Arts interview

Kyle Markland ’22 just released his first album, ‘September’s Child’

‘The Tech’ interviews Kyle on his new album release, his songwriting process, and his long-term goals with music

9482 kyle live 1   rajiv movva
Kyle Markland ’22 performs his music live at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. On Sept. 18, Kyle released his first album, ‘September’s Child.’
courtesy of raj movva

We MIT students aren’t particularly known for our creative pursuits. Perhaps it’s an unfair generalization, but there’s no denying that under the dome, you’re definitely more likely to find someone grinding on their 6.009 lab than writing poetry. So, on Friday morning, when I had the brilliant idea of finishing my bolognese sauce with cilantro instead of the textbook parsley, I felt like I was taking a huge step forward. On behalf of all MIT students, I’d shaken our reputation as too technical to experiment with the arts (FYI, probably just stick with parsley).

Then, an hour later, I interviewed Kyle Markland ’22, and was deeply humbled. Kyle pays no heed to tired stereotypes about MIT students not being artistic enough. Armed with prodigious multi-instrumental talent and a healthy dose of grit, Kyle wrote, recorded, and produced a whole album while a full-time MIT student. In quarantine, he’s finally had the time to put in those finishing touches, and his debut album September’s Child, released under the stage name Lenseye, is now out in the world.

I got a chance to learn a bit more about Kyle as a person, his process writing the album, and his goals with music more broadly.

Raj Movva: How do people at MIT know you, and what communities are you part of?

Kyle Markland: On campus, I’m part of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, as well as the MIT Symphony Orchestra, where I play bass. I dabble a little bit with the MIT wind ensemble, and I’m also a regular member of the MIT Running Club, or at least back when we met on campus. And the MIT Music Production Collaborative as well; I’m on the general exec for that.

RM: Has your musical reputation been around since freshman fall, or did you become more public about it over time?

KM: I was always in the orchestra and when I arrived on campus in freshman fall, I was the guy who was in the orchestra or the bass player, and it kind of evolved. Eventually I got my guitar up to Maseeh Hall, and — I think you probably remember seeing me around with it every now and then — it was always more of a private music thing, where I’d just be playing my guitar in my room, and it’s definitely evolved into a more public facing aspect of my life now that I’m publishing music for the world.

RM: How’d you end up in Course 3?

KM: I’m specifically 3A-6, which is Materials Science with a bit of Computer Science thrown in there, and that’s a bit of an interesting story. I came into MIT 99% sure that I wanted to do 2 [Mechanical Engineering], specifically 2A-6. It was 3.091 [Intro to Solid State Chemistry] that actually changed my mind. I was sitting in 3.091 and [Prof. Jeff] Grossman always had this “Why this Matters” section of his lecture, and that’s when I realized that a lot of the problems I care about solving are really Course 3 problems. And things like software and coding have always been near and dear to my heart, so I wanted some way to study materials but also incorporate a lot of those aspects in there, which is why I ended up pursuing 3A-6, a pretty unique spin on regular materials science I think.

RM: Before we go into the music, some rapid fire questions. What’s your favorite MIT class so far?

KM: There’s a few that would make the top three, but if I had to choose one, that’d be 3.024, which is Electrical and Optical Properties of Materials. So it’s basically Course 3’s quantum class. For the final project, I got to make a science rap video, which was a really interesting experience and the professor ended up loving it. 

RM: What’s your favorite album?

KM: I’m more of a person who has a different favorite album for each week, I’d say. But probably my all time favorite would have to be American Idiot by Green Day. Or I also really like OK Computer by Radiohead.

RM: What’s your ideal Friday night at MIT?

KM: Probably my ideal Friday night looks like me and two or three other friends hanging out in our rooms, playing racing games together. That’s always something that’s a lot of fun, and then we’ll probably go out to get frozen yogurt at Cafe 472.

RM: The classic. What’s your 472 order?

KM: It’s a bit different every time, but the one constant is it has to contain something with chocolate.

RM: Oh man, okay. I can’t say I agree with that one, but…

KM: I’m a big chocolate guy.

RM: All right, respectable. Okay, next question: what’s the best bathroom at MIT?

KM: The best bathroom at MIT… It’s, um, wow, I’m kinda hesitating on revealing this because then everyone’s gonna go to this bathroom now. But it’s a little-known gem in the MIT Nano building, Building 12. It’s when you go to that lounge area, there’s this nice, pristine, beautiful, clean bathroom that almost no one ever uses. When I’m just walking through the Infinite, that’s the go-to. Yeah, now that I said this everyone’s just going to go there.

RM: I don’t know, that one’s already kinda popular. Maybe you don’t know about the more hidden places…

KM: Yeah, well, in general you just gotta go up a level. Every time a bathroom gets popular, just go to the next one a floor up. 

RM: Exactly, yeah, that’s a good tip for sure. Finally, what fruit do you eat most often?

KM: Bananas. It’s one of those things that, it’s just there. It’s so convenient and I just gotta have them.

RM: Let’s move on to the music now. First, what does Lenseye mean?

