Kacy Hill Opens Up on the Difficult Desire to Be ‘Simple, Sweet, and Smiling’ [Q&A]

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Photo: Lauren Dunn

As fall settles in, many of us are left frantically scrambling to assemble our fall time rotations, curating the polished and perfect playlists in the wake of one of the most music-heavy years on record. If you're overwhelmed by all the new releases, I don't blame you, but among those most recent, Kacy Hill's newest album Simple, Sweet, and Smiling stands alone. 

Whether you recognize her name from her 2020 record Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again?, or her appearance on Travis Scott's famed "90210," Hill returns as one of pop's most promising powerhouses with a collection of eleven pristine tracks designed to put you in an introspective emotional trance.

Synthesizing elements from vintage pop, country, R&B, and even alternative rock,  Simple, Sweet, and Smiling sees Hill caught in the throes of emotional and romantic tension. Tracks like "I Couldn't Wait" and "Seasons Bloom" deliver listeners sweet and tender glimpses into hers unparalleled songwriting prowess, densely-packed with sonic textures that seem to have one foot in music's nostalgic past and the other in its experimental future. 

While some songs are minimalistic and emotive, others are more upbeat and pop-leaning, with tracks like "The Right Time" demonstrating a laid-back slickness that your indie-obsessed friend might swear came straight off Tame Impala's Currents. Whether drifting along the cosmic and psychedelic basslines of "The Stars" or channeling 2000's pop icons on "Walking at Midnight," Hill delivers carefully-crafted pristine pop stamped with her signature musical style at every moment. 

Prior to the release of Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, I was fortunate enough to speak with Hill. We discussed our love for sensitivity, strained relationship with anxiety, Mariah Carey, and much more.

Ones To Watch: Simple, Sweet, and Smiling comes barely a year after last year's record, Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again?. What inspired you to make and release a record so quickly after the last one?

Kacy Hill: We were deep into lockdown, so it was like, "What else am I going to do?" I had run out of quarantine puzzles and activities and things like that, so it was a combination of having nothing else to do and having all this time on my hands to make music. Before I really dug into Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, I also had a pretty intense episode with panic disorder, so there was a good amount of time, even pre-quarantine, where I just couldn’t really do anything or go anywhere. I felt pretty paralyzed and, quite honestly, uninspired. I think once my album came out last year, I was reinvigorated and felt like I could make music again. I think especially because I had the comfort of being in my room and I didn’t have to worry about the anxiety of going anywhere.

It's still pretty wild to make an album on such a quick turnaround time. I'm curious about how that shaped the similarities and differences between your last two projects. Are there any tracks or ideas on Simple, Sweet, and Smiling that were worked on for the last record? Or is everything brand new?

The album feels pretty new in a lot of ways. The way I approached Simple, Sweet, and Smiling is really different, because before I had always collaborated in the room with people. This time, I wrote the melody and lyrics entirely on my own time alone in my room. A lot of that was very insular. I recorded my own vocals and would just work on little piano ideas or new things with John Carroll Kirby or Eli Teplin. We'd send all the production and everything out to Jim-E Stack, and we would finish it together. For me, it definitely was an entirely new way of making music compared to anything else that I've ever done.

Were there any lessons that you took away from the creation of Simple, Sweet, and Smiling?

I think what I learned from Simple, Sweet, and Smiling was picked up while working with Frances, B.J. and Jim-E Stack. They're people who work on their own time when they want to, and for me, that applied a lot to this album. I realized I was actually a lot more productive and made a lot more music if I just did it when I wanted to. That’s not to say like, "I’ll do it tomorrow when I feel like it," because I really wanted to do it. I had this fire to make music every day, but if there was one day where I was like, "Yeah I’m not into it," I wasn’t going to push myself to just sit there and do something just to do it. I found a real love for making music while making Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again? that I hadn’t felt making my first album. With [2017's Like A Woman], there was so much pressure, people and noise, and I got lost in it. I think Simple, Sweet, and Smiling takes from the lessons of the last one by reminding me that I really love what I do, and I’m thankful that I get to do it. I’m going to have fun with it and experiment. Not everything has to be the best song I’ve ever made, but sometimes it ends up accidentally being that way.

I remember reading an interview where you mentioned that during the creation of Like A Woman there was a ton of conflicting pressure to make something commercial while making something cool too. After the wait, it's been great hearing two records, that while not as bright and cheery as maybe you'd like, there's a slight aura of liberation embedded within them. 

