If you want the stars to hear your soul:
A Profile of Ayla Nereo
Hey my brothers and sisters
This is we, connected at the roots
The roots that grew us, the roots that grew us, the roots that
Grew these trees, that lit these lights, that lit these lights, that lit these lights
So if you want the stars to hear you
If you want the stars to hear your soul, you got to
Go as the stars go, let all your life show
Take the darkness from my eyes
We sit cross-legged on the ground in front of the live stage. It is dark but the stars wink above us in blurred, glittering bundles. The night chill drums across our bare arms, against our cheeks, like fingertips. The stage lights are bright as Ayla emerges, luminous. Her voice, dense and clear, orchestral, the tone of bells and birds, floods the pitch. We are quiet and illuminated. We breathe in a circle. Ayla, our galaxy guide.
The roots that grew us
“My music is for these ones.”
The afternoon before her set, I interview Ayla Nereo. When I ask her who she makes music for, Ayla gestures up at branches, turns her eyes toward the rare and welcome shade the trees offer in the midday, late-July heat. We sit on couches so squishy we sink, in the media zone behind the Mighty Oak Stage. She is headlining the Live Lounge Sunday night here at Enchanted Forrest Gathering in Laytonville, California; her partner, David Sugalski, is headlining the Mighty Oak tonight. Today is scorching – we both arrive at the festival only a couple hours earlier and rush to meet after a panel where she spoke on women in the music industry.
Smiling as she lowers her gaze, Ayla continues, “It is my intention to be a receiver for whatever will help, for those who don’t speak in the human-tone, or for children who don’t speak in the human-adult tone. For women who are oppressed, and anyone who isn’t able to communicate in a way of speaking that is listened to.”
Ayla’s songs take root, reach, and burrow / bloom and blossom / fertilize earth.
“My music is for all of us in our human family, to remember that right relationship, which I also forget. I get caught up in the human things, and I feel my music is for remembering the right relationship with all beings on this planet, especially the non-human ones. We’re really powerful. We get to take care of this amazing garden planet.”
Jump off that cliff
In 2012, a folk singer who was learning loop pedal went to Ecstatic Dance in Oakland, where, through mutual friends, she met a producer whose career was just starting to take off. That producer was David Sugalski, who you may know as jumpsuit-and-permaculture-advocate, and producer of funky dance-floor anthems, The Polish Ambassador.
Ayla only knew David as “a DJ or something,” and asked if he’d be interested in remixing some of her songs. “Of course,” Ayla says, laughing a little, “he didn’t know who I was, but he was very gracious. He said ‘maybe.’” They arranged a time to collaborate.
Fate is funny: Three days before they were supposed to meet in the studio, David’s computer died. He invited Ayla to hike instead. By the end of the hike, David asked her if she was dating anyone.
“I liked how direct he was,” Ayla says. “I don’t think I’d ever been asked that. Other guys are like, ‘uh, do you wanna hang out?’ He’s got that side of him; it’s clear and direct and really awesome. For our second date, we went on another hike. For our third and fourth, too, because we like hiking. We started to get to know each other and hung out on and off for probably about a month, and—there he is, I’m talking about you!”
At this point during our interview, as fate would have it, David walked past, and—graciously—agreed to join our conversation.
Who knows how many hikes later, Ayla and David are, in Ayla’s words, “partners in love, partners in music, partners in activism.” “And gardening. And adventuring,” she later adds.
“I don’t feel like I hide, really, anything in my life,” David says, about how he defines their relationship. “Ayla’s my love and she’s my partner and that’s totally available for the world to know. I think since day one we’ve been honest about that. Some people are curious and they don’t realize we’re in a relationship but I don’t think we’ve ever hid that.”
“We collaborate on every level,” Ayla says.
“Another thing is that our relationship is beautiful and it’s a joy and it’s a journey. A lot of people look at it and they idealize it, and we totally have our issues, just like any relationship does,” David adds.
“Maybe more than most because we do so much together,” Ayla says, laughing.
Looking at Ayla and David together, this is hard to imagine. They gaze starry-eyed at one another and practically finish each other’s sentences. David, without hearing her answer, uses the same words to describe their relationship as Ayla does.
Ayla continues: “It’s very similar to people who have chosen to run a business together, who are also in a life partnership. It’s just a thing to navigate. You have to work to keep those separate, to say, ‘okay, we’re going on a date, let’s not talk about Ayla’s project or David’s project, let’s just swim in the Yuba.’ It’s also woven into our lives because our art is our life and our art is our business so that can get mushy.”
Spin spin with me
That “mushy” she mentions is the collaboration that happened in the year after those first few hikes. What started as two songs on David’s 2013 TPA release, Ecozoic evolved into Wildlight, which, musically, marries Ayla’s spiritual folk to David’s dance beats.
“I love bridging things,” Ayla explains. “Seeing how it can be a hybrid, a new form. Bringing conscious words into a musical genre that maybe has some deeper frequencies in a literal sense, but sometimes has a darker edge, or maybe isn’t about being so conscious, it’s more about partying or dancing. It’s almost an unintentional subversion of the system, getting in there and sprinkling seeds into someone’s backyard.”
