L’Rain is the project of multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and sound artist Taja Cheek, who was born raised in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where her grandfather owned a jazz club called The Continental in the 1950s. She named the project in honour of her mother, Lorraine, who passed away while Cheek was recording her 2017 debut album under the moniker, an intimate meditation on grief filtered through a swirling collage of field recordings, tape loops, and unconventional song structures. On ‘Find It’, a highlight from her magnificent new album Fatigue, Cheek sings, “My mother told me/ Make a way out of no way,” and the mantra serves as a kind of spiritual principle propelling the songs forward. Working with a close circle of musicians, including co-producers Andrew Lappin and Ben Chapoteau-Katz, Cheek weaves disparate fragments into kaleidoscopic soundscapes that are in perpetual motion, blending elements of jazz, R&B, and neo-psychedelia as she sifts through intense emotional states. Textures rise and fall, memories fade in and out of focus, but Cheek’s attempt to evoke and recontextualize life’s most precious moments is rooted in the pursuit of something new and exciting.
We caught up with Taja Cheek for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her creative process, the inspirations behind Fatigue, and more.
You’ve talked about how you got into music by playing cello and piano as a kid. What are your memories of that time?
I remember not wanting to practice and turning practices into my own sort of exploration of music a lot of the time. I did end up having to practice, but using the time alone with my instrument to just understand music better and to start to write my own music and find my own way, which I don’t think I realized I was doing at the time. I thought I was just procrastinating, but I think those moments were really important.
How much did you find yourself revisiting your childhood and these memories while making Fatigue?
I feel like it’s always kind of there, mostly because I’m so close to the place that I grew up. And my mom was such a big part of it, so that’s always kind of there. But I feel like I was maybe somewhere between the past and the future, which I guess is the present, but I didn’t feel like I was in the present. I felt like I was in the past in the future at the same time.
Could you elaborate a bit on that?
Yeah, thinking about revisiting moments from my past a lot on the record, but also just wondering about the implications of that – trying to dream into the future and wondering, “Okay, these things happened in my past, what does that mean for what’s to come for me?”
I’m thinking of this in relation to the opening of the album, and this question that kind of jumps at you, “What have you done to change?” Is that a question that’s directed more at the listener or yourself, or both?
I think it’s definitely both. I always start with myself, and that’s something that I’m also just trying to do in general, is really try to only really speak for myself because that’s really all I can do, and hoping that through that singular experience I can connect with other people and that it has a wider reach. So I’m really thinking about myself in a lot of different contexts of, you know, I’m a human and I’m flawed, and trying to think through that and trying to evolve. But also thinking societally at the same time, for sure.
The album explores such a wide range of emotional states, embracing the contradictions within them. I’m curious what your headspace was like during the creation of these songs, and whether it varied significantly from track to track.
It’s kind of spanning a lot of different moments of my life. Some were written like 10 years ago, some were written while I was on the way to the studio. So it really spanned a lot of different timelines, and then they kind of collapse, because I often mix and match songs and ideas. Something that I wrote recently might be paired with something I wrote a while ago, or I might take the lyrics from one song and the melody from another. It’s a very collage songwriting process.
What were some things that inspired or drove that creative process?
It really is just a process of discovery, more so with this record than it even was with the first record. There were times where I was on the way to the studio and I heard something on the radio and I was like, “Oh yeah, that sparks an idea,” like, “I know what I need to do when I get to the studio.” We recorded in so many different spaces so we weren’t always totally familiar with the studios beforehand, and so you’d arrive, like, “Oh yeah, there’s this thing here, we have to really figure this out,” or “Let’s let’s use this and try to play around with this until we get to a sound.” It was really a sense of wonder, I feel like, that really drove us more than anything. And more spontaneous reactions to our immediate environment, what we had at our fingertips. Like, in ‘Suck Teeth’, the hand game that you hear in the background that serves as the percussion, I was like, “I want to include something that sounds like children, so why don’t we just make up this game? We have our hands, let’s just go in the room and make something up.”
Were there any moments where something came along the way that transformed or changed the way you looked at a certain song?
I don’t know if it ever changed completely, where it’s like I was trying to approach it in one way and ended up with something else. I think more often than that it just became way more intense, the feeling that we were trying to go after. The only thing I can think of is in the middle of ‘Find It’, there’s like a bass sound, and we kept trying different bass sounds and nothing was really working. And then I found this sample of myself that I recorded and I don’t even really remember where I took it from, but I often record myself doing random things. And so we ended up just pitch shifting this sample as the bass sound, and it ended up sounding really gnarly in ways we were not anticipating. That’s a really nerdy answer, but… [laughs]
No, I love that! You talked about it being more intense, and that’s also a general shift I noticed from your previous album to this one. Why did you feel the need to go in that direction?
