There's a song called "I Only," appearing early in Lyla Foy's debut full-length, Mirrors the Sky (released last month by Sub Pop). It's a chill synth-pop tune, upbeat and happy, but not a dance track. It develops largely like you'd expect — some keys, some electronic beats, beautiful vocals by the London songwriter. Then at the first instrumental break, a little over a minute in, there's a solo by an instrument that sounds something like ... a bird call? A laughing gibbon?
"Um, OK, so, the squeaking sound," she says with a laugh, "It's a toy train. It belongs to my friend; we were recording at his house, and I was trying to record some interesting sounds. We found this squeaky old train and I was just moving it back and forth across the floor and it was making this amazing sound. So we recorded it, and then I kind of chopped up the recording a little and sampled it in a way that sounds a bit, kind of, demented."
Foy, who's 25, started playing guitar as a teenager, like so many. Entirely self-taught, she first made a splash with some home recordings she released under the name Wall in 2012. "When I put my first song out as Wall, I only had one song — it wasn't a planned project or anything," she explains. "It was literally a song, and I wanted to put it online so my friends could hear it, and I just chose a random name. It wasn't really a band. There was kind of a nice mystery behind it, but then when we were going to put out the debut album, it was like — I'll put my name to this now. I'm ready. It wasn't just a bedroom project anymore."
Those early Wall tracks were beautiful but starkly quiet; they were literally bedroom recordings, and Foy's vocals were usually little more than a whisper. As she's found her confidence, the vocals have blossomed, and while she certainly doesn't belt on Mirrors, she doesn't whisper so much, either. One thing that hasn't changed, though: Foy does most of the writing, playing and production herself, without much input from her band or anyone else.
"I did most of the recording at home or on different locations, with a really simple studio setup which I travel around with," she explains. "Once I brought the songs to my band to do some final touches, they were on the way to being ready, and I think it was good to write most of the parts myself. I felt like the direction was kind of sorted. It's good to get other bits and bobs, it wasn't going to be anything drastic."
"It's a bit lonely doing everything yourself," she quickly adds. "It's good to work with the band."
Foy tends to downplay her instrumental proficiency. "I'm not an amazing keyboard player by any stretch of the imagination," she says at one point. "It doesn't take much to get OK at guitar," she later adds. "You can get by with five or six chords, so it's fun to write songs [on guitar]. I got by for a long time. I've added a few more, but I'm still not a wizard." But that belies the fact that she played the majority of the instruments on her debut record, and what she didn't play, she arranged pretty specifically.
"Even if other people were playing, I was arranging or writing the parts, or I'd already written them," she says. "I played bass on the album, and guitar, and bits of keyboard ... I designed a lot of the drum patterns on my computer."
What Foy does exceedingly well is create texture and rhythmic complexity, and not always just by using the programmed drum beats. Throughout Mirrors the Sky, there are moments in which bass guitar and keyboards are being woven together to create percussive parts, even more so than to convey melody.
"I think it was kind of slightly planned when I started writing this batch of songs," she explains. "I really like the bass as a percussion instrument. On the track ‘No Secrets,' the bass is keeping time, that sort of four-to-the-floor, mellow, dancey thing going on, which I kind of like. I do like experimenting with percussion ... I wouldn't say it was planned on a lot of tracks, it just kind of happened, but I do like interesting drum beats."
After the release of Mirrors last month, Foy began touring the U.K., and now the U.S., on a trip that brings her to Pittsburgh for the first time, on April 23. She and her band continue to work out the best ways to bring something that started as a bedroom project, and was a pretty complex studio undertaking, into a live atmosphere.
"It's difficult," she says. "It's music for a very certain head-space, a certain environment, and we certainly can do well in a theater, in a quiet situation, but we've learned to get by in a noisy crowd as well. We're trying to pick the right venues for us as well, rather than turning up in any old bar.
"It's about picking the right songs when we're playing in certain situations — and that's been good to learn."