Spellling seizes the moment

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Spellling interview

Tia Cabral is surrounded by green. The background of her Zoom screen reveals a bright array of plants behind her, carefully arranged, she explains, to cover up the clutter. Shortly before the pandemic redirected everyone indoors for a year, she had a studio space where she began to craft the richly arranged pop songs that comprise her new album as Spellling, The Turning Wheel. Now, the onetime bedroom producer and songwriter has returned to a home studio loft space where she does most of her creative work. From my perspective, though, it looks verdant and alive.

“I started writing stuff when I still had a studio,” she says early on in a video call. “I had a really cool studio in Berkeley off the main campus. I had to drive to get there but it’s so beautiful, it felt like a totally different place than the city.

“Now, I don’t have the studio anymore but my home space is my loft,” she continues. “So we have our living space up here and my studio is downstairs. Which is great because I love being able to go downstairs and work on stuff.”

If The Turning Wheel was beset by the limitations of social distancing, the finished product doesn’t reflect that. Where prior Spellling efforts such as Mazy Fly found her building rich and vivid worlds out of a relatively stark sound, Cabral’s music has flourished into a maximalist pop vision on her second Sacred Bones-released effort, with anthems such as the lead single “Little Deer” evoking a romantic era of vintage soul and pop singers backed by string and brass sections. Cabral found herself returning to artists such as The Jackson Five and Kate Bush while she was creating this world, which included enlisting the help of over 30 musicians for the full picture to come together.

Only it didn’t all happen in the same room. The reality of a year spent in lockdown meant that Cabral and her collaborators had to record their parts remotely and layer it together afterward. It’s a curious irony—the biggest album of her career created mostly without face-to-face contact—and it’s one that speaks to the duality at the center of the record. The title of The Turning Wheel refers to the cycles that we find ourselves pulled into, and the inextricable dualities of living: joy and grief, labor and reward, spiritual questioning and enlightenment, explored via two distinct halves, “Above” and “Below.”

As she prepares for the release of The Turning Wheel, Cabral finds herself inspired by the potential for where Spellling can go as a musical project, even as she questions what it means to be a working artist. But after a year like 2020, she emphasizes that all of us could probably use space and some personal leniency before figuring everything out.

“I think there’s gonna be so much that I need to reflect on,” she says. “I can’t wrap my head around that it’s June already? I had this three-year life plan mapped out and I thought I’d be doing these certain things months ago that I didn’t get to, but you know. Patience—everyone should be patient with themselves right now.”

The Turning Wheel really feels like a big step in terms of the sound—it’s so rich and elaborate. What did you envision when you began to conceive of these songs?

I always just try to let the music speak up for itself. I knew that was the type of music that excites me, and I just perpetually listen to the same music over and over. I love Minnie Riperton. I speak about this all the time, but when I hear that music…I fantasize about that era of people coming together and sort of having to seize the moment of making. Like the right timing and right talent and combinations to cut a record. So that was the fantasy. It didn’t really turn out that way. I wanted to get everyone in a room, but the pandemic made it so that we had to remote record. But that was the initial vision. I’ve always worked solo and relied on digital recording and having an infinite amount of takes. So I wanted to try this other way, romanticizing the soul music era with really lush productions and arrangements and presentation.

The first half in particular feels very lush and bright, compared to the second half of the record.

The “Above” songs, yeah. During the summer I thought, I want to build my portfolio and get into the publishing world and write music for other people or movies. So I started writing those songs thinking they’d be for someone else. Pretty much every single one of the “Above” songs was from that, where I didn’t feel too close to it. I imagined it could be for this or that, a soundtrack, whatever. But then I did get attached: “I can’t give this away, who else would sing it this way anyway?” I kept thinking, “this is not Spellling.” And this isn’t the way I usually sing, it’s not very natural for me. The “Below” songs definitely are the ones where I was like, “this is a Spellling song.” And with “Above,” I didn’t have that mindset when I wrote them. But then I stepped back a bit and added to them to make them have that edge. They’re more pop songs, they have a classic structure like that. It felt vulnerable to put out that first single, like “This is weird, I don’t know how people will react.” But hearing people reference the stuff I was listening to was nice. Like “Little Deer,” I was listening to a lot of Jackson Five and got that little, the youth of that voice got in there and the innocence of that. That energy came through on that song. 

