Taja Cheek a.k.a. L'Rain
A photo taken the day Fatigue came out, in June of 2021.
I no longer find it appealing to say things like “here is the albumest album of my year” or “this is top of my heap, ya noodles” or some other kind of statement that assigns value by asserting the existence of ordinal positions, but L’Rain’s Fatigue is probably the album I have looked forward to hearing most often this year, the music that feels least depleted through use, the music that still feels juicy after dozens of plays. It makes me think of the density and quality of Charles Stepney productions and sometimes even Clube Da Eqsuina. I added it to the Black Surrealist Summer playlist.
As with previous Artist Editions—see David Grubbs and Kiera Mulhern—Taja provided all the photos and their captions. Over the summer, Taja and I spoke and emailed and Zoomed and texted everything you see below.
SFJ: Do you want to talk about this amazing set you taped for KEXP? Or the Brooklyn Steel show from last week? Or the Elsewhere show?
Taja Cheek: I’m honestly just so thankful that the Elsewhere show happened. There was no threat of rain even earlier that day. But then the clouds darkened, and it just wasn’t something we could risk on the Elsewhere rooftop with our equipment and everything. Basically, as doors were about to open, we had to move the entirety of the set-up down to the Hall and that space was not at all ready for a live show: there were boxes stacked up to the ceiling, we hadn’t sound-checked there, the bars weren’t prepped. The Elsewhere staff were so gracious and supportive and made the show happen when it could easily have been cancelled. I could be wrong, but I was told it was first live show in the Hall since the pandemic.
Drama aside—or maybe the drama heightened it!—the evening was pretty magical. Slauson Malone 1 (Slauson Malone’s new name) was incredible and performed with a cellist, Nicholas John Wetherell. Dreamcrusher was supposed to open the show, and I wish they could have. I love them so much, and they were even going to try to put together a special set. Hopefully the stars will align one day.
As for KEXP? Andy Swartz is a genius, and that’s all I have to say about that!
What’s that thing on the wall behind you?
It’s a David Dinkins shirt that I used to wear when I was a kid. It’s framed. The shirt reads, “Four cheers for four more years.”
You’ve had some spicy tweets—we have to come back to those.
I keep it spicy on Twitter, because I feel like that’s what is expected on Twitter.
What do you never get to talk about that you want to talk about?
I’ve been lucky to have interviews with thoughtful and engaged people. I’m just nervous about the reviews. I rely on critics and writers to pull things out of me, because I don’t know what’s there all the time. When thinking about getting playlisted I was like, “It could go one of two ways.” Either Fatigue will go in all the playlists because they have no idea what to do with me, or it will go into none of the playlists because they don’t know what to do with me.
You were saying you just saw something?
I saw Summer of Soul a few weeks ago. It’s amazing, and it just conjured so much for me—hearing those artists talking about their own music, how they didn’t feel like they were fitting into any boxes. A lot of those artists, we think of them as being emblematic of soul or R&B or whatever, but that wasn’t the way that they were thinking of themselves at that time. Especially Nina Simone. I mean, she’s someone I think about constantly for the obvious reasons. Honestly, just the basics of the documentation, from a nerdy standpoint, were so good. Just beautifully shot. It sounded amazing, probably because Jimmy Douglass was involved in mixing it.
There’s a part where a narrator is talking about the sun and how the producers didn’t have a huge budget for lights, so they had to just position the stage in the exact right place. As a person that puts together events, I was so blown away. The focus on security was also interesting, how they wanted to keep people safe. The Black Panthers were doing security for a 50,000 person event? Amazing.
And nothing happened.
And nothing happened. Also, this is basic, but I couldn’t believe how good all of the performances were. That just shook me to my core. I was in tears the whole movie basically.
If you were going to plan Summer of Soul 2021—
—and you had to play? In fact, you’re headlining.
If I were planning, I definitely would not be playing.
Fair enough. Take yourself off the bill, but you have to fill five slots.
Oh man, that’s impossible. I also think it would change depending on what mood I’m in. It’s a good prompt, though, just for my life, to think in that way.
Favorite places to cry (1/3): I went to Prospect Park to cry many times before my first record was released. The mixture of salty tears, warm sun, and plant life is truly unbeatable. This isn’t Prospect Park, but the dramatic rays of sun really capture the feeling.
Have you been to a show yet?
Who did you see?
The first show I saw was my friends’ band. They’re called Jachary, and they played at Sultan Room on the rooftop. They’re psychedelic, I would say? At least the material that they’re playing now is, and it’s extremely funky. It’s led by this guy Zach Levine-Caleb who is a very incredible and quirky songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. It all comes from a very soulful place. I feel like you would like it. My collaborator, Ben Chapoteau-Katz, also plays in that band and has for many years, so I went to see them all perform.
