Kaya Wilkins, better known as Okay Kaya, is a Norwegian-American musician, actress and model. She released Watch This Liquid Pour Itself in 2020 via Jagjaguwar. The album received three out of five stars from the British daily newspaper, The Guardian.
Years active: 2015–present
Born age: 14 August 1990, 32 years old and 9 months, Nesoddtangen, Akershus, Norway
Sun Sign: Leo
Hair Color: Brown
Eye Color: Dark Brown
Height: 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)
Measurements: 32.5-23-35 in / (EU) 83-59-89 cm
Bra size: 32A (US) / 70A (EU)
Father: Joe Bataan
Mother: Vanessa Williams
Sibling: Crystal Gayle
Wilkins was born in Nesoddtangen, 4 miles outside of Oslo and raised in New Jersey. Raised by her mother along with 5 brothers, she has both Scandanavian and African American roots.
Okay Kaya is the project of Kaya Wilkins, whose unflinching insights cut all the deeper thanks to her knowing wit and smoky vocals. On 2018’s Both and 2020’s Spellemann Award-winning Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, she explored issues like mental illness, health care, and sexual fluidity with fearless vulnerability. Released in 2022, SAP, a concept album about consciousness, was recorded mostly in isolation but ultimately included appearances from the likes of Nick Hakim, L’Rain‘s Taja Cheek, and the Moldy Peaches‘ Adam Green.
Wilkins’ first release as Okay Kaya was the song “Damn, Gravity”, which was released in 2015. Wilkins released her first full-length album, Both, in 2018. The album was recorded with her boyfriend Aaron Maine of the band Porches. In 2020, Wilkins released her second full-length album under the moniker Okay Kaya titled Watch This Liquid Pour Itself in 2020 via Jagjaguwar. The album received three out of five stars from The Guardian. She played her first acting role in the Norwegian drama Thelma. In August 2020, Wilkins released her mixtape, Surviving is the New Living.
Raised in Nesoddtangen, a village outside of Oslo, Wilkins grew up with a brother who played in black metal bands and a mother who whose record collection became the foundation of her musical education. Early on, she was more captivated by studying dance than making music, but that changed in her late teens, when she moved to New York to work as a model. Her first songs — which she wrote on a guitar she got when she was 13 — were musical diary entries that allowed her to explore her deepest thoughts with darkly witty lyrics and delicate acoustic melodies.
Wilkins began releasing her music as Okay Kaya in 2015, when the label Hot Charity issued the singles “Damn, Gravity” and “Clenched Teeth.” In 2017, she collaborated with the Danish producer Vera and with King Krule on The Ooz track “Slush Puppy.” That year, she also appeared in her first film, Joachim Trier’s Thelma. The following year, Okay Kaya’s debut album Both arrived on Wilkins‘ own Heavy Body label; she recorded the album in her Brooklyn home studio and co-produced it with Porches‘ Aaron Maine.
Both‘s acclaim led Wilkins to sign with Jagjaguwar in 2019, a deal she commemorated with a velvety cover of Cher‘s “Believe.” For Okay Kaya’s cathartic second album, 2020’s Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, Wilkins worked with co-producers Jacob Portrait and John Caroll Kirby. It took home Norway’s Spellemann prize for best Indie/Alternative album. That August, Jagjaguwar issued the project mixtape Surviving Is the New Living. Co-produced by Wilkins and Nature Boy, it was followed by another mixtape, October 2021’s The Incompatible Okay Kaya.
In the meantime, Wilkins moved to Europe for various museum appearances and art exhibitions, including an installation that amplified music made underwater. While sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, she worked on Okay Kaya’s third official album, which she wrote, performed, engineered, and produced in isolation using studios loaned by friends. It was partly inspired by undergoing ketamine therapy. She eventually finished the album after returning to New York and inviting friends to record finishing touches at Gaia Studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Among the nearly 20 guests were Nick Hakim, Deem Spencer, Adam Green, Taja Cheek, and Norwegian compatriot Farao (Kari Jahnsen). With Wilkins making an admittedly abstract comparison between certain processes of humans and trees, the resulting SAP arrived on Jagjaguwar in November 2022.
Still, it’s one thing to sing, and another to talk about it, especially when what you’re singing is — and here are a few of my favorite examples from the album — “sex with me is mediocre,” or “sometimes I rub my ghost dick until I can almost see it,” or “what if the pills I take will stop me getting wet?” Which might be why, as she picks up the call to her first interview of several during this press cycle, Kaya sounds a little shaky. While she’s a prolific model and esteemed actress, having appeared in campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein, as well as the acclaimed horror film Thelma in 2017, it soon becomes clear that while not afraid to share the grimiest, bile-filled, and truest parts of herself, she’s terrified of answering the questions that her art asks.
MTV News: Are you in the mood to be interviewed?
Kaya: I’m basically never in the mood.
MTV News: How come?
Kaya: Because I have to answer questions but I don’t feel like I have the answer to anything.
MTV News: Well, here’s something you might be able to answer. When researching the album title, I found a bunch of YouTube videos on something called polyethylene. Am I on the right track?
Kaya: That’s it. It’s half-influenced by that specific video that’s called “watch this liquid pour itself.” It’s a liquid that has a really big mass, but also, the themes on the record are influenced by a purge of a liquid. Some people talk about melancholy as sort of like a black bile that’s in the body. And I guess, what I saw as a visual was this thing coming out — outwards, upwards. In earlier times there were four kinds of liquids which were identified with different moods. You know, blood, yellow bile, black bile. I just found it fascinating that so many different people could describe this feeling with a word or a liquid.
