Listening to Spellling is like witnessing a fairytale-like play full of occult references. Purple-blue timbres, a plethora of vocal transformations, sudden metamorphoses and animal symbolism all arise from the alter ego of Oakland native Crystia (nickname Tia) Cabral. On her third album, The Turning Wheel, she has exchanged her solitary synthesizer approach for a 31-piece orchestra, in which she is the driving axis and composer.
Written by: Dave Coenen
Photo: Adora Wilson
Act I: Sources of Creation and Thesis Tracks
When Cabral answers the call from her sun-filled attic in the eastern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area, the first objects that stand out are the numerous hanging plants and a stack of antique televisions in the background. Her decor is reminiscent of the way her label Sacred Bones' catalog has been organized: Spellling's albums can be found among cult classics like Mort Garson's Plantasia and David Lynch's soundtracks. The common thread in all that the label releases? An origin in the mystical, or a preference for the supernatural and/or subterranean.
Spellling's music, for example, is almost always grounded in some sort of search for the divine, for a supernatural source of all that is human. After Pantheon of Me (2017) and Mazy Fly (2019), two albums full of sprawling theatrical intros, haunted house-like synthesizers, and a clash of new wave and electronics, her third full-length The Turning Wheel is heralded as her grande spectacle: “an album about the unity of man, divine love and the enigmatic ups and downs that come with being part of the fair of life.” On paper, Spellling III is already a musical gesture of epic proportions.
That is equally true for the sonic reality, as is illustrated by the very first tones of 'Little Deer', the first single of the album and a self-described thesis track. An ominous piano starts playing, strings swell expectantly in the background; as if the red stage curtains slowly move apart, and a fairytale forest decor rolls in from the wings. And just as you've absorbed the forest-like environment during the song’s thespian intro, Cabral's falsetto, which is as intrusive as it is lovely, comes in. Because Spellling simultaneously sings to and embodies the title character, the listener, too, takes on the role of both spectator and artist. It marks a successful transition from source of inspiration - The Wounded Deer, or The Little Deer (1946), by Frida Kahlo - to an entirely new work of art.
“'Little Deer' kind of fell into place on its own. The song arose from my subconscious, it turned out afterwards. I wrote the melody, and while taking a walk right after it, I hummed it out loud so I could think of words to go with it. Then the words “little deer” quickly came to mind. In those moments, I will immediately look up where such a thing must have come from, where I must have picked up those words. Suddenly I remembered a painting by Frida Kahlo. The title had escaped me for a moment, but the image of the deer had clearly stuck in my mind. I then completely immersed myself in that work of art.”
On The Wounded Deer you can see Kahlo's head on the body of a deer that has just been hit by nine arrows - "the figure of crisis" according to Cabral. Not entirely coincidentally, there are also nine trees in the background. Kahlo's head is recognizable and depicted in the foreground - not to symbolize a composition of man and animal, but to make it clear that she really is the deer, her spirit animal. In her research, Cabral almost becomes one with the painting: she writes the rest of the text based on her interpretation of Kahlo's artwork.
“It's only a small thing, but this painting made such a big impression on me. There is so much intention in the symbolism, the numerology and the details. I also try to put that in my own work. The Wounded Deer is a search for identity, an exploration of concepts like pain, fate and karma. I left out the notion of death being an inevitability, but wanted to emphasize in my own song that it really is about how you approach death, that death can give life extra meaning and isn't necessarily something terribly sad. Frida didn't just embrace death as tragedy; by portraying herself as dying, she gave a place to the suffering in her life. There are major existential questions hidden in her work that I also want to address in my music. I don't have great answers or solutions to offer, but I bring the questions to the forefront in my own way.”
But even though you can dig deep into its existential themes, the surface of 'Little Deer' is ultimately breezy. Despite the dark underlayer, the end of the song, due to the addition of elated horns and congas, approaches the realm of downtempo disco or latin. “A lot of people responded to 'Little Deer' with, 'Oh, this song brings spring in the Bay Area to my living room', or, 'What a danceable song, I’ll use this to clean my house and water the plants!', to which I’ll think: 'Yeah fantastic, it's about death.' Haha!”
