Hailing from the city of Toronto, Mecha Maiko is the brainchild of none other than one of Synthwave’s most recognizable voices. Be it through her previous work as one half of Dead Astronauts or her prolific output as a guest vocalist for the scene’s biggest names, Hayley Stewart has laid her mark on the Synthwave sound thanks to her silvery vocal timbre and emotive delivery. The young producer and vocalist returns this year with Mad But Soft, her debut release under her new name, a dreamy record set under glittery starlit skies, drenched in the bittersweet nostalgia of eighties synth music. Grounded in feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and angst, Mecha Maiko’s lyrical approach brushes off the candor associated with the genre and delves into the deeper emotions that build up and underlie our daily lives. We caught up with Hayley last Sunday to learn a little more about her latest project and her work as a producer.
Most readers will recognise you from you from your work with Dead Astronauts. Having left the band back in 2016, can you give us a quick rundown of what you’ve been up to, leading up to this album release?
For the last two years that I was in Dead Astronauts, I really wanted to start doing a solo project because there were a lot of ideas that I would bring to Jared that weren’t quite ‘dark’ enough for the band; they simply didn’t suit the sound quite so well. I was quite passionate about some of these ideas and I wanted to hold on to them and do something with them. I’ve been sitting on a few songs for a long time: I had been working on some of the songs since 2014. I’ve been putting these tracks on the backburner, I didn’t really have too much time to work on it. At the end of 2016, after we had released Arms of Night, I decided that I really needed to take some time, sort out all of the stuff that I had been working on and haven’t been able to do, not worrying about a particular brand or ‘identity’ that already exists. I wanted these songs to be their own ‘thing’, separate from Dead Astronauts. I guess that’s how I would link it. There’s still a lot of sounds that I would use in Dead Astronauts like certain drum samples and there’s obviously a crossover inspiration, but it basically turned into something that is simultaneously a little more ‘danceable’ but also more experimental, borrowing from a wider set of inspirations.
Given that some of these first pieces stemmed from ideas that weren’t quite ‘dark’ enough for Dead Astronauts, would it be fair to consider Mecha Maiko as ‘lighter’ from a tonal standpoint?
The songs aren’t all necessarily rejects but rather pieces that I wanted to keep in a certain direction. I’d say it’s a combination of those two things. It was either too glittery and poppy for Dead Astronauts or it was simply that I just wanted my vocals on it. Being in a band, you make a lot of compromises. Jared and I both had things that we were very firm with. For some tracks, it just didn’t make sense to release it as a Dead Astronauts track if it was really only me.
Your new moniker alludes to the title of Maiko, a young Geiko (Geisha) in training. Why choose the title of a young entertainment still in training?
It’s a good question. ‘Maiko’ basically translates to ‘dancing child’. I think when I was younger, back when I was a full-blown weaboo obsessed with Japanese culture, it seems quite sad to me that once you become a full-on Geiko, you would have to dress in much darker, subdued colours. For me, the clothing and ornaments that the Maiko would wear was what initially attracted me to them. But then I learned that they have to go through very rigorous training schedules, so they’re working very hard at this pivotal point of their life. There’s a lot of changes happening, and they’re thrust into this completely different world of femininity and rigid rules, a sort of ‘sisterhood’. At the same time, there might be a lot of emotional, personal development during those years. They also look so cute and beautiful, and the vibrancy of that was really interesting to me. They look cute but there’s a lot of shit going on there! [Laugh]
You also touch upon some heavier, more personal subject matter as well with this record. Was this a conscious link you made with the name you chose for the project?
I think that whenever I would write lyrics, they would end up being a little bit more confessional, whereas Jared from Dead Astronauts had a particular atmosphere that he was trying to portray. It sometimes goes in that direction when I write songs, and it’s nice, but at the same time I’m not afraid to directly refer to myself in a song or make it more emotional, tie it to my real life. That was something I didn’t necessarily get to do as much, except with songs like ‘Sea Legs’, where Jared was totally cool with me going full out. I think that when I first started doing my solo project, it was really an excuse to make fun music, but that’s not all there is, there’s this dichotomy of music and life that I want to portray.
So you’re saying that Mecha Maiko refers to your own self as opposed to a ‘persona’.
I think there’s a little bit of myself and a little bit of this creation as well. The name really had to do with opposing notions and blending them together to get this new thing. On one hand there is modesty, femininity and youthfulness, and on the other hand there’s brute strength, dominance and immortality. It’s interrupting historical, idealized notions of femininity, but with a retrofuturistic twist. As much as I do like the image of an actual robotic, colossal Maiko terrorizing the place, it’s also just a cool name, conceptually.
From the album art down to the lyrics, the notion of femininity is omnipresent on the record. You’ve also mentioned that everyone involved in the album’s creation is female. Was this a conscious effort from the start?
