Kylie V. Credit: Lauren Ray.

Instrumental: Kylie V Shapes Their Sound With Intricate Guitar Lines and a Well-Curated Pedalboard

When Vancouver artist Kylie V was 13, their grandpa got them a Squier Telecaster for their birthday. At first, they were intimidated by the instrument: ”I’m a really small person with very small hands,” they tell me over the phone from Vancouver. They’d started out playing ukulele a couple years earlier, which, of course, is much more manageable for someone with small hands. 

The Telecaster collected dust for about a year while Kylie refined their musical tastes. When they eventually turned back to the guitar, it was to teach themselves with the help of the internet, “and, like, two and a half guitar classes,” they say. You wouldn’t know it, but that was about three years ago, in 2018. You wouldn’t know it because, all over their debut album Big Blue, Kylie rips—sometimes gently, sometimes not-so-gently, but all the way through, they rip.

In that time they’ve also amassed a sizable collection of axes, and they all have names. The Telecaster, which is their number one tool, is named Rita. The backup squad includes a little Martin acoustic named Adrianne, after Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker; a Squier Strat named Lindsay, after a friend from the band Babe Corner; an Ibanez named Betsy, and an 11-string (read: broken 12-string) Danelectro named Lorraine, both referencing Big Thief tunes. 

Big Blue is one of the more impressive debuts from the past few years. Part of the reason for that is Kylie’s poetic, depth-plumbing lyrics, but their words are given extra depth by the lush, aquatic vibes of the layered guitars and vocals that bloom throughout. Less than a week after they graduated high school, Kylie ran us through their influences, how they taught themselves to play, and what pedals contribute to the Big Blue sound.

As you’ve been teaching yourself, what artists have you looked to for inspiration?

When I started, the two biggest influences were Jay Clayton from CryWank—absolute wizard with finger picking, they’re so cool—and I got really into Peach Pit, who are a local Vancouver band everyone knows, when I was 14. That’s what inspired me to start actually learning to play electric guitar. I heard the solo in “Private Presley” and I just went, “Okay, well, I have to learn how to do that.”

So why is Rita your go-to guitar?

I mean, I’m self-taught and I don’t really know what’s going on 90% of the time, so it’s the one I’m most familiar and comfortable with. Even before I started building a pedalboard, when I would play shows people would comment on how good the tone was, and I was completely clueless. I’ve never changed the strings in my life. So I don’t know—there’s something really special about it. I think they go for like, $350. They’re not super notable guitars, by any means. But it’s by far my favourite and always will be.

How have you taught yourself?

Ultimate guitar—tabs and chords. I started out on piano. I took two years of piano lessons when I was really young. And so I kind of had an understanding of music theory and how chords relate to each other. So I was always kind of able to predict what’s next. Then I did ukulele for a few years, but actually, I can’t read music, or understand terminology for about 90% of music theory. I took an instrumental music class in the past year of high school, and all the theory stuff was just extremely confusing. But teaching myself I just found songs that I really liked. I found their chords and tabs and then I would just play them over and over again until they sounded good, which didn’t really happen until like, two years into it.

What kind of techniques did you end up gravitating toward?

By the time I was recording Big Blue, I had widened my horizons in the music I was listening to by a lot, and so I think that playing style was influenced a lot by maybe four of my favourite guitarists. I mean Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief has the best fingerpicking style I can think of. That’s definitely my goal. I was also listening to a lot of Christian Lee Hutson, Phoebe Bridgers’ guitar player. He’s fantastic. And then Chris from Peach Pit. And one of my all-time guitar heroes, basically, is Yvette Young from the band Covet. My goal in life is to be able to play math rock.

In like, very early 2020, I started really getting into open tunings.

What is it you like about open tunings?

I think there’s a certain level of freedom that you don’t really get with a standard tuning because you can just strum it open, and it’s a chord, and you can put your fingers basically anywhere and it’s gonna be relatively coherent in the song. I find it really helpful for when I’m experiencing writer’s block because it’ll open up the fretboard a lot for me to just make sounds and have things be kind of coherent when I’m trying to write something.

Big Blue is really beautifully layered. How does your pedalboard fit into your songwriting process?

Usually, once I finish the skeleton of the song—meaning the chords or main picking and the lyrics—I’ll start trying out the effects on it. I have a lot of them now. And I mean, sometimes I can just think about it and go, “This would sound perfect with this song.” But it is kind of trial and error. I just mess around with stuff for like, an hour to find the right sound for specific songs. In the studio when we were recording Big Blue, I had fewer pedals than I have now. But we didn’t actually use all of them, or even close to all of them. The main ones I used in the studio were the Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Stereo Reverb, the Walrus Audio Julia V1 Chorus/Vibrato, and—this one like came in the mail halfway through recording—the Walrus Audio Mako D1 High-Fidelity Delay. Those are the main ones I kept coming back to in order to get that really heavy reverb and sort of dreamy underwater tone that I was going for on the album, especially with the title track being about, you know—wanting to walk into the ocean.

Kylie V’s pedalboard. Courtesy of Kylie V.

What do you like about experimenting with pedals?

You can put all sorts of reverb and delay and stuff in with Pro Tools or GarageBand or whatever, but it doesn’t sound as natural as just playing directly through it. I’ve only really been in the studio for one project. I’m a live musician. And I really like being able to finely tune exactly the vibe of what I want everything to be. It opens up the entire process of making sound. It widens your horizons to so many more tones and frequencies and emotional vibes for the song.

Are you always looking to try new ones, or do you feel pretty settled with your sounds?

I think I’ve basically got at least one of every sound that comes in handy for me and the type of music I make. I still look at guitar pedals all the time and want them because I think I’ve kind of settled on my current setup, and I’m trying to refine the tone that I use, especially in live videos and performances, when those come back. Just yesterday, I did a set recording for Rock ‘n’ Roll Pride in Vancouver, and I spent a good 10 minutes just adjusting tiny things before we got started. Those three pedals that I mentioned earlier, along with the Warden Optical Compressor from EarthQuaker Devices, are the main ones that always stay on no matter what song I’m playing. Except for the delay. That one doesn’t come in as often. I’m trying to find the specific settings for each. I want to memorize where every single little knob and dial should be to make things sound the best.