L’Rain is moving closer
Taja Cheek can’t stop thinking about clowns. Within the first few minutes of our conversation one late July morning, the Brooklyn-based artist tells me how, ever since the pandemic, she’s wanted to sneak into clown school in order to understand them a little better. She’s even in the throes of arranging a meet-up with clown friends in Coney Island – a plan she shares with an endearing sincerity, before letting out a big, warm laugh. It’s just one of a series of shamelessly goofy detours Cheek takes throughout our video call, with other ports of call including the possibility of getting a pet lobster and her undying love of dogs.
Cheek’s giddy, down-to-earth nature comes as a pleasant surprise considering her impressive (daunting, even) accolades: as L’Rain she creates stunning, free-associative and quietly political sound collages that have rendered her a critical darling. Besides being a staple of New York’s experimental scene, Cheek also works as a curator – a role she undertook at the prestigious MoMa PS1 for six years, overseeing its Warm Up series and Sunday Sessions programming, as well as performances connected to exhibitions. But don’t be fooled by her easy affinity with both the art world and experimental scene; Cheek outright rejects the insularity associated with these kinds of spaces.
“I don’t want to be separate from the world,” she says frankly, gesturing towards the frequent partitioning and inaccessibility of avant-garde movements. “I don’t want to have a career where I’m only playing in art museums and where people think of my music in a very specific, academic kind of way,” she continues. “It feels like a missed opportunity. I just want to be with people.”
Accordingly, her forthcoming third album, I Killed Your Dog, uses the universal pop trope of love as a springboard. “I was like, ‘OK, what’s the most basic bitch thing I can talk about? Boys!’” she giggles. Exploring the tumultuous emotions associated with a breakup, the record also reaches out to her younger self to reassure her it’ll all be OK. Of course, in true L’Rain fashion, the album concept is still a little offbeat, packaged as an eccentric TV show, complete with wry homemade ads and jingles that draw on early synth technology and tape delay effects to emulate the physical rewinding of episodes or switching between channels. “I wanted it to be like my reality show album,” she smiles.
Cheek’s intuitive, open-minded approach to music has deep roots. A self-described “high-functioning nerd”, Cheek grew up playing cello and piano, but was equally enamoured by the hip-hop, R&B and rock music that her father enjoyed. After discovering a stack of his old CDs in the basement, she became “an obsessive sponge for music”, writing down every song or musical reference she’d come across on scraps of paper, before embarking on her own internet deep dives. She found the culturally conscious, sample-heavy explorations of J Dilla, Common and Andre 3000 the most rousing. “To me, hip-hop producers are like music historians – they listen to and know so much,” she says, animatedly. This habit of meticulous cross-referencing continued for years, laying the foundations for her artistic practice. “I must’ve had hundreds of these papers just floating around. That opened so many doors for me.”
Throughout high school, Cheek immersed herself in New York’s vibrant DIY scene. Without a fake ID, she spent her teenage years going to free shows and grassroots venues such as Death by Audio and Glasslands, as well as Brooklyn’s long-running Northside festival. “There was just so much happening,” she muses, recalling the thrilling omnipresence of local and touring bands, as well as the unique sense of community. During this time, she built on her childhood musical training and taught herself bass so she could play in bands herself – one of which was an Iron Maiden covers act. She cringes at the memory now, but it was a formative experience nonetheless. “Some of the lyrics, melodies or voice notes that I work on now come from when I was like 17, which is crazy,” she says.
In 2011, Cheek began recording early demos she’d later secretly release on SoundCloud under the moniker Throw Shade. “I’m really shy!” she squeals, describing how she’d record her vocals from beneath a blanket, not just for sound quality purposes, but to prevent anyone from hearing through the walls. “Maybe that’s why I now layer stuff the way I do,” she continues. She gazes upwards, deep in thought. “I feel like I’ve been making this music for most of my life.”
Cheek moved to New Haven to study Music at Yale, but she quickly switched courses due to its unwelcoming atmosphere and her “stuck-up and frankly quite racist” coursemates. There wasn’t much chance to stray from the canon, and she recalls how people would laugh out loud if she got anything wrong in ear training or theory lessons. “I don’t think anyone even knew that I made music when I was there, because I would just stay in my room and write.”
