Kee Avil is a project led by Montréal producer and guitarist Vicky Mettler. Having played guitar in a variety of avant-garde and improvisational groups, she began exploring composition and songwriting with her self-titled Kee Avil EP, which was released by Black Bough Records in 2018. Earlier this month, she returned with her full-length debut, Crease, a uniquely intricate and beguiling record that sees her further delving into the possibilities of studio-based composition and production. Threading together piano, guitar, and electroacoustics, Mettler channels the likes of Scott Walker and Eartheater to create a cavernous, idiosyncratic soundworld that is both inviting and discomfiting in its intimacy. “What is the perfect balance?” she repeats on ‘Okra Ooze’, and there’s no point rushing for an answer: from the music to the unsettling visuals that accompany it, Kee Avil thrives in that ambiguous space. But once you tune in, it’s not hard to find the gentle beauty underneath the horror.
We caught up with Vicky Mettler for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about what drew her to the guitar, the origins of the Kee Avil project, her debut album, and more.
Not many people would necessarily think of the guitar primarily as a tool for improvisation. What was it that excited you about it? And did you initially approach in a more straightforward kind of way?
Yeah, I got into jazz a little bit, so I would try to play a bit of jazz, but I was always very bad at it. I’m still not very good at harmony and stuff like that, I was not really into learning riffs or the language itself. I did try, but I realized quickly that what really inspired me was the improvisation. For most years that I have been playing music, I’ve done mostly just improvised music, since like 2013. And then I did that for many years until Kee Avil.
Did you see Kee Avil as a way of creating a space where you could discover your own language?
Definitely, in the sense of writing songs. After doing a bunch of improvised music where it’s all about trying new things and discovering new sounds, the songwriting was really [about] how to write songs also with no expectations. Record little ideas, put them together, not really judge the ideas or expect them to become something else.
What is the relationship between songwriting and improvisation like for you?
A lot of the songwriting would come from ideas that I improvised and recorded, and some ideas stays from that. And often, even the parts that I would keep were the parts that were fully improvised, and then I would learn them to record them in a better way, but keeping that very initial idea that came from improvisation. And I was interested in that, in the sense of treating all the ideas as though something can be done with everything if you work on it enough – if you alter it through production, or even if you don’t, and you just add something else or take something else out – I kept those ideas as an important part of it.
You’ve compared your songwriting process to sculpting. Do you generally tend to think of music in abstract, metaphorical terms, or did that just feel like an apt metaphor?
I think it’s more that. I was asked to describe the process, and that’s where those ideas came from. But I don’t generally think about music like that, in the sense that I don’t really work from overarching concepts. Sometimes there’s going to be a concept with the piece, but most of the time it’s based on sound – what sounds work, or how to translate a feeling into a sound or translate ideas into sounds. But it’s hard to describe. I think it’s better to let people imagine what it would be.
Does it become more conceptual when it comes to the visual side of things, such as the videos or the artwork?
I was asked a lot, “Why is it a mask?” I think there’s an expectation maybe of it being based around identity or concealing, but it’s not really that. I imagine something that I think would look good, and I try to create that. There was definitely a colour palette, stuff like that. But there was no real story around it. It’s kind of funny to put your own face as a mask – a lot of it I think is done in a humorous way, in a sense.
When you say you wanted it to look good, what aesthetic framework did you work around? Did you have something specific in mind?
The album cover was very influenced by an image by the photographer Tim Walker, and I wanted to create something that was very still, almost like a statue. Something frozen, statuesque. Almost like something from an art gallery, but at the same time, it’s strange. Something from a very clean kind of aesthetic paired with something a bit – I guess some people find it creepy. And honestly, the mask thing that Ariane [Paradis] does – her past [work] I found definitely more creepy, and I tried to get away from that. So like, how do you balance creepy with something that’s kind of softer? Those kinds of contrasts is what I find interesting, whereas the principal intuition could be to just go full on creepy. Beating those intuitions is kind of the fun part, I think.
What is your relationship to horror films in general? Is it a genre you’re inspired by?
Not really, not in general. I like it, but I wouldn’t like say that it’s an inspiration. But maybe something more uncanny, you know, David Lynch, the weird meeting the real.
What draws you to that?
I think it’s just very effective. I think it’s something that is visceral, just recognizing the human form but your your mind not being able to grasp what’s happening – that kind of confusion, almost, I think that’s just immediately visceral.
You’ve also compared your process to a puzzle game, and in relation that what we’re talking about, it made me think about being puzzled as sometimes that’s more or as important as being inspired. Is that something that resonates with you?
