Spellling (note the third ‘l’) released her first LP this past summer, titled Pantheon of Me. That Tia Cabral’s stage name is in the present tense doesn’t seem like a coincidence: Her music sounds like music in the act. Pantheon of Me is a billowing and shapeless work: Airy synth patches, oddly mic-ed drums, pit-of-your-stomach guitar feedback, and Tia’s voice, looped and effected and looped again. It’s uplifting and brutal and all the spaces in between, eluding genre in a way that seem less like a protest of genre and more like a culmination of her expressive needs.
I spoke to Tia about Spellling, music being messy, and growing up in Sacramento:
The Bay Bridged: In a real general sense, what have you been up to?
Tia Cabral: It’s strange. Producing and recording music wasn’t a part of my life at all two years ago, and suddenly I can’t imagine not making and performing music. But then again, it always felt like something I was going to end up doing. I’ve been thinking a lot about my arc, about having a creative impulse and wanting to make these songs. Right now music is really present in the way I think about things in my day-to-day. Since I’ve learned this skill, I look for music in places I never thought it was before: watching TV, brushing my teeth — whatever random thing I’m doing I’m also thinking about how it could be a song. It’s fun and it’s also kind of overwhelming. I think it’s kind of the season too, all the end-of-the-year chaos. Everything that’s happened in the past year is playing through my thoughts right now. I’ve been home a lot right now, just processing and thinking about what’s next.
TBB: That makes me think about how a lot of musicians’ processes are intertwined with the people they work with, and the interpersonal dynamics are part of the group algorithm. For you, as a solo artist, where do you find the inspirational materials to produce music when you’re working alone?
TC: I feel lonely being an independent artist, making my own sound. I think about collaborating a lot, to have somebody as a soundboard to bounce ideas off.
I started making music in a way that feels a lot like dreaming; it’s like all the dirt and grime of your day gets resolved in some messy way. It’s a relieving sensation. So for me it’s like, I can’t really process all the things I go through in my waking day. I don’t have the time or the energy to process all those experiences, so music feels like I’m digging into the subconscious of myself. So I’m really just giving myself time. I don’t know if my process needs collaboration in a direct way, but I definitely get inspiration from other artists, and performing has given me the chance to get out and share the stage with people who are doing their own thing, and that definitely gets collected when I go back and try to sort out my own songs. But it’s a little bit lonely (laughs).
TBB: It’s interesting that you use the word “messy.” I think some people approach their creative output with maybe the opposite intention: to package or clarify whatever they’re working through. But there’s always a sense of surprise in your music.
TC: Messy, yeah definitely. My partner just got me this book, it’s the life story of Arthur Russell, who is someone I really admire. I love the essence of his sound a lot. It’s so pure. It’s so hard to pin down. It seems like his process just goes on and on and on, and it just had to end because he ran out of space or something.
I’m starting to read about his life story and how many scenes he was involved in…how so many different genres were coming together and he just meandered through them and collects them, almost like he’s picking flowers, it’s so easy. That’s definitely something I aspire towards, in terms of writing songs. To not try to define anything but just reflect this process of searching.
That makes me wonder about your writing process. When you’re jamming, what are some indicators that what you’re making might become a song?
TC: There’s no science to it and sometimes I really wish there was. When I try to go in with a formula, like, ‘OK, I’ll start with a beat then I’ll do this,’ it never works out, at least not for me. Now I realize there is no start or end. There is nowhere where it starts or stops.
I usually use my synth or guitar for melodies, but it doesn’t have to be on that. The idea is what’s gonna carry through. Usually I just like to jam with my loop pedal. I just hit record and get my ideas out, a big blaahgh. I go through it, let it all out, and don’t worry about trying to get anything solid. Then I’ll let it rest and check back on it a week later and dig through it for the root of what that was about, whatever emotion I was trying to get out. Then I’ll pick out parts of it and start working from there. That’s kind of how it is.
If I go through each song I can remember how it started and each one is different. It’s really fun. It’s a surprise and I like to let it write itself instead of trying to shape it too much with an intention. I don’t know if that makes any sense (laughs).
I just started writing a new song a couple days ago. I’m on break from school so I’ve had this whole week to just focus on writing. It’s really really cool. Some days I spend the whole day writing and I don’t like any of it so I just throw it away, but it usually feeds into the next day. There’s always something to pull out from the crap you don’t like.
TBB: There are certain words that come to mind when I hear your music or hear or read other people talking about your music: words like “soulful,” “ghostly,” or “spiritual.” As a listener I’m curious to bounce these impressions off you. Are those concepts or ideas that you consider or even hear in your music?
TC: I like to hear what other people have to say about it. I’m like ‘Oh OK, is that what I’m doing? Good, because I don’t know what to make of it yet.’ So much about the process is about discovering who I am and what I am doing, and I don’t really how to put it to words yet.
