Photography Catalina Xavlena

spellling's ominous disco speaks to the ghosts of slavery

On shimmering new track 'Haunted Water,' the Oakland producer traces the path of the Middle Passage — and turns an eye to the global refugee crisis.

by Nick Fulton
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Nov 13 2018, 4:53pm

Photography Catalina Xavlena

After releasing her critically acclaimed debut, Pantheon Of Me, in September last year, Tia Cabral, the artist known as SPELLLING, became the breakout star of an Oakland experimental music scene that Bandcamp championed for being “queerer, browner, and more femme.” Born in Sacramento, Cabral grew up in a musical household, but her journey to becoming one of the Bay Area’s brightest stars took years to manifest. Her father owns a “library” of violins (he collects and refurbishes them) and Cabral says that she “could pick them up and work out ideas and melodies,” but she was invariably too “scatterbrained” to commit to one thing. It was only after performing at an open mic in 2016 that she remembers thinking, “‘This is not a big deal, why am I so afraid?’… It propelled everything as far as, ‘Oh, this could be something that I really enjoy,’” she says.

A self-described romantic who’s obsessed with the supernatural, Cabral came up with the concept for her latest album, Mazy Fly (out February 2019 via Sacred Bones Records), after imagining her dog, an adorable border collie cross, as a spirit with wings. “[It’s] about this idea of progress or enlightenment, and wanting to ascend into something greater, bigger, or larger,” she explains on the phone from her apartment, which is situated in an old printing press just minutes from the Berkeley campus. “A lot of times we think about progress as a linear thing, something that involves one point to the next. I guess in my experience with trying to grow as a person, it’s been so much more twisty than that, and sort of moving down or falling before really achieving something. So I put these images together and I thought of this character as the Mazy Fly; a winged spirit who is exploring and taking on optimism and also going into really dark corners.”

“Haunted Water,” premiering today on i-D, is one of the heaviest moments on Mazy Fly. Doomy disco beats, inspired by Kraftwerk and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, provide the song with a thumping current that empowers Cabral’s restless voice, as she cries out “I am your faith, but it’s not enough to build a bridge over haunted water.” With both ominous textures and silky layers, the song speaks of the haunted Middle Passage that bought slaves from Africa to the United States, and turns an eye to the current passage of refugees across the Mediterranean, the Rio Grande River, and parts of Asia.

There are a lot of light and dark themes on this new record. Where do they derive from?
I think I approach writing and I see the world from a very romantic perspective. Romance has very light and dark elements, and my obsession with romantic music, media, film, and literature definitely comes through. Themes of the supernatural, the surreal, and the sublime really speak to me. At the surface I think I try to evoke, through the sounds and through my voice, a sense of beauty and a sense discovery and excitement. [Though] there’s always this underlying layer of horror, and I think that’s because of this consideration of magic that makes things both beautiful and scary. The combination of what’s beautiful and scary is very romantic and seductive.

On “Haunted Water” you sing about how colonial violence haunts the historical slave ship routes of the Middle Passage. Can you explain your personal connection to that theme?
I wrote the song maybe two years ago. I was considering a lot of different things at the time, but mostly this idea of the ocean holding memory and holding trauma from historical events. I was studying The Middle Passage and the idea of the spectrality or the haunted middle passage, because so many millions of people died at sea due to the institution of slavery, [because of] greed and capitalism. So much happened in that state of betweenness, in the trade between Africa to America. It’s really complicated, but basically I was trying to insert myself into that space and the lyrics started coming out.

This [song] also considers other forms of passage in the current day, involving refugees and the global refugee crisis. People who are forced to flee and travel across the sea. I think a lot of the anxieties and fears around people coming to our country was really affecting me, and I was trying to translate all these areas and the anxiety I was feeling around the cruelty people have towards each other. All of those factors were swirling around in my head and the song came out sort of like a doomy, guitar droney song at first. It was a really heavy interpretation. I used to perform it that way, and I still do sometimes, but when I re-approached it this summer I liked the idea of how a pounding beat makes you feel it in a different way.

There’s definitely a disco vibe to this new record. What inspired that shift?
Before I recorded anything for this record I wanted to do a side project that was disco-themed, or sort of ghoulish disco. But trying to set certain limitations means that I just end up trying to ultimately destroy them. Maybe I picked up on that because I was listening to a lot of disco and funk, and watching Soul Train. I love the spirit of disco. Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall is my favorite record of all time. Just this idea of one nation under a groove or bodies moving, even just temporarily you have the chance to reach or create a certain utopia on the dancefloor. So I wanted that sort of spirit, of like, for this moment utopia is possible, or that this feeling can permeate everything. I think disco has that life and that brilliance to it.

I imagine people in the Bay Area are very open to that.
Yeah, last year when I was performing Pantheon stuff, this sounds stupid, but it’s music for listening. You are there to listen, and so a lot of times people would sit down or just circle around, and I would really appreciate that. But now that I’ve been performing some of the Mazy Fly stuff I see a lot more movement.

Last year you were featured in an article about ‘How Oakland’s Experimental Music Scene Became Queerer, Browner, and More Femme.’ Is the scene still evolving?
It’s constantly evolving and it’s definitely becoming queerer, browner, and more femme. Me, and I think two of the others that were interviewed in that [piece], are part of different collectives. Club Chai, who have been holding down the underground experimental club scene — I just see that expanding right before my eyes and inspiring a lot of other folks to start making their own noise. It’s beautiful, it’s opened up a lot of conversations that I see starting out at warehouse shows and house parties. I’ve been lending out stuff and having people over to do workshops and sessions, to just have a safe space to try things. I think that was one of my fears before I started making music; I never really had a space to try and learn around people who weren’t there with a certain agenda. Kohinoorgasm, Wizard Apprentice, Beast Nest, Earthbound, a lot of these Oakland folks are continuing to expand and take on different performative aspects to their work, and that’s inspiring to me, too.