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SPELLLING Leans Into Fantasy to Find Her Sound — and Herself

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A young woman sits in front of a bookshelf and gazes into the camera.
Tia Cabral, known as SPELLLING, poses for a portrait at her home in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, August 10, 2023. Cabral’s new album 'SPELLLING & The Mystery School' presents reimagined versions of songs from her rich discography. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

With algorithms constantly quantifying our tastes and habits, it’s freeing to remember that little is truly known about some dimensions of the human experience. SPELLLING turns to her most trusted divination tools to tap into the spiritual realm: her synthesizer, her tarot cards and her intuition.

Since her critically acclaimed 2017 debut Pantheon of Me, SPELLLING, born Chrystia Cabral, has evolved from a singer-songwriter into a bandleader and producer with her own cosmography. With the help of her mega-talented live band, her new album SPELLLING & the Mystery School (out today via Sacred Bones) reimagines beloved tracks from Pantheon, 2018’s haunting Mazy Fly and her most ambitious project yet, 2021’s dark, orchestral The Turning Wheel.


To celebrate, on Sept. 16 Cabral is throwing a mini festival after hours at Oakland’s 73-year-old theme park, Children’s Fairyland. The enchanted evening is fittingly titled Through the Looking Glass, and features performances by Afrofuturist ensemble Sun Ra Arkestra, spiritual griot Laraaji, art rocker AroMa and more. Much like SPELLLING’s music, Cabral’s curation flows through styles and eras, paying homage to the lineage of Black artists who use fantasy to understand themselves and assert their place in the universe.

It’s certainly been a powerful tool for Cabral. “I struggled a lot through my youth with coping and being in an awkward position as a biracial, mixed, weird, freaky person and growing up in the suburbs in Sacramento,” she says. “I lived in an internal world.”

A person in a crop top stands on a staircase beside some windows smiling at the camera.
Tia Cabral stands for a portrait in her home in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, August 10, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Now, Cabral has evolved from a shy kid into a musician captivating international audiences without sacrificing her unorthodox vision. “Something that I can 100% stand by is that you can radically reshape who you are and what you want to do with fantasy,” she reflects.

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During our interview on a recent afternoon, Cabral looks like a sorceress on her day off, with a Twilight Zone vortex pattern on her T-shirt and glitter on her eyelids. She’s reclining on the couch, cuddling her two rescue dogs, Chani and Cooper, in her light-filled, artfully curated Oakland loft apartment. Small piles of books sit on nearly every flat surface — science fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin, a tarot guide by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Rick Rubin’s meditation on creativity.

A young woman cuddles on the couch with her dog in a light-filled, loft-style apartment.
Tia Cabral, known as SPELLLING, sits for a portrait with her dog Chani at her home in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, August 10, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Upstairs, analog synths, guitars and a violin line the walls of Cabral’s small attic studio. Her musical ideas start here before she brings them to her ensemble, composed of string players Del Sol Quartet and Divya Farias, pianist Jaren Feeley, percussionist Patrick Shelley, bassist Giulio Xavier Cetto, guitarist Wyatt Overson and vocalists Toya Willock and Dharma Moon-Hunter. Together, the musicians interlace jazz, soul and classic rock influences, with Cabral’s eerie, minor-key synth playing enveloping their instrumentation in a spiderweb of darkness.

“She has it all in her ears, which is very cool to see. She’s very good at hearing it all already, and then telling you how she wants it to go,” says bassist Cetto, who has played with contemporary jazz stars like Theo Crocker and Kassa Overall. “I feel like there’s a whole SPELLLING sound now.”

On SPELLLING & the Mystery School, the band’s collaborative process adds dimension to the striking “Haunted Water,” whose wailing vocals and crescendo of drums conjure the restless spirits of the enslaved people who perished in the Atlantic Ocean. A teetering electric guitar melody builds suspense on “Cherry,” which Cabral reveals is about connecting with her “animalistic side,” submitting to her “desires as a woman and as a free person in this world.”

“It’s a hot girl anthem,” Cabral laughs.

Tia Cabral plays her synth as her dogs Cooper and Chani sit nearby in her studio in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, August 10, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Another track reimagined on Mystery School, “Boys at School,” with its Pink Floyd-esque guitar solo, has become a rallying cry for her fans. Many of the people at SPELLLING shows are young, queer, trans, female, Black and brown, and they seem to identify deeply with the way Cabral conveys her frustration about a lifetime of feeling misunderstood. “I hate the boys at school,” sang a sold-out audience last Halloween at The Independent, letting out a howl of collective angst.

Depending on the listener, the “boys” could represent any force that keeps us down. “The whole institution — I feel like that’s what it represents,” Cabral says. “The things that feel like they have to be, for whatever reason, because of tradition or because of patriarchy as a whole — things that just go unchecked.”

And that’s the beauty of SPELLLING’s music — as if beckoning us through the looking glass, it offers us a new lens through which to examine our lives and our histories, and imagine new versions of ourselves.

Through the Looking Glass, curated by SPELLLING, Sacred Bones and Atlas Obscura, takes place Sept. 16 at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. 

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