Updated: Aug 15, 2020
"There are so many people who have been a part of the drag community who were at the forefront of human rights movements and fighting for human rights. We owe so much to those individuals."
After her breakthrough work in the touring band Calpurnia, alongside young musicians Finn Wolfhard, Malcolm Craig, and Jack Anderson, Ayla Tesler Mabe diverged into a futher musical sphere, and is centering her work around teaching during quarantine. In her words, guitar is "One the most expressive instruments and it’s been intrinsic to so many of the most important musical movements throughout history. It’s pretty amazing to be able to discover what the guitar can do, and in a way, to be able to use it as an extension of my own voice. I’ve always been drawn to it." Looking to artists like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Hiatus Coyote, The Gipsy Kings, and Stevie Wonder for inspiration, the eclecticism in Ayla's artistry is extremely prominent. With her current band Ludic, Ayla explores the world of funk, pop, and jazz with a modern twist that's very refreshing. She and her band mates Max and Rhett Cunningham conjoin their many musical interests in an almost ingenious way, that keeps us on our toes every time. We were fortunate enough to sit down with Ayla to talk about her time with Calpurnia, upcoming projects with Ludic, and her overall love of music.
What guitars do you have in the back?
This one showed up two days ago, it’s a 1966 Fender Coronado II. It’s actually one of the coolest things I’ve acquired in my life thus far.
What part of Canada are you from?
I was born in Calgary, Alberta in the prairies. I lived there for about 3 years and then I moved to Vancouver, right on the west coast, and I’ve been here ever since. It’s a really wonderful place to have been able to grow up in and I’m so fortunate to be here.
What did your family do growing up and what type of music did they play around the house?
My parents are both mental health professionals and it was such an amazing experience to grow up with people who help others. There was a lot of South American inspired music around the house. The Gipsy Kings were definitely played a lot, which is more of a French/Spanish Romani take on Latin music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and lots of classical music. From The Beatles, I started to discover lots of other types of music, but that was mostly what I listened to when I was younger.
Who are your greatest musical influences that you discovered on your own?
In jazz specifically, people like Wes Montgomery, and of course Miles Davis. He’s really the gateway to jazz music for a lot of people and through him so many have been able to discover other players. He was leading the way through so many revolutions, not just for jazz music but for so many types of music in general. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Joe Pass is another guitar player. Through The Beatles I discovered The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and for me that was huge.
Billie Holiday was definitely that gateway drug for me, although she’s a vocalist.
But she’s really so much more than just a vocalist. I think her influence on not only music in general, but culture and society, and what she stood for as an artist, interestingly enough, is incredibly relevant today. It shows the power of her music and what she was speaking to in her artistry as well, which is very inspiring.
Are you a multi-instrumentalist? What draws you to guitar specifically?
I think I definitely love to explore lots of other instruments. I just love music and I love being able to sit with an instrument that I don’t understand. I think with all the instruments that I’ve explored, there’s something about the guitar that just really deeply connects with me. I think it’s one of the most expressive instruments and it’s been intrinsic to so many of the most important musical movements throughout history. It’s pretty amazing to be able to discover what the guitar can do, and in a way, to be able to use it as an extension of my own voice. I’ve always been drawn to it.
How did you learn guitar? Were you self taught or did you have someone show you the ropes?
I was initially self taught through exploring the internet and also through listening and trying to emulate the music that I loved. When I started exploring jazz I did find a teacher because there’s more of an academic understanding that can help in playing jazz. In some parts of my musicianship I really love reaching out to other people for help but in other parts I’ve really found it so rewarding to just explore on my own. Particularly music theory, I’ve taken a more autodidactic approach where I’m sort of exploring through reading and trying to piece together what’s going on, but slowly over time I’ve figured it out.
Do you think that as a musician you have an advantage in quarantine? I know as a musician that I can just sit with my guitar and play for hours on end. How have you been using this time creatively?