Yeah, totally. It’s kind of funny, because I feel like even though Simple, Sweet, and Smiling and Is It Selfish are not the most bright and cheery, for me, there’s so much more joy then than the first album. You know what I mean? It’s not always happy, but there’s joy and love in it.

Going into the music of your last two records, you've been slowly moving further into an almost minimalistic and modern '80s sound, especially on tracks like "So Loud" and "Easy Going." How did you develop this sound and what are some of the things that inspired it? 

I think it all just goes back to the stuff I love that I think subconsciously has sunk into my brain. Like with classic songs, I think in some way I’m always trying to create something as good or memorable as that. So with tracks like "Easy Going" there was some element to this. I feel like a reference I get that's just in my head is "Dreamlover" by Mariah Carey. I always return back to her lyrics and melodies and everything, because there’s so much joy in it. Then there's Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes,"  one of the best songs ever made, and, subconsciously, there's always Peter Gabriel drums or something in my music. I also love country music, especially from the '90s or early 2000s country pop divas like Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, and the Dixie Chicks. The songwriting and the energy is so exciting and great. Bruce Springsteen's "I’m On Fire," Paul Simon's Graceland,  they're always a reference. I feel like a lot of the references I draw from are more songwriting references than they are production. It's like there’s a consistency in the songs that I can turn on that always make me ask, "How could I make something as good as that?"

How do you understand the relationship between Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again? and Simple, Sweet, and Smiling? How do you conceptualize these projects in the trajectory of your life?

I honestly feel like Simple, Sweet, and Smiling is the natural continuation of what I’ve done before. It’s taking on the skills that I’ve learned over the last two albums. This one was so much of me experimenting, because I had never been the one recording my own vocals, physically at the computer doing the arranging and everything. It was always kind of like pointing at people and being like "move that there, move that there." There’s something about making exciting mistakes when you are by yourself. I’m not the most incredible engineer or a computer whiz in the way that some producers are, like beat makers where they just love working at the computer. That’s not me, but I got really into it because I was finding all these like happy little mistakes in being proficient at Logic but not excellent. I think that’s what inspired a lot of how I made this album. There are some weird vocal production things, and I would write in a way where I would just do these long takes over a loop. I would chop that up to make a full melody and arrange a full song out of just little pieces that I liked. I can’t do that with someone else, because it’s a pain, and I have to be the one grabbing each little piece wondering if I could do something different with pitch or background vocals. I think Simple, Sweet, and Smiling was a lot of experimentation, finding something exciting and weird in the little mistakes that I would do.

Talk to me about the concept of Simple, Sweet, and Smiling, and how you ended up deciding that you wanted to focus your next album around it.

It was a line that I came up with in the song notes for "Simple, Sweet, and Smiling," but at first it was just a demo. For the longest time, it was just called "10-10" because John Carroll Kirby and I made it on October 10. The line is, "I would like to be your simple, sweet, and smiling," and I think it was something that for me just kind of captured the way I had been feeling. There were just so many heavy feelings in life. I was having horrible anxiety and my dad had been really sick. COVID didn't exactly make everything lighter, but I think, more than anything, it was those things. The idea was that I would prefer to just be this simple, sweet, and smiling kind of easy person. Especially in a relationship or partnership, I don’t want to be this dark cloud. I think it became this kind of aspirational identity, like the persona that I wish I was more of.

Similar to yourself, I think there's a mutual understanding regarding that level of thinking and sensitivity toward both your favorite and least favorite qualities. 

I think about it a lot, and I feel like life would be a lot easier if I just didn’t have to deal with this anxiety. When I start to get dark and down, I have this fear creep in where I wonder if this is just my cross to bear. Fluctuation between being anxious and depressed. Then I get these weeks or months of sunshine where I don’t feel either of them, but later I can't help but fall back into one or the other. That's the fear that creeps in, wondering "Is this just life?" I know other people deal with anxiety or depression, but on social media you see people raising awareness by telling you to take a bath with a bath bomb. I'm always like "Ok cool I did that, and I still feel like I want to die." I really try and not bring it on other people, like I don’t want my lifelong mental issue to be someone else’s. All of a sudden with COVID, I think with the anxiety or stress of lockdown and its uncertainty, it felt like most people were at the level that I’ve been at for years.

On the record you include plenty of lines centered around emotions and the way you process them. Do you think writing these songs offer some form of emotional catharsis?

