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Regional Interests

SPELLLING’s New Album Dazzles with Surreal Storytelling, Ornate Instruments

A few years ago, Chrystia Cabral started recording at home for an audience of one, exploring electronic instrumentation with gothic and industrial aesthetics. Under the name SPELLLING, she’s already notably succeeded. Her striking 2017 debut, Pantheon of Me, led to a record deal with Sacred Bones and the release of her critically acclaimed 2019 album, Mazy Fly. Now, she’s getting ready to put out the most ambitious project of her career thus far.

After getting her M.F.A. at UC Berkeley in 2019, where she explored performance and storytelling, SPELLLING broadened her lyrical interests and creative personas for her new album, The Turning Wheel, out June 25. On The Turning Wheel, we see her ascend from D.I.Y. producer to composer, enlisting over two dozen horn, woodwind and string players, pianists, bassists, guitarists and percussionists—a big collaborative effort she was able to pull off despite the limitations of the pandemic.

“I thought this would be my dream album to make, [and that I’d] have that opportunity to do something totally different from how I’ve made music in the past, which is to work with other people, get into a studio,” she says. “So that was the intention. It did not come together that way at all.”

Citing figures Minnie Riperton and Marvin Gaye as examples, SPELLLING says the roots of The Turning Wheel lie in “romanticizing the type of music that I love to listen to over and over, this era of soul music where people were cutting records and being in the same space together, and the lush orchestration of the ’70s soul music that I love.”

SPELLLING admits she was nervous about whether she’d be able to execute that vision. “I don’t have the vocabulary of a lot of these session musicians,” she says. “I think the surprising part was getting in there and noticing I really do have the language. That sort of ease was able to just occur naturally. Music is that language that you can tap into whatever your background is, whatever your formal relationship is with music making.”

Among the musicians SPELLLING worked with, one who particularly inspired her was Oakland’s Destiny Muhammad, who only began exploring the harp when she was in her early thirties, and is now a celebrated player and composer who has collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony. “We had that similar narrative where you’re stepping into something later in your life that was unexpected,” SPELLLING reflects. “I didn’t make music until a few years ago, and it’s totally just changed everything in my life, just embracing that, getting over the imposter syndrome maybe and figuring out everyone’s making things up as they go.”

The resulting album is an intentional hybrid, split into “Above” and “Below” halves, with the warmer, more collaborative efforts on the first half and electronic, darker songs on the second.

“The ‘Above’ songs, I’m thinking also about writing songs for other people, building a portfolio for writing and maybe writing for a film and scoring,” SPELLLING explains.

The Turning Wheel starts with the strings and rich sound of “Little Deer,” and SPELLLING matches the moment with her clear, involving singing. “For ‘Little Deer,’ it was listening to a lot of Jackson Five and Michael Jackson and thinking about, ‘How do I bring out the child in me to sing these songs, to have that youthful innocent timbre to the way that I sing?’” she says. “I treat it like a research project, I do things to just get me in that mode.”

Another “Above” song with a particularly interesting title is “Emperor With An Egg.” As SPELLLING notes, its origin is anything but mystical. The idea came to her while watching a documentary about emperor penguins. “I’ll just see a moment like that and get really attached to the metaphor of really simple things,” she says. “Watching the conditions that the emperor penguins were in and this kingdom of ice and the struggle to protect your creation—to me, it just locked into this bigger concept of the album.”

The shift from “Above” to “Below” comes fully to the fore in “Boys in School,” where the feeling turns from warmth to a focused coolness, with a full classic rock-style guitar section towards the end. It’s a variation in theatricality, moving from the mental space of writing for others to considering something more personal. There’s still a sense of playing a role, something fully apparent in another “Below” centerpiece track, the string-swirled, pulsing-bass mood-out “Queen of Wands.”

“The vocals ended up taking months and I would go with a certain song and just live in that song for a really long time,” SPELLLING recalls. “‘Queen of Wands’ was the first song I started to do the vocals for. It