I’m so fortunate that in 2020, we have access to all of these resources on the internet to connect with people that we normally wouldn’t be connecting with. Like this interview right now. I definitely feel very overwhelmed at times, but in general I’m trying to keep things structured for myself because it’ll give me a reason to keep momentum. I think energy builds energy and the more that I’m doing things, the more that I’ll want to keep doing things. I’ve been writing and recording a lot with my band. It’s been really great for us to have this pause to take a deep breath and then to work together on writing music for the next stages of our progress as a band. I’ve also been spending a lot of time teaching. I think you learn so much from other people, and that’s been amazing. I just started a Berklee online course yesterday on reharmonization which will be really interesting. I’m sort of trying to keep immersing myself in all of the parts of music that I love a lot and I hope that that will help to keep this time from feeling like a total devastating blow, though it definitely does feel like that when I’m thinking about what other people are going through.
Did you have any shows that you had to cancel?
Yeah. We had to cancel a tour unfortunately, and some plans that we had to perform throughout the summer. We have some upcoming shows booked but I think the likelihood of them happening is very, very minute. I think music has been such an incredible way to document all of the most important events throughout history in some ways.
How have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching on this platform called Lessonface. They reached out to me and I thought it seemed wonderful. I’ve always had a secret dream of being able to teach in some way because I love being able to connect with people through music. No matter what I do with music, I think teaching is a beautiful art form in its own right. I would consider some of the best teachers I’ve had as artists in their own right that I really look up to.
How did you meet your band members for Ludic and Calpurnia?
I have a friend named Jack from over a decade ago. We’ve always connected over music and he’s been one of my best friends for ages. We started playing in a band together throughout school with some other friends, and then at the same time I was exploring music programs in my city. I met Finn and Malcolm at this camp and through that everything just sort of amalgamated into what was Calpurnia. Before Calpurnia, I was really hoping to find a serious band of people my age who wanted to stick together and grow musically and as people. A mentor of mine put up a post on Facebook talking about me and how I was looking for young musicians to work with and this guy replied telling us about his sons who were musicians. That’s how Ludic came to be. We got together to jam and it was amazing. From that point on we started jamming and songwriting together almost immediately.
Obviously while you were in Calpurnia, Finn was juggling other facets of fame through acting. What was that dynamic like for the band?
I could sort of juxtapose that scenario with Ludic. In Calpurnia everything was so instant. Going into it I knew that there was going to be all this attention, but it was such a fascinating psychological experience. We were having so many doors opened for us, which obviously I would never take that for granted because I know how many incredible musicians there are out there and how lucky I am to have had the opportunities that I’ve had. That being said, it was so fascinating because we’d be able to play certain festivals or sell out certain venues, but I knew that most of the people there didn’t necessarily know who I was, or even really notice that I was there. At the end of the day, I knew that going into it, so it’s not like I was devastated over the fact that this situation was about so much more than the music. That was actually a really beautiful thing in some ways because although maybe a lot of people weren’t there completely for the band, I saw the impact that a young band of kids coming together to make rock music had on a lot of people our age. It seemed like it was a really important experience for some to maybe go to their first concert or make friends through a shared love of Stranger Things and thus going to a concert. At the end of the day when you look at it from that perspective, and I remove my ego from the equation, it is a really beautiful observation when you see people connecting. No matter what the circumstance is. At the same time with Ludic we were doing it the “normal” way, where you start playing in bars and then from there we slowly started being able to play bigger venues and by the end of 2019 we were able to open for some of our favorite artists which was unbelievable. I never thought that I’d be able to share the stage with Snarky Puppy or Brittany Howard and actually have a conversation with her. She’s been one of my heroes forever and Snarky Puppy as well has been hugely influential to me and to Max and Rhett from Ludic as well. Even though the progress was a little slower, it feels so rewarding and amazing when you finally take another step forward and another step forward.
Those two bands have their own uniquenesses. I saw the direct effects that Calpurnia had on its fans musically in my own inner circle. So many of your fans were opened up to a new world of music. Ludic has its own sound and individuality, so do you think that that band more so represents where you’re at currently? Not only sonically but just what the band itself stands for.
