Willow Kayne is making nex-gen pop with a throwback aesthetic.
Take a moment to snoop around the depths of Willow Kayne’s SoundCloud page and you’ll stumble upon “GIBBERISH”.
It’s a three-minute linguistic fusion of mismatched words and topsy-turvy sounds; chaos calmly delivered over a beat that is criminally catchy. In its three minutes of cardinal sin, the 19-year-old singer and producer allows us only a moment of clarity – and it’s to make one thing clear: “Chat shit / And get banged / When I chat shit, the tracks bang / When I blow up and I get fans / Still gibberish, ‘cause a bitch can.”
It really is Willow Kayne’s world, and we’re simply here for the ride – and the music, of course. We meet in the way Gen Z always meet, these days: over roughly 1080 pixels, full HD, high-resolution. As with everything over the past year, our conversation exists in an almost-reality that is alarmingly comfortable. Yet even with the Internet’s worth of distance between us, Kayne is bright, loud and brilliant without video lag: she laughs generously, and her whip-smart sense of humour is the kind that fits perfectly into 180 characters. Looming behind her is a stuffed, entirely limbless flamingo stuck to her bedroom wall. “It’s kid-friendly taxidermy,” she shrugs.
The Bristol-born artist – though she doesn’t carry the West Country twang you’d envision (“Oh my god, why does everyone think that I’d be like, ‘Alreyt my darlen?’” Kayne despairs) – is cutting her teeth as an artist, with a capital A, through the release of two singles under Columbia, which already capture the polarity of her sound which so easily eludes definition. “Two Seater” is a two-and-a-half minute flex that proves Kayne is a law unto herself: not only does she make the rules – she created the game. She wields self-confidence with the same instinct with which she brings her talents as a lyricist, singer and producer to the table.
In true Gen Z fashion, “Two Seater”, with its breezy, popping-candy grooves, place you right into a montage fit for the triumphant ending scene of an early-noughties Gurinder Chadha movie, and its successor, “I Don’t Wanna Know”, sees Kayne slip and slide over a sweaty drum and bass beat, steeped in glow-stick nostalgia. And yet, her music, no matter what her music evokes, feels entirely fresh. “Gotta come in strong, to be honest,” she grins. “They’re pretty cheeky, to be honest, like, ‘Hey, I’m Willow! I’m pretty rude!’”
Her throwback aesthetic, complete with spiky space buns, layers and layers of chains (“If it’s not the best quality costume jewellery, literally paint It with clear nail varnish, it won’t go green!”) and sashimi-sharp eyeliner all magnified under a fisheye lens, means Willow Kayne is primed to be the poster girl of Gen Z. “Someone called me a millennial the other day on TikTok!” she says in mock outrage. “I was like, ‘Oh, leave me alone!’” But put your torch and pitchfork down: “I’m not trying to cause some generational divide like the Gen Z versus millennial war on TikTok! It’s always down to the person, really.” So how would she define her generation? “Techy queens… techy kings and queens,” Kayne nods. “I think we’re pretty self-deprecating, yet funnily enough, a pretty free generation considering we’re also more sensitive, in some ways. It’s very strange, the world we’re living in, and the pressures we’ve had from a young age to look a certain way.”
“Gen Z consumes so much and trends change so quickly. We’re a very greedy generation.”
Her relationship with social media is surprisingly not as tortured as a typical 19-year-old, who, through choice or design, has to broadcast their personalities on TikTok to stand a chance of success as a creative. “It’s pretty gut-wrenching when you think about it,” she shrugs. “You’ve got to sell your image. I’m pretty shit at it, myself, but in some ways, I like the fact that people can connect with my personality online. I’m alright with it, actually.” Being deeply online has offered Kayne a time machine into the “OG subcultures, like rave culture, punks, teddy boys…” that have influenced her sound and artistic approach. She favours them over the recent Gen Z concoctions such as ‘Cottagecore’ and ‘Goblincore’, which are symptomatic of a fickle, disposable approach to trends which never truly cement themselves as ‘scenes’.