I think that makes sense, actually. I’ve never thought about it in that way. But I think anything that is creative is in a sense a puzzle, because there’s all these subconscious influences, and then there’s a very much more, like, sitting down and doing it. Editing a song together, that’s almost like figuring out a puzzle, how all the parts are going to go together. I was thinking about that, and often I’m asked, “Oh, you did this, like, what does it mean? What’s the answer?” Often when I see something, I might have a question about what it means, but in the end, I think I’m more interested in the questions than the answers. So I don’t necessarily go all the way trying to figure out what the mask means for me. I’m also interested in letting the question hang, like, what could it mean? And I think that works with the puzzle idea, in a sense. I like letting things unanswered, for myself also.
What kind of things puzzled you or what questions were you interested during the making of Crease?
I think the puzzle was really in the songwriting itself. Songwriting to me is very new, I think the first song I wrote was probably 2016 or 2017. And then I did the EP, and I still don’t feel like I understand how to write a song. I feel like that was the puzzle for me, like, what makes a song a song and how far can you go before it’s not considered a song, really? Would it be just vocals and guitars and that’s all it takes to make a song? Or do you need the chorus or the hook? How can we deconstruct the idea behind the song? And that’s mostly what I was focused on, creating these little pieces of music.
Having had some distance from it now, do you have a clearer understanding of the connections between the songs, musically or thematically?
Totally, yeah. Especially now that we’re building the live versions and looking at everything very closely to be able to play it or to find its place in the live show, I think that’s really brought to life similarities between songs that I would never have considered. Like the beats or the electronics from song to song, the structures, I see now how it’s all related through a specific two or three year space of time. And without really realizing it, there is a progression. And now the question is, what’s next? [laughs] How do I not keep doing the same thing?
You co-produced the album with Zachary Scholes. How would you describe that collaborative relationship?
We have very different approaches to music. He’s a keyboard player, now he’s producing and mixing and a lot of stuff, but his background is as a keyboard player, and he has a lot of more mainstream music instincts. And that really helped to go in places where I wouldn’t really have gone on my own – sometimes it’s in a bass line or something that’s a bit more lyrical or a synth sound that’s a bit more playful. It woulnd’t have been natural for me to go that route, and also really pushing me for the vocals, pushing me to sing differently. It was really a good collaboration, each bringing something fresh and working on building trust and creative ideas. Usually I work alone, I write everything alone, but at some point I think it’s good to bring someone else, to open it up to other people.
On ‘Devil’s Sweet Tooth’, you sing, “With my own breath, I will be drenched.” It made me think of the way you approach your vocals. What appeals to you about layering your voice in that way? Is it related at all to the themes or the feelings that you wanted to express on the album?
Maybe it’s just a sound that I like, the close-sounding vocals. I think the idea was to create something intimate. I’m also not a trained singer, so I was almost learning how to sing at the same time, in a sense. I’ve done a lot progress since. There were some limitations with the voice that I was working with –a lot of the voice is almost spoken or whispered as opposed to having this big, lyrical singing style, and that’s partly due to what came naturally. And then it’s like, how do you make that sound good on a record?
One theme that seems to come up on the record, to put it very vaguely, is running away. I was curious if music is more a means of escapism or expression for you.
I think it’s more a means of translating, kind of. It’s not really escapism, because writing the songs, I try to get into a headspace where everything becomes an inspiration. I’m not escaping life, I’m more taking all of that and then translating it into music. That’s more how I would see it. So it’s not really escaping – but in a sense maybe it is, because it’s a different way of living life when I’m in that headspace. It’s like everything becomes part of that something that can feed inspiration, everything is filtered differently. So it could be escapism of a certain form of reality, like creating my own reality.
Could you talk about what your headspace is like now and what are your ambitions for the project?
Definitely the live shows – I’ve been really interested in building a space where people can enjoy the music in, like a textured space. I’m starting to do research for an installation, just how to bring the album forward to shows, but also maybe there’s ways to really create listening spaces for the songs. I feel like there could be more ways to experience the music, and I’m thinking about how to provide that.
How do you imagine that space?
I think I would like to build a space where physical reaction – it just happens. It’s just a visceral space where you can’t help but feel a certain emotion. I haven’t really pinpointed exactly what the emotion is, but I think I would build it song-to-song, and so the space, maybe it’s made out of webbing or maybe a soft material, like some kind of cocoon. And then hopefully the idea would be so that each song is represented by an emotion or a physical feeling. There’s a bunch of ways to do it, but just like: How do you translate a physical reaction to sound?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Kee Avil’s Crease is out now via Constellation.