Some visual artists find it difficult to start with a blank canvas, so they'll make a quick squiggle or splatter some paint to get things moving. The down-tempo trip-hop artist Nym—real name Lewis Scaife—feels similarly about making beats: He needs something to build upon, like ambient noise or the crackle of vinyl playing in the background.
"It helps get me in the right space," he says. "Then I'll start with like, say, just a flute sample. I'll splice it up note for note so I can place them where I want, fading them into each other, layering them sometimes. And then there's the matter of adding instrumentation, and that's where a lot of compositional elements come in."
Scaife readily delves into his philosophies on instrumental music, creating an engaging stage show, and human sensory perception. But first, he traces his path to becoming an electronic music innovator.
Scaife, thirty-two, was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, but grew up on a farm in the countryside outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. He started learning how to sample and make beats with a music production center in college and, after graduation, decided to move to San Francisco and try to make it as a full-time musician. Finding it nearly impossible to pay rent and also work toward owning a home in the Bay Area, he made the cross-country move and bought a house in Durham about two years ago. He says he's been impressed with the Triangle area's open-minded culture and vibrant music scene.
"I also wanted to get back to growing food, getting dirty, and raising chickens—that sort of thing," he says. "It just seems right to be out in nature and working on stuff."
The son of a woodworker, Scaife grew up with tools in his hands. It's not a coincidence he takes a craftsman's approach to building songs, despite lacking any conventional music training.
"Everything is just a problem waiting to be solved," he says. "You take a piece of wood and see something there that doesn't exist yet; maybe you want to make a whale and the knot in the wood looks like an eye. In the same way, when I'm sampling I can hear things that need to be teased out, or maybe I make a mistake and it sounds cool. Once there's a skeleton, it's a matter of adding transitions and fleshing out the beat."
As for live performances, Scaife faces the same challenges as every solo electronic musician: choosing how much to rely on backing tracks and which elements to play live, and how to keep people engaged without playing a traditional instrument people can readily identify as making the sounds they're hearing. To that end, he's increasingly incorporating visual elements on stage.
"I'd like to build some more weird gadgets," he says. "I don't want a super-polished laser show or anything like that, but I'd like the [video display] to be like the music itself—found pieces sort of cobbled together. I want it to be half magic act, half music show."
Scaife's music has always been a collage of world music samples, occasionally featuring vocalists. But over the course of his last three albums—2011's Warm Blooded Lizard, 2013's Trembling in the Stone, and 2015's Convex—he's increasingly explored dreamy, ambient soundscapes designed to evoke strong imagery and emotional responses. Whereas several of his electronic music contemporaries favor extreme noises and bass drops, Nym is far more smooth and subtle.
Take, for example, his latest record, the gorgeously rendered Lilac Chaser. As his first production as a full-time musician, it's his most clearly focused work yet, centering on the theme of sensory illusion. For instance, the ethereal, almost meditative track "Yeocomico" is entirely instrumental, but Scaife says it's about a place on the Potomac River in West Virginia he used to visit as a child. Over the years, he's returned several times and witnessed the place slowly fall into decay.
"Toys that were brand-new as a kid are old now and the plastic is cracked," he says. "But it's still me looking at them, and my perception of the objects in that place is so different yet so nostalgically similar to when I was a child. Going there still makes me feel like I'm ten years old. It's sad but also beautiful and difficult for me to put in words, so I think the song does it the best justice."
Of course, part of the beauty of instrumental music is that it's entirely subjective. Without a vocalist telling the listener what to imagine and how to feel, it's impossible to pick up on the song's specific meaning exactly as Scaife intended. It's all a matter of perception.