Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

“I learned how to have full control..."

Kaytranada is an instinctual collaborator, one of the most flexible talents in music. But through a process of self-examination, he’s finally found the means to overcome self-doubt, and put himself first. Bursting with energy, he’s ready to face a future only he can define.

When Kaytranada first burst on to the scene nobody knew where to place him. A kid from Montreal whose parents came over from Haiti, his production style was at once rooted in hip-hop while recalling seminal house masters from Chicago and New Jersey. Embodying the exuberance of disco while retaining an inherent grit, his work was genre-less, while also defining its own genre. 

Over time, the world caught up. Rewarded with two Grammy awards earlier this year, Kaytranada has become one of the most feted producers in the game, but it hasn’t been easy; a path plagued with self-doubt and revelation, his successes have been balanced by moments of darkness, and introspection.

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

When Clash is patched through his Los Angeles home over Zoom, however, he’s the picture of balance. Freshly returned from the gym, he sits on the balcony drinking iced coffee, the first rays of the day falling on the screen. “Going to the gym is part of my morning routine,” he grins. “It’s like a meditation, type of thing. I’ve had the same routine for a year now – then I come back, chill, and then I’ll probably end up in the studio, making music.”

“After that, I chill for the rest of the day. Except it’s almost Hallowe’en, so I’ll maybe watch a horror movie!”

The need for physical discipline came from a desire to find focus, and a sense of lasting happiness. If Kaytranada’s come-up felt completely natural, then he recognises that retaining a position at the top is going to need a certain kind of regimen. “I’m very, very disciplined,” he elaborates. “And I think I’ve developed that discipline since working out. I wasn’t really like that before – I’d just make something when I felt like it. But now, I want to get the most out of a situation. I’ll go through phases in my life when I’m constantly working.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

Kaytranada has come a long way, but he remains tethered to his roots. After winning his Grammy awards the first thing he did was phone home – indeed, the trophies sit in a cabinet in his parent’s house, back in Montreal. While remaining humble, he recognises that his win is a point of graduation, both for him personally and the communities his individual voice sprang from. “In a way,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “it kinda does change things. It’s a mark in history. It felt nice. It’s kinda crazy, because I always forget… I gave the trophies to my mom, so I only see them when I’m at my folks for Sunday dinner!”

The synchronicity is remarkable. It’s almost exactly 10 years since Kaytranada’s impeccable Janet Jackson remix went viral, sparking his rise. Caught in the glare of internet fame, he admits he wasn’t quite ready for what was to follow. “If I could meet my younger self, I’d just say… you got this. Never feel like you’re worthless, or that people just aren’t gonna get it. Do what you’re doing, and believe in yourself. Never fall off that flow, and just keep focussed.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

“I grew up in the suburbs, and lived there pretty much all my life,” he reflects. “I was – literally – my own universe. The people around me didn’t understand what I was doing, except my brother. The type of music that I liked, and wanted to make, just didn’t resonate with the people around me.”

It took a head-long plunge into Montreal’s hip-hop underground to provide space for Kaytranada’s voice to develop. As unique as his approach is, it also taps into conduits that extend across the full span of his home city. “Once I tapped into that hip-hop scene – the battle rappers, the producers – in Montreal, then I didn’t feel like such an outsider. There were all these music makers coming together, and we’d all come together and support each other. It was a real come-up, for everybody.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

Dropping out of school, Kaytranada became the bread-winner for his family, with high profile European tours bringing clout and commercial opportunities, but also it’s own stream of pressures. “It was a struggle, but it paid off. I emerged with this clout, especially after the first European tour. I felt like everyone began to connect not just with the music, but the person behind it.”

“The UK was pretty much responsible for my career!” he laughs. “I remember going to London for the first time, and linking up with all these people… Benji B playing me. I was getting co-signs from all sorts of amazing people. It helped build me up, really grounded me, and helped me to excel.”

Indeed, he’s forever returning to UK artists – whether that’s Craig David voicing his fantastic R&B jammer ‘GOT IT GOOD’ or a recent session with PinkPantheress. “She’s one of the artists that I’ve been seeing a lot, when I’ve been on tour. She really shows me love – she always shouts me out in interviews, which is really cool.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

Kaytranada defines the art of collaboration in modern music. Someone whose music drifts between genres, he’s been able to dial up icons and underground heroes alike. Whether it’s vibing with jazz mavericks BADBADNOTGOOD or sitting down with Pharrell, nothing seems to phase him. Hell, he even turned down Dr. Dre early in his career – the moment simply wasn’t right.

