An army of men sharpened their fangs, spitting their venomous poison in her direction. She was an 18-year-old Florida transplant, fresh to the local scene and with aspirations of superstardom twinkling in her eyes. The Hollywood hills rose in all directions, and it felt like her time had finally come. Kayls (real name Kayla Stewart) set to work on her first album, wide-eyed and committed. At the time, Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson splashed all over radio, and the powers that be around the bright up and comer pledged to make her the next bubblegum clone. “I felt I was being pulled in so many different directions. People would be like ‘oh, you should cut your hair’ or ‘you should be like this,” she remembers. “It was never about what I wanted to do.”
It wasn’t until after a whole album’s worth of songs had been recorded that Stewart realized “it just wasn’t me,” she tells B-Sides & Badlands. “I can write a bubblegum pop song, but that doesn’t mean I should be singing it. I was super young and new to the industry. I didn’t put the thought into how I wanted people to perceive me. I was just going through the motions.”
The album was unsurprisingly shelved, and she felt she had been “crushed” by the very industry she loved so much. “There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do in the world other than music,” she says of a roughly six-month hiatus she took to recharge and regroup. The downtime proved to be exactly what she needed. She soon stumbled into BRÅVES, a mystical trio of cryptic and brooding singers, songwriters and producers, who then sent her down a transformative path by which she would be forever changed. “I was talking to them and felt strongly about their message and personalities. They are amazing people,” she says. “I felt they could really bring out of me what I was trying to convey. That’s when I pulled the trigger to work with them and do this EP.”
Stewart’s debut, the pointed Modern Savages EP, is expected to drop early next year, along with a short film, and she doesn’t plan on playing coy with its fiercely-relevant messages. In fact, new single “Porcelain” ⎯⎯ in which she hisses “sharpen knives, sterilize, army of plastic girls / won’t be your trick / won’t be your centerpiece” ⎯⎯ annihilates those uptight, buttoned-up executives in suits who treated her as nothing more than a commodity with a price tag, a piece of meat, if you will. “I felt so discouraged in the music industry so many times because of how I’ve been treated. As a woman, I feel like I haven’t been fully seen ⎯⎯ and I guess a lot of women feel that way in their industry,” she explains of the song’s formation. “People don’t fully see them for who they are and what’s inside of them and what they’re bringing to the table. It comes from this anger inside of me. There’s so much more than meets the eye. When someone first meets me, they don’t give me the time of day. They assume I’m this shallow girl trying to do music. I wanted to prove I have something to say.”
Below, Stewart reflects on Hollywood, the title cut to her EP and how she learned to never settle.
“Porcelain” feels eerily timely right now. Was that something you ever realized?
We wrote this far before all this stuff was coming out. It’s amazing that this song is coming out now. It goes to show that this is really happening. I didn’t just write this song because it is relevant. I wrote this song before it was relevant. It’s not just women. It happens to men, too. I’m not a “screw men” kind of person. It’s really discouraging. I want to share this story and empower people who are also feeling this way. It’s a bullying industry, and it sucks.
From where did you draw “porcelain” as the song’s central imagery?
We did such a cool writing exercise for all of these songs. We were very in the moment writing this one. Porcelain has this strong imagery to it. In the chorus, it says “I’ve got a feeling inside that I’m bound to break porcelain.” Basically, I wanted to take everything around the image that that creates and hits home with me that I’ve experienced in LA and turn those into images people could really relate to. All the terms directly relate to the industry, like being bound up in contracts and the paper world. People look at you like you’re a price tag. The second verse, it gets down to the shallowness of it and how men treat you like a possession. I have been in sessions or meetings where I was actually really excited about it but when it came down to it, they made it about other things. That’s where I get the “you’re the swine / I’m your pearl” line. I don’t fit into those arenas, so don’t put me there.
BRÅVES’ whole aesthetic is dark and mysterious. Did you find that rubbing off on you?
Well, I’m actually a very mysterious person myself. I think that’s why we connected so well and that they would be a benefit to my project. Previous collaborators had a hard time understanding what I was trying to say or who I was. I’m quiet and introverted and reserved. And the same time, I’m explosive and want to be onstage. BRÅVES really got that.
How would you describe yourself at 18 when you first moved to Los Angeles?
I was kind of the same, but I didn’t have a clear idea of how to get going. I kept going, though. I followed the simple idea of “one foot in front of the other.” I lived a lot by intuition back then. I do still, but now, I put more thought into everything. I’ve just evolved, really. There was no huge shift in my personality or how I take on the industry. Maybe, I’ve become a bit more business savvy over the years.
What was your upbringing like, and when did you discover music?
My parents got divorced when I was super young, a baby. Music is in my family. I started re-writing the words to nursery rhymes when I was like seven and have been singing my whole life. I didn’t actually take on writing songs until I was about 15. I never gave myself another option than music. It was who I was and who I am now.
The titular cut to your forthcoming EP, Modern Savage, is about the delusional generation. Care to expound?
It’s a social commentary on society. There’s a lot of lines that might throw you off and make you think I’m buying into society. I’m using these pop culture references, and I’m looking for depth. I don’t care about your Louis Vuitton purse or your hashtags. I took a lot of what people say and flipped it. I wanted to get people thinking about how stupid what they say really sounds. I need to check myself, too. It’s also about being your own person.
How do you keep yourself from falling into those same traps?
I try to stay grounded. When I feel like I’m getting off balance, I start feeling very anxious and not myself. I try to balance my social life with my career. I can’t become this minimalistic person who doesn’t use their iPhone. I watched a documentary about it. It was really cool, but I could never do that. In my life, how can I become more like that without being so extreme. I also don’t want to become that person who is posting photos of how much money I make or what kind of car I drive. We can’t all just throw away our phones, but we can help each other become more balanced.
How did the theme “never settle” become apparent when you were making this EP?
I didn’t know what it was going to be when I first met BRÅVES. That mantra is part of me and who I’ve been my whole life. I never settled. I was the kid flailing on the floor throwing a tantrum because I wasn’t going to settle. I’m very quick to realize when something is settling. I’m very quick to move away from it. With this being my debut EP, I didn’t want to just write an EP of sappy love songs. I wanted to say something. We did a whole month of pre-writing and figuring out what I wanted to say to the world.