I first saw Kayla Briët perform last summer when I attended a student conference hosted by TED. Kayla was the first speaker, and she began her talk with a performance of an original song, featuring intimate, almost wave-like vocals and a melody that mixed electronic beats with the strings of a Chinese zither. The audience was transfixed by her raw talent and the unique blend of sounds encapsulated in her music. But, as I learned over the course of the conference, music and composition are just two of Kayla’s many talents. She is a filmmaker whose work has been shown everywhere from MoMA to the White House Film Festival. In 2016, Kayla directed, edited, and scored a short documentary The Smoke That Travels, which explores the traditions of her Native American culture. She also scored and starred in a documentary short called AfterEarth about four women’s work to stop rising sea levels from destroying their homeland and shot a music video for the indie rock singer Stef Chura. Recently, Kayla has taken her filmmaking in a more experimental direction by incorporating multimedia elements, such as virtual reality, into her work. Despite these varied mediums, the content and form of Kayla’s work consistently lie at intersections, whether that is between art and STEM or her Native American and Chinese/Dutch-Indonesian heritage. I spoke with Kayla about her creative process, the importance of art-as-self-discovery, and how to survive white, male-dominated spaces.
You mention that you’re very interested in the intersection between science and art, and I think that most people—me included—grow up seeing them as separate. When did you realize that science and art can be interconnected?
I would always come home after school and create this little cave, this little world for myself, and just explore information online. I would try and travel the world with Google Maps or I would learn to edit using software that I found online. All these tools that I was finding could help me create things and bring my ideas into reality. Going to school, the assignments that they’d give us are so separated, and art never intersects with science. Sometimes I would find excuses to create art projects out of science assignments, and little things like that. I would paint a periodic table or sculpt an atom, finding these little excuses to bring more self-expression to articulate science and math in a different way, to visualize it in a different way.
What is your creative process like?
My creative process is all over the place and never consistent. My creative process [when scoring films] is: I watch the film without any music to it, then I start to think about the themes and the character motivations, then for each character I map out their intentions by writing down notes. I try to discover some kind of musical theme that goes along with their energy. I build and build, scrap those ideas, and then I start over. I think that with music and any kind of artform, you’re just trying to make someone feel something, and if you can create that energy and that emotion you’ve accomplished your task as an artist. With film, VR, and storytelling, I tend to get my inspiration from the journeys of self-discovery, loss of innocence, and lost love. Even if I’m doing a documentary or creating a fantastical, mystical piece in VR, everything is just grounded in reality. That’s where I get my inspiration, that personal journey of finding your home.
How has your heritage inspired your art?
Having those different backgrounds, it’s almost as if you can understand many different sides of an argument. I can understand the perspective of someone who was raised in a Chinese family because I heard stories about the way my mom and my grandma grew up surrounded by Chinese culture. Of course, with Native culture, there’s not a lot that’s known or taught in schools, so sometimes I would even teach my fellow students and history teachers about the culture I grew up around. That aside, I think that with storytelling and the things that inspire me, all of it fuses together into its own new form because that is how I discover myself, which is like connecting the dots between all these things I grew up around. I always wanted to be a part of a singular community and just fit in. It was a very confusing experience, and I didn’t feel like I had my own voice. The reason I love to tell stories is that it makes me feel very grounded in what I’m trying to explore with the human condition and tell stories that are personal, and hopefully the more personal they are the more they can relate to other people.
You’re a self-taught composer and filmmaker. How did you teach yourself these mediums?
I didn’t go to any formal school for the arts or for film or music, and I learned everything informally. I don’t think anyone is truly self-taught, but you learn from imitation and repetition in the early stages. I would watch a lot of online tutorials, but mainly for music I would surround myself with these huge playlists of music that I love, like I would listen to full video game soundtracks. I love Kingdom Hearts. I was so inspired by the composer Yoko Shimomura. You can listen to her score and almost visualize the world around you that she’s creating just through music. When it came to learning how to play piano I would learn how to play songs by ear. I would listen really hard and listen to the chord structures, and take down notes really slowly. The process got faster and faster, where I could recognize chords and patterns of melodies and put them together. This all happened really organically, and I feel like people now are able to learn things so quickly. It’s almost as if the resources to learn something are much more accessible now. The hardest thing is to find your own voice amid all the influences. I was on YouTube a lot and sometimes in my earlier work I would want to be a certain vlogger or this person or that person.
How old were you when you felt like you finally found that voice? Or is your definition of your voice constantly changing?
I’m still in the figuring-myself-out stage. I feel really comfortable in the way I express myself now, of course, but I think that phase never stops really. I think the moment I felt like it was a new chapter was definitely after creating the film Smoke That Travels. I learned so much about my fear that this part of my heritage would be forgotten. I wanted to create a time capsule that my baby brother could look at to see these thoughts that I’m talking to you about, and so they could exist in this visual form. I wanted to invite people into this world of song and dance and music because I wanted to celebrate the beauties of the culture because there’s so much anger and heartbreak, rightfully so, in the world. I wanted to invite people into this world that I looked at with childlike eyes, that I was amazed by when I was growing up.