“I seek out collaborators because I want my beats to feel complete,” he says. “I got that from listening to the Neptunes as a kid. As a kid learning production, the beat was the focus – but the vocal helped frame that. And that’s why I chose this platform – it’s trial and error, because I want artists to be fully themselves on my records. We have to communicate and collaborate.”

Exquisite 2016 debut album ’99.9%’ came out on London based independent powerhouse XL Recordings, before a switch to RCA brought 2019’s excellent ‘Bubba’ full length. Along the way, he embarked on some mammoth personal changes: coming out as a gay man, he found his first real relationship, and also his first real heartbreak. “I took some time out to work on myself, to understand myself a little more. There was a lot of self-discovery. When I went through therapy, I began to really love and understand myself. It unlocked a few things in my mind to be fully collaborative as an artist.”

He was able to channel these discoveries back into his process, allowing renewed confidence to enter his creative practise. Re-centring his life led to an overhaul of his art, and in turn gave new definition to the manner with which he approached making music. “I feel like after ‘Bubba’ came out, I was more open, and vocal in the studio,” he reflects. “I learned how to have full control. It gave a sense of direction to the experience.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

Working with intention, Kaytranada is now focussed on his next album. Sessions are continuing at a focussed pace, but – as he freely admits – he remains an over-thinker, someone with a tendency to scrutinise every aspect of his art. “I’m a perfectionist,” he shrugs, with a broad grin on his face. “Maybe that’s why I collaborate so much… I’m never 100% sure on a beat, so I have to have a second opinion!”

His latest collaboration finds the producer returning to Anderson .Paak, the livewire talent voicing exuberant piano-fuelled single ‘Twin Flame’. “Oh he’s pretty much the life of the party!” the producer laughs. “We always have a good time together. It’s hard, because we’re both so busy, but when we link up it’s incredible.”

“I’m really trying to complete this album,” he sighs, at the ice in his coffee slowly melts. “It’s been… a while. I put this pressure on myself, but equally I need to just let things happen. I don’t want my music to sound like it was rushed. I need to take my time.”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

The key to the task seems to be this sense of balance: Kaytranada is aware of the doors his Grammy success has opened, but it’s also ratcheted expectations up a notch. “I feel like winning those Grammy awards opened a lot of doors for me,” he says. “All of a sudden, all sorts of people were like.. who is this guy? What have we been missing? There’s kind of been a cultural shift.”

With Beyonce and Drake releasing their own house-soaked projects, it seems that this Montreal maverick’s approach has finally pierced the mainstream. “I feel like all eyes are on me right now, because house and electronic music is having a moment. Everyone’s like: oh Kay, fight back! But I’m doing my thing. Y’know, 2021 was really busy for me – I worked with Joyce Wrice, produced entire albums, I hooked up with Channel Tres. I’ve been busy, y’know?”

Prioritising Control: Kaytranada Interviewed

Approaching life at his own pace, Kaytranada has learned to embrace the right beat. “I’m trying to take my style, and see how I can elevate it. I remember when I released my second album, I was like: are people gonna get this? Will it bomb? But it had an even better response from fans and critics than my debut. I always want to take risks with what I do, and step it up a notch. I want to challenge things.”

It’s clear that for this creative accelerator, little victories count for a much as his headline-making triumphs. “Success means more to one thing to me,” he insists. “My mom phoning me everyday to say how proud she is of me – that’s success. Selling out shows, that’s another type of success. Being an artist, and making a living from your art – that’s a different kind of success. You have to keep working, in order to keep being successful. And that’s what keeps me going.”

The Los Angeles sun pouring down on our conversation, Kaytranada has reached a point of elevation. Yet he remains tethered to his roots, returning home to his family whenever possible. “Coming from where I’m from – Montreal – I’m always saying to kids, if it’s your destiny… then do it. My story is unique. But it also shows that all things are possible. I’m still figuring this thing out myself!”A project in evolution, a puzzle slowly solving itself, Kaytranada’s pivotal role in modern music is only just becoming clear. Having overhauled his inner life, the producer’s sound is perfect for our post-lockdown renewal.

Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Keith Oshiro
Fashion: Von Ford
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

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