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Powerful Experimental Pop

Káryyn seems perpetually overwhelmed—one moment by the complex and unpredictable machinery of life, another by its dazzling simplicity. On an August evening, she sits cross-legged in a cozy north London studio, where she is toiling away at a trove of experimental pop songs that may, if she lets them, become her debut album. The discussion is dense, a voyage through her harrowing family history laced with digressions into the afterlife, quantum physics, and the prefrontal cortex of jazz musicians. At one point, mid-sentence, she interrupts herself by saying, “I want to say something.” After 90 minutes of conversation, she mysteriously apologizes and proceeds to pace the room. She sits in an office chair, puts her face in her hands, and thanks me for listening. Then she asks for a hug and beckons me into a cluttered little space next door.

In the corner of the room looms an upright piano, strings exposed to microphones on angled stands. Barren white walls create a sense of erased space around the instrument, like brackets enclosing an afterthought. Káryyn stands with one foot on the piano’s mute pedal and performs three half-formed songs, her dreamy falsetto scything through ancient-sounding chords. During the finale, which she wrote the day before, the piano drops out as she sustains a rolling vowel sound. Turning to face me, she lets her voice tremble while forming an expanding ball with her hands, as if to demonstrate particles filling a balloon. She holds the note four or five seconds, in the space of which I forget to breathe. The impromptu performance is as strange and poignant as everything else about Káryyn and her curiously affecting music.

There’s a certain breadth to her handful of songs to date, uploaded to her SoundCloud page over the last six months and sometimes accompanied by videos compiled from childhood home-movies shot in her second home of Syria. On “Yajna,” her synths sound nuclear, mangled by unsettled beats; “Moving Masses,” recorded seven-hours deep into a nocturnal jam, is altogether gentler, a work of celestial simplicity. Despite joking about her talent for disrupting technology—on her first day in this studio, the entire complex had a power outage as soon as she started singing—she describes a meticulous process for manipulating sounds and space. She’s been called a “sonic architect”; in fact, she’s as much like a wrecking ball. Both sides will likely be on full display during her latest project’s upcoming debut headlining show in London, and they’re also apparent on her deconstructed debut single, “Aleppo,” a meditation on the Syrian city; snares shudder, shrapnel synths gleam, and operatic vocal fragments scatter like dust in the stratosphere.

Although borne by wild imagination, the story of “Aleppo” has tangled personal roots. From a young age, Káryyn understood that a legacy of misfortune has haunted her family all the way back to the Armenian Genocide of the early 20th century. “My grandfather was in my great-grandmother’s belly when her husband’s head was delivered to her door,” Káryyn tells me, her active eyes swiveling behind gold-framed glasses. “They collected the intellectuals and beheaded them and then delivered them back to their wives.”

Káryyn grew up between the States and Syria with her mom and “badass classical guitar player” dad. (He was a doctor by day.) In her youth, for three months a year, Syria was young Káryyn’s anchor, a second home. Her Syrian-based relatives lived in Aleppo and the nearby city of Idlib, where they owned a hotel and restaurant before ISIS took over in 2011. After the country’s civil war spread to the capital, it became too dangerous for her to return. “I thought I’d get married there,” she tells me. “It is devastating to know that there’s an entire place in this sepia tone in my mind, dusty and bustling, that is gone.”

She moved from Alabama to Indiana as a baby, and then, at age 10, to L.A., where she lives today. By her teens, she was writing hyperactive, narrative folk songs; her singing was inspired by Arabic music, and she says she played her guitar “like a machete.” This volatile oeuvre eventually won her an unlikely sit-down with a high-profile record label. “They made me listen to the Beatles for an hour,” Káryyn recalls, raising both eyebrows. “They told me, ‘You should do this, and then that to get here.’ I literally left. My sister was waiting for me outside, like, ‘That’s your way in! You have to go!’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do my own thing.’”

She did. What she calls a “reservoir of confidence” buoyed her to young adulthood, and at 16, she quit high school and transferred to Mills College in the Bay Area. A class called Women in Creative Music, tutored by the electronic composer Pauline Oliveros, inspired her to abandon medical studies. She made music by smashing light bulbs, manipulating tapes, and mastering various samplers and programming units. Her anarchic shows—fusing punk, electronic, and jazz—were a hit, at least among the 40 or so people who showed up. (Part of the reason she declines to publicize her full name, it seems, is to avoid detection of music from this period in her 20s.) Again, labels gathered. And again, something in Káryyn snapped. “One day, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m very deeply unhappy,’” she recalls.