Act II: Animal Symbolism and New Sounds
Hunted game isn't the only representation of the animal kingdom on The Turning Wheel: a track like 'Emperor with an Egg' is full of beastly symbolism through an explicit mention of a leopard seal - a totem of consciousness, dreams, ingenuity and creativity. “I’m glad that you already managed to pick up a few of the animals on the album! I did put some emphasis on the symbolism of animals in dreams and art, and placed them all over the album. The work of sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin, especially the short stories in which she embodies herself as different animals in completely different worlds, has inspired me quite a bit. With Le Guin you often don't know what is going on until you get further into the story and the story is already underway. I like that. Those short stories expose the similarities between species, that life on this planet is an inclusive experience for all organisms.”
As on many tracks on The Turning Wheel, Spellling distorts her voice in service of the song in question. She can sound low, dark and threatening on one song, but high, fragile and playful on another. An unconscious connection between the albums Michael Jackson made as a child and the shot deer that soon loses its symbolism of innocence turns out to be an extra layer in the foundation of Cabral's latest album. “I was listening to ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’, and it sounds so pure. Michael's voice sparkles in childlike innocence. How those vocals dance over that romantic instrumentation… fantastic. I modeled ‘Little Deer’ and some other songs on The Turning Wheel after that example. I work a lot with children outside of my artistic career, and I am inspired by how they handle things and how they see the world. I often try to put myself in that childlike perspective when I write songs.”
Dat Spellling ook in haar live-optredens niet ver weg blijft van visuele kunst, was onlangs te zien op haar Instagram: daar verscheen een korte performance van drie nieuwe nummers in het Berkeley Art Museum. De experimentele opstelling op alle vlakken doet denken aan Grimes in haar Geidi Primes-dagen: Cabral zit omringd door planten en kunst op een kleed recht voor een kristallen bol, een aantal effectpedalen en haar Sequential Circuits Six Trak-synthesizer. En de grootste verrassing zie je door de schutkleuren en de niet-prominente plaatsing al helemaal over het hoofd: haar net aangeschafte dilruba, een Indiaas strijkinstrument dat ook te horen is op de nieuwe tracks ‘Revolution’ en ‘The Future’.
“I learned to play the dilruba at random during quarantine. At that time I started setting up my own studio, and as a result I developed an obsession with buying new gear that has gotten a little out of hand. When I woke up I would immediately search Craigslist for instruments, synths, garage sales, everything I could find. That really was my coping mechanism for the pandemic, I realize in retrospect. Because I had accumulated too much at one point, I made an account on Reverb and bought new stuff again after I sold a lot.”
“That's how I came to the dilruba, the first instrument with which I feel an intensely deep connection: it sounds melancholic and sad as well as rich and sincere. The word dilruba literally means 'heart thief', a perfect name for this instrument: it stirs up a lot of emotions that I try to touch with Spellling. And that Six Trak? I also bought it on Reverb a few years ago. I wanted a synthesizer that was compact, but also analog and antique - a pretty hard to find combination. Then I found this one from Sequential Circuits. It's small, but that doesn't make it any less aggressive. It sounds crunchy, is quite unpredictable and also a bit loud - topped off fantastically by the bass tones.”
Act III: Orchestral Climax and Cinematic Synergy
But as simple and solitary her museum live performance may seem, the arrangements on The Turning Wheel turn out to be a lot more layered than can be distinguished at first glance. Cabral collected 31 musicians to perform on the record - the number of creative decisiveness and enthusiasm in angelic numerology, if you care to know - and orchestrated all the parts herself.
So it seems like I made two albums called The Turning Wheel, the first of which sounds like a cheap cheesy version of the final result.
“It started very simple: I wrote the songs on my electric piano. But if I found a different sound to go with something, I played a trumpet part on my synthesizer, for example, which I then took to people who could play that part with their real instrument. I repeated that process for every little layer you hear on the album - so it just seems like I've made two albums, the first of which sounds like a cheap and cheesy version of the final result. When approaching the musicians I had to exert some persuasion: 'Please use your imagination, help me get here, help me get to this place!' It was questionable at first whether this approach would succeed, but fortunately it turned out to be the case.” And thus, in making The Turning Wheel, Spellling broke with her reclusive approach to music, as well as her lockdown cocoon. “It was a difficult process, but through this album I learned how to become more extroverted through composition. It was interesting to be in a leadership role for the first time.”