Just before the two met, Ayla decided to immerse herself in making music full-time. She gave up her side jobs tutoring and teaching songwriting, her place in Oakland, and was accepted to the Chalk Hill Artist Residency in Healdsburg, where she wrote and recorded BeHeld. Sacrificing her life in the Bay Area was hard, she admits, but she felt it was crucial to go somewhere she could live on less to focus all her energy on music.
This energy shift happened after she started to experiment with loop pedal, and noticed the reactions it generated.
“I only started playing with the loop pedal maybe five years ago. Right before I met David, I went on a tour and that was when I had the realization: With the looping, something was different. I was on guitar, but then I’d get on loop pedal and people were like, ‘what is she doing?’ It was creating a certain energy. It was the first time I’d done a tour where I made money, instead of breaking even, or losing money.”
It took Ayla and David about a year to establish Wildlight—“we were kind of seeing if and how collaboration would happen”—but they did not stop there.
Terra Bella brought Jeffrey Haynes—better known as conscious rapper Mr. Lif—into the studio with Ayla and David to lay down rhymes. Like Wildlight, Terra Bella began with a couple songs, “Let the Rhythm Just” and “Lost and Found,” on David’s 2014 TPA album, Pushing Through the Pavement. From there Ayla says, “we were like, ‘let’s do some more, let’s do an EP or something. But I don’t want to just do the hook, I want to write some verses.’”
Before Terra Bella, Ayla hadn’t listened to much hip-hop. She asked Mr. Lif for recommendations, and ended up bumping Dilated Peoples and Aesop Rock for inspiration.
“I would go into the café and just listen, listen, listen,” she explains. “I’d let stream of consciousness, Ayla-version of hip-hop words come through, and then I’d listen to our song and try to fit it in. I don’t know if it would be called hip-hop by people who do hip-hop, but it was way out of my box and it was so fun. I think the cadence of hip-hop is brilliant.”
Beyond music, Ayla and David collaborate on activism and gardening. For them, this is often one and the same. Inspired to harness the energy their shows inspire, and the community spirit fans bring to festivals, Ayla and David started Action Days, a permaculture activism movement. The first iteration was David’s TPA Permaculture Action Tour, which paired TPA shows with community action days, and was so successful they decided to keep going, and to found their nonprofit, ActionDays.Us.
“Action Days become like mini festivals sometimes,” Ayla explains. “300 people show up and there’s a live music zone and people are singing, and all these local organizations have brought their kombucha and their food and they’re feeding people. It’s the most fun work party ever—that’s the goal.”
For Ayla, the melding of music and activism feels natural.
“A big form of activism that I feel happens through my music is to bring us back to a place of wonder that we knew very clearly when we were young and the default was to be outside, the default was to interact with this world. Then we get covered by all the shrouds, the things that come with being an adult, the ‘you gotta do this and do that,’ and we lose our sense of wonder. But it’s not lost, it’s there, it’s just about sparking that again.”
And do you remember from where you were born?
Ayla Nereo, the human being, was born and raised amongst Sonoma County’s rolling hills, at the north-western edge of the California Bay Area. Her parents “unschooled” Ayla and her brother, Davyd, opting to teach them at home, and educate their children about the world through experiences.
“Our learning process was, ‘let’s take a trip to the Grand Canyon. You have to do creative writing every day about what you’re doing, learn the history of this place, read about it, draw pictures, and really engage with what you’re seeing.’ It was about really being present where we were. I think of travel as being an amazing teacher.”
Her parents’ philosophies about learning still resonate with Ayla today.
“Pretty much every time I talk to someone who doesn’t live in the same bubble I live in, that’s an amazing teacher,” she says. Even though she finds lessons everywhere she goes, Ayla still wants to fly further; to travel and share her music more with international audiences.
“I love traveling, and I’m feeling drawn to go beyond the United States. It’s partly just ’cause that would be awesome to share the music out there, but also because even traveling within the United States, my bubble gets popped really fast. I want to go and see what’s going on in countries where permaculture isn’t a word because they’re still growing their own food, where Western culture hasn’t totally taken over: commercialism, consumerism. Any opportunity to go out and learn more in a way that’s not what I’m used to seeing is really good for me, to be a good human. And it is definitely good for the music.”
We were born of burning hearts
Ayla Nereo, singer, songwriter, and loop-pedal mystic, began writing music ten years ago. Ayla started playing music just before she graduated Stanford in 2006, where she studied psychology and lived in a hippie co-op called Synergy. In the 50-person co-house where students baked their own bread, shared meals and work duties, and “streaked through campus once a year,” Ayla found her voice.
“It was a really amazing, creative living environment in a school that had not been very creative up until then,” she says. “I started doing music in my last year at college and it saved my life. I was so stressed and unhappy.”
She recorded her first solo album, Play Me a Time, by just “singing into her computer,” and made CD booklets by hand, reproducing them at a copy shop. Around the same time, she also started to make music with her brother Davyd as the band Beatbeat Whisper.
