emotions and connecting with people is priceless, and it’s strong, and it can withstand anything you throw at it”. Which is dope.
So, music has kind of been the beginning of a journey?
Yeah, yeah, definitely! I had a couple of writer’s blocks the past couple of months where I felt like I was writing the same story over and over again. You know, it was about heartbreak and I was like, “Oh God, this is so one dimensional”, but I realized that I was kind of taking advantage of music, where I was just making it but I wasn’t having a conversation with myself and actually dealing with anything. So I wouldn’t say music is therapy, you know it is to a degree, but also self-work has to work outside of music because if you’re only using music as self-work it’s lik, you’re just gonna be in the little echochamber by yourself. Sometimes there’s going to be conversations you need to have with yourself outside of music and with other people, even if you need to seek help or whatever it is. So yeah, I think that’s probably where I’ve been at in the last month.
Before you were saying that you were playing basketball at a really high level, do think there are any skills you had in basketball that you could transfer over to music?
I think basketball taught me discipline. It’s something that you need in anything you do, the ability to just chip away at something, and just having a level of control to the way that you work, so that’s a big thing that basketballs taught me. And as well just the whole thing of there are wins and there are losses and that’s just a part of it. As long as you try your best and just give your best performance. So yeah, outcome is very important but performance is the most important, so outcome’s just reflective of that. If you do what you gotta do, fingers crossed, whatever’s supposed to happen, is gonna happen. If you express yourself in a way that’s accessible then hopefully people get it, but that’s probably one of the biggest lessons.
I just want to talk about a couple of your influences. I’ve seen that FKA twigs and Frank Ocean have been cited a couple of times…
If I could just do one it would be Frank Ocean. I went to a house party last night and I started playing Frank Ocean and everyone just looked at me and I was like, “What? This is fun music, that ignites your soul!” So I listen to a lot of Frank Ocean cause his wordplay, his pen game stoopid. And then Billie Holliday, I love her because she’s got so much soul in her voice and it brings out raw emotion when you listen to her. And then otherwise I’ll just listen to a song here and there that kind of strikes me in one way or another. Sleeping with Sirens, love them, there’s one song of theirs that I’m like, “Ah, I really feel that”. A Day to Remember too. It’s kind of all over the place if I’m being honest, but that’s the thing, there are just so many layers to people’s identity that it’s never just gonna be one.
Just one more question, after the release of your EP what plans do you have for the future?
I want to play! I want to play live. Next year I want to play Nesting live. I think it’s lived on the internet and this virtual world for, you know, pretty much nine months. I think I started talking about an EP nine months ago, nine months tomorrow was the first time I mentioned an EP on the internet. So yeah, I think I just want Nesting to be a real life thing.
Follow Liyah Knight here for more and check out the video for ‘Tipsy’ below.