Cabral's development as an orchestra leader and a less introverted artist can become an interesting source for a future live rendition of The Turning Wheel - in the same way label mate Jenny Hval translated her concept record The Practice Of Love into an experimental theater performance two years ago. “I am now in the planning stages of my new live show. What many people don't know about me, is that my two biggest sources of inspiration are The Wiz, with Diana Ross, and Labyrinth, with David Bowie. So my ultimate vision is to make it, well, a musical. That way I can really convey the grandeur of the instrumentation, which is such a beautiful element of the songs on The Turning Wheel. But what's even more interesting about musicals is the element of performance art. What I want is to bring costumes, a group of dancers and moving sets on tour. In the world of pop venues and festivals, people aren’t exposed to that kind of thing enough. I really want to give my pop show a touch of theatre or even push it in the direction of conceptual art. I'm definitely down."
And because Cabral likes to push the boundaries of disciplines and sounds, the artists with which Cabral's music is compared cover quite a range. The Turning Wheel sounds as timeless and accessible as Bowie and Kate Bush, but adds experimental rhythm layers, classical samples and vocal techniques implemented as ingeniously as Blood Orange and Kelsey Lu. And there are few who dare to sprinkle such melodic arrangements with occult references and dark symbolism as Spellling - well, perhaps only catalog companions like Indigo Sparke, Jenny Hval and David Lynch. With this completely divergent framework of associations, Spellling escaped the dance of genres on her first two records with ease. But still, thought struck while making The Turning Wheel.
“I never thought of myself as a genre artist. I never worried about fitting in, but during those elaborate arranging processes I got a little lost in my musings. ‘What is my place anyway? I’m composing my own songs, but where do I belong aesthetically? Where am I supposed to release this?’ Until I found out that that is actually the greatest quality of my work: I don't have to fit anywhere in terms of genre. Sacred Bones is the right place for me because of the cinematic approach to music. I write music as if I were making the score for a movie: when I have an idea or object in my head, I try to embody it with sound. I do this not only with instruments, but also in the way I use my voice. When I recently saw a trailer for the documentary Sisters With Transistors, I noticed that some artists in that film wrote music for commercials, television and film on their synthesizers. They illustrate how that process is purely about using, adapting, embodying and translating - purely to create something new, to create a synergy. I recognize myself in that. I am adaptable in genre, as are many others with me on Sacred Bones.”
Act IV: Back to the ashes
The Turning Wheel sings of the turning of the wheel, the cycle of life. For Crystia Cabral, this also includes the process of making albums. This third record includes 'The Future', a track that sounds like a small, futuristic dream world of Le Guin in sonic form, a place to hide from the misery that lies beyond it. What did the future look like on her previous two records, and what has changed since?
“Across the span of my released albums, one can discover a common denominator: my fascination for incarnation, for creation. On my first album Pantheon of Me, I played with the concept of pantheon as a kind of collection of gods, or of the different beings [a kind of plural of a daimonion à la Socrates, a small “deity” within yourself who acts like an inner voice, a higher conscience, speaks to you, ed.] in myself. That was a hiding-in-my-head record. Mazy Fly was the next step, but it was still a quest to discover the divine - this time with an emphasis on transcending reality.”
“The Turning Wheel is about the moment of transformation, embracing the cycle of life. Here too, I look for a source of creation, for a deity that’s making the wheel turn. Who or what is the axis of the wheel that holds all those changes, all those ups and downs, all that chaos together, that makes endless innovations and revolutions possible and then stops them again? I think that on The Turning Wheel I embrace the fact that reality and future may sometimes seem fixed, but that all of that is just a matter of perspective. Sometimes everything seems certain, but in my view that is just a moment of inertia. Everything changes, everything is constantly moving outside of your perspective. My songs ask questions within that concept. When will reality stop spinning around itself? Will we ever reach that angelic state of calm and oneness? And if so, when? That is my main question behind The Turning Wheel, the play of life.”
In the foreground of those musings, deeper themes and questions, The Turning Wheel is a rich, warm, layered and ambitious end product that can provide quite a few career steps. What are the things about her third album that Cabral herself is most proud of?
“I am proud that I have not made any concessions. Especially when the whole process became complicated by all kinds of closures, hurdles and loose ends associated with a pandemic. At a certain point I could have said: 'Okay, this is finished, it sounds good enough, I can hand it in well in time', but I followed my instinct and spent more time on the creative process. The lockdown was the ultimate time to push myself even further to make something beautiful out of this. Far out of my comfort zone and free from compromise, I put my social stamina to the test to work with all kinds of new people and bring 31 musicians together. This is why I sleep so much now!”