“We consume so much and trends change so quickly. It’s so bad, it’s actually so bad! It’s a bit scary, actually. We’re a very greedy generation,” Kayne says. “That’s what I’d say about Gen Z: we’re very greedy. Even now, with the whole ‘y2k’ thing, it’s just a more peng version of what they were actually doing before. Like I can’t see myself wearing leggings under a skirt anytime soon… what a look.”
Music, for Willow Kayne, was born from a place of boredom. While her parents had lived in the likes of Hong Kong and Brazil, she’d been brought up, instead, in the quaint, largely uninspiring town of Melksham. “This was the kind of place where, if you walked into a pub, people would rinse you for looking even a little bit different,” explains Kayne. “It was character-building”, she grins sarcastically. When I ask if this was the kind of place those wearing beige chinos, boat shoes, Ralph Lauren polos and Jack Wills hoodies would frequent, Kayne shrieks with laughter. “No, no, no! It wasn’t that kind of countryside. It was scatty, if you will. Scatty.”
Buying her first MacBook was, unwittingly, her ticket out of there. Her gateway drug into music was GarageBand, an experimental game of making beats when she got tired of Temple Run or Fruit Ninja. Then, her friend torrented Logic onto her computer – which Kayne still uses to this day – and that allowed her to hone her skills as a producer.
At this point, she wasn’t confident enough as a vocalist and wouldn’t tell anyone about her steadily growing portfolio of beats she’d developed on SoundCloud. “I started adding my vocals on them eventually with my Apple earphones,” she laughs. “Oh my god, the quality… you had to be there. It was so bad that people liked it as well! People called it ‘lo-fi’, but really it was just my phone going off in the background with sounds of rustling paper. Oh god, it’s terrible, but I was just messing around. I had no idea that the algorithm would work in my favour.”
There’s a song of Willow Kayne’s on SoundCloud, and every time she tries to take it down, people insist she puts it back up. It’s called “i’m not about”, and it sounds like late nights in the city: a mellow, nocturnal beat with vocals that would blend with the low lights of a jazz lounge. It was the first song that won her an audience and an invitation into the scene. “It was a lot more poppin’ than it is now,” she says, “but the community was pretty close. There were a lot of different teams: I used to be in one called Summer ’99. There was one called Two Three Step… There were loads of these little collectives.” She was one of the youngest, at the time, invited to play shows in London where people sang her lyrics back to her for the first time.
Having since been signed to Columbia, where she’s now side-by-side with the likes of Tyler The Creator, The Internet and Dominic Fike, her slow peel away from the underground music scene wasn’t met with congratulations. “I mean, I have my people, for sure, but something I found interesting when I signed was there was quite a few sour grapes, which I never even thought about or considered would be a thing. It was interesting to see who was pushing for the downfall,” Kayne says, “but here we are. I’m just really thankful, to be honest, because I was just a little kid in my bedroom in the countryside, so to be welcomed into something like that changed a lot of things for me.”
But really, Willow Kayne’s success was pretty much inevitable. “Everyone loves this in interviews,” she laughs. “Oh my god, my mum used to produce music videos. She worked with The Prodigy, Nick Cave, she was in that whole ’90s world. She’s cool.” (Her dad, however, doesn’t get quite the same praise: “My dad has literally the worst music taste, ever. It’s so bad. He sends me just dead TikTok tunes.”) She says, “It’s weird, now, that I’m in that same world. Someone came up to me in the studio the other day and said, ‘I know your mum!’” Weird little connections.”
When I ask her about her hopes for future side hustles, Kayne trips over her words as her mind rushes a million miles an hour. “I’m getting excited. Oh my gosh, so I’ve got to do clothes, got to do clothes… I’d be a mug if I didn’t… like, I don’t know, I care about graphics… the thing is, oh my god, I’m such a copycat of my mum, but I’d love to direct music videos. I know I’d thrive in it just as much as music, even more. I don’t intend to stick to one thing whatsoever.” She had a book since she was 16, where she’d jot down her creative vision for artists, drawing out detailed plans for their merch designs or inventive vinyl aesthetics. “I literally get to do it for myself now!”, she grins. Make no mistake: Willow Kayne is a name you’re not about to forget. “I’m ready,” she promises. “I’m here.”