As we sit down in Tia Cabral’s apartment in downtown Berkeley to talk about how she has spent the last year — building her one-woman project SPELLLING — she shows me an old cassette tape labeled “Tia’s Greatest Hits.”
“I found this recently. My dad had kept it,” she says. “When I was little I had a tiny tape recorder, and I would take my dad’s old cassettes and make talk shows, or use the songs that were on there to introduce them. I thought there was no way it would still work, but I played it, and it’s me when I was about six on the piano. I’d found a way to rewind and dub harmonies, and make it into a song.”
As she grew older, she became a visual artist instead of keeping up with music; today, the walls of her bright studio are covered in her own artwork and the work of friends. She says writing songs was always in the back of her mind, "but I never had the right tool for writing songs,” she says.
Two events changed things for SPELLLING. First, she moved into the room of a friend who had died suddenly, an artist, which made her feel pressure to begin the creative projects she had always thought about. Then she went to a show at Viracocha, the now-defunct San Francisco venue, and saw a woman perform with a loop pedal. “I just knew, 'That’s it, that’s my tool,'” she says. “I don’t know how to use instruments or compose in these traditional ways, but this seemed like the way that I could make music.”
So she bought her first musical instrument, a loop pedal, and began learning how to produce her own music. By January, she'd released a six song EP, Pantheon of Me, and this August she plans to release an extended version as her first full-length album.
The songs on Pantheon of Me unspool slowly, meandering between resonant vocals, sludgy bass and ethereal spacey synth. Cabral says she uses spoons, cups, utensils and other objects around her apartment to create texture in sound.
“The mood and the shape of the sound is important to me,” she says. “I like to hear flaws a lot, I like to hear fragility, and songs that feel vulnerable. I don’t like when identity is lacking in a sound. So a big part of this project is that I want these feelings that I have, of vulnerability and experimentation, to be tangible in the sound. I try to do that with my voice — I am inspired by soul artists and people who make it a point to make their voice vulnerable, and I like to hear the grittiness and the texture in the way that they speak.”
She began performing, too. Playing live scared her at first, but it’s since become one of the most important aspects, for her, of being part of a music scene.
“I like that it’s gotten me out places I would have never gone before, to meet so many people, artists, and to connect," she says. "Working with that fear has helped me grow a lot as a person and be more adventurous, more confident, and to continue to be motivated.”
That's especially true, SPELLLING says, in the Bay Area. “The community here feels bottomless, endless," she says. "There’s something happening every day. Even if it’s not in public, it’s in someone’s home, and that makes it even more special.”
SPELLLING’s next performance is on Thursday, Aug. 3, as one of the 43 bands playing at The Universe is Lit: Bay Area Black and Brown Punk Festival running Aug. 3–6 in Oakland and San Francisco.
This festival is a true labor of love by three friends, Shawna Shawnté, Titania Kumeh and Jade Ariana Fair, who say they were inspired by similar festivals in Chicago, New Orleans, and Portland with a mission to forge a positive space for black and brown artists making non-conventional music, film, and art here in the Bay Area.
“We’re all in bands together, we’re all making music, and we just thought, 'Why don’t we get people together?'” says Kumeh. “No one else was doing it, so we just decided to organize it.”
To that end, they’ve spent the past year fundraising, booking, and finding venues. Mostly a volunteer effort, with friend’s bands hosting over a dozen benefit shows all over the country, the festival is free to attend and even begins with a group dinner. “There are bands coming from all over, as far as Australia, so we’re having a dinner to help everyone meet each other and connect,” says Fair. “Food does that for people. Food, music and art.”
The name "The Universe is Lit" was inspired, they say, by the ways people are helping one another and finding inspiration at a time when “everything that wants you not to radiate is being shown daily,” says Shawnté. “But right now, we’re lit up.” It’s meant to be a celebration of and for the communities that performers like SPELLLING have found so important here — artists who produce music outside of the mainstream, or in private spaces.
“In the Bay Area there is so much scarcity and stress about housing, and a lack of ways to create, and needing money, but we wanted to really show that we are doing it, that we are creating,” says Shawnté. “It’s very easy for people to think of punk or freak culture as just automatically a ‘white thing’ but we have this whole community, all of these friends who are doing these things, and there’s a long history of black and brown people making this kind of music.”
For Shawnté, Kumeh and Fair, the festival is not about any singular aesthetic, but the act of inclusion for nonlinear, informal approaches to making art. That's one aspect that SPELLLING especially values.
“I relate to punk because I think it’s the ultimate strive,” she says. “Nothing I make is ever going to be perfect. And I relate to that as it not being the goal. The goal is just to let it out, the process.”