Regan Matthews wears many hats. Working as Ta-ku, he’s a Soulection-affiliated producer—with a taste for lush, seductive beats—and an in-demand remixer who has put his stamp on songs from Banks, Flume, and Justin Timberlake. He also happens to co-own a barbershop in his hometown of Perth, Australia, and he’s earned notice as a photographer as well.
But until last weekend, live shows haven't played much of a role in Ta-ku’s artistic output. “I don’t really perform at all,” he explains between rehearsals in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 in New York City, where he made his North American debut. “I’ve done a few DJ things here and there, a few festival runs. But it’s just never been a part of what I do.”
This is surprising, since Ta-ku's first release came out more than four years ago. He got his start working with the label/collective Soulection: his debut album, 24, was the organization’s second official project—and the first to be helmed by a lone artist. The album was full of sample-based hip-hop instrumentals, and it nodded to the work of J Dilla.
Over time, Ta-ku’s style has shifted away from beat tapes towards something more alluring—wafting, atmospheric ballads, all plush keys and string sections. Singers Thandiwe Phoenix and Ebrahim contributed to Songs To Break Up To (2013), and prominent snippets of Jhene Aiko and Janet Jackson drifted through two more tracks. Songs To Make Up To arrived earlier this spring with features from JMSN, Jordan Rakei, and Sunni Colon. Though there might be a crunchy beat, there is little rhythmic drive—except for on the occasional outro (“We Were In Love”) or “Fall4You,” which pushes the tempo in the least intrusive way possible: with finger snaps.
Intense romanticism characterizes the two installments of Songs To—a track like “Love Again,” which reaches towards a sweeping, violin-slathered climax, seems destined to play behind an on-screen kiss. Ta-ku received a surprising endorsement last year when Ty Dolla $ign, known for his salacious sex songs, told Complex that he prefers to soundtrack his own romantic encounters with Songs To Break Up To. Ty described the album in terms of honesty, calling it “real… completely real.” (According to Ta-ku, Ty was first struck by the Musiq Soulchild sample on Break Up’s “Beginning To End;” the two men have since connected in Perth, and they “text every now and then.”)
Ta-ku suggests that the strong connections Ty and others form with his music stem from its melancholy core. “They’re all quite somber,” he says of his songs. “I think making up and breaking up is always kind of a somber experience. Falling in love—people say you’re brought to tears with happiness. There’s some kind of element of crying. They’re all kind of the same for me.” Later he adds, “the best music is the sad music.”
He’s worked hard to foster this kind of emotion in his tunes. “I got known as a producer who just puts songs up on SoundCloud,” he explains. “To be honest, that’s what I was. [But] my favorite music—while I love listening to beat tapes—is 10 to 12 track albums that are full of really cohesive songs. I always wanted to have that in my discography. When I wrote Songs To Break Up To, it felt like the first time I made something more thought out, more considered.”
This new approach is also more conducive to traditional performance, which made it the right time for him to explore the role of frontman. (Ta-ku has DJ’d in the past, though he freely admits, “I’m not the best DJ: I can get by, but I can also really tank it.”) The decision to perform at MoMA PS1’s dome—and again in November 4th at NeueHouse Hollywood—was part of a careful selection process. “I don’t want to be in the club,” he notes. “I’m getting too old for festivals. Can we just pick some venues that people perhaps have never been to before, cool venues where people aren’t just going off their face?” The producer decided to test out his voice in front of a crowd for the first time as well, figuring “I’ve got nothing to lose. If I stuff up, I stuff up.”
During his show, Ta-ku had some cover: as he sang, visuals were projected onto the three sides of the dome. Seasonally appropriate falling leaves tumbled down the walls; flowers burst into bloom and charged out of the screen like fireworks. Many of the images suggested lonely drifts through space: one of the most pleasing involved a cartoon-yellow astronaut stuck in continuous free-fall.
The songs were fleshed out with help from a liquid keyboard player, gunshot live drumming, and two appearances by the singer Wafia. (Wafia shares a label with Ta-ku, and he produced her first single, “Heartburn.”) The percussionist made the biggest difference, occasionally pushing songs towards neo-neo-soul. He injected a dose of heat during the snappy outro for “Love Again” and destabilized “Sunrise/Beautiful.”
Ta-ku closed his set with his most recent track, a cover of Estelle’s “American Boy.” There were no traces of the carefree, decadent spirit that made the song a top ten Hot 100 hit years ago—in the producer’s hands, it’s hesitant and drained of buoyancy, a testament to the distance that can exist between fantasy and reality. But despite the glum sentiments, Ta-ku didn’t want the crowd to worry. “These aren’t tears,” he assured listeners. “This is sweat.”