SPELLLING is Tia Cabral’s fantasy. The Oakland-based musician, whose second full-length album, ‘Mazy Fly,’ is out today via Sacred Bones, has found music to be a natural consequence of living in a world that can often feel like a performance.
Growing up in South Sacramento, Cabral says that the infrastructure of suburban interaction often felt oppressive: “People were so concerned with each other and maintaining neatness and order,” she said.
The performative nature of suburbia led Cabral to value fantasy and escape, dreams that she realized upon moving to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley. Though she’s only been performing for just over three years, Cabral has created a rich musical world in her work as SPELLLING, one replete with internal logic, narratives and history
Mazy Fly, her second full-length, is a dreamy space-funk epic, rooted as much in the music of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder as it is in 80’s soundtracks and the ambient work of Mort Garson. Cabral is now attaining her MFA in at Berkeley, and her academic bent manifests across the album’s twelve tracks. Concepts as far-ranging as Homeric myths, Fibonacci numbers, and the work of Saidiya Hartman swirl together recursively under the interstellar dreamscapes of synth and saxophone. The result is an album that feels intensely literary, planted in both the power of history and the possibility of science fiction.
In the weeks before Mazy Fly’s release, Tia hopped on the phone with Collide to parse the album’s themes and backstories. Read our full track-by-track breakdown below:
Track 1- Red
COLLiDE: This one sets the tone for the album instrumentally. It’s very atmospheric.
SPELLLING: Red was one of the earlier tracks I wrote for the record, (when I was still heavily using my loop pedal to get the core of the idea out.) It was one of those that was sort of a one-take effort on the loop pedal. I went back and later added harmonies and synths and vocals, but the existence of the song happened in real time.
In my mind, it’s a song about magic. I imagined myself as a magician performing for an audience. I feel like a song requires a certain amount of participation of the listener for the magic to become real. As a magician, I just want you to believe, right? Like believe in the power of something. That’s where the line “that’s my heart beating in your hand.” That’s my way of telling the audience “I love you, and you have power over me with that love.”
Track 2- Haunted Water
CC: You mentioned magic. This song feels spiritual to me, which is often tied up in ideas of magic. What does this track mean to you?
S: I do think about the spirit of ideas and things and places. Like what a place has witnessed, and that as a type of spirituality. With “Haunted Waters,” I was thinking of the spirit of the ocean and bodies of water as retaining memories, and how that’s a pretty haunted feeling. That’s where the lyrics came from, thinking about the Middle Passage and the oceans having colonial violence.
This was originally a poem, and when I wrote it I was reading Saidiya Hartman, who traces the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade in a very poetic way. Like, the words will take over the page and fall away in structure. Also was reading Zora Neale Hurston. Just people who were trying to reexamine history and the things that remain that speak to our present.
I wrote this song before I had any recorded music, and it kind of kept escaping me. I couldn’t find the right way for it to come out because of the content being so heavy. I used to perform it as a live loop that really slow, and you could hear each lyric being built up, and I would pla guitar. It was much more doomy and slow and atmospheric. It just wasn’t’ working, it wasn’t hitting the right ways.
CC: How did you finally make it work?
S: It’s the beat. It’s really aggressive. Producing it, I doubled it, made it thick. Every single sound has this feeling of scraping at the surface. Persistence. I feel like everything was being stretched to its limit. It needed that quality to get under your skin and be something you need to return to and hear again.
TRACK 3- HARD TO PLEASE
CC: I love the off-kilter melodies hanging around the upper register on this song. What are your views on beauty vs. ugliness in songwriting?
S: I was rehearsing this song for a small tour I was doing for Amen Dunes. I was having the sax player, Divya, play the main melody. And my drummer kept on saying that it didn’t sound right. I mean, she played it exactly right, but I remember him saying “that sounds bad!” (laughs). And when I asked him what he meant, he said it sounds clashing. And I was like, “yeah, that’s how it is.”
In my mind, I approach sound as sound. Like the ugliness is important. Maybe not ugliness- more like jarring. And, listening back now, it is weird how the synths will just interrupt or overpower the voice. It’s really jarring. But it isn’t a beautiful song. It’s about obsession, and the fascination leading to obsession. So I think it needed to pretend to be beautiful, if that makes sense. Like, it uses a pop structure. It’s funny, because this was the first single, and I was worried about it being too poppy. But I guess I don’t need to worry about that.
