Simple, Sweet, and Smiling: An interview with Kacy Hill
Music — 28.07.22
Kacy Hill and I met at her album release dinner party pre-pandemic. The tie-dyed t-shirt she handmade for each of her guests is still my go-to. I decided to move back to LA this February and we met again when I showed up for a tour of her apartment via Zillow. As the real estate agent showed me the view over east LA through her living room, I peered over at the current tenant. Masked and in an atypical state of annoyance, I wasn’t sure it was her, but the red cupid curls bobbing in front of multicolored waveforms had me suspicious.
After a DM and a drink, we ended up rolling around in the sand, laughing uncontrollably and whacking our way through patches of wildflowers a foot taller than each of us for a spontaneous photoshoot. We decided to make a music video for “Simple, Sweet, and Smiling”, one of the singles on Kacy’s latest album, of the same name. This took us on a road trip to her hometown, Phoenix, Arizona, where we visited the nostalgia of simpler times, before careers and bills, before her dad got sick and her sister grew up. It was an environment to distill the moods that Kacy explores sonically. One of reaching back to savor the sweetness.
Zoe Chait: What are you trying to treat, you seem pretty chilled.
Kacy Hill: But I’m not.
You’re not simple, sweet, or smiling.
There’s just a lot of childhood trauma that I can’t get to that I need to… that has made me feel depressed for many years and I’m ready to deal with that. And I can’t do it through therapy.
I feel like that’s a good segue into everything.
You kind of laughed when I asked you the question during our first attempt, but I do like the idea of how mental and physical landscapes interact, and it’s fitting because you’re in a new place and thinking about your mental scapes.
Changing where you are physically will always have some kind of impact on your mental state of being. But I think it’s a misconception or maybe kind of wishful thinking that changing your landscape will also allow you to escape whatever is afflicting you. I often find myself thinking, “oh if I just move outta the city, if I just move to the middle of the woods or whatever, I’ll feel better.” When in reality it just follows you, you know?
The desire to escape is quite common in the world that we live in. The access we have to other people and their ideas and images of their lives can be suffocating.
I find that activities which put you in motion and require you to be present, like driving, can be kind of like a mental massage, where I feel knots of thought sort of untie themselves. And I think the act of leaving and then coming back always brings about new insights to issues I feel stuck in.
Yeah. I feel like I get somewhere new and some of those knots untie themselves, but I’m trying to get to a point where they don’t immediately re-knot when I return back to where I live and step back into my routine.
Maybe that’s due to the nature of capitalism and the constant need to be productive and work in order to stay alive. Also, I feel a lot of people I know kind of attach their entire identity to their work life. How do you separate from that?
Something I’ve been trying to lean into lately is the notion that we don’t have to change anything about ourselves.
There is so much spiritual capitalism around us, selling us the means to reinvent through consumption. We’re in the epicenter of it here in LA and this massive industry thrives off the idea that you should be different or you should feel different and that there is always something more you can buy or do to further self-actualize. It’s feeding this narrative, “I don’t know who I am and that is a problem because I should know who I am…” and buying, or buying into all of these things, can help me figure that out.
But what if you actually aren’t supposed to know who you are in some definitive way?
Maybe simply by being and moving through the world, some clarity will come, and then again become abstract as you, and the world around you, change.
Yeah, I like that, It’s okay to not know exactly who you are. That’s something that I admire in other people.
I have kind of always felt like I need to be put together or, you know, stable for my sake or my family’s sake. Sometimes there’s comfort in admitting that you don’t have the answers. It’s a gift to allow yourself to be on the journey of learning and not knowing.
What’s the point of living if you know everything and you know exactly who you are and that is unwavering and unchanging? Maybe it’s just that the human brain has a tendency to recognize patterns and a need to define things.
To be like, oh yeah, this is who I am. This is where I fit in the world and that’s my little space. But I think that it is exciting if you can allow yourself to be kind of fluid. Maybe that’s also a gentle space to allow yourself to be in, because you have the grace to make mistakes and to learn new things, and in some way always be a child, you know?
Allowing yourself to be rather than forcing yourself to constantly do, which I think is counter to the rhetoric of the world we live in, especially in America. Most people seem to measure productivity and success in output and numbers.
I’m interested in being able to have a creative practice that is less focused on the outcome, maybe more of an experiment of interactions where some space opens up for me to witness people and their emotional worlds, as they are. Maybe the space where that is enough provides momentary freedom from mental looping and the pressure to do.
It’s interesting, so much of what I get from your work is that. Observation. You don’t like posing your subjects. It’s really about capturing the moment and the emotions. But it’s funny because that in itself is like, so anti–I don’t know, I don’t wanna say anti-capitalist, then I sound like a dufus, but it kind of is because you can’t manufacture that.
In a commercial setting you could create something similar or as close to that as possible, but the nature of capturing a real emotion that you can feel through a photograph isn’t–I mean, correct me if I’m wrong–but you can’t really control the circumstances that much, it has to happen on its own.
Definitely, and there has to be a level of trust for people to be vulnerable and stripped of their own performance in front of a camera. I’m trying to work out how to create that kind of environment with people that I’m not as intimate with. It’s easier when there’s an established level of trust and then you add a camera into the dynamic. Then it can be an instrument to travel to a depth together.
But for example, when we did the photoshoot in Malibu, It felt like a kind of dance between us. We didn’t know each other and we were sort of like dogs sniffing around.
Sniffing each other’s butts.
Haha. Yes. At first, you were this persona of yours. That simple, sweet, and smiling, innocent pin-up dream girl in white lingerie with your big smile and your freckles. You knew exactly how to pose in that role.
