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Interview With SPELLLING

The incredible Tia Cabral, aka SPELLLING, answers some questions about gear, inspirations, Iggy Pop and more!

Photos provided by Ambar Navarro for Synth History.

SPELLLING by Ambar Navarro.
SPELLLING by Ambar Navarro.

Synth History: Do you remember your first synth?

SPELLLING: The people's synth! The MicroKORG! I’m a diehard fan. I ordered it on eBay after my friend brought it over to my apartment in 2016 and let me mess around with it. It completely unlocked my songwriting abilities because prior to then, I was mostly making these song fragments and loops solely with my voice... kind of like sound poems. Because I couldn’t fluently play any instrument, beginning the process of making a song felt like something just slightly too far out of reach, especially because at the time I was super shy about my interest in creating music. I couldn’t even entertain the idea of collaborating with other musicians or asking for help. It wasn’t until I got the MicroKORG that I was able to figure out my craft as SPELLLING and launch the project as a solo endeavor. The album, Pantheon of Me, was made entirely with MicroKORG. The Retro 8a string patch is my favorite patch on it. It can get really washy and dark with the cutoff, but also impressively dry and glittery when you open it up. I still use my MicroKORG all the time. The bass is fat. It’s a breeze to edit. When I have an idea, I need to get it out quickly. It's my go to. Chunks of plastic have chipped off everywhere and it’s looking a little battered up these days, but it’s still kicking. It’s a beast!

Synth History: What are three of your must-haves in the studio, these can be anything, synths, a specific DAW, etc.?

SPELLLING: 1. My Square Pyramid sequencer. The learning curve on this unit is definitely a bit intense, but now that I have it dialed in, it’s my homebase for mapping out melodies on my synths and it’s a centerpiece of my workflow. I am someone who definitely needs to use hardware. I can’t work with a virtual sequencer. I want to minimize as much time I have to spend with the computer screen as possible. I just have a hard time focusing with VSTs, I lose patience and motivation quickly. Having hardware gear and effects and instruments keeps me engaged and keeps me from burning out.

2. A stack of poetry books. Usually, lyrics are floating around in limbo as I am working on different elements of songs and a lot of times I’ll be working on editing a track and something will randomly pop in my head for the lyrics and I’ll have to jump over and try and chase where that’s headed. So, before I start working, I go down to my big bookshelf and grab a subpopulation of poetry books that I can have on hand to randomly flip through when I’m on the verge of an idea and see what jumps out of the page and try to build some connection from it. In my home studio right now I have Harlem Shadows by Claude McKay, A Season in Hell by Rimbaud, and a Patti Smith book.

3. Sequential Circuits Six-Trak. It’s the synth I find the most aggressive sounding in my collection and it has a mind of its own. It’s very disobedient. It loves to slip out of tune and glitch all the parameters and randomly shut off. I like having a little arch nemesis on my team because I've been finding lately that I need things to challenge my direction and dirty things up in my process. The synth sound for the main melody of "Boys at School" was written on the Six-Trak. I loved it right away for that riff because it sounded demure but sinister in the context of the song.

Synth History: I read that a few of your favorite albums are Minnie Riperton's Come to My Garden, Kraftwerk's Computer World, and Iggy Pop's The Idiot. These are all great selections! If you could theoretically collaborate with only one of these artists on an album, which would it be and what kind of music would you make? I know this is a hard question 'cause they're all great!

SPELLLING: It’s Iggy pop 1000%. Whatever we’d make, it would be freaky, feral and seductive. If my internet sources are correct, we have the same big three astrological signs... Taurus sun, Taurus moon, Aries rising. So, I like to imagine that a collaboration has already been cast in the stars, whether it’s this lifetime or the next. I love you Iggy! Let's make something rapturous.

Synth History: What are a few of your other favorite albums?

SPELLLING: System of a Down - Hypnotize, Erykah Badu - Mama's Gun, Shabazz Palaces - Black Up.

All three of these albums are just so raw in their own regards and deeply revolutionary in spirit. I’ve spoken before about how listening to Iggy Pop's The Idiot makes me immediately feel like executing something important or doing something dangerous. These albums have that same guttural impact on me, they are so loaded and charged with a sense of now. They are also infused with really specific kinds of nostalgia for me. Hypnotize was the first album I had downloaded on my first iPod and so I listened to it quite literally everyday for like a year. I know that album inside and out, "Dreaming" is my favorite track. Walking to high school in the mornings and back home after that was my soundtrack. Mama’s Gun fittingly gives me such warm nostalgic feelings about my mother, riding around in the car with her doing errands and soaking in all of this wisdom in Erykah's lyrics, it felt so special. I was introduced to Shabazz Palaces when Black Up dropped in 2011. That was my first year moving away from home, living in Oakland and attending UC Berkeley. It's the soundscape for all of those big life transitions and the tremendous stretches of creative growth that were to follow.

Synth History: If you could pick any decade to travel back in time and make music in, which would it be and why?

SPELLLING: I kind of feel like I’m already getting to do this by participating in making music! Getting to channel all of the eras and break through the constructs of time in that sense. Gear-wise though, the stuff of the 70s has really got my heart. I wish I could record everything directly reel-to-reel.

Synth History: Can you tell me about the inspiration behind Spellling & the Mystery School?

SPELLLING: It’s an album of reimagining’s of SPELLLING songs performed with my live band. The title is speaking to my interest in studying cosmic mystery and seeking mystic intuitions that guide towards revelatory understandings of self and loving connections to the larger universe. Working on SPELLLING & The Mystery School this year really helped me get back in touch with my songwriting roots and warm into the process of writing new material. Originally, I wrote songs as my own little tokens and treasures, a way to capture the ephemeral and deeply personal experiences of my life. I had no expectations of them. I needed to remind myself of that relationship because I found myself focusing too much on the future, and what I desired the material to be like. The things that I love most that I’ve written have always arrived to me. They haven’t been hunted down. This album writing process felt like it revived those neural pathways that fostered creative receptivity.

SPELLLING by Ambar Navarro.
SPELLLING by Ambar Navarro.

Synth History: Do you have a preference in terms of being in the studio or performing live?

SPELLLING: A few years ago, my answer would’ve very easily been being in the studio. I still think it’s what I still feel the most comfortable with, but performing live has recently become a lot more gratifying because I’ve figured out how to shed a lot of my stage anxiety. The studio, though, is where I feel most confident and stimulated because I love the sensation of working with potential, when nothing is fixed yet with a song and there are no rules or parameters. I love to go full mad scientist and indulge every possibility.

Synth History: What are some songwriting or production tips you've learned throughout your career that you think would be beneficial or useful for artists who are just starting out?

SPELLLING: At the beginning of my songwriting journey, I had a lot of doubt and insecurity surrounding whether or not I am using the right technical methods when it comes to producing. That’s a big missuse of energy. You really don’t need any technical ability to write something that moves people. It’s really about trusting your intuitive ideas and asking yourself, "What would I do?" and honoring that and doing it as boldly and authentically as you can. There really is no wrong way; and don’t get distracted or caught up wondering how someone else would do it or how it should be done.

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.

Photographer: Ambar Navarro.

Lighting and Camera Assistant: Max Flick.

Lighting Assistant: CJ Calica.

Stylist: Abby Gordon.

Dress: Rodarte.

MUA: Katie Mann.


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