TĀLĀ: songwriter and producer hitting gold with potent Alchemy
Continent-crossing EP showcases her fusion of pop, R&B and breakbeat with sounds of Iran and the Middle East
In a dark studio space in London, the air thick with the heady scents of jasmine, citrus and peppermint, a small audience stands in hushed anticipation. As the lights go up, the haunting notes of iconic Arabic singer Fairuz’s song Ana La Habibi fill the venue and a petite figure, dressed all in black with a silver nose chain adorning her face, steps on to the stage.
It was an apt opening for the debut live performance of TĀLĀ last Wednesday, a songwriter and producer who has been gathering hype over the past year for her multilayered electronic music that fuses pop, sultry R&B and breakbeat with the distinctively eastern sounds of Iran and the Middle East.
Despite having only released two EPs on small Brixton-based label Aesop, this 25-year-old has become something of a golden girl of theblogosphere, particularly following the release of Alchemy, the soaring lead track off her second EP.
The continent-crossing sounds of TĀLĀ’s music owe their foundations to her upbringing, the daughter of an Iranian father and English mother who ran a Persian restaurant in south-west London. It was a childhood, she says, filled with “amazing music and even more amazing food”.
“When I think about the music I was exposed to when I was younger it was this really bizarre fusion,” says TĀLĀ, laughing. “My dad was also a bit of a frustrated musician so he loved the arts and everything creative. Music and performance as a career for your daughter could sometimes be a bit frowned upon but my dad was not the stereotypical Middle Eastern father and was just like ‘Go into the arts, be creative’.”
She added: “We had loads of instruments round the house and my dad would always be playing the sitar or playing the tabla, it was always fun. Then I’d get on the piano and we’d be jamming. And he’d have always these crazy parties that would go on till 3 in the morning. So growing up with that spirit in the house, it was always mental. So loud. It was a bit of a hippie household really but a great creative environment.”
Her father’s love for Googoosh (the “Iranian equivalent of Madonna”), Fairuz and popular Iranian singer Mahasti combined with her mother’s penchant for Michael Ball and Tom Jones to become an incongruous but rich wall of sound which TĀLĀ says has become ingrained in her, and unavoidably resurfaces in the music she creates. Even her decision to go simply by the name of TĀLĀ , which means gold in Farsi, is a direct nod to her heritage.
TĀLĀ’s taste for creating music began when she started learning the piano at age seven, and realised she preferred improvising her own compositions than playing traditional pieces. But it was when she got her hands on an early version of the music software programme Reason as a teenager that her eyes were opened to all the possibilities of creating her own samples and beats from scratch.
“That was the start of it for me, and from then on it was just about evolving and experimenting my sound,” says TĀLĀ. “I was making loads of rubbish ideas that I probably thought were amazing when I was a teenager. But growing up in London back then, garage music was a massive part of the culture and there was this real DIY ethos to garage round that time. You didn’t necessarily need to have a studio or a record deal to be making music and that was pretty influential for me at that time.”
When she was 16 TĀLĀ moved from a small Catholic convent school in Twickenham to the prestigious performing arts academy the Brit school(for her audition she presented the school with a CD of all the beats she had created). It was a shift she admits she initially struggled with. “On my first day I came home crying because I’d come from such a small school, where I was top of the game, and then I went to Brit school and just realised that so many talented people were making music. I felt so naive and was just like ‘I need to work really hard’,” she recalls.
Her two years at Brit school and the several that followed are ones she only talks about vaguely, a time of “confusion and self-discovery”. While TĀLĀ is adamant she never got sucked into the Brit school bubble, which she said had left many around her feeling lost when “the real world” inevitably came calling, it was nonetheless not an easy time for the musician.
“I don’t think any of the music I was making when I was at Brit school really felt right,” she says. “After that I went on a bit of a quest really, to evolve and find out what my own sound is. I’ve always been making and producing my own music, I’ve never really distinguished between the two. But at that point I was doing a bit of everything and I used to find that really frustrating because my problem was that I had so many ideas and didn’t know how to bring it all together for someone other than me to understand it.”
“That journey to find my sound was quite difficult,” she added. “I really feel like you have to spend time on your own to be that honest with yourself and about the stuff you are creating. It can be borderline insanity but also it is very revealing.”
It was only after she became the “passion project” for cult production duo Craze + Hoax – who found success by co-writing Emeli Sandé’s hit Heaven and then producing her track Next to Me – that TĀLĀ began to find some direction with her own creativity. After months “hibernating” in her bedroom studio and in Craze + Hoax’s Ealing studio, the pair suggested that she just collate all her ideas on a beat tape and upload it on to Soundcloud.
It proved a fruitful idea. In early 2014, the eight tracks caught the attention of small but respected London record label Aesop, who suggested she develop them into a three-track EP, titled The Duchess, which she then followed with a second, Alchemy, in November.
Now signed to major label Columbia and with her first live show under her belt, TĀLĀ says she is determined to make 2015 a year of exploration, experimentation and travel. Indeed, she has already begun the year with an impromptu collaboration with American singer How to Dress Well and her plans for the future remain open-ended.
“There is going to be an album, there’s no definite date but I would say probably sometime in 2016,” says TĀLĀ . “But as far as this year I want to put out something … well, I don’t want to call it an EP because I want it to be something more spontaneous, inspired by my travelling, and I want it to be quite collaborative.”
TĀLĀ is adamant, however, that when she does get into the studio to record her much-anticipated debut album, she will retain the same level of creative control as both artist and producer as she did making beats in her bedroom– and will not be making many compromises along the way.
“Trying to fit into something, fit into some box or trying to be the next someone or other won’t get you anywhere,” she says. “I’ve realised you’ve just got to ignore that and forge your own lane, as humble a path as that may be, because even though it may take longer, it’s more genuine and more reflective of you. That was a big thing for me right from the start, It’s taken me a while to get there and I definitely don’t want to lose that now.”