TRACK 4- GOLDEN NUMBERS
CC: I wanted to ask about the lyrics here. You say, “counting my golden numbers”- what does that mean?
S: This is my favorite track of the album I think. I wrote this song in early January of last year. I remember going out and walking through Berkeley, and I heard this professor explaining Fibonacci numbers and the golden ratio. And she was explaining that each number in the series is the sum of two prior ones. And it just tsruck me a certain way to think about how this idea applies in math and science, art and nature. Like the formations we see in plants and flowers and petals.
So I was thinking about how we appreciate these instances of beauty, and no one can explain why this ratio and these numbers are there, but they are there. It was really affirming. On the song I’m singing about being in this downward spiral of doubt and fear, but remembering that I have these golden numbers to count on, which is a faith in things to take their natural course and coming to fruition in the way they naturally should. It kind of brought me out of these winter depths I was in.
CC: You mentioned that inspiration for this song came from a walk around campus. Do ideas often come to you out in the world?
S: It’s a mix. I feel like I have my antennas up at certain times. Like, ready to receive. Ready for inspiration. “Golden Numbers” was definitely one of those times. I had written a few tracks, and I was at the point where I was like, “Is this going to continue? Am I going to make a record? Am I going to keep making music after Pantheon of Me?” I was coming out of a sort of lull in writing, and so I was so ready to be abck at Berkeley in a crowd and listening to knowledge being thrown around. As soon as I heard that, I knew I had something.
TRACK 5- MELTED WINGS
CC: This one feels like a transition song. It combines rich orchestral notes and funk-indebted synths. What does the process of building up a song, layer by layer, look like for you?
S: It’s hard to say. With Red, it happened in an hour. Other ones really take their time. There’s this phase of entering the studio, where it goes from excitement over getting to work on melodies to hard work on getting them to where they should be. If I can avoid work, that’s amazing. But sometimes it feels like I really have to put the gloves on and figure out how to make it a song.
With Melted Wings, it’s an intro to Under the Sun, so it plays with the same chords and melody and instrumentation, just slowed down a lot and reversed. It can be cheesy to throw things in reverse, but I felt like this really worked, because it felt like the underbelly of “Under the Sun”. It felt like what you would hear underwater. It’s like the Upside-Down.
The title is an Icarus reference, and the whole track felt very Odyssey-like. I was thinking about that concept of tragedy, like the tragedy of failure. Because “Melted Wings” is an intro, I thought it would be itnersting to start from a mournful place and reimagine failure as only temporary. “Undre the Sun” will bring a lot of feelings of hope, so I watned to set up this tragic intro and reverse it.
CC: Is it more rewarding when a song comes together naturally, or when you have to work for it?
S: (Laughs) Oh man. It’s rewarding in different ways. When it just breaks out, I feel more masterful. It feels like you almost corrupt a song when you work it too much. But that’s part of it- getting it from analog to digital, from idea to material. When I can fuck with it less, I feel better. But then again- like, with “Haunted Water,” it was such a demanding track for me, it really pushed me. Another one that took me a long time was “Real Fun,” which we’ll get to.
TRACK 6- UNDER THE SUN
CC: I see this song as introducing another major component of the album. I don’t really have a better name for it than “science fiction.” The lyrics and instrumentals feel very galactic.
S: I saw an article recently about this artist making a sci-fi album, and I was thinking, like what does that sound like? I’m definitely interested in the imagination of outer space. Like, a thing existing in outer space being full of possibility, which is very sci-fi. I think it’s a good backdrop for thinking about the future, which I feel like this record is about. The whole record kind of lives in the sky. Out and up. Looking up into the sky is ancient, you know? Our ancestors looked up into the sky to try to interpret things around them. It’s so ancient but also futuristic.
CC: In a previous interview, you mention the haze of growing up in the suburbs, and how you found yourself creating fantasy worlds to escape to. Would fantasy be a better word than science fiction?
S: I totally feel like suburbs are these surreal sci-fi spaces. I didn’t necessarily know that when I was living in it until I moved away and looked back. Thinking about the architecture and the design of how people interact and live together in the suburbs. There’s a lot of performance in that. I think growing up, I was aware that this was a performance that felt oppressive. It felt like people were so concerned with each other and maintaining neatness and order in ways that felt oppressive.
