Photo: Erik Bender

Interview: The Existential Exultations of SPELLLING – “Humility is something I wanted more of in my life”

World building doesn’t have to entail an incomprehensible, esoteric lexicon of lore and fictional guidelines. Just ask Chrystia ‘Tia’ Cabral, the Bay Area artist who records under the moniker SPELLLING. Yes, that’s with three Ls, and for some reason this one’s always compelled to annunciate that extra L for strictly dramatic purposes. It’s also true that Cabral’s recently released long player The Turning Wheel doesn’t shy away from the weightiest of universal themes and questions, as she so professes herself.

“I’m just reaching a stage in my life where you think reality appears solid, in a certain way. But underneath there is so much movement and particles and ever-changing shapes,” she says. “I wanted to embrace that with The Turning Wheel. There is never really any resolution in my songs. I’m never trying to resolve any of these questions. By just exploring them, I’m just thinking about when reality stops circulating around itself. When do you reach that nirvanic stage? That angelic stage? That’s the theme of The Turning Wheel, that karmic cycle of life.”

Oof. If this were a film, you’d hear that mushroom-explosion sized woosh accompanying these words. But on the other end of her Zoom-call with Beats Per Minute, Chrystia Cabral is relaxed and frolicsome. She sifts through these epoch-making storybook themes as if skipping inquisitively between relics in a gallery. Despite its grand existential exultations, The Turning Wheel is an unapologetically light-hearted and fun record to listen to: one that makes the nostalgia-senses go haywire. You get the feeling this album exists in the same universe as Billy Ocean’s “Loverboy” video, transported through a geometric dimensional portal into this decisively less-imaginative reality.

Songs like “The Future” sound like an Andrew Lloyd Webber play being rehearsed on the set of Forbidden Planet, as Cabral’s naturally blithe voice is showered ceremonially by theremins, choirs, bassoons (bassoons!) and timpani. Then there’s “Queen Of Wands”,  which boldly veers from renaissance-style strings to sinister John Carpenter-styled synth stabs. Each song on the album feels constructed like an elaborate set piece, with Cabral claiming both the director’s chair and the spotlight. Instead of micromanaging things carefully, you get the sense The Turning Wheel came together in a sequence of escapist, quizzical whims.

Cabral – who lives in an aptly post-apocalyptic looking attic festooned with plants, rustic objects and instruments – nods in agreement. “I’ve always been a writer who likes to adapt to what I’m making; so instead of trying to conform to a certain genre, I’ll have my ‘genre’ be what propels the writing,” she reflects. “I always try to adapt my whole vibe to what the song wants. That changes the way I sing, and the way I hear the music. That took on a whole new dimension with these new songs.

“”The Turning Wheel” was the first track of the album where I felt outside of my usual zone. It just had a different character: a more Beatlesque, folk vibe. The piano being the main instrument. At first I thought this was a song I could maybe give to someone else, seeing it has that classic pop, Elton John vibe. I didn’t even think of it as a SPELLLING song at first! ‘This one’s for someone else to sing’, or so I thought. But then I wondered: why not? It’ll be cool to see where it takes me. And that was the process for all six of the ‘Above’ tracks on the album. They all felt outside of my character, songs I’d give away. But instead, I just embraced it. I really needed to see them through in the context in which I see them, inspired by big soul music instrumentation and art pop. I needed a fullness, I needed a lot of sounds.”

If there is an ‘Above’, there has to be a ‘Below’, right? Cabral explains how The Turning Wheel has the vibe of a classic double album, harnessing a philosophical duality between both sides. “The two sides of the album distinguish themselves. These songs don’t really feel like they’re mine but I wanted to try them out, which developed into the ‘Above’ half, which has a warmer, more optimistic tone. The music has a very 70s art pop soul influence, all the songs are very charged with this energy of adventure or a quest, like a performance to a school play.