I think spirituality, and trying to understand what’s sacred to my life and the world, is really important to me. Getting out of this superficial day-to-day structure really helped me break through and think about and confront those things. It’s not easy to do that unless you’re taking drugs or something (laughs). I’m always thinking about that in this time and place: What’s sacred anymore? Music is my spiritual practice and I think the power of music to bring people together is the most sacred thing. Coming together is a spiritual practice. Maybe that’s what’s coming through, this really strong desire to have a genuine look into divinity, whatever that could be.
TBB: Something I think about in terms of music is when that coming together happens. Is that something you think or feel about, and to put it bluntly…how people will feel your music?
TC: I don’t know. It’s something you can pore over and over. I had a big reluctance to share any of my music at first. For one, it’s scary. It’s something I’ve never done before and all a sudden I’m putting songs out there. Everything with humans feels so definitive: You say something, and it’s like all a sudden that’s who you are and it’s unchanging. So to put it out I was like, ‘Oh God, everyone is going to judge me for this and it’s going to be a part of how I’m perceived.’
I had to get over this idea that the music is complete. One of the first songs I was making, before I had put out any recording music and I was just performing with loops and improv, each version would come out totally different and I really loved that. Trying to resist completion helped me a lot. It doesn’t have to be finished to be complete. It’s going to fulfill something for someone, and for me, so that’s enough for the moment.
TBB: I wonder how living in the Bay does or doesn’t impact your sound. Maybe a better way to put the question is to ask how setting informs your creativity.
TC: I think what made more of an impact in terms of my desire to make music is being from Sacramento, which is maybe hard for people to understand unless you’re from there. Even though it’s not that big of a jump, I think a lot about being from Sac and moving here. There are similarities between music scenes, culture, people caring a lot about art and creating community spaces and places for people to express themselves, and I think it’s growing in Sac. I think back to living there and growing up in my hometown a lot while I’m here, I’m not exactly sure why.
I guess, growing up in the suburbs, there’s kind of this haze over the neighborhood and the family units that always made me live in this fantasy world. I thought a lot about how that couldn’t be everything people aspire towards. That isn’t all people dream about, right? Having a family and a car and house and green lawn is all great, but I know people aren’t happy. There’s something here that’s not right, and it’s oozing out of the seams of everything. I don’t know if that makes sense. But I always had this restless sensation and was combating being really aware of that, like hyper-aware, and also didn’t have the tools or exposure to know there is more, that there is a greater energy happening, one that is more fulfilling and happy. Moving to the Bay Area really helped me blossom and find genuine relationships and redefine what a happy and healthy lifestyle could be like.
I think when I go back to the suburbs I’m always kind of drawing inspiration and reflecting back to my childhood and how fantasy plays out for people living in these fabricated lives.
TBB: In what ways does your work with Spellling engage in the political climate?
TC: That kind of goes back to the question of whether or not my identities and Tia and Spellling are the same. It’s the same thing. For me, everything is political. Everything is about power, and who you love and who you don’t. I guess the political climate, those frustrations and tension, definitely seep into my sound. People have told me they find these messages in certain songs and it speaks directly to things I’ve never thought of. “Blue (American Dream)” is still abstract, but it’s one of the more explicit songs where I’m thinking specifically about being an American and how we all contribute to this fabricated illusion that we’re living the dream. That song works for me as a relief, as a mantra to induce this state of liberation from the illusions that we can work to break down. But it takes focus and clarity, and there are so many obstacles that prevent us from seeing each other. The song just came to me as a reflection of that desire, to get through the bullshit of the ways we think we need to see the world. Like I said about the fantasy of it, I’m only one person. But I think music has so much potential to move people and directly communicate this idea and intention. So it’s been really amazing thing over these past couple years to realize I do have the potential to help in whatever small ways with my music to bring people together and think in different ways.
TBB: I guess that’s the purest way to put politics: the person-to-person, the ways we choose to impact one another. Another question, my last question: Of all the influences on your music, are there any subconscious influences that became conscious after the fact?
TC: Oh, yeah, all the time. I think nothing is ever forgotten, especially musically. I was a teacher for a long time working with elementary students, and their brains latch on to music like a sponge. Like, I can remember songs I learned in kindergarten still. To absorb new information through music is the easiest way to learn things, at least for me, and I think for a lot of young minds. So when I’m writing songs things will start to blend into a song I’ve heard before. Like, the song “Higher Ground,” I just ended up using the lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” and I didn’t intend for that to happen. I was playing around with melodies and it started to blend in and I was just like, ‘I’m gonna go with it’ (laughs). It’s a mysterious process. You never know what’s underlying.