A Healing Vortex: Taja Cheek Interviewed by Stephanie Berzon

On the grief, softness, and spiritual mania of L’Rain.

Lrain By Jason Al Taan 1

Taja Cheek. Photo by Jason Al-Taan.

I met musical artist Taja Cheek at MoMA PS1 where we both worked at the time. We kept busy in our respective departments, so I had not known of her work as a musician until after her mother’s sudden passing. It was this loss and difficult period rife with change and other griefs that gave life to the healing vortex of L’Rain, the musical project of Cheek named after her mother Lorraine.

L’Rain’s live performances are otherworldly sonic experiences that I can best translate as a reimagining of Homeric mythology, with the Sirens tempting an audience into mass catharsis instead of a metaphorical shipwreck. They are part sound work, part sound collage, and part pure organic energy. Cheek is closely backed by an ensemble brimming with power and ownership of instrument, with Ben Chapoteau-Katz as the music director on saxophone and synthesizers, Justin Felton on guitar and bass, and Alwyn Robinson on drums and percussion. 

We live in an age in which genre is losing its utility and prominence in a subversive musical society less tethered to pre-existing labels than in previous generations. L’Rain carries a strong feminine entropy that is difficult to name; even the ocean of “experimentalism” can be limiting here—a category too often pushed onto composers and sounds (especially in the femme community) that don’t serve another bucket. It is better to understand L’Rain as a slow water that pushes over ponytails of grass and rock, transforming everything it touches into something smoother. Much like the rock, each person who surrenders to her sound leaves slightly changed.

—Stephanie Berzon

Stephanie Berzon Where are we, and what do you hear here? 

Taja CheekI’ve been spending this whole year trying to understand where I am. To be honest, I hope that I’m moving toward a new place or starting to fire new synapses. I can feel myself sliding into the familiar, but maybe for the first time in my life that doesn’t feel very good. I guess this is a hard question to answer because I’m really trying to lean into the unknown in a very basic, foundational sense. Essentially, I’m moving slower, being less reactive, noticing things around me, and delving into life privately. All of this is happening in my place in Crown Heights, but it follows me on my walks around the neighborhood or further jaunts into the city.

I tend to record my life as a way of remembering. I do it on my phone mostly, but I just bought a Zoom recorder and can’t wait to start using it in earnest. I have been recording conversations with friends and recording myself muttering and singing alone. I’ve been keeping track of my thoughts and feelings and being careful not to feel bound to them. I live on the first floor on a busy street, and at the beginning of quarantine there were a dizzying number of sirens all day and night. They were my only connection to the outside world, frighteningly enough. The sirens abruptly turned into chanting outside of my window as we moved into June 2020. And now, I mostly hear snippets of people’s conversations and excessively chatty birds. A bit of a return to my normal sonic landscape. It’s strangely intimate, I admit. No one knows that I can hear them. But it’s New York City, so I’m sure they don’t actually care. They’re in public anyway. 

SBWhat things have you noticed around you recently? 

TCI’ve noticed a bit of a manic energy around the city. I think the shift in weather and the shift in our hyper-local COVID reality have given a sense of hope and happiness running in parallel with the anxiety both of those changes have caused all of us. People are still really, really hurting, and it is painful and palpable. It’s a very emotionally fractured time. Maybe I’m projecting, but I feel like I can sense all of this from strangers when I walk down the street. I haven’t been outside much in the past year, so I’m feeling a bit sensitive and raw I suppose.

Lrain 1 Two Face Andrew Swartz 1

Photo by Andrew Swartz.

SBWhat has inside sounded and felt like for you in quarantine?

TCThe sound of chirping birds that tended to congregate with their friends on particularly nice days; there are a lot of trees on my block. The sound of ambient synth patches when Ben leaves his equipment running. Singing choirs and organs on Sundays. The clanking of my furniture hitting the floor as I rearranged my apartment too many times. The sound of brown noise is the sound of rest for me. I listen to it every night; I prefer it over white noise because I find it softer.

SBHave you always been attracted to softer sounds? I remember catching a L’Rain set at Public Records in Brooklyn, and the end of a song drifted forth as a sort of improv. Within mere minutes the sound transformed from free jazz to black metal. It was complete spiritual mania. 

TCI love that phrase, spiritual mania; it resonates pretty deeply with me in general.

I was just talking to a few friends about this yesterday, actually: how I feel an immense power in softness that I especially like to explore when I perform. I often play in bars and dingy clubs, and I like creating a bit of dissonance to try to transform those spaces into somewhere else—making a space of distracted listening and half participation into an intentional pact, a performance space, a place of stillness and attention. When I’m quiet, the audience has to get quiet too. They have to commune with their friends to piece together what’s happening. They have to use their body differently as a listener: they have to lean in to hear, cup their ears, and close their eyes. Softness gives me room to evade a lot of projections of Blackness and womanhood and all their intersections.

Lrain 2 Blame Me Credit Jason Al Taan 1

Photo by Jason Al Taan.