“Whereas on the ‘Below’ half, I leaned in much more on my natural writing process, darker, slightly more eighties gothic. Going into the more sublime half of this bigger picture. That’s how I see it too,” she reflects. “The ‘Above’ songs are illuminated by the sun, they have that vibe of brightness. The darker songs have a more contemplative, brooding tone and timbre to them. They’re more similar to previous SPELLLING-work where it’s about the repetition, or sense of incantation. I’m very much inspired by the repetition of church music and gospel music. I think the ‘Below’ stuff is more like that. I see them as two sides of the same coin, into the concept of The Turning Wheel where there’s circulation around from day to night.”

No matter how emphatic the arrangements and words become, Cabral has a way of beguiling the listeners through it like a fabulist causing mischief at a flimsy mirror-funhouse. The sonic elements feel familiar, yet simultaneously hold a macabre sense of remove, like they came from some kind of parallel world where Betty Davis, spaghetti-horror flick soundtracks, Kraftwerk and Jim Henson hold no cultural bearing. As the opening stanzas of the title track commence, Cabral sings something cryptic about “dancing without moving”, beckoning the question of what those words signify for her exactly.

“I usually don’t write from a very personal place,” she answers. “Usually, I’m inspired by things I read, bigger concepts… existential concepts! Of course my music is always personal, but never in an autobiographical way. But that one in particular was because I had just finished grad school and I moved out of Berkeley where I currently live. My partner and I moved to this very small fringy town right outside of the Bay Area. It was just very odd. We just wanted the change. Also, rent is so expensive in the Bay Area. We were like: ‘we could have a big yard and a big space for what we’re paying now… so let’s try it!’ We were just kind of going through a shift and the lyrics came out through that idea of stepping outside of the city and of wanting to retreat to an idyllic, really romanticized idea of living outside of the demands of a city in the Bay Area, out of the urban nests. ‘Dancing without moving’ is really about exploring my romanticized ideal of wanting to live completely off-the-grid. I really want that in my life and I’ve never done that. I fantasize about moving somewhere very rural, at least for a stage of my life. And to attain a different kind of happiness.“

Considering SPELLLING’s rich retro-futuristic instrumentation and bewildering alchemy of arcane, sci-fi and horror elements, it’s easy to dismiss Cabral as a dreamer out of touch with the reverberations of the world. This couldn’t be further from the truth, as the project is rooted from real-life tragedy and local communion. After studying Philosophy in UC Berkeley, Cabral was initially set on returning to her hometown of Sacramento to become an elementary school teacher.

“I was doing art classes and I worked on an after school program in 2014 through 2016,” she recounts. “It was really free form: the person who hired me was like ‘You can teach whatever you want’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay, then I’m going to teach a shrinky dink class!’

Noticing my puzzled face on her side of the screen, Cabral explains the intricacies of shrinky dink crafting in detail. ”It’s wax paper you can draw on, and then you cut it out, then you bake it. It shrinks into a miniature hardened piece of art. It’s a special type of paper but it’s basically just plastic.” In the oven, these little trinkets would sometimes bend and crumble in on themselves, which required intervention by a spatula to hopefully get them to turn out as intended. Sometimes, they wouldn’t, and it would result in some heavy duty tears. This feels very allegorical to the twisted turn of events that loomed, as Cabral’s college roommate David passed away.

“It was very tragic, he was only 22 years old. He was an artist of every trade: he made clothes, he was a beautiful writer, poet and performance artist,” she tells me. “After he passed away I moved into his room. I was living there and I think just imagining the juju of being in that space kicked on a new perspective.” Being around her friend’s belongings, something not only shifted within Cabral, but her entire community of friends. Instead of driving in the safe lanes, all of them embraced a part of that free-inspirited artistry within themselves, veering into radically different life trajectories.

“A friend of mine, Lara (Sarkissian), became the founder of this DJ-collective and platform called Club Chai, who have been influential in the Bay Area around the same time. She randomly decided to become a DJ, produce music and get into gear,” Cabral says. “I was right alongside her: there was no time to waste to just try doing the things we always wanted to do. Music came back into my mind because I brought a keyboard from home and moved into the space and started messing around on it. It brought the poetry I was working on at the time to life in a new dimension. And I just went from there.”