“He’s an amazing musician,” Ayla says of her brother, who, in addition to playing music, works as a recording engineer and does sound for Boz Scaggs. The music Ayla played back then was, in her words, “soft and sweet,” and “folky;” her powerful voice accompanied by acoustic guitar and piano. After Ayla released Floating Felt in 2009 and began to play house concerts and other small shows, she decided to learn loop pedal.
I show myself to know myself
This May, the Huffington Post released a report on how many women performed at ten popular U.S. music festivals. They found while women comprise half of festival attendees, acts featuring men-only were the majority—something anyone who’s attended a festival of any size has likely observed. Many publications cite the statistic that only five percent of recognized music producers are women, a troubling trend seen across the (arts) world.
During our talk, Ayla cited similar statistics and stated her intention to work with as many women as possible on future projects.
“I’m going to work with men and women, because I’m going to work with people who are awesome,” Ayla clarifies. “But I’m also going to start really intentionally working with mostly women on projects to do my piece in balancing everything.”
Except for a few dismissive sound-check engineers, who addressed only David before Wildlight sets, Ayla’s been fortunate to not experience much overt sexism during her career. But she’s still affected by a patriarchal culture that values masculine energy over feminine, and criticizes women for advocating for themselves, while men who do the same are often rewarded.
“At least for myself as a woman, I hold more feminine energy, a yin energy, and our culture is very masculine—yang energy,” Ayla explains. “Because yin energy is more accessible to me than yang energy, it’s an extra piece that I get to learn about and navigate. That’s potentially part of the reason men are more represented in the arts: the arts, along with every other career, are still driven by a more masculine way of being in the world.”
For all aspiring musicians, but especially for women, Ayla says the greatest challenge is getting out of your own way to share your creations with the world.
“Put your art out there. That is the hardest part, honestly, because we second-guess ourselves so much. But it’s easy in this day to put your art out there. If you’re a musician it’s so easy to put things on Soundcloud, to put things on Facebook, to create a website. It’s even free. You can make beautiful things. I think a big part of the difficulty of it is there is so much self-doubt we encounter before we share. Both men and women experience so much self-doubt. But I think there’s a particular level of shame and doubt that is perpetuated in the media toward women. It’s this, ‘you’re not good enough’ message that is very subliminal. Not to say it doesn’t happen with men, but there’s a particular hurdle for women to overcome.”
Ultimately, Ayla wants to be herself and says she’s inspired by other women artists who’ve done the same.
“I’ve looked up to some interesting, strange artists. I’ve looked up to a lot of filmmakers. I’ve looked up to musicians that might be considered avant-garde or unusual. Like Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush. Those really unique voices that are not the normal standard of beauty for a voice or art.”
“I look up to women who are not playing the game where women need to be sexy to make it as an artist. I know that when I start looking into it, it makes me want to rebel, and that’s not the answer either. I just need to be myself. I look up to artists who are doing whatever they need to do to make their art. That aren’t making it about playing into beauty standards for women.”
Sound it loud, beam it out
“This album is devoted to this planet. It opens with a song that I received from the trees. It’s the biggest creation I’ve ever birthed. It’s been really amazing.”
The Code of the Flowers is set to release on September 9th and will be, like Ayla’s previous releases, available for name-your-price on Bandcamp. Her newest solo album since 2013’s Hollow Bone, Ayla describes the sound as having “elements of Hollow Bone, but not quite as pared-down.”
“It’s the first time I’ve worked with the amazing Ryan Herr and Tyson Leonard—we basically lived in the studio for two weeks. We were doing 10-12 hour days for 8 days straight, laying down arrangements. Tyson is not only an amazing recording engineer, he also plays violin. He was laying down whole orchestra sections of violin on top of each other. Ryan plays everything—he does so many things. I was playing drums and doing percussion, playing piano and doing vocals, all these different things. We had guest musicians. My bandmates came in.”
For Ayla, who loves the classical music she grew up on, the orchestral arrangements in The Code of the Flowers are a return to her musical roots and a chance to lead listeners on a complex journey.
“It’s really exciting to release something that’s more of a full sound, more of a cinematic, textural language landscape than anything I’ve ever done before, because I did grow up loving that music and it’s the closest I’ve come to creating something like that.”
Ayla graced us with songs from her forthcoming album during her Enchanted Forrest set. The stories she wove were powerfully psychedelic webs. Ayla and her band drew us into their mythology with dreamy lyrics, rich vocals, and symphonic instrumentation that included drums, piano, guitar, and harp. On the glowing stage and surrounded by trees, Ayla sounded ethereal, and vibrated with the energy of someone totally in her element.
“Getting to perform amidst trees is my favorite thing. I guess performing in nature in general, because my muse is nature and I’m actually performing the songs to the muses. It’s this amazing energetic loop where I get to be a lot more open. I’m looking around at all these beings, thinking, ‘you gave me this song! I’m singing for you.’”
First image courtesy of Cremerica Photography (Enchanted Forest Gathering)
All other images courtesy of Tobin Photography