How much of a challenge was it to write songs with the intent of other artists recording them?

It wasn’t, it was really fun! It kind of felt like a relief in certain ways. I had finished Mazy Fly and I was really just beginning to consider myself a musician that wants to keep making music. Even singing with Sacred Bones, and them saying “We want to put your music out,” it was like, really? Mazy Fly was so much just trying to figure things out as a producer, with no background in music making. After the affirmation of putting the record out, I thought “I make music for real.” That started to get in my head, and so sitting down to make a song was intimidating. It was more fun to just get out of that block.  

Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself?

I think so, and that’s why I come up with creative ways to circumvent that. I never try to just go force myself to make a song or say, “OK, here goes.” It’s tough, because discipline gets you far, and it’s a balance between a strong work ethic and not limiting yourself by expectations and by structure. So it’s a really ambiguous enigma of a process, but usually everything I write is imagining a different scenario where it’s not me making a song.

I read a quote from you about conveying a sense of “theater” with your music. What draws you to that aspect of performance?

I don’t know. It’s more of just the idea of theater being something that requires you to really step into the world and use your imagination to inform the rest of the story. I think about the genesis of theater, ancient Greek theater and the muses and the way song brought to life worlds, and it was a way to record history. It’s also really connected to ritual and performance art. It’s not just art, historically, in all cultures—theater is a way to connect to your idea of the divine. That’s really the origin of theater. Spellling as a project is always excited about those concepts. I don’t really write about love—I mean, I do, but it’s kind of an existential thing I’m singing about. I’m often thinking about bigger spiritual questions and I like to put that in my music. So that’s the vein there. It’s exciting to me on a basic level, just like costumes and dressing up and the stage as a theme. It’s really simple and timeless and translates really well with how I see the music. I always imagine writing a musical or some kind of performance art play. Like Spelling the musical. (Laughs)

Like, discovering Kate Bush—I didn’t really listen to Kate Bush until around 2019 and so many people were like “you’d love Kate Bush, she’s everything.” So I did a deep dive into her discography and her aesthetic, and she was really into theater also and was bringing that to her performance. I guess it’s a similar thing with my love for Prince and David Bowie. That sort of building up a persona and building up a world. The fantasy around it is so fun.

Is it important to balance out some of the more philosophical elements you explore with some form of escapism?

Yeah, just keeping it lighthearted. I guess the music somehow is still kind of wholesome even if the tone is kind of dark. I think there’s always an element of optimism and joy that I want to come through with my music.  But it also does contain a lot of raw and heavy sort of questions like on The Turning Wheel. The “Below” side of the album gets into some vulnerable places around grief and questioning—the song “Revolution,” I wrote that song at a place in my life when I’m growing up and processing what does it mean to be a working artist, to be in a place where you are asked to perform a lot of labor and you’re in this matrix of commodification and figuring this all out. Everyone can relate to having to exploit yourself to survive. The cosmic wheel is the theme, and navigating and questioning when this ever-revolving cycle of work, of disappointment, of joy, of trying will ever stop. When do we transcend those cycles? When do we reach a new stage? 

At this stage, are you thinking differently about the possibilities of where you can go creatively?

It’s still so raw, everything is moving at such a surreal pace. I think about the future a lot and what I want to do next. Because of this process being so exhausting and intertwined with world events, the next thing I do I want to be extremely minimal. Just strip everything away. I’ve been writing a lot with this instrument I got in the beginning of 2020. The dilruba, it’s from India, translated it means heart thief, and it’s played with a bow. It has just one playing string and lots of sympathetic strings underneath. I love it so much. It’s easier to play than a violin because you can slide your finger and it makes this kind of portamento effect, and it’s really mournful and sweet. So the new songs I’ve been writing have been all coming from that. And it’s the first time I’ve had an instrument I’ve been committed to. I dabble and I can play all instruments I have, but not fluently. It’s like “here’s this idea” and that’s as far as I can go. But this is what I’ve been fantasizing for the future, an acoustic album or maybe just dilruba and synth. Something like that.

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