Xyla’s Thoughtful Electronic Music Warms Up a Winter at Home

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Xyla studied French horn at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Now she's found her niche as a producer of genre-traversing, emotive electronic music. (Mariah Tiffany)

When Xyla first arrived in San Francisco from the Houston area as an undergraduate in 2013, it was to study French horn performance at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While there, she toured Europe with the SF Youth Orchestra and studied under SF Symphony French horn player Jonathan Ring. But midway through her four years at the school, something happened that set her on a different path, one that led her to release one of the most exciting Bay Area electronic music albums of 2020.

“I went through what most people do in college, where you say, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” Xyla says from her home in San Francisco’s Sunset District. She found her calling when the conservatory had opened up a program called TAC (Technology and Applied Composition) that caters to students studying production and sound engineering. On a whim of curiosity, Xyla decided to enroll in an Intro to Ableton elective and a light bulb went off.

“I hadn’t used [Ableton] before, but I immediately thought it was so cool and fell in love with it my last year and a half of college,” she says. “For me, producing was a way to decompress from conservatory life as a classical French horn player. As much as I love the instrument and the genre, I couldn’t feel as creative as I wanted to be.”

Xyla’s debut album, Ways, was released on Oct. 30 on LEAVING Records. It’s a polished expression of IDM and footwork rhythms, with undertones of R&B and atmospheric drum and bass. Its eight tracks clock in at a mere 37 minutes, but when it’s over, inspired moments of pushing forward in the face of heartbreak have washed over you, like the fog rolling over the stillness of San Francisco’s outer extremities. Ways slots in masterfully alongside LEAVING’s roster of the eclectic and avant-garde, including the liquid jazz of Sam Gendel, the desolate beauty of harpist Nailah Hunter and the smoky jungle of San Francisco’s own Brogan Bentley.


The path from classical music student to a signed electronic producer has indeed been anything but linear for Xyla.

At the end of 2019, she quit her job and “escaped” to Berlin. She felt overwhelmed by the loss of friends who exited her life one way or another and admits that she was in a very transitional phase. The producer, who identifies as queer, would spend her days walking around Berlin's hip and lowkey Kreuzberg district and working on new compositions in bed by day, then going to clubs and concerts at night. It was here that she felt she was finally honing in on the music she wanted to make. Around this time, she was surprised to find a reply from LEAVING label boss Matthewdavid to a message she had sent him on Soundcloud a couple months prior. Their exchange was brief. She soon returned to San Francisco in the dead of winter, a time of year when the weather systems here don’t offer much in the way of emotional support.

Xyla found her love of Ableton in the SF Conservatory's Technology and Applied Composition program. (Mariah Tiffany)

“When I came back from Berlin, it was very cold here...very winter, very foggy,” Xyla says. “I was kind of alone and depressed and I’d wake up and all I would do was produce. It was the only thing I had the energy to do.”

She sent LEAVING a demo and when April came around, Matthewdavid asked if she wanted to take part in their pandemic livestream series, opening for revered experimental hip-hop and free jazz producer Flying Lotus. Of course she obliged. Shortly thereafter, Xyla came on to the label’s roster, even though she didn’t have an album to release yet per se.

“I never went into [producing for] the album process,” she says. “But when he asked me, I knew every single track that I would want to be on it. Everything I was working on fell into place.”

On the title track, a deep bass punch hits like standing in front of a speaker at a rave. D&B snares pair with shades of Detroit techno and an underlying ambient hip-hop vibe stitched throughout. Xyla explains that going to underground raves and hip-hop shows in the Bay Area influenced these types of compositions.

“Cold” takes a slowed down footwork breakbeat and acid house rhythm juxtaposed with a sample from Ashanti’s “Foolish.” The beat hits and your mind is sent into shifting directions, trying to grapple with how it makes you feel and the questions linger, like effective IDM. It speaks to Xyla’s penchant for prodding at different moods.

“I’m very much a nostalgic and romantic, so that really affects my music a lot,” she says. “I think my music makes you remember those amazing moments of being in front of a big sound system. But also of being pensive, alone in a room and thinking on what the music makes you feel like.”

This is indeed music for both sides of the brain—the part that seeks comfort in living room solitude and the part that craves a club with just the right amount of darkness. But as we all know, one of those experiences isn’t possible in this pandemic era. So Xyla, who admits she’s not a DJ, sees the upside in how the circumstances affect the experience of what she’s created.

“Music has a lot of different facets. It’s not just listening—it’s also community, events, the socialization aspect of it,” she says. “But when you take all of those things away, all you’re really left with, is the most important part: Listening to the music.”