It’s definitely a representation of where we all are at this moment. With Ludic there’s a lot more influence from soul and funk, jazz and old school Motown. A lot of modern sounds as well because there’s some incredible music coming out today that I think must be appreciated. Everything that I do fundamentally still has some influence from my love of old school rock. Jimi Hendrix really was that leading influence. I think that everything he did was golden. I actually found these recordings of him the other day playing with the Isley Brothers, before he started The Experience. His playing was still so recognizable, even when he was a session player. The song itself is just so cool. It’s this really old school Isley Brothers thing from the 60s. I feel like that influence is a part of all that I do because it means so much to me as an artist.
How would you differentiate the sound of your two bands? Who are your musical influences for Ludic and Calpurnia?
For Calpurnia I think there was a lot of influence from Twin Peaks. That band was hugely influential for Finn and his songwriting. They are very inspired by people like The Rolling Stones, and now their style has really taken on the twangier Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. That music was definitely influential, as well as garage rock. Bands like Television and New Order, but everyone also came in with the individual influences. Our bass player Jack has such an eclectic taste in music. I’ve never in my life met someone who listens to as much music as him. If someone releases an album he listened to it yesterday. He explores everything. Lately he’s been into some very very experimental music and a lot of ambient music, experimental jazz, avant-garde music in general. What I find so exciting about Ludic is that I honestly have no idea what we’re doing. We write a song, and we can pinpoint the direct influences obviously, but it’s really hard to say. That’s one of the most exciting things as an artist. We combine all of our favorite parts of old school music with our favorite parts of music coming out now, and then we just see what happens. We’re all really inspired by Stevie Wonder, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Prince. All sorts of music. I so deeply appreciate that you hear some eclecticism in what I do as an artist. I think that just comes from me being the biggest music fan ever.
Would you say that Calpurnia was a part of the indie scene? What were people labeling that as at the time?
I think that band in general was destined to have tons of labels thrown on it. Both correct and incorrect labels. The indie scene has a sound and though it technically wasn’t an indie band because of the circumstances in which it was created, it definitely kind of lived in that world. Sonically and maybe aesthetically in terms of how people wanted it to be perceived.
Have you always wanted to be in a band and what do you think is so particularly special about being in a band?
I do think I’ve always really been enamoured with being in a band. It all sort of started with The Beatles. They’ve ruined everything for me because I look at The Beatles and I want what they had. The more you read about the history you learn that it wasn’t a perfect experience by any means. The more you read about all bands the more you find that most aren’t. You’re with people as closely as you would be if you were married to them for the most part, and there’s also a contract involved sometimes if you’re signed. There’s money, egos, artistic visions, artistic influences, that are both compatible and also conflicting. It’s not easy a lot of the time, but the good that comes from it, when it’s the right setup, makes it all worth it. Max and Rhett are just beautiful human beings. They’ve definitely become some of my closest friends. Musically I respect them to Mars and back, and I think it’s so rewarding when you find the right people because then it feels like a family. Families fight, but families are also always there for each other. What’s created from feeling that way about people and working with them to create something artistically, is just unparalleled. It’s crossed my mind that maybe one day I’ll do solo stuff because I want to explore all facets of music. I love playing in a band and right now I’m very happy with the direction things are going in.
Do you read a lot of music biographies?
Absolutely. I love reading so much, but particularly music biographies about influential musical figures. Recently I read one on Miles Davis and Janis Joplin. To read about their lives of course provides so much insight into the music they created, but also into the society that they were creating in.
Why do you think it’s important for us to support not only drag queens, but creatives and artists during this time of uncertainty?
Art is just the most incredible way to document what is happening in any given point in history, as well as to change society. I think that art has that power, and I think it’s one of the greatest achievements of human civilization to this day. Of all of the terrible things that have happened throughout history, I think one thing that humankind can celebrate is the creation of art. Specifically music is the art form that I connect to most deeply. I think everyone should be looking to support artists, especially when they look at how much of a positive influence art has had in their life. I know for me as the biggest music fan ever and just a fan of art in general, I have no idea what my life would be like without my favorite artists. I feel like I owe everything I love about being alive to these artists. I think a lot of people might not realize just how much of modern pop culture actually comes from drag culture, and how much we owe to those artists. Not just in terms of art itself, but the progression of society. There are so many people who have been a part of the drag community who were at the forefront of human rights movements and fighting for human rights. We owe so much to those individuals.