KM: It’s just a reference to the fact that I wear glasses. I thought it was a cheeky way to nod to what I think is an important part of my identity.

RM: I remember you also mentioned wanting to nod to Radiohead, and I guess the format of the name sorta aligns.

KM: Yeah, exactly.

RM: Who were the most formative people for you in starting on this journey towards writing music?

KM: The first person I would have to identify is a good friend of mine, Tom, who I met back in high school in my freshman year. He’s the one who really pulled me into this whole music world, not just performing but also producing music, and making recordings that sound good. He really introduced me to what kind of power you have as a producer in your basement and what kind of good music you can make with that. Aside from him, I think throughout the whole journey of developing into a recording musician, just finding peers who are doing their own music projects. It’s inspiring to me how music now has this huge grassroots movement, anyone our age can pick it up and just start hacking away at it.

RM: Yeah. Do you think that grassroots aspect of music now has made it more difficult in a way? Because you know there are some success stories, but it’s also saturated the space. 

KM: It’s absolutely a double-edged sword. Because it’s more grassroots and accessible than it’s ever been, there are more people in it. It brings a new challenge: how to be creative, and how do you make your music differently than everyone else in a way that’s gonna stand out and be memorable. 

RM: So is that something you think about often, like “what’s my personal style and my personal brand, and how do I convey that in my music?”

KM: Yeah, that’s something that I think everyone that’s serious as an artist constantly has going through their head. A brand is a huge thing, it’s the image you present to the world. Just making everything cohesive, like “What am I like as a personality?” and “How do I reflect that in my music?” No one listens to music in a vacuum anymore. Back in the day, you would just hear the song on a radio, but now you have [social media platforms] that all supplement the experience. So I’m constantly thinking, how can I make my music more of a comprehensive ecosystem centered around who I am as a person and who I am as an artist.

RM: So what does your writing process look like? Do you lock yourself away in the basement and grind, or are you constantly thinking about what might sound good and just trying it out when you can?

KM: I always have ideas kinda floating around in my head. Usually I’ll just be doing whatever, working on homework, playing a game, or out running, and I’ll come up with an idea for something that will eventually build up into a song. It usually starts with something really small in the instrumental. My writing process is actually pretty backwards relative to what most people do. I start with an instrumental and I build that up and the lyrics that I write are actually the last part of the process most of the time. Usually I’ll come up with an idea for a cool bass, roll it around in my head, then grab an instrument and see how I can build the rest of the song around that.

RM: So is it really just ideas coming to you while you’re doing a bunch of other things, or are there any cues that you use to spark inspiration?

KM: A lot of the times it happens when I’m listening to music. I’ll hear a song that really gets to me and moves me. Usually it’s something in the sound that I identify and say, “That’s really cool. I want to capture that in something of my own.” Like if you listen to a song that’s super hype, or something really catchy, I think about how I can bring that into my own music. And usually I’ll try to work in that direction, but by the time I’m done it’s something completely different than the original, but the spirit is kinda there.

RM: What are your emotions going into this album release? Or in general, when you share your music with people, what do you feel?

KM: Very anxious, actually. There’s always a lot of nervous energy, because on some level, every artist is looking to feel accepted, to feel their art is valid. I know that’s kind of a backwards way of thinking about it, because as an artist you only make art for yourself and to express yourself. So, it’s an exercise in trying not to seek validation from other people and just letting the art and my self-expression stand on its own. But of course a lot of the anxiety feeling of “Oh, I hope people like it” kinda gets in the way.

But on the other hand, it’s a hugely exciting thing as well. So I’m anxious and excited at the same time. It almost feels like — I’m not gonna say it’s like my child because that’s kinda cheesy — but it’s this thing I’ve been working on for two years now and it’s finally out in the world. And when you do see people who end up enjoying it, and who fall in love with it, that’s one of the most validating experiences there is.

RM: In a previous interview, you mentioned that this album September’s Child tells the story of your transition to college. How did that vision take shape?

KM: The album telling the story of this transition to college over a few months started from the bottom up, with specific songs. For example, my song “Montauk” is about leaving high school and capturing this anxious and frustrated headspace that I was in, and the hope for something more liberating than high school. That turned into a song, and then I was like, how can I think of other steps along my way, during the development of the semester, and manifest those in songs. So it started from the experiences and the general headspace at specific points in time, writing those into songs, and then I arranged them all together in a way that would semi-cohesively tell the story from start to finish.

RM: For some songs  like “Homesick Atlantic Reverie,” I can definitely see how it fits into the album’s bigger picture. But how about something like “Corporate Advertainment”? Does that fit into the story?

KM: “Corporate Advertainment” actually has two meanings, one within the context of the album and one on its own. In the context of the album, it was this feeling, following Montauk, about how I’m in this new world at MIT, and there’s a certain capitalistic motivation behind coming here, like people want to get good jobs and make money. 