I think so. When I first started, I originally intended to make every track a collaboration with a different female artist and get them to do remixes. I eventually fell into the ‘collab trap’ where you either start a bunch of things and not really hear back from people or get people who are responsive but eventually get overwhelmed by the work. I was sympathetic to that; it happens to me too. At first I wanted it to be an all-female production, though that is not to say I don’t love Slade of Crying Vessel, who did an amazing job mastering the album. Then there’s obviously the label, which is run by Ten, another cool dude. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid using guys, I just thought it would be cool to have that as a ‘fun fact’ about the album, because synthwave and electronic music is pretty male-dominated; if women are involved, it’s a common tendency to think that they’re just singers. I did call upon Femmepop and Dana Jean Phoenix to handle the lead vocals, but they also were involved in the songwriting process, which is equally important.
Would you say that women are properly represented in the whole wave of 80s’ retro music revival?
It’s really hard to say. That relates to a lot of things in terms of what the role of the woman is. It has to do with art, film and a lot of stuff beyond the actual music. I don’t know. It’s such a difficult question because I can only speak for what I’ve seen, and I might not necessarily dig into every Synthwave act to find out what the person behind the music looks like. For the most part, the imagery and the vibe that is evoked is very masculine because it’s usually coming from eighties horror or action films. I think that if you do see women in Vaporwave and Synthwave, it’s usually in the eighties aerobics or ‘mall rat’ kind of character. I think it is hard to think of all of these masculine sort of things and not think of women as a sort of ‘accessory’ to that. With that being said, I also think it’s a world of fiction, just as much as Mecha Maiko is. As to whether women who are making music are getting enough representation, I only know a few female artists that are really popular within the scene, and I don’t know if it’s just because music production seems to be something that men are more encouraged to do or if that’s just how we justify seeing a smaller proportion of women. Still, I see a lot of female synth acts performing in Toronto so there might be something else at play.
Having graduated from a Sound Engineering school, I was surprised to meet so many female live sound engineers during my stay in Toronto, given that women were so blatantly underrepresented in my school. How did you first get into sound production?
I had always been making music with my uncles’ old keyboard that he lent me, that I never gave back and that I still have right next to me [Laugh]. It was always something that I was doing for fun. I had a really hard time sitting down to watch TV or do something where I wasn’t actively creating something. It was a habit that I got into. In terms of actively seeking music production, that happened in the last couple of years of high-school, when I was really inspired by the Valerie Collective and PNAU. I was really into house-y electronic music back then. The second I went on Soundcloud, I had all of these producers contacting me, wanting me to sing for them. It kind of became annoying after a while, because I felt like I was working so much with other people that I didn’t get to work on my own production skills. When I joined Dead Astronauts, Jared had less production experience than me, so I ended up being the lead producer. I was a really good opportunity to take the time and hone those skills. Still, I’m not the best producer, I’m still learning and I still don’t work in a very technical way, the way I make music isn’t traditional at all. I guess it doesn’t really matter how you do it, everyone does things differently.
I understand that you come from a visual background, namely in photography and photo retouching. How does your music output and your visual background relate to one another? Do you have any specific visuals in mind when writing or do you keep both aspects separate?
That’s a really good question. I guess they’re two different sides of myself. There are times when I’m interested creating something that’s beautiful, but other times it’s less about the visuals of an image and more about the things that the subject represents, on a social and cultural perspective. With Mecha Maiko I guess it’s more about looking at a certain topic or theme from a wider perspective, even though a lot of it is me telling a story. In terms of visuals when I produce, it usually comes back to a feeling. I think there’s so many different things that I admire about both forms that it would be really difficult for me to pursue one or the other. They make up for different parts and energies.
Did you have a general feeling of what the album art would be like when you were writing the songs?
I gave some pretty detailed ideas about how I wanted it to look. When I started Mecha Maiko, I saw it as being something really bright, with a lot of pink and colors and patterns that you might see with makeup, kimono and cherry blossoms, but also with some red, a strong color that can also evoke blood. I really wanted a spilt bottle of nail polish in there, for instance. It’s both beautiful but also ominous and sickly sweet. When I first described what the room should look like, I wanted it to be messy and for it to look like the girl in the room was running away, which didn’t necessarily come through, though the chaos is there.
What is next for Mecha Maiko? I hear you may have some live shows planned in the future.
Indeed. It’s really intimidating going from a recording artist to trying to figure out how to do a nice, fun live show. Holly from Parallels has invited me to do a show with her at House of Targ in Ottawa in May and I may be doing a show with Dana Jean Phoenix at Handlebar in Toronto sometime around August or September. I’m working on my live performance setup right now actually. I’ve never sung onstage in front of anybody before, so I’m going to have to learn how to do that. In other news, I also have a remix EP that I have some friends working on. It’s gonna have some cool folks on there, some that people probably haven’t heard of yet. They don’t all do Synthwave but I dig their stuff.
Last question: can you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
One of my favorite recent albums would be Our Love by Caribou. The album really stuck to me when it came out. Joli Mai by Daphni is really good too. I basically have a huge Dan Snaith crush, so that’s why.
Movie-wise, I’d say Pan’s Labyrinth.
Book-wise, I’ll go for Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.
Mecha Maiko’s debut album ‘Mad But Soft’ is out now via NRW Records and available for listening via bandcamp here