Singer-songwriter-keyboardist Kaela Sinclair was working on her second album and teaching vocal lessons in Texas when she saw the tweet. It was February 2016 and Anthony Gonzalez, the mastermind of French synth-pop group M83, was looking for a new female singer and keyboardist to join his band for their upcoming world tour. Before she knew it, Sinclair's friends were urging her to apply.
“I thought that because I wasn't in L.A. and wasn't in New York, it wasn't something that would really happen,” Sinclair says of Gonzalez's call for applicants. But after numerous people, independent of one another, all forwarded it to her, she thought, “This seems like the universe telling me I should try this.'”
Not only did Sinclair apply but she got the part, getting the news with a phone call from Gonzalez himself. Within weeks, she found herself in Los Angeles rehearsing with M83 for a nine-month world tour, after which she relocated to Los Angeles full-time. Now, nearly two years since her whirlwind adventure began, Sinclair is finally returning to her own music with a new EP, We Watched the Lights Go Out.
Joining M83 was the kind of opportunity for which Sinclair had been training most her life. Raised in Tampa, Florida, she began writing her own music when she was in middle school and played in local indie pop bands throughout high school. Then she headed to the University of North Texas in Denton, a college town north of Dallas that was the birthplace of Sly Stone; there she studied jazz voice, music theory and classical piano. While in Denton, Sinclair met McKenzie Smith of the folk-rock group Midlake, who produced her first album as a solo artist, Sun & Mirror, in 2013.
Still, the call-up to M83 — replacing Morgan Kibby ahead of the release and tour of Junk, the follow-up to 2011's Grammy-nominated Hurry Up, We're Dreaming — was a real test. Sinclair didn't even have time to put her things into storage until the first break in the schedule, three months after she'd headed to L.A. “It was immediately very intense. There was a lot happening. It's a really big thing to put together a show of that size,” she says. “I wanted to prove myself to everyone to show that I belonged there, that Anthony didn't choose wrong.”
Adding to the pressure was the fact that Sinclair wouldn't only be singing Kibby's old parts but also those of many of M83's previous guest performers. “Intro,” for instance, was recorded by Zola Jesus, while one of M83's best-known songs, the theme for the Tom Cruise sci-fi film Oblivion, was originally sung by Susanne Sundfør. “I felt I did get to give it my own stamp,” Sinclair says of “Oblivion,” which became one of her big showcases on the tour. “Being trained as a singer helped enormously. A big part of why I'm grateful for my jazz and classical training was that I could switch techniques easily. The show's not easy because it's so vast.”
Working with Gonzalez was an eye-opening experience as well. “He was constantly writing and creating, always living that life of the composer and musician. He doesn't seem to get tired. He would go to his hotel room after a show and do more work,” Sinclair says. “He's got this nurturing but tough kind of vibe. He's serious about the show being what it should be, and he didn't take anything less than everyone's best.”
With the Junk tour having wrapped up last December, Sinclair was finally able to complete her move to Los Angeles. “Because of touring, I met a lot of people who lived in L.A., so when I moved here I was able to quickly make pretty good friends,” she says. She spent last Christmas with many of those fellow musicians, and since then has gotten to re-experience some of her first impressions of the city. “Touring with M83, we played a show at the Greek, and now I wind up going to shows at the Greek, so it's cool to see that perspective.”
Returning to her own music has been a lot like starting over. “It felt like a lot had changed — not just with my situation but internally, emotionally and musically. I felt like a different person,” she says. With the help of Smith back in Denton, Sinclair decided to release a trio of mini albums rather than a proper full-length, each consisting of four to five songs. “I didn't want to put out an end-all, be-all album because I'm writing a lot still and I have new things to say.”
The first of those EPs, We Watched the Lights Go Out, came out Nov. 14. Though it consists of songs that were started before she left Texas, there's a tougher, more confident edge to Sinclair's performances. Opener “Don't Follow,” a deliberate, smoldering dirge about not getting second chances, sets the tone with quivering strings and guitar that complement her lushly layered harmonies. Life changes are a recurring theme throughout the EP, a fact most explicitly articulated on the final track, the uptempo “Second Skin.”
Whether she's encouraging a lover to take a leap of faith or mulling over bigger philosophical questions, the constant on the new EP is Sinclair's singing. At times bold and jazzy and at others vulnerable and introspective, her voice echoes with touches of Fiona Apple, Sharon Van Etten and even Denton native Sarah Jaffe. Smith, having worked with Sinclair before and after she joined M83, says he sees a new sense of urgency in her approach. “When she sets her mind on something, she fights for it until it is accomplished,” he says.
With the release of We Watched the Lights Go Out, Sinclair is ready to start performing solo shows again. But as she prepares for what lies ahead, she's not losing sight of the songs — and pieces of herself — that weathered the trip from Texas to California. “I wanted to choose ones that still resonated with me. I didn't want to bury them. They're snapshots of a transition,” Sinclair says. “I want them to be out there because they accompanied me in this time of my life.”