The other meaning of the song was inspired by the song “Lola” by the Kinks, which came out in 1970. In the song, they mentioned the brand Coca-Cola by name, and everyone was so disgusted that capitalism was intruding music. The band actually had to re-record a new version of the song that didn’t mention Coca-Cola. On the flip side, I feel like nowadays it’s so common for musicians to name drop brands and stuff as product placement, and so “Corporate Advertainment” is my reaction to that: my protest against the monetization of music. Things like, “we’ll write the album to a budget whiskey.” Or if some SoundCloud rapper wants to mention their Gucci slides or something like that. It’s almost as common as breathing air. “Corporate Advertainment” satirizes a completely different perspective that the public had in the 70s, that it’s a capitalist intrusion into music to mention brands. It was a big no-no. 

Frankly, the standalone meaning is a lot stronger. It’s a song that I thought was so cool and just couldn’t leave off the album. 

RM: Which song took you the longest to write? 

KM: I’ll answer a tangential question, which song I worked on for the longest. That’d be “Montauk,” which I started back in December 2018 to see how I can make a recording that sounds good. It was the first song I started writing and it really followed me through this whole process; it was my testbed for how I’m going to develop my sound, kinda like my guinea pig for trying out different styles.

RM: On the flip side of “Montauk,” was there a song that came super naturally?

KM: Absolutely. The song “Sleepyhead,” I probably wrote that entire song in one night, maybe even as little as a few hours, I think. It was late at night, I had just come home from my second semester at MIT, and whatever it was, I was just really on the grind that night. Everything about it came so naturally, the guitars, the harmonies, even the lyrics — which I usually struggle with — they were all there.

RM: Did you always plan for your first songs to be entirely performed by yourself? You know, all the vocals, all the different instruments? Or is that something you sort of just saw as a necessary step along the way to get your music out?

KM: That’s a great question. I was in a few different bands in high school, but none of them stuck around for long enough. It took awhile for it to dawn on me that if I really want to take this full circle, I have to sing my own songs because I wouldn’t be content with anyone else singing my songs right. My lyrics have the most meaning to me. And so that’s the gradual progression of me starting as wanting to be a bass or guitar player in a band, and then eventually transitioning into now: I’m the singer and the guitar player and the bass player and the drummer. The way I think of my music project is, it’s kind of like Panic! At The Disco or Nine Inch Nails, it’s a band with one person in it. But I’m 100% open to the idea of bringing in more people to help out with the band when the opportunity is right. And I have a few friends that I’d love to have come along with me.

RM: Living in COVID times, I’m curious how your work has been affected by quarantine. Has that changed the way you write, or your efficiency or anything?

KM: Honestly, being forced to be home for this long period of time is the best thing that ever happened to my album, because now I have so much more opportunity to work on it that I would’ve just never had before. I have my own quiet space all to myself whenever I want, to be able to record and experiment with different sounds and stuff. And I have all my instruments accessible to me again now and I just have more time to focus on it that I would not have had if I was on campus.

Bigger picture, being home has reaffirmed to me the importance of spending time with family. I really reconnected with my brother these last few months, and again that’s time I would’ve otherwise not had. And so I’m really grateful for this time I can spend with him. I don’t know necessarily that it has had too much of an influence on my music, but definitely on my outlook.

RM: Are there any aspects of your MIT experience that have been helpful or inspirational to your journey with music?

KM: A lot of my music I feel is a reaction to the experiences I’ve had at MIT, good and bad, positive and negative. It feels like most of the time the creative Kyle and the academic Kyle live in different spaces, but it’s really the creative Kyle that feeds off of the academic Kyle. Because during the normal week, I don’t have time to work on music, but when I have that free time, it becomes a creative purge of sorts. So it’s like they live in these two different spaces, but the creative Kyle’s always looking in and watching what the academic Kyle is doing and experiencing and reflecting that outwardly through music.

RM: How has being a “maker” shaped your music?

KM: It affects the instruments I use. I have one guitar and one bass in particular that are my instruments, in the sense that my guitar started its life as a normal guitar anyone can buy from the factory. Then I modified it a whole bunch to get a specific sound out of it. And then, my bass, I actually built from scratch. I spent a lot of time making this really custom thing. So I now have two instruments that sound like no one else’s; they’re really one-of-a-kind, because I made them. I think that helps give my music a very distinctive sound. These two one-of-a-kind instruments come out of being a maker and wanting to innovate.

RM: What does success mean for Lenseye? Do you have any sense for what you want this project to look like two, five years from now?

KM: I recognize it's extremely unlikely that I'll become like the next viral sensation on Spotify or TikTok or anything like that. What I'm looking for in terms of success is to be able to build up my following, steadily, from the bottom up, and just find people who really dig my music, my vibe, and everything I stand for. Even a small, passionate group of people, and build it up from there. 

I admit that my favorite band might be someone I’ve never heard of before. They might be so underground that they’re getting by with a few thousand Spotify listeners, but eventually they’ll gain enough notoriety that I’ll bump into them. I see myself in that same place where I could be writing someone’s favorite song, and they might not know it for a long time.

RM: So the goal is to just keep doing honest work that matters a lot to you, and then hopefully you’ll find the people that really vibe with it. 

KM: Exactly, yeah. It’s all about finding a small group of people who really care about what you’re doing and steadily growing it from there.

September’s Child is out on all streaming services now.