Ben is one of your three or four core people?
Yeah, very much so.
There’s Ben, there’s Andrew, right?
There’s Ben and there’s Andrew Lappin. Jake Aron also mixed this record and mixed the first record too.
I remember you saying things about college you didn’t like, but the only word I have in my head is resentment. That’s my only post-it note.
Resentment. That sums a lot of it up.
For some reason, I had the name David Longstreth in my head, but I don’t know if that’s there for a reason.
Well, because he also went to Yale, and I would think about him a lot and Larkin Grimm, because they were both there at different points. I felt isolated in school, and didn’t play much music and didn’t feel like I had a community of musicians there. I would fantasize about people I knew that went there, and whose music I admired. Dave and Larkin Grimm were the two main people that I knew of that I could reference.
But they weren’t there at the time you were there?
No. They were there before me. I liked to pretend that I could feel their spirits in the rougher moments where I was like, “I don’t know about this place.”
Were you a music major?
I was, and then I quit. I worked at the School of Music and that was amazing. I worked at the radio station, WYBC. I was a music director there and that was also an incredible experience; I still have a lot of friends from my radio days. I started throwing my first shows at that time and was doing a lot of booking on campus. There was a cool house show scene in New Haven. There were some promoters that were doing interesting things, but I still missed New York. I wanted to try to create more shows that I wanted to go to.
Fatigue doesn’t sound like it’s duplicating anything.
I’m glad that was your takeaway. The fool’s errand that I’ve set up for myself is to create a new sound, which is a pompous thing to say, because I am influenced by so many different kinds of music — music I feel deeply inspired by and love. But I do want to try to create something else, and it’s always hard when people ask me, like, “What were you listening to when you wrote this record?” I’m like, “Well . . . .” That’s not even relevant, because it’s more like I’m trying to avoid a sound than I’m trying to sound like something else.
It’s something that comes naturally to me, but it’s also something that I’m very conscious of in the process of making music. And I want people to try to figure out what’s going on. Which is why reviews are such a big thing for me. I feel like it’s challenging music to review, but I want people to be up for the challenge because I feel I deserve it.
Yeah—you said they have to step up or level up?
One or the other.
Or both. I feel like music journalism—I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything I’m going to regret.
I would prefer that you say something you regret.
I feel like challenging music, especially challenging music made by people of color, especially challenging music made by black people, especially challenging music made by black women—sometimes, it gets glossed over. Maybe because people don’t have the tools or the patience or don’t make the time to dive into it. But, I think all of our music deserves it. I feel like the reviews work me up, because they’re something that I need too, because I feel like I’m not equipped to think through what my music is doing.
My job is to make it. I know for myself what it’s doing, but, yeah, we need the whole ecosystem of thinkers and writers and historians to contextualize it.
That’s a great point. Not a lot of musicians would say that.
I’m not sure about that.
You mentioned all these musicians last time we talked.
I usually mention Slauson Malone and Yves Jarvis. Slauson Malone sequenced the record. I have such a visceral reaction to his music. I think he’s onto something extremely special. I love it so much. He’s also a visual artist. He’s a painter. He does installation work as well. He thinks about art in such a holistic way and it’s inspiring to me. I was just like, “Look, you have to be my friend because you just have to. I love your work too much, we have to be friends.”
You didn’t know him socially?
I think Ben met him at a show or something and then ended up writing to him? I don’t remember super well to be honest. Eventually I just started writing to him on the internet or something but we didn’t know each other personally. I just knew of his music.
So you just asked him to get involved?
We played a show together and started becoming friends after. I had a secret hope that he would be involved in the record in some way. Sequencing felt the right entry point.
Do you know Yves?
We’ve talked on the internet a couple of times, but he’s another person whose music I found first and was just immediately drawn to it.
Is there stuff about the material, logistical, physical recording of the album that feels important to you?
I’m a nerd, so I love that stuff.
Did you record this here or in LA?
It was mostly in LA at Sunset Sound. I am a very late-breaking Beach Boys fan. I hated the Beach Boys most of my life and in the past couple of years I’ve come to love it. I spent so much of my life avoiding that music and I don’t know what changed, but it changed in a drastic way. It was especially amazing to be in that place recording this music in the head space that I was in around the Beach Boys. So many other amazing records were recorded in that place. Like, Prince sleeping in the booth is an insane, amazing thing.
We were in this small space right outside of the main studio for most of the recording of the record. But we ended up recording everywhere. I also ended up using some of the demos too, because all of my homespun recording techniques work well in relief against the fancy studio sounds.
What are some of homespun recording techniques?
Lots of weird stuff. I like using the microphones from Apple ear buds for vocals, because I think they sound good. A lot of the demos I record I just use that, and so I’m sure there’s some vocal . . .
Like the little buddies on the string?
Yeah, exactly. I just think they sound good!
They’re really powerful condensers.
They have a vibe.
What else do you do at home when you record?
I use lots of sounds from things I find around the house or use my voice for a lot of the sounds on the demos, and just layer on effects afterwards to get what I need. Sometimes it’s just impossible to recreate what I made, so we just end up using whatever came out of those initial recordings. On “Kill Self,” there’s a percussive sound that’s just like a bunch of crumpled plastic, that I rub on my skin and we compressed it to shit.
Things like that, where I’m interested in finding whatever’s there and using it and having inspiration on the fly rather than having the exact right equipment that does that one special thing and knowing how to use it well. It’s more of an intuitive process for me. It’s just a philosophy. That’s where the fun is at least. To me, that’s the L’Rain sound. The weird stuff I do on my own in conjunction with the Hi-Fi: sometimes Hi-Fi vocals, Hi-Fi drums or whatever else.
What did you hear in the Beach Boys that made you like them?
I didn’t hear anything different. I don’t know what it was. Just something shifted in me. It was hearing Pet Sounds again in a different frame of mind, and it all made sense all of a sudden. It only occurred to me after making my record that using pet, toy sounds is actually something that I have been doing this whole time. But it’s beyond that. It’s also the melodies; it’s the production choices, the song structure, all of it. I really despised it for so long and then something just clicked in my head.
What made you despise it?
It sounded too twee. I just couldn’t find any entry point or connection to the music at all. It felt like it was completely irrelevant to my experience on earth. I felt like I had nothing in common with those people. I didn’t get it at all. For whatever reason, the Beach Boys just didn’t cut it for me.
Has your family said interesting stuff about your music?
That’s a good question. I think they’re just happy that it’s happening,
But you feel that they didn’t listen to it?
No, they definitely listened to it. My uncles will sometimes come to my shows. I think they think it’s cool that I lead a band and am on a stage, and I’m running my own thing. I’m sure my dad has thoughts. I don’t exactly know what they are, but he has a Google alert on my name, so he always knows when I’m up to something or what I’m saying in my interviews. But he’s also in the industry in a very different kind of way or at least was, so I think he might think it’s funny (and maybe tragic?) that I found my own little similar path.
He has some funny stories, and there was a Learn To Scratch tape that was made in my childhood basement. Clark Kent lived on my block growing up. I remember going to music video shoots sometimes. He was close with Chubb Rock and some other rappers and personalities.
Favorite places to cry (2/3): There’s no better place to reflect and cry than your own bed (though this is not my actual bed).
You began to answer the Summer of Soul 2021 question, because you mentioned two artists.
I’d have to think about it, because that festival happened because of very specific conditions that were happening in that specific place at that time. I’d have to think about what that is for me in this moment. Depending on where the concert happens, the answer would be different. This is just a way of me skirting around the question, but I think it’s also true. There’s so many people I would include in my own Summer of Soul concert, it’s hard to pick just a couple. Slauson Malone (now Slauson Malone 1). Dreamcrusher too. Also Ricky Zoker who performs as YATTA. Dyani. SCRAAATCH. Abdu Ali. There’s infinite people.
Who are SCRAAATCH?
They also have their own separate projects, but they work together as a duo performing electronic music, club music, noise—a mix of a lot of different sounds.
You’re educating me because I only knew two of these names. You’re doing service for the community here.
Growing up, I wasn’t in community with very many people. I don’t think I necessarily totally understood what I was doing then. I was doing it without a language for it. It feels good to have people around that are thinking about some of the same things I am—we can bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of the artists that I am most interested in connect to my work as a curator too. I think about Nikita Gale and Jonathan González along with so many others. In contemporary art, there’s a strong spirit of refusal, especially amongst movement-based artists that refuse to use their bodies in the most expected ways.
Say more about that. I’m not 100% sure I understand.
Where do I begin? There’s an expectation, I think, as a dancer or as a movement-based artist, that your body is kind of the sole vessel. At least in music, we have other tools, though it’s more complicated for singers, of course . . . but when you’re dancing, your body is the tool. That can pose a conundrum and conjure questions about what it means to be a black and brown person on stage, what it means to perform more generally, what it means to be seen, and what it means to be categorized.