“I don’t want to have a career where I’m only playing in art museums and where people think of my music in a very specific, academic kind of way… I just want to be with people”
Back home, Cheek began tying together the threads for her 2017 self-titled debut album. Written in 2015 at the time of the dissolution of both a relationship and the experimental rock band she had been playing in, the record is a gorgeous meditation on endings and grief told through dense layers of swirling synths, lush orchestral arrangements and searching vocals, which slink between deeply mellifluous and pitch-shifted. It’s at once serene and fragmented, connecting the dots between the sensuality of R&B and the unease of free jazz, by way of ambient, pop and soul. Cheek hadn’t planned to go solo – she was yet to even officially choose an alias – but writing music as a way to tackle her overwhelming anxiety and despair was all she knew.
The album’s themes were given even greater emotional heft when her mother Lorraine passed away in 2016. “It was a weird confluence of things,” she tells me, sighing. “I had been thinking about grief and death for a while, before any of that even happened, so I started feeling guilty, like, ‘Was it a premonition? Did I cause this to happen?’ There were all these feelings.” She self-released the album the following year under the name L’Rain, a binding of an old nickname with her mother’s name.
The record was met with rapturous acclaim from major music publications, but Cheek found performing songs that were so intimate and emotionally loaded in front of large audiences difficult. “People sometimes come to me with really intense things that have happened to them because I write about my personal life. That’s all great, but it’s also kind of hard to just be in public,” she says, treading delicately around the topic to avoid sounding ungrateful.
The development of her second album Fatigue – a year-end favourite among critics in 2021 and something of a temperature take for that year – and extensive touring means she has been able to gain some distance from her debut, but recognises that this underlying tension is something that might never go away. “When I was little, I used to think about music as like a troubled marriage,” she says with a knowing laugh. “I knew it well, and it was something that was deeply comforting to me, but there’s also something about it that feels like a burden and gives me so much anxiety.” She knowingly attributes this to perfectionism and her tendency to put too much pressure on herself.
Despite her formal training and experience, Cheek says she still feels like “a fish out of water” in the music world and so draws on instinct as much as technical skill. “It’s the insecurity that makes me go by my gut,” she admits, candidly. “It’s easier for me to not doubt myself that way because it’s not based on some made-up system of music,” she continues, referring to traditional music conventions, “it’s my own made-up system of music.” Creating music on her own terms, somewhere in the spaces between genre categories – and performance venues – is where she feels most free, especially as a Black woman in an industry that lacks imagination. On Fatigue, for example, air horns punctuate string sections, while lo-fi plucky guitar moments suddenly turn dancefloor-adjacent. “If you’re trying to market something to a bunch of people, it’s much easier to just package it as something that you’ve seen before than to explain nuance,” she laughs. “I don’t think capitalism is great at nuance.”
I Killed Your Dog’s treatment of genre – its negation and destabilisation – gives it the sense that it’s her most overtly playful album yet. A kind of bait-and-switch that toys with, and upturns, expectations. Yes, it’s every bit as emotionally direct as we’ve come to expect from L’Rain, but there’s also a marked sense of humour, and a sense of consciously shrugging off the critics who treat her music with the hushed reverence or kid gloves usually reserved for music – like L’Rain’s – deemed conceptual.
The record features Cheek’s soaring vocals and intricate arrangements, sure, but there are also wonky hardware interludes, sunny indie-pop moments and self-proclaimed “dad rock” sensibilities – as on the knowingly grandiose guitars of Pet Rock and the twee folkiness of 5 to 8 Hours a Day (WWwaG). “It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I wanted to remind myself that a lot of this music comes from Black music or Black traditions,” she says. Aside from love and reality TV, her reference points also include the jolly, childlike and “deeply weird” sounds of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, as heard on I Hate My Best Friends, which jitters and seizes up like a broken tape. Meanwhile, the title track inverts the ascending scales favoured by Beyoncé and Bach, instead opting for a plodding harmony. It’s a technique Cheek adopted for comic effect: “If something ascends, it has this built-in tension and drama. If something keeps getting lower and lower, it’s kind of just… a bummer,” she laughs.
Cheek, you sense, wants to keep people guessing. “It’s about self-invention for me,” she says, resolutely, as our conversation draws to a close. “Because if someone can’t pin down what you are, then you can be whatever you want to be. And if you extrapolate that into society on a larger level, that’s a pretty powerful idea.”
I Killed Your Dog is out on 13 October via Mexican Summer