And for me, with my identity as like a person of color and someone with an urge to be outside of those constrictions it just like… blegh. It felt like everything was leaking at the seams, including myself. That definitely comes into the music, this curiosity with how things pretend to be. Seeing everything as a performance. What I love about living in Berkeley is being able to just evaporate and not be seen. I write a lot by just jumping into a crowd and being there among people.
TRACK 7- REAL FUN
CC: You said that this was the song that took the longest to come together.S: It felt like it could be three different songs. I wrote the intro on my acoustic guitar, just getting out ideas. And then I thought it needed a wah pedal. Like, it needs to be funky. But I also thought like, no, it still needs to be heavy. It was really hard to blend all the ways I wanted it to exist. Each instrument kept competing with each other. I have so many different versions- some that are way more doom-sounding, some that are all guitar, some that are super funky. And I like those versions, but this one had a little taste of everything.
Sometimes it’s easier to tell when something isn’t what you want, and harder to accept when it is. For me, not being a classically trained musician and learning a lot of instruments I use, I have to be open to it not existing in the way I’ve heard other songs exist. I have my foundation of a lot of soul and funk music, like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And I think I lean back on that as a structure. I’ll find myself trying to force it to fit in that mold. And it’s like, fuck it. I don’t know how to do that. Why should I try to make it do that?
CC: As far as the lyrics, this is another song that feels pretty sci-fi. Aliens grooving to Billie Jean and all that. Where did that come from?
S: I have a big fascination with aliens. Like, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact with Jodie Foster. Those were some of my favorite movies. They’re just about calling out to the world and the aliens we create as a culture to reflect ourselves onto. So this song was sort of about- what business would any alien life have with us? And I felt like music would be that. It’s literally vibrations. Something anything can experience. That form of communication feels so universal and timeless.
CC: In the movies you mentioned, aliens are benevolent. But they can just as often act as a sort of cultural boogeyman, right?
S: Definitely. I wanted that effect to be in there. Like, is this cool? Are we moshing, or are we about to kill you?
TRACK 8- HARD TO PLEASE (REPRISE)
CC: Why a reprise? It feels like a pull from an old songbook- musicals and orchestral suites have reprises. It feels like a theatrical choice.
S: I got that trick from Marvin Gaye. I think it’s on I Want You, which is also super theatrical and orchestral. He does that on a few songs- it’ll be these interludes or like an instrumental retelling of another track. I just love that so much.
With this, a lot of people said Hard to Please was too short, and they wished it was longer. They were pushing me to make it longer, and I knew that just wasn’t gonna happen. So instead I thought I’d do sort of another retelling.
CC: Do you have a philosophy on song length?
S: I’m starting to think about it more. What I’m noticing is that in new songs that I’m writing, I usually skip over having more than one more verse. I create a verse, a chorus, and then it drifts away. With Hard to Please Reprise, I was conscious of that tendency, so I really pushed myself to include another verse, because I wanted it to be longer. Even that felt weird to me.
A cool thing with it though, is that it’s actually based on a Bjork song from when she was a tiny little kid, called “I Love to Love” It’s just her, she must be like six or seven years old. I lift her lyrics- “I love to love, but my baby just loves to dance.” Almost all of my songs have nods like that. “Haunted Water” has a line from a Paul McCartney song off of Ram that I can’t remember right now.
TRACK 9- AFTERLIFE
CC: The instrumentation is almost a pastiche- there’s all these vastly different sounds going on. You’ve mentioned a few, but let’s talk more about sonic influences.
S: I draw from so much. Like, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, yeah. But with “Afterlife,” I was listening to Mort Garson, who did “Plantasia.” I was listening to a lot of music like that- soundtracks and stuff too. “Never-Ending Story” and 80’s soundtrack stuff. And that comes from my love of musicals. I’m a huge fan of Labyrinth with David Bowie. Totally dramatic stuff. I love how soundtracks are so danceable but strange at the same time. It just goes for it. (I think it takes courage- with a soundtrack, you have that freedom. It’s supposed to produce images.)
CC: What is the concept of the afterlife to you?
