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Recognise: aya

aya has dazzled the UK underground with her experimental club productions and genre-hopping DJ sets, which she demonstrates in her exhilarating “at the end of the day it's a game ov two halves really init” mix. The London-based, Huddersfield-raised artist also speaks to Sophie McNulty about how her creative upbringing in West Yorkshire informs her work, and how her hyper-detailed process allows her to create art that is genuine

“I just want to understand why this thing is magical. I want to see the trick, the sleight of hand that’s going on,” says Aya Sinclair, better known simply as aya, about her approach to music. “I like trying to get inside things, and understand how things work.” 

aya’s investigative creative methods first revealed themselves as LOFT, the alias she used between 2009 and 2019. Under that moniker, her experimental club sound took shape, re-contextualising a whole spectrum of dancefloor styles with new ideas. 

“I intentionally combined things from everywhere, because that’s the music that excited me the most,” she says. Her 2016 track ‘Heffalump’ on Astral Plane caused a stir with its maximalist take on UK techno, which caught the attention of Wisdom Teeth’s Facta. “I had quite a few UK techno people getting in touch at that time. Joy Orbison got at me for Hinge Finger! I flipped! But that didn’t make sense for me at the time,” she says. She dropped her ‘Three Settlements Four Ways’ EP via Wisdom Teeth in 2017, which was followed in 2019 by a self-released collection of bootlegs and wild edits, ‘ell oh eff tea too oh won ate’. Later that same year, she released the striking ‘and departt from mono games’ EP on Tri Angle.  

In January 2020, aya retired LOFT with ‘are eye pea ell oh eff tea’, a package of previously unreleased tracks spanning the alias’ 10-year reign. “The name [LOFT] didn’t mean anything to me anymore,” she explains. “With coming out and changing my personal name, I’d figured out the person I wanted to be, and how I wanted to do things.”

As aya, she reached a poignant new milestone this autumn with the release of her debut album, ‘im hole’, on Hyperdub. This autobiographical LP sees her introducing cutting verses, spoken, rapped and snarled in her Yorkshire accent, over her bold, combinatory production style. In the album’s opening 10 minutes alone, she dips into elements of grime and bleep, dancehall and post-dubstep. These genre cues feel proudly UK-centric, and point to the lifelong importance of music to aya’s identity. 

Raised in Huddersfield, aya has fond memories of her creative childhood home, which was soundtracked by electronic bands like Underworld and Leftfield, who were taking ravier sounds into the mainstream.  “We did a lot of little recording projects when I was a kid,” she remembers of making music with her dad. “We used to write these songs all about the oddities of Huddersfield and West Yorkshire moorland living.” This connection to her home county is one that flows through ‘im hole’. On ‘Emley lights us moor’, named after Yorkshire’s Emley Moor tower, you hear the link up of regional tongues between herself and the Mancunian producer and vocalist Iceboy Violet over a misty beat. 

aya was born in 1993 on the cusp of the internet explosion. “One of my earliest memories is my dad bringing home a computer and connecting it to the internet,” she recalls.“He was always getting different bits of software.” It was her dad who showed her around production software like Ableton, long before she’d even considered producing her own stuff. “Having access to music tech from an early age meant I was pretty confident with being like, ‘Okay, how does this work? We’re just going to drag in loads of drums and see how that works together,’” she laughs.  aya’s parents both worked as directors at a local theatre, so the dynamics of creativity have always surrounded her. 

“They’ve worked on loads of theatre productions together, so growing up I’d be seeing them bat ideas back and forth for projects and managing their collaboration,” she says. Over the years, aya has also seen her parents go through new iterations in their careers: her dad switched from being a musician and director into being a graphic designer; her mum recently decided to take a psychology masters. “There has never been a hard left turn for either of them. It’s always felt like it made sense at the time,” she says. The idea of easing into change has been a valuable guiding principle for her. 

It was around the age of 14 that aya discovered the phenomenon of dubstep.  “It was just on YouTube (really early YouTube days), there was a clip of Digital Mystikz ‘Haunted’. I remember being like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’” she beams. “It had that dub running through it that I’d heard growing up with Leftfield… it felt so familiar, but just that little bit different, which was exciting. It felt so of its time.”

She was even more excited to learn that dubstep was on her doorstep, thanks to Huddersfield’s sizable West Indian community. “Carnival was always a huge thing in Huddersfield, there were loads of big soundsystems around,” she remembers, with a particular fondness for a night called Powah where she used to go underage. “They used to get the Axis Sound System in. It was absolutely massive, they could barely fit it in the room! It was rattling the entire building.” Around this time, aya reached an opportune turning point with music. 

“I was playing all the instruments required to have a metalcore band and had no one to be in the band with me,” she remembers. Not only had she just tapped into dubstep, she’d also discovered the “wonky” worlds of Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke; the latter’s ‘Butter’ LP is still a favourite of hers today. 

A high school teacher showed her the ropes on an analogue mixing desk, which made producing things herself only a short leap away. “I was like, ‘how do I get this into a computer?’ I’d already used production software unwittingly, so I knew what was possible. I went from making Bring Me The Horizon cover albums to Digital Mystikz rip offs in the space of about six or seven months.”  

Years later, as she commenced work on ‘im hole’, aya applied these formative experiences into a pared-down creative process.  “I’m focusing on this approach of being hyper-detailed but economical,” she says. “If I’m only going to make a track once, then how can I be as concise as possible? How do I really get inside that idea? It’s all about having a strong core principle, something that just feels fucking real and genuine.”

aya’s Northern roots are a key component of the album’s DNA, not only in her voice and the genres present, but also in its all-round tone and humour.  “For me it’s about being genuine and sincere about things,” she says. Through the album, aya candidly unpicks the many layers of her identity. “I am very cautious of this record being A Trans Album and I’m very cautious of being classified as A Trans Artist,” she asserts. “Obviously, it informs the work I make, but I’m also from Yorkshire and that informs my work.” 

With the release of ‘im hole’, and with a new live A/V show having taken her to festivals like Unsound and No Bounds in October, and across the UK in November, this feels like aya’s moment. Nonetheless, she’s still pretty collected. “We’ll see what happens,” she says. “I know in 10 years’ time, I'll be living back on the Yorkshire Moors with an ex-Post Office van and a dog.” 

Listen to aya's "at the end of the day it's a game ov two halves really init" mix below. 

Want more? Check out Recognise features with 96 Back and Nikki Nair

Sophie McNulty is a freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter @sof_mcnulty

Photo credit: Suleika Müller

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