Meet TĀLĀ: How a Childhood of Iranian Pop and UK Garage Made a Musician for Our Times

May 02, 2014


When producer and singer-songwriter TĀLĀ talks about her “world”, it feels totally natural. Far more natural than it should feel, in fact, coming from an artist who only has two tracks currently public, and is just about to release her debut EP via independent London label Aesop. One year has brought her from T. Williams support vocalist to producer-of-the-moment: her singles “The Duchess” and “Serbia” are two of the most exciting electronic pop cuts to emerge so far this year. All distorted vocal hooks, shimmering strings and percussion that thumps, TĀLĀ's music paints a picture of the mind of an extremely 21st century individual: plugged into their cultural heritage, into a global perspective, and into just about every device they can get their hands on. It’s experimental–formed in part from field recordings of dozens of personal memories–but it knocks with the distant memory of UK garage and house, not to mention the elation of a classic pop chorus.

Over a cup of tea in a quiet London cafe, we start at the beginning: TĀLĀ is not her birth name but one she chose for its rich etymology. Primarily, she picked it because it means “gold” in Farsi - the language spoken in her late father’s native Iran - but she points out that it’s also a word for “palm trees” in Sanskrit, and is an Indian term for rhythm or metre. Hold those three ideas in your mind’s eye and ear at once and you get a kind of opulent desert scene, fronds trembling with the repercussions of insistent tribal drumming. You couldn’t imagine a better atmosphere in which to hear TĀLĀ debut EP, The Duchess.

Born and bred in south west London, TĀLĀ recalls a childhood soundtracked by her dad’s favorite music, such as popular Iranian singer Googoosh, as well as her mum’s fondness for The Beatles and her brother’s die-hard obsession with Prince and Michael Jackson. “My dad always had his friends coming over all the time, it was like a constant party in our house. There’d always be different languages being spoken," she remembers. "The diverse and contrasting music being played in my house had a massive effect on me. Some of the conflicts that I had growing up were much to do with these contrasts in culture, and I guess somewhere in that confusion is where I found myself.”

"The idea of taking something and fusing it with its complete opposite excites me.”

She started learning to play the piano at seven, eventually making it to Grade 8, but only began playing around with musical ideas when her own tastes blossomed with the tail-end of the garage era and the height of early-00s R&B. Once she discovered the music software program Reason, she was hooked: “I literally thought I was Timbaland. I was like, I can do anything now.” Her musical taste today sits somewhere at an intersection between the underwater beats of Drake’s right hand man Noah “40” Shebib, the film scores of Howard Shore and Clint Mansell, and the unshakably nostalgic pop of her teenage years.

Though she hasn’t yet visited Iran, she recently made the trip out to Qatar where she met some of her extended family members for the first time. “My cousins over there, their lifestyle’s just so different. I guess it’s the traditional aspect,” says TĀLĀ. That being said: "It’s really interesting to see how things are changing, even in such traditional countries. That’s why I’m attracted to that part of the world.” That interest flows through her music and visuals, where she says she wants to express “the Arabic aspect with a more modern approach. I think a lot of my influences are in quite strong contrast to each other. The idea of taking something and fusing it with its complete opposite excites me.”

For example, despite naming one of her EP tracks after the European country, she’s never actually been to Serbia. Is it an homage to dreams of escapism rather an actual place? Not quite: it turns out the actual origin of the title is a bit more sinister. “Do you know the film A Serbian Film?” she asks tentatively. I say I’ve never dared put myself through it. “Don’t watch it, seriously. It’s like the worst film ever. I think it scarred me for about three weeks after watching it.”

It turns out that the hollowed-out, grimly persistent percussive intro to TĀLĀ's otherwise sunshine-y pop number “Serbia” is a little peek into her fractured state of mind after watching the most extreme torture porn film in recent memory. “I was trying to make some ideas and this film was plaguing my mind. Everything I was making was super dark. I called it "Serbia" because of that film, because I could not get it out of my head,” she says. “That intro still reminds me of it.” The stony-faced beat that opens “Serbia” is how she imagined the landscape of the place after watching such a loveless depiction of it; but a few seconds in, it cracks open into something much more typically TĀLĀ with a dizzying pitched-up pop chorus. This is where she excels: at moving you from one landscape to another, kicking up sand before letting it settle to find the sun in your eyes.

As if to illustrate that, EP track “On My Own” spins an iPhone sample of a local band at a friend’s wedding in Thailand into a re-imagining of the heated pop jam she made with T.Williams. And title track “The Duchess”? “It’s about someone that wears a mask, and is loved for wearing that mask, but when they take it off at the end of the day they wonder if anyone does actually love them, or if it’s all just the facade and the mask,” TĀLĀ explains. “We obsess over things that are so mundane. It’s that whole Western culture of how image is so important.”

It’s a culture TĀLĀ tries her best to position herself outside of; her music is evocative and visual, but “image” in the abstract is something she shies away from. Apparently the only images you’ll find surrounding TĀLĀ at her upcoming live shows will be full of desert heat and golden lustre. She wants to “take people to [her] take people away for a minute.” That was the agenda when she recently journeyed to Marrakech to make a video for "Serbia" that's still in the works. Travelling with director, Katia Ganfield on a shoestring budget, the pair had a “proper intense experience”, staying in £3-a-night hostels and generally winging it. “The idea was to document our encounters with people and capture the experience and feeling of the culture. It turned out to be the most exhausting but amazing trip I’ve been on.” A music video for song named for a place known only through a brutal film and shot in another country entirely by people who had never been before? Sounds like TĀLĀ.

Aesop will release TĀLĀ's debut EP, The Duchess, on June 2nd.

Posted: May 02, 2014
Meet TĀLĀ: How a Childhood of Iranian Pop and UK Garage Made a Musician for Our Times