I’ve been trying to use L’Rain as a vehicle to kind of figure out things that I feel like I need to figure out, and I do that work alone by myself too, but for whatever reason I feel like I also can figure it out in public, kind of. I’m a very shy person a lot of the time, and so I feel like making bold musical decisions is a way of thinking through that in a way, or really having my voice heard, both metaphorically and literally. And also, I think it comes back to this idea of wanting to surprise myself and push myself to make things and think of things that right now I wouldn’t be able to imagine, but really going into this new space. I feel like I’m always trying to challenge myself in that way. And I think especially coming from the first record, making bolder, bigger choices felt like a surprise or a challenge for me.
In what ways did you surprise yourself with this record?
There are a lot of moments that are really just kind of funny and ridiculous to me. And I feel like that element of my music often gets kind of glossed over, because people think of me as being, like, really serious, or it’s like serious music, but I don’t always think of it that way. There’s an element in the first track, the air horns, where I’m just like, “This is so ridiculous.” [laughs]
I was going to ask you specifically about that moment.
It’s so funny to me. Every time we’d listen to it in the studio we would just start cracking up. Or like, the dancey section at the end of ‘Kill Self’, those are surprising to me. I didn’t go into this record thinking that that would happen.
I think that playfulness also comes through in the ‘Love Her’ interlude. Could you talk about the origins of that track?
That is a conversation between me and one of my best friends who was my roommate. We would always make up silly songs – she’s not a musician, but I think she’s incredibly musical, and always thought that her ideas were amazing. And so, whenever she would make up a song, I would just kind of record them. And this was an especially ridiculous one, and I played it for her a couple months ago and she didn’t even remember making it up. She has a couple of recordings of me that I don’t even remember making up. [laughs] But that kind of encapsulates our relationship in a really great way, of just being really loud and absurd together.
I assume she knows she’s on the record?
Yes. [laughs] People don’t always know beforehand, but she did.
What does she think about it?
I think she’s happy about it. It was a fun moment because then she was able to talk about the recordings that she had from our time living together. But yeah, it’s a good entry point to just remembering and archiving my life.
Because the album touches on so many different emotions, I’m curious how you settled on Fatigue as the title. I know you initially considered ‘Suck Teeth’ to be the album title.
That’s a great question. I think fatigue was overshadowing everything else, or it was kind of the glue between emotions – it seems to bleed into everything else. It’s kind of pessimistic in a way, but it’s not unfixable. It can be remedied – it’s not exhaustion, right, it’s fatigue. So I think there’s something also in that that appealed to me; on its face, it’s not a hopeful statement, but I think within it there is hope. And that’s part of the reason why, with the record, I also have a little pamphlet that has remedies for fatigue, and they’re all very simple. It’s not like you have to buy anything; it’s just things you can make, a state of mind that you can inhabit.
Do you see the album as a kind of remedy, or do you see it more as encapsulating that mental state?
I think I’m continually surprised by the fact that it’s a remedy for people, but that really makes me happy. A lot of people write to me about my music and they’re like, either in the best moments of their lives or the worst moments in their lives and not much in between, where they’re like, “I went through this horrible accident and I listened to your record and that really helped me think through where I was in that moment, and to heal.” And that’s the biggest honor, honestly. But I don’t set out thinking that I have that power, or that I’m able to do that. I’m learning like everyone else is learning, and that’s where I start from, just as a student of music, of spirituality, of creativity. That’s where I come from, but I have found that it is a remedy for some people, and that’s the most amazing thing in the world to me.
I wanted to bring up something you said in relations to clowns and the ‘Blame Me’ video, which is that there’s “something about “freaks” that make me feel at home: people who are deemed useless, dangerous, or too strange to understand.” That’s also partly why I think music, like yours, that can be deemed “too strange to understand,” can resonate so deeply. What makes you feel most at home and understood?
That’s a really, really good question. I feel like the entirety of my music process, and I guess maybe the project of life, in some ways, is just to understand yourself and to be your true authentic self. So I feel like the moments where I feel most at home are the moments when I’m able to do that through my music and feel like I’m connecting with someone without really trying to. When people write to me and they’re like, “I noticed this thing” or “I also think of things this way” – because I don’t expect connection, when I find it, especially through music, that’s when I know I’m on the right track. And really, it can be one person, but that meaningful interaction with that one person really makes it all worth it for me.
Is there a particular way that you would hope people receive or experience the album?
I hope that even if people don’t like it, that they can have a sense of wonder about it, or a sense of freshness or newness, that they’re like, “Oh, I hadn’t really heard of something with this perspective before, I haven’t heard anything that sounds quite like this before.” Because I think that’s ultimately what I’m after is, again, just trying to surprise myself and create something new, knowing that that’s kind of a fool’s errand, that everything comes from something, everyone is connected to other people, there is no such thing as something new. But I can try.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.