I think the gospel thing we talked about before is definitely related. Every time you turn on SNL, there’s a white artist with a backing band of all black people. There’s a lot of signaling that’s happening. Artists just trying to stake a claim to music that maybe they don’t even really fully understand or have any investment in at all, but they know that it signals a specific politic to an audience. It’s very bizarre. Every single major TV performance has a black band of jazz school kids or musicians that grew up in church playing gospel. It’s very, very weird.
When did L’Rain became something that made you say, “I know what this is”? Often, when you’re starting a band, you’re simply playing and you don’t really know what you’re doing. But then you make the music that sounds like you and you’re like, “Ah, there we go,” and then you’re off to the races.
I was always writing music, but mostly as a part of a collaborative band where all of us were contributing to the songs and the songwriting. I don’t think I realized it, but I wasn’t a good collaborator in that project because I was young and extremely insecure. Also, I don’t think I realized how much of a vision that I actually had, as an individual. When that project dissolved, Andrew Lappin just out of the blue said, “Hey, have you ever thought about doing a solo record?” I was like, “Not really.” My mom had always been asking me about it too. She was always like, “You should just sit at the piano and sing.” I think that was the only way that she could envision it happening. I always told her like, “No, I don’t want to do that. I’m not interested in that at all.” Eventually I realized, well, I have all this material and I don’t know what else I’m going to do so I might as well make a solo record. I guess that was in 2015, but the project really wasn’t named until early 2017. It took me a while to figure out what to call it. I just gave myself a timeline and I tattooed it on my arm so that I couldn’t change it.
Where did the name come from?
It’s a re-imagining of my mom’s name. I took this walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and thought, “Okay, by the time I’m off of this bridge, I have to have a name.” I have fake names for myself, which is also incorporated into the L’Rain name. It was the perfect merging of these weird fake names I would have for myself and my mom. Her name was Lorraine, spelled the way that people usually spell Lorraine.
What are some of the fake names you have for yourself?
I have an alter ego that I would call L’. That’s just an L and an apostrophe.
How do you pronounce that?
It was pronounced “La-POS-truh-feee.”
It just merged pretty naturally. L’ and Lorraine came together to form L’Rain.
It’s a noble tradition in rap to have seven names. What do you worry about?
In the back of my mind, I’m really worried that I’ll never write another piece of music. That I’ll just run out of ideas and just stop making music all of a sudden. I save everything I ever make and tend to use as much of it as I can. A lot of the songs on Fatigue are stitched together from songs at different points of my life. Some of them are written on the way to the studio, the day of, and some of them were written ten years ago, but I’ll take the vocal from one song and put it with the guitar part of another song and just just weave it all together into something new. That was the case with a lot of the songs on the record. Maybe not a lot, but some for sure. “Two Face” is one of those.
I just watched the “Two Face” video with the candles, the ritual vibe. Who made the video? I thought it was beautiful.
Oh, thanks. Reese Donohue is the director along with Rad Mora, who’s the creative director. Steven Reneau was a producer and helped us put it together. It was a weirdly simple process on a collaborative level. I haven’t had a collaborative experience that was quite as smooth as working with those folks. I had all these ideas for music videos that we were about to start shooting before the pandemic hit. I hope that one day I can resurrect them for something else, because I really liked them.
It’s funny that you say that you weren’t a good collaborator in that project or you fear that you’re not, because you definitely give a lot of credit to the people you work with, which is a pretty collaborative thing to do.
L’Rain is deeply collaborative and can’t happen without a lot of other people. I think the way that people talk about solo projects sometimes is that there’s this singular genius who just comes up with everything and does everything all by themselves. Some people that do that, but that’s not me. I don’t want to do it that way. I would get too lonely and too bored.
keiyaA, for example, she’s collaborative, but she also composes and produces all of her own music and sings on it and arranges it and does all of that on her own. That’s amazing! I definitely can’t do that and I think it would drive me slightly mad to have to. Also Jon Bap.
What is the plan for the rest of the year? What are you going to do?
I am figuring that out! I’m joining at least one tour, playing BRIC JazzFest, and The Kitchen’s annual gala with Moses Sumney and Ravi Coltrane, and also have some shows in Europe in November. Some have been announced already and some will be soon.
Who is the band?
Ben Chapoteau-Katz, of course, Justin Felton who plays guitar in the project, Zach / Jachary who plays guitar and bass, and Alwyn Robinson who plays drums and percussion. All of us sing now, which is new and fun. Everyone has incredible solo projects. I feel lucky to be able to play music with my friends who happen to be some of the most incredible musicians I know.
Favorite places to cry (3/3): The great part of living in New York City is that you can do a host of strange things in the middle of the street and no one will bat an eye (though crying isn’t necessarily strange, and especially if you’re a Cancer).