Cabral reveals she never seriously considered performing music until just five years ago, back in 2016.  “Before that I never made a recording in my life, I never performed. I never really tried to write a song except when I was a kid. I made a lot of music with just my tape cassette. That was something my grandfather would always harp on: I started to kind of get annoyed by it when I was really little, at about age five or six. During every family dinner and Thanksgiving I would perform and have my little karaoke machines,” she remembers. “My grandfather loved it and he wanted me to sing classic Spanish ballads, and I’d sing those. As I grew up he kept egging me on: ‘Oh Chrystia is such a great singer!’ and I was all like ‘I don’t sing anymore!’ I’m not a kid!’ But he never gave up on that dream for me. ‘She’s going to be a singer, that’s who she is’ and I always kind of rolled my eyes.”

A friend of hers helped sort her first show at a dive bar in Sacramento. “I was terrified! They weren’t even really songs at the time at that stage. Before Patheon Of Me, I made this collection of songs called Crayola Church – they were these really lo-fi recordings of me repeating words and putting tones over it. That’s kind of where SPELLLING came from, too. It was kind of a play on witchcraft and incantation: I literally chose the word ‘spelling’ because I worked with children as an art teacher. So that’s where Crayola Church came in. I thought it was funny to do something like that. I just chose different colors and made these word-songs.”

Indeed, the divine, mysticism and spirituality are fertile wellsprings for SPELLLING to continue creating, and you can tell Cabral enjoys tossing all these different elements into the cauldron. “Religions, belief and faith are big ongoing themes in my work,” she says. “I’m always fascinated by those questions and concepts that are innate to any religious practice. What is the route to divinity? Reaching the godhead, becoming one with the creator. That’s not a thread throughout all religions, perhaps, but in most it’s about striking a balance between what you’re incarnated as on earth.

“The common thread with all three albums I’ve put out is incarnation and what it means to live in this body. Pantheon Of Me, my first album, I was playing with the image of a collection of gods, all of the beings that exist within myself. That album was all in my head and therefore very personal, whereas Mazy Fly felt like I was stepping out: thinking about the sky, what does it mean to transcend? The quest of what it takes to reach that state of divinity? The Turning Wheel I think is a correlation with the time, this really intense proximity to the unfamiliar, to chaos and change.”

Though the SPELLLING project simply started with just Cabral’s voice and a loop pedal, that surrender to movement has never ceased – even as more influences and aesthetics have since been caught into her intensifying vortex. At one point, she brings up Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, prompting the question that if she were to inhabit the author’s fictional universe, which planet would she wish to start on?

“Anarres is such a brutal planet in the way (Le Guin) described it. Maybe I’m just romanticizing, but I like the idea of being able to work hard at one thing. We live in a world of grateful opportunity and there is so much at hand you can have access to: even compared to now or twenty years ago, everyone has the power to make music for themselves and have access to instruments that would otherwise have cost so much more money. Back in the day you had to have a music label or certain things to be able to make a record. Sometimes having so much can feel disorienting. I think that’s the point she was trying to make with the other planet, which is excess, a simile of what we have now: extravagance and excess.

“I don’t know, it would be interesting to start with a limited access to things, or certain restrictions, because I think that can be the key towards making things that are new. Having less is sometimes an asset, humility is something I wanted more of in my life. As an artist, to strike a balance between sustaining yourself for a living but also keeping the humility to create, to have motivation to make things from a pure state. I think excess gets in the way of that pure state of making and creating.”

The Turning Wheel is out now on Sacred Bones (read our review). Also check out Jeremy J. Fisette’s conversation with SPELLLING for Beats Per Minute’s Meet Our Makers Podcast.

You can find her on Bandcamp, Facebook and Instagram.