MTV News: That seems like a common theme in your songwriting — using biology or certain sciences to make sense of your own mood. It’s like you’re pathologizing yourself.
Kaya: Yeah, that’s definitely fun to explore. Sometimes it’s all I have to describe what’s going on at a certain time
MTV News: On one song you’re “mother nature’s bitch,” on another the whole world is your “daddy” — is there any value to exploring sublimation in your songwriting?
Kaya: I think I’m just compelled towards that kind of sublimation. In writing, I can embrace those sides of me. Sometimes I feel petty, I feel sad, I feel weak, humiliated, et cetera. Once I’ve written it down I can try and make it into something meaningful and not just something pathetic. I like to work that way because it means I can check myself a little bit. Those emotions are valid but they’re also just funny. It’s like spiraling a little bit and then looking back afterwards and being like, holy shit!
MTV News: When you’re in that spiral, you’re like, OK, this is just the logic of my universe now, but when you come out of it, you’re like, what the fuck, what was I?!
Kaya: [Laughs] Totally. And also, the feelings you had in that spiral were really strong, confident feelings. I think that’s why I can still feel happy when listening back to these songs, because I was in a different place. That’s probably the deal with all records. You feel the way that you do at that certain time — that’s essentially what recording is. And then you’re just like, OK, that happened!
MTV News: But then you must have had some kind of incentive to record and to put those certain feelings down?
Kaya: I still don’t really know the answer to that question. I played a show yesterday and completely lost my voice. I was playing my record for the first time for people and although I wish it could have gone a lot better, it was just a way of communicating with other people, that super interesting connection.
MTV News: You’ve done a substantial amount of modeling and acting, but is music the one avenue that lets you have that connection?
Kaya: I’m not sure. It’s definitely the one where I feel I do the most because it requires you to sit down, to write, and to record. I compulsively make things but I don’t know the reason why yet. I’m trying to figure it out.
MTV News: Because you’re so open in your music about your mental health, now that you’re doing press, are you having to reckon with questions like, “Should I be a spokesperson for these issues as well now?”
Kaya: Thank you for asking that because it is really different talking about it in conversation than it is singing about it on an album. Because I’m still trying to figure my shit out, I don’t really feel like I have prevailed enough to be a spokesperson. It’s all a process — I just try to document it for myself, and hopefully people can connect with that if they’re going through something similar.
MTV News: Do you feel a pressure to be resilient for those people who are listening?
Kaya: I think in some ways I am, but I don’t know how I’ll feel from day to day. I guess that’s why I said I’m scared of questions, because I’m still trying to figure everything out. All I can provide is an openness. Maybe that’s helpful to some people, I’m not sure.
MTV News: When you write a song, what parts of yourself do you want to be understood?
Kaya: I use a lot of tools, but the way I work lyrically, I tend to be as crafty as possible while trying to come across as straightforward. The listener can either come away thinking “that was a sweet little pop ditty,” or they can connect with it in another way. I love leaving it open in that way, but the lyrics are very graphic in what I’m trying to say about myself.
MTV News: I don’t want to skip over the fact that all of these songs are actually pretty funny. I mean, the word “dick” comes up a lot.
Kaya: Yeah, it’s also pretty painful to be funny, but that’s more like how you communicate in real life. It’s also really fun to sing those things, and to sing them as beautifully as I can. I’m definitely having a lot of fun with all the graphic wordplay.
MTV News: I love how a lot of the choruses on this album are literally anticlimactic, like how on “Asexual Wellbeing” you sing, “Sex with me is mediocre.”
Kaya: [Laughs] Yeah, just putting it out there. That line came after I went to a karaoke bar with a friend, where everyone was really good at singing, and I tried to sing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and completely bombed. Then when I got home, I thought, what can I sing about myself that’s sexual and true to how I feel right now? So I started thinking about the Rihanna song where she goes “sex with me so amazing.” I don’t know if that’s true because I haven’t slept with Rihanna, but it feels like it’s true, and I wanted to explore my own truth in that moment. I was feeling unfuckable, ’cause I had a yeast infection.
MTV News: The name “Stacy” pops up a lot on the album. What’s her deal?
Kaya: It’s a joke with my friends where I just call everyone Stacy, and I also really want a greyhound and I wanna name it Stacy, because it would just be a little bratty dog, really nervous, and I would be able to calm her down. I can’t wait to meet her one day.
MTV News: Has Twitter informed the way you write at all? Some of your lyrics — and this isn’t a bad thing — read like @SoSadToday tweets
Kaya: Some of them definitely start out like tweets, because tweets are kind of straight to the point, they’re sometimes catchy. Pop music does that too, so there’s a mix of those worlds. I love to be short and concise, and I love how a lot of writers are playing around with the medium of Twitter. I certainly spend a lot of time on it.
MTV News: Is there anything on this album you didn’t achieve that you wanted to?
Kaya: I’m trying to be kind to myself but yeah, I keep thinking about new ways to write things. For a lot of musicians, when they’re in the album cycle, they’re in a different headspace, and I’m currently in a groove of writing something that’s quite different. What I meant by “being kind to myself” is that I need to just let this record be what it was at the time, and accepting that. Now I can just let it go and people can listen to it and hopefully get something out of it, and I can keep exploring.
MTV News: What stage of exploration are you at at the moment?
Kaya: I’ve been working on a song about wanting to be a DJ for about two months now, which I think is gonna be pretty funny. I can’t wait to make another record but I’m also trying to make a space for myself that doesn’t just involve constant writing.
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