I’ve thought about that. Is it catharsis? In some ways, sure, but I can’t write about something if I’m deep, deep in it. I feel like I have to have processed it a little bit before I can write about it in hindsight. If I’m really sad, I cannot sit down and write. I need to talk about it in therapy or write it in a journal, and then once I've sat with it a little bit, then I can put it in a song. I think the act of making a song sometimes isn't even cathartic as much as it is just therapeutic, and not in a way that maybe it should be. I think it just feels good because it keeps my mind busy and at bay.

One of the things that draws people to the music you write is how vulnerable you're willing to make yourself. That emotional approach to writing music amplifies that because it offers a really genuine window into you as a person. Do you think there's a difference between the Kacy Hill your music portrays, and the Kacy that you know? 

Yes and no. In some ways, I feel like I need to be more vulnerable, because I feel okay talking about certain things and then other things feel too fresh or sacred to really get into. Sometimes there are things where I’m not really ready to talk about with everyone. I think that’s normal, you’re allowed to keep some things to yourself. My music definitely is a pretty accurate representation of who I am, though I think there are a few different perceptions people may have when they meet me. I can tend to be kind of shy in certain scenarios, and I'm definitely an introvert, but I would say I’m an extroverted introvert. I like being around people, but if it’s the wrong setting and I feel anxious or overwhelmed, I tend to be quiet and shy. Based on the feedback I’ve received, I think that can be perceived as standoffish, which is not at all what I am. I think a lot of like anxious or shy people tend to get that where people assume that you didn't like them or that you thought you were better than them, but the reality is just that I'm just trying not to have a panic attack. I’m a person who likes to talk about real things, and I want to talk to you about your life and my life, and about your family and issues. I like talking about all that. I hate small talk, and I think maybe that points to me being an oversharer, which is maybe why I write songs. It’s probably a good place for people like me.

So it's safe to assume that tracks like "Walking at Midnight", where you sing about taking a stroll by yourself while your friends are dancing nearby, is based on a true story? 

Oh, yeah. I cannot even tell you how many parties I've left early. 

Is It Selfish was all about feelings of tension, self-actualization, and a mix of alienation and imposter syndrome that you've spent a lot of time exploring. Simple, Sweet, and Smiling deals with many of these same ideas but something seems different. Do you feel like you've made progress in easing this internal battle and finding where you're comfortable?

So much of the imposter syndrome I've felt was because people knew my name because of other names. I mean, I get it, but it was also like, I’m just hanging on to something that isn’t mine. You know what I mean? They’re not interested because of what I do but more so just because of an association. I think now so much of that veil has been lifted, and I've been able to genuinely interact with people online or in person at shows. I know that they connect with what I make because there’s something that genuinely connects them to it and not just because of a name or whatever. That’s exciting to me, even if the audience for that is .1% of the people that are like, "Whoa, you were signed to Kanye West" or "Whoa you're on a Travis Scott song. "That connection means so much more to me, and it feels exciting and rewarding, because I’m reminded that there are people out there that feel the same way I do. 

You're definitely an artist that has gained a lot of traction with their collaborations. Looking forward, is there anybody that you'd like to work with that you haven't already?

I remember someone asked me that question on Instagram, and so I tagged a few people I wanted to work with. One of them was Helado Negro, and he reached out to me was like, "Let’s do something", and so we did something! That was maybe two years ago now, and that's on his new album coming out October 22. I’m really happy that I got to do something with him, and I'm forever and always down to do something with Kid Cudi or Travis Scott. I’m always down to do something with a country artist too, like Kacey Musgraves. I feel like doing something with Tyler or the Weeknd would be so cool, or anything with cool voices that I feel would fit well with mine. 

With two records released back to back, what's next for you? 

Tour starts in a month, so that’s a big one on the horizon, and I’m kind of just starting to make music again. Admittedly, it’s not been the most fruitful or productive, but I think that’s part of it. That’s kind of how it was last time too. I spent a few months making really bad stuff and then something clicked, and I suddenly understood how I was going to make music for the album. I’m kind of waiting for that to kick in, but as of now, I'm focused on getting this album out, getting on tour, and just starting to make new music. Just cruising along, continuing to do what I do.

Who are your Ones To Watch?

I didn't know I had to watch anyone! Kara Lane, Jonah Mutono, M.T. Hadley, and Madi Diaz.

Simple, Sweet, and Smiling is available everywhere you can stream it.

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