S: It goes with my ideas of alien life. It’s a romantic inquiry for me, to think about what’s after. I was thinking about this Stevie Wonder song, “The Secret life of Plants” He sings “I wish I could come back as a flower” It was one of my favorite songs as a kid, but it would put me in this emo mode thinking about death, and also like, why would you choose to come back as something so delicate and fleeting? I was an only child (laughs). So this felt like my version of that song. Like, is the afterlife supposed to be something you want to stay in forever? What if you don’t? Those ideas are continued in “Falling Asleep,” too.
TRACK 10-DIRTY DESERT DREAMS
CC: Where did the concept for this one come from?
S: I was super into the Odyssey and soundtracks, and this took me forever to get lyrics out. It was even just going to be an instrumental at one point. I knew it came from the desert, from a place of passion. I had gone to Vegas, and I wrote this song right after. I’m so into Vegas as this playground of fantasy, being able to act out your fantasies in this temporary place. It was about that- lust, adventure. I wanted it to be a mirage of a song.
I was gonna have this guitar player on this song, and he kept saying how the song reminded him of salsa music. And I was like, I get that, but that wasn’t where I wanted to push the song. He ended up not being on the track, so I worked with my drummer who developed this dance atmosphere into something felt like a luau, type thing. With the percussion, there’s a lot of clicking, a lot of pace-pushing, super fast-paced and energetic.
CC: Can you expand on your process of collaboration? Do you bump people off if they’re not seeing the song the way you want it to go?
S: I’m still so new to this. This is my first iteration of making decisions where things aren’t working. A lot of the time, instrumentalists play in a specific genre, and they’ll try to mold the song into their genre. I’m always trying to push against that. I try to avoid genre influences as best I can. And a lot of the times, they’ll be like are you sure? That doesn’t sound right. There’s a lot of reshaping and working from scratch.
TRACK 11- SECRET THREAD
CC: This is where you mention “Mazy Fly” What does that phrase mean?
S: It’s come to mean so much. I’ll try to talk about it, but it’s kind of hard to do so. This was the last song I wrote for the record. It felt like I was collecting a lot of little treasures from other songs. I was inspired by this idea of what the spirit of this record would look like. Mazy Fly was the name I came up with for the music on this record. It’s a creature–like thing, something with wings, something that can transport you to this world.
I got the idea from my dog. At the end of writing sessions, we’d go out to this field and she’d run like a maniac. I was inspired by her being in this state of crazy energy. She was running, and it was like she didn’t even know where she was running. It’s like she was flying. And I just loved that moment of the day.
CC: We’ve talked about outer space, and the afterlife, and flying and Icarus- it all feels like different forms of weightlessness. Do you think that word applies?
S: Maybe not weightlessness. It’s like entering into the sky as this place of endless potentiality. I’m always torn between the materials of the earth, the things that allow the music to be made, versus these conceptual ideas that come together to make the track. The best way to describe it would be that they all live in the sky.
I remember reading this book called Brown Angels. It’s a little book of poetry, and it has these old photos of black kids just being joyful. There’s a poem in there called Secret Thread, about the unspoken bond between people and ideas. This thing that tethers you to someone else, that you don’t need words for. So it’s not weightless, it’s the opposite, really. The secret thread is what tethers me. Even though I’m up in the sky, it’s what keeps me tethered to this world. It’s between both- you’re rooted in the earth and looking up into the sky.
TRACK 12- FALLING ASLEEP
CC: You said this is a follow-up to Afterlife.
S: Yes. It’s based on a book by Miranda July, called No One Belongs Here More Than You. The story happens where this person is invited to a surprise party, and every single person they’ve ever known is there. At this birthday party is all their old teachers and ex-lovers and people they thought hated them. And all they can think about is going home to check their mail. They disappoint everybody and leave and check their mail and soak in their bathtub.
I wrote this song based on that- I saw that party as the afterlife. Everything you thought could be wrong actually isn’t, there’s no bad things in the world. It’s about drifting into this dream-world afterlife. It has a sinister tone- maybe this isn’t what you want. Like, maybe the afterlife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
CC: What purpose does the last song on an album serve to you?
S: I actually used to perform this song first live. It felt like an initiating song of sorts. I originally wanted to put it at the beginning, but at the end, it feels like an initiation to something further. Like dropping you off. Letting you slowly exit.