I said something like, ‘I almost want to ask you to not pose,’ and I think that made you a little uncomfortable.
Well, that’s exactly what you said. We didn’t know each other at that point and it’s such an awkward thing if you don’t know someone. It’s such an intimate thing to be really relaxed with someone.
I’ve been in front of a camera quite a bit and usually, I know how to look good or pose or whatever, which feels kind of like a safety net or like a little comfort blanket. It’s similar to being in a session with someone new. It’s like, okay, I’m just gonna write some melody or write some lyrics that are good, but I’m not gonna let you in all the way.
I do kind of feel like I’m asking to be let in. And when I feel someone let down their performance, that is really the magic. If that honestly isn’t there it sort of makes everything feel like this extension of the disposable visual stimuli that we receive all the time on social media and everywhere else.
The photographs I’m most inspired by having this quality of holding some authentic expression that manages to reveal a person’s internal world in a single frame.
Yes, it’s the depths of vulnerability that you need to get to, to make really great art.
Not all the time though, some art is just art for art’s sake and is just, you know, beautiful. It’s aestheticism. But to get to something that is deeply personal, it gets down to the specificity of an idea that can touch something universal. I think it takes years of fine-tuning vulnerability.
At least for myself, throughout my journey as an artist, I’ve just tried to get closer and closer to that. I’m sure that will constantly change as I do.
Refining your own vulnerability, or maybe the way you access it.
Yeah. Learning how to boil it down to the most specific ideas.
The essential essence.
I definitely feel that listening to your music, there’s an energy and tone that feels personal to you. But also like you’re speaking to what many people of our generation are going through.
Yeah. It’s interesting how, often, the more specific you get about an experience or an idea, the more universal the emotion is. As opposed to being very broad and kind of skirting around the thing.
Like in the photos you take, they feel like such specific experiences or moments of time… or in music, I always go back to country music being the gold standard of songwriting and specificity. It’s really interesting, the more specific you are, the more universal the emotion is.
In a photograph, I might be looking at a scene and a setting that is specific, but what I really connect to is the emotion in the person which is universal. We are all made of the same stuff, even if we have totally different lives. We recognize that, whether it’s in a photograph or a song or a film… that’s probably why most songs are love songs.
I feel like talking about love is sort of the gateway drug to other areas of vulnerability, and there’s always someone to blame in some way.
What I’ve been interested in lately is exploring ways to boil down the experience of feeling lonely, not as it relates to love, but as a bigger idea of feeling inadequate… A human experience that I feel like most people I now deal with on a daily basis. Feeling lost, feeling like you don’t know where you’re going or what your purpose is. ‘What am I doing here?’
It’s so much harder to capture those things. They’re not as easy as, ‘I had this relationship when we were in love and then we broke up.’ It’s so much bigger and it follows you and it’s constantly changing.
Also, the idea of nostalgia, the way that we romanticize things that happened in our past always interests me. Those emotions feel even more exciting and touching to me if you can boil those things down, and make me feel something that I can’t put words to.
What does nostalgia feel like for you, as a bodily sensation?
Hmm. To me, it feels warm. In my chest, it feels warm. It’s bittersweet though because there’s this longing for something that has happened that feels so comforting and at the same time, there’s always a tightness that follows because I will never have that again.
The past is easier to swallow because we know how it ends. It’s tiring to constantly have to look forward, you know?
But I feel that in your photographs, I get a lot of youthfulness and freshness. Like, there’s less focus on the nostalgic and more on the moment of where you’re at then. And I admire that. That’s such a rare thing to not have to rely on the past.
I think when I’m taking photos there is a disconnection between past and future. It’s very much that I’m trying to be as present in the situation as possible and to observe and look and feel my way through the experience without thinking too much about the outcome.
The most interesting things are made when there is ease and effortlessness and a sort of freedom within the exploration.
But then, so much of being a photographer is editing and looking at photos over and over again. Revisiting my archives can be painfully nostalgic, especially since I photograph the people I am closest to the most.
I’m looking back at a body of work that is six years documenting the same person. I’m reminded of who I was six years ago, the innocence I’ve lost, the admiration I had, the mystery that was there when we didn’t know each other that well. The rush of being let into someone’s internal world trusted deeply off of a feeling more than anything. As relationships change there’s grief, but also, everything seems simpler in hindsight.
I told you this term that my friend’s therapist used, nostalgia masturbator. I think that every photographer is probably a nostalgia masturbator.
Every artist is. I think most people are.
Yeah. I mean, that’s what memory is. We’re constantly telling ourselves stories about our own lives.
It’s never as good in the moment as it is when you’re looking back. It always feels more comfortable and safe when you look back and think ‘oh, I wish I was there. That was so great.’ Even if it wasn’t great.
It’s easy to romanticize. Nostalgia is such a dangerous and powerful tool in art and in life, you know?
Why do you think it’s dangerous?
Cause I think it’s so easy to get caught up in it. And to think that the past was always better can prevent you from moving forward, and also from being present to what’s actually happening. Even politically it’s weaponized, look at the Make America Great Again movement.
And being ready for what might come, because that’s scary. There’s no certainty.
You can really get lost in that.
You said something last time about the space of non or anti-performance being like a rebellion, which I thought was interesting.
I think that doing things, being honest, and in your vulnerability is a kind of rebellion against things that are manufactured. Because you can’t manufacture honesty. So it’s a rebellion against constantly needing to package up what you do in every moment of life and resell it somehow and make it appealing for everyone.
I feel like we got most of it.
I think so, too.
Okay. Perfect. I wanna go float.
You’re gonna go float.
Watch the new video for “Simple, Sweet, and Smiling” below: