Features Interviews News

The ‘Mad But Soft’ Power of Mecha Maiko

“… This project has allowed me to come out of my shell… and look at my musical career — and myself — much differently.”

Expressions of masculinity, femininity, and all points in between can manifest in all people, regardless of gender identity. You can identify as a man, woman, or neither, or whatever you prefer, and there’s a good chance you’ve tapped into a few bolts of the powerful energies of masculinity and femininity.

Toronto-based electronic musician, photographer, and writer Hayley Stewart — formerly one-half of synth duo Dead Astronauts — dives into the masculine-feminine spectrum through her new musical project Mecha Maiko, which recently released the debut album Mad But Soft on NRW Records.

For starters, let’s look at the name: Mecha Maiko. It derives from Stewart’s fondness for Japanese culture’s seemingly seamless ability to have one foot in the past and another in the future. “Mecha,” generally, is a robot with legs that a human controls and, according to Japan Times, a “maiko” is an apprentice to a “geiko,” which is a geisha from western Japan.

There’s a dichotomy there that informs for Stewart’s new foray into dark disco and synth-pop.

The thought of combining two opposing sets of ideas — tradition, femininity, youthfulness and grace, with futuristic technology, brute strength, destruction, and masculinity — comes from my fascination with the concept of gender as performance,” Stewart told Vehlinggo in a recent email interview. “I think we all have latent opposing qualities within ourselves and they are trained into being, just as a maiko learns to glide silently through a room in geta [shoes], or as someone piloting a mech learns to bend the enormous mechanical body to their will.”

Mecha Maiko, then, is about interrupting idealized notions of femininity that have historically been in place. “Maybe not entirely disowning them,” Stewart concedes, “but offering a perspective that recognizes the numerous contradictions and complexities that come along with being a girl.”

“I actually think of Mecha Maiko as a tragic figure: a cybernetic being who possesses immense power, but who will never fully realize what she trains to be, never aging or dying — a permanent spectacle — making that power all the more volatile,” she continued. “Kinda like a cyberpunk Claudia [the child vampire played by Kirsten Dunst] from Interview With The Vampire.”

Through Mecha Maiko, Stewart exercises a kind-of soft power. If we want to be punny, we could say a “mad but soft power.” Each of the record’s 10 songs packs a massive blast of seismic activity hidden in a shroud of composure. The brutality of the mecha is delivered in the enigmatic serenity and impeccable manners of the maiko.

Because she’s solo, Stewart has more freedom to experiment with composition and subject matter. Although she’s often associated with the synthwave scene — through Dead Astronauts or her guest work for artists such as Perturbator — Stewart uses her Mecha Maiko identity as a means to reach further, infusing her synthwave roots with a steady stream of influences that include Caribou, Jamie xx, and others.

‘Mad But Soft’ cover art by Yoko Honda.

The Making of Mad But Soft, Part I: The Genesis

The origins of Mad But Soft stretch back to 2014, with song ideas percolating while Stewart focused on Dead Astronauts material with the other half of that project, Jared Nickerson. The Mecha Maiko concept was still incubating, though.

“Originally, it was supposed to be the project where everything that was too glittery and girly for Dead Astronauts would go,” Stewart said, “but then it quickly evolved to incorporate more dark and experimental elements.”

Originally, it was supposed to be the project where everything that was too glittery and girly for Dead Astronauts would go…”

“Cold Hard Ground” and quasi-hidden track “Man To Love Like You” on Mad But Soft stem from vocal ideas Stewart originally recorded for an Arcade High collaboration.

“They were never used in the end, so I decided to elaborate on those vocal ideas and build entirely new tracks around them,” she says.

It wasn’t until 2017 that she started funneling vast amounts of time and energy into making Mecha Maiko what it is today.

Perhaps in keeping with the dichotomous fluidity of the project, Stewart toyed with two different versions of each song as she developed them: one “glittery and danceable” and another “that really melts into something shadowy and dark,” Stewart said.

Some of the cuts on Mad But Soft, like “Bike Night,” “Cold Hard Ground,” and “Fade to Black” are all dark versions of songs that were originally “bright and shiny.”

The Making of Mad But Soft, Part II: Challenges and Inspirations

Recording an album isn’t easy, even if you’re doing it at home; sometimes especially when you’re doing it at home.

While tracking for Mad But Soft, Stewart wasn’t in the most consistent of living situations: she moved three times, quit her job, and went freelance with her photo retouching work and other photo projects, including work for Vice and its music arm, Noisey. (One example of that work: She wrote and shot photos for a spread about James “Perturbator” Kent.)

“But at a certain point I understood I just needed to let it all go, so I could move on to the next thing.”

But even when she was living consistently somewhere, she confined herself to recording in her bedroom when she was alone.

“I can’t sing if I know anyone’s around,” Stewart says. “I’m still too shy to record when my boyfriend’s home or when I can hear my super in the hallway. I always think it’s going to be really annoying to subject anyone to hearing me try to get the perfect take.” 

Hayley Stewart is Mecha Maiko. Her cat is cool.

There was an additional challenge that popped up along the way: self-doubt. That old thing.

“It was also difficult to assess the value of my song ideas,” Stewart said. “I realized pretty early on that it was easy to start, and continue, doubting things the longer I worked on a track. I was honestly pretty unsure of the album when it came out.”

She’d find a song engaging on one listen, and then nitpick it on the next go, but, she said, “at a certain point I understood I just needed to let it all go, so I could move on to the next thing.”

“There’s no point in torturing myself over things I wish I’d changed,” Stewart continued. “After all, that’s not all that exists in those songs.”

Even with challenges afoot, Stewart fell in love with the artistic freedom that Mecha Maiko allows.

“I got to satisfy both my pop needs and my dark brooding experimental needs, creating some really weird synth sounds along the way,” she said. “It was nice to really dig into my own personal perspective, and create lyrics that could be cheesy or extremely introspective.”

Mecha Maiko also opened her up her social life a bit.

“I’ve felt a lot closer to the synth community, especially in Toronto, and have met some fantastic people because of it,” she said. “I think this project has allowed me to come out of my shell a little bit and look at my musical career — and myself — much differently.”

One influence on her songwriting and production was vaporwave, which she got into more from listening to the now-defunct internet radio show The Fratelli ‘85 Show. Certain elements of vaporwave proved an attractive means for creation. “Fade to Black,” for example, stems from a cover Stewart did of 2004 song “I Wanna Be Your Lady” by The Diplomats (which featured a sample of Ghost Town DJs’ “My Boo”).

“I was inspired by how artists like Burial would take pop and R&B hits and make them into totally different, brooding and emotionally striking songs,” Stewart says. “I think the vaporwave scene does many of the same things: taking pop tracks and soaking them in a melancholic aura that feels both alien and warm.”

“It’s been rewarding to see that people are OK with the fact that I didn’t make a quintessential synthwave record.”

Stewart highlighted “Auto Fire” as the most angsty and mechanical number on the record that nevertheless draws inspiration from “guilty pleasure pop music.” The bass line is a kind of dark and heavy take on the melody from the 1993 Robin S pop-house hit “Show Me Love.” The result is a “political, almost violent track,” she says.

“In this song, I don’t ask for love, but for evidence that someone — in this case, a member of parliament — is actually human,” Stewart says.

Over the course of her four years slowly but steadily working on the album, Stewart was inspired by a variety of other sources, too. A fan of Dan Snaith, Stewart listened to his projects Caribou and Daphni “on repeat” while making the album.

“I admire how varied his sound is, and how unapologetic he is for his taste,” Stewart says. “[He’s] always trusting his audience to keep up with him as he treads through new territory.”

She also listens to a fairly regular dose of ‘80s synth-pop and new wave, along with electronic producer Jamie xx. Further adding to her basket of influences is pan-African music released on German label Analog Africa. Talking Heads pop up, too.

“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact impact those albums have had on the sound of [Mad But Soft], but they got me thinking a lot about the process of making music and taking a couple more risks, worrying less about fitting into a specific genre,” Stewart says. “It’s been rewarding to see that people are OK with the fact that I didn’t make a quintessential synthwave record.”

“Probably the only concrete synthwave influence” on the album, Stewart says, shows up on “Cold,” featuring a guest spot by Dana Jean Phoenix, a fellow Torontonian and a siren of synthwave. “[The song] was partially inspired by Waveshaper’s ‘Radio Signal.’ I loved how flowy that mono synth lead was and how it brought up the energy of the track.”

Vehlinggo caught up with Phoenix recently to quickly chat about “Cold” while she’s touring Europe.

“When she sent me ‘Cold’ it felt like a powerful end scene, where we’re not sure if the hero is going to sacrifice her relationship with the villain to save the city,” Phoenix said. “From that perspective, I wrote to it in a cinematic vein, which was fun as hell.”

“Collaborating with Mecha Maiko was great, because she gave me a lot of freedom to explore the song from my perspective,” Phoenix continued, adding that this mutual trust is how she’s found that the best collaborations come together.

In addition, Phoenix said, Stewart is “an awesome vocalist and producer, and I love the album.”

Thinking about the Future

Going forward, Stewart is compiling a remix EP for the Mecha Maiko project. It’s a bit of a counterpoint in the yin-yang spectrum: All of the remix contributors are men but for Stewart.

“I thought it would be a fun opportunity to do something spontaneous, sans label, to see how these bois interpret and reinvent the songs,” she said. “I think part of me intentionally wanted to reach out to different men in my life specifically because the album was so heavily pushed as a girly kind-of release. But it’s cool to see just how many dudes can get down with it.”

Apparently, the yet-to-be-named remix contributors did push some boundaries sonically.  

“It spans a wide gamut of sounds and doesn’t necessarily consist of only synthwave,” Stewart said. “I told them to do literally whatever they want.”

She also is preparing to perform her Mecha Maiko work live for the first time. She’s buying gear and teaching herself Mainstage, an Apple program designed for use in live shows.

“Live performance is a whole new world for me,” she said.  

In May Stewart will play at House of Targ in Ottawa and has tentatively booked a show in Toronto with Dana Jean Phoenix later in the summer. Phoenix says she “can’t wait” to perform with Stewart (“Ladies of ‘The 6ix’ unite!” she says.)

“A couple other events are on my radar, but right now the most important thing is bridging the gap between being a recording artist and, now, a performer,” Stewart said. “I’ve been obsessing over my ideal experience for a show — visuals, costume design, lighting, props. It’s so much simpler when all you have to worry about is the music. I just feel like at this point, I owe my fans a good show.”

You can buy Mecha Maiko’s Mad But Soft in digital or vinyl forms via NRW Records. To stay tuned for tour dates and other updates, Mecha Maiko is on Facebook.

Update, March 2019: Don’t miss her followup, Okiya.