SBIs this physical response to quietude also the reason why you ask your audience to sit down before each performance?

TC I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but, yes, it’s very related to me. I consider sitting a key part of the “pact,” and I hope it helps further transform the space. Our physical bodies are a bit of an afterthought in most bars and clubs, but it’s such a crucial element of how we experience those spaces. 

SBI find your integration of ritual (smudging the room before each set) and vocal loop in live performance deeply hypnotic. Can you speak to this a little?

TCThank you, Stephanie! Hypnosis is part of it for me too. I might be drawn to ’70s minimalism for the same reasons I’m drawn to some production, especially hip-hop: a love of loops. I listen to the same song over and over again if I really love it, or even just a segment of a song. For weeks at a time. The same thing over and over and over again. Something magical happens in repetition. I’ve always felt this way, and I’m not entirely sure what it is. I kind of like the mystery.

SBHow did L’Rain emerge? 

TCI realized after the first album was released that L’Rain was my mom’s idea all along. I was playing in a few bands that created material collaboratively, but she always insisted that I find a way to sing and play piano alone. I’m not sure if she was specifically suggesting I use those instruments. I think it was her way of thinking through a path I could forge on my own since I’d always sing around the house and took piano lessons for years. But I was just so stubborn. I ignored her very loudly. She’d bring it up constantly, and I would always just roll my eyes and tell her I wasn’t interested. But when the projects I was playing in at the time fell apart, my friend Andrew Lappin asked me if I’d ever want to create my own solo record. I didn’t really want to, but I didn’t know what else to do. I had a lot of demos and a lot of ideas, and I was heartbroken from friend break-ups and break-up break-ups and needed an outlet. It was low pressure. I just wanted to realize this little weird thing I had in my head and assumed no one would pay attention to it. 

L’Rain has become both my solo creative outlet and also a project jointly created by a band of musicians and engineers: namely, Ben, my right hand and left brain, and my current bandmates, Justin Felton and Alwyn Robinson, who both have incredible solo projects. It’s a delicate balance, but I’m trying to find a way to nurture my own voice and singular vision, especially as a Black woman musician, while also acknowledging that I work collaboratively with a team that is essential to the project. I don’t think these two sentiments are at odds with one another, but it’s a little tricky to convey in an industry that privileges the idea of lone genius or creator above more nuanced and collective models. I guess it’s something like Sade, both a band and a person.

SBYou really have the best eyeroll, and I love how your mother also gave you this. I recently learned that “dura mater” is the Latin name for the tough membrane surrounding our brains, and it translates to English as “tough mother.” It (she) supports the channel that carries blood from the brain to the heart. 

TCI’m dying, Stephanie. This is honestly the best compliment. And thank you for this incredible connection. I almost named the entire album Suck Teeth, a sound that might be the auditory complement to an eyeroll. But decidedly Black. It’s the kind of sound I imagine an exasperated mother, aunt, or other femme familial figure making to communicate disapproval or annoyance. The title ended up not suiting the album, so I transformed it into a song title instead; but this idea of refusal still deeply interests me, especially a sort of refusal that is felt and communicated through the body, one that also comes from a place of love. 

L'Rain, music video for "Suck Teeth," 2021.

SBHow did you come to “Two Face”

TCAll of the songs have two titles. Each has a newer, public title, which all together collectively comprise a poem; and each has a loosely connected, semi-secret title, which were the original names of the songs before I rewrote them all. “Two Face” used to be named “Gemini,” very simply because it’s about someone who is a Gemini. If you listen closely toward the end, you can hear a radio announcer saying the original song title in his best radio-announcer voice.

SBHow on earth do you keep a pocket of secrets in a world like today?

TCI think (I hope!) you can do both at the same time: share and conceal. I’m trying to figure out how to draw lines and boundaries while also giving as much of myself as I can. There are many audio recordings hidden deep in the background of many of the songs on this album that I know no one else will hear or recognize but me. I’m sure people will feel it energetically, but the details of those elements of the songs are for me alone. I tattooed on my arm the first few letters of a secret pact I have with my dad: equal parts showing and concealing, I think. This is somehow related to the feeling of going to a crowded bar alone, or throwing a party at your house and hiding in your room, or sharing nonsense on social media: black squares instead of pictures. There’s at least a little something appealing there, the best of both worlds.

L’Rain’s new album Fatigue will be released from Mexican Summer on June 25.

Stephanie Berzon is a writer and Director of Residency Earth currently living in Portland, Oregon.

Related
Spinning and Daydreaming: Kristin Oppenheim Interviewed by Vijay Masharani
Ko Nightrun Frontcover

On her newly released collection of circuitous sound works created in the early ’90s.

Two Poems by Joyelle McSweeney
Jm Tan
Riding the Spiral: Lubomyr Melnyk Interviewed by Stephanie Berzon
Por80575

The revered composer, and fastest piano player alive, discusses his Continuous Music practice as a spiritual force.