If you’re talking to Taja Cheek — even if you’re the one interviewing her — there’s a good chance she’s recording you. It’s not some paranoid tic or an obsessive compulsion to remember every word. She’s collecting sounds and then twisting them into something bordering on unrecognizable, taking sampling to a sublimely absurd extreme. “When I’m around people and I get nervous or excited, I like to record our conversations and the sounds in our environment,” she says. “I have hundreds of recordings of conversations that I completely forgot I ever recorded.”
And before she turned to hard drives and iPod, Cheek would carry around a recording device made by a local synthesizer company, building up a growing library of found sounds. “You could cycle through recordings and manipulate them and port them,” she recalls. “I’d walk around everywhere with this box and I would record everywhere: on the subway, on the block.”
Cheek’s growing archive of sounds—including snippets of demos and song parts that she’s been uploading to SoundCloud for years—let the Brooklyn native make a collage of an album, replete with haunting warbles and gospel-flecked harmonies that may have started as a conversation about the weather or the warm hum of a subway car.
L’Rain isn’t all disembodied voices, though. The album’s orchestration is uncommonly tight for an artist with tastes and talents as varied as Cheek. (She can play cello, bass, piano, and, amazingly, the baroque recorder.) “In high school I started discovering music, and in New York around that time there was just a lot of stuff to see,” she says. “A lot of the DIY venues were doing a lot more punk-style stuff, but I was also listening to a lot of hip-hop and I was raised playing classical music, so those streams are always there when I make music.”
Cheek owes a lot of her current musical form to those genre-blending beginnings, and runs a small venue—she’d rather its name be kept secret—in her basement where collaboration is king. “DIY spaces are what allowed me to play music throughout my entire life,” she says. “This venue has become its own little microcommunity made up of people who stumbled upon it on message boards or word of mouth. There’s a cross-mingling of genres that’s happening here with people just experimenting with sound and all talking to each other”
She continues, “I ran into someone at a show a while ago who was still in school and she had never been to an experimental show and it sparked something in her. …. There’s always this fear of people leaving for Philly or Pittsburgh or wherever, but I still feel like there’s people here that are trying to make it work.”
Cheek grew up in Crown Heights, as did her father and grandfather. “My parents weren’t musicians but they were musical,” she says. “My dad was involved in the music industry in the early days of hip-hop, so my earliest memories are of discovering music in his collection. I remember finding all these CDs in a box in the basement. It was mostly hip-hop records but I remember finding, like, a Pixies album mixed in there.” (Cheek credits the Pixies’ Kim Deal as one inspiration for first picking up a bass guitar.)
Cheek’s compositions are experimental but never burst into something unrecognizable or affected. She recorded much of L’Rain in her bedroom in Crown Heights, but this isn’t the hazy bedroom pop of Shugo Tokumaru or Ariel Pink. Instead, Cheek lands somewhere nearer to the crisply stacked multi-instrumentalism of Panda Bear or even the Flaming Lips, where sounds crash into each other like a controlled collision. There are moments when Cheek steps close to descending into formless experimentalism on “Which Fork / I’ll Be” and “Stay Go (Go, Stay),” but she has a knack for pulling back from the brink just in time, playing around at the edges of orthodox composition with sure feet.
The voices Cheek has been recording also make themselves heard: a repeated, scatting whisper taking on the shape of a fussing piston on “Alive and Awake,” a distant chant and tambourine become both an intermission and introduction on “Benediction” and “A Toes (Shelf Inside Your Head).” Perhaps most affecting is a bootleg recording of Cheek herself singing Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” while a recording of her parents crackles in the background. It’s the only time you hear Cheek’s mother, Lorraine, on the album, though many people assume hers is the voice warbling “Happy Birthday” on “July 14th, 2015.” (It’s actually a close friend of Cheek’s.)
Cheek lost her mother in 2016, and while the grief rattles and ricochets throughout L’Rain, the Brooklyn native doesn’t want the album defined by distress. “I’m not that interested in grief alone, but more how it functions in relief with other emotions,” she says. “Grief can encompass moments of levity and humor; those feelings don’t have to be extricated from each other.”
To that end, she’s also been thinking a lot about mass bereavement — “the spaces that exist between joy and grief” — and how to introduce some of that through performance. “My live show is different from the record, and sometimes I feel like the audience doesn’t know exactly what to do while they’re watching me,” says Cheek. “So I feel like it’s my job to lead people through the show a little more. I’m trying to figure out if that’s most effective through actions or visuals or something completely different. The album takes people into its own weird world, and I want to figure out how to do that with a live show.”
Ritual is a good word for what Cheek does onstage. At a recent show at C’Mon Everybody in Bed-Stuy, she lit a small bundle of sage and took a seat among her bandmates. Dressed in black—while her keyboardist, drummer, and bassist were draped in white—Cheek took a moment to settle herself and then gestured for the entire audience to sit on the floor. Her opening salvo was unrecognizable from anything she’s recorded, but you could hear the free jazz influences of Alice Coltrane colliding with electronic and noise music. Cheek didn’t stay in the avant-garde for long, eventually untangling the knots and settling into something closer to what you hear on L’Rain—close being the key word. For production wizards like Cheek, imitating the sound you get from hours in the studio is a dangerous proposition. So instead Cheek relied on a song’s blueprints, riffing and improvising as she looped and layered her voice and guitar over and over again. The result was hypnotizing, a wonder of practice and refinement where you could see Cheek finding a tune in the swirl of noise around her in real time. She finished the show without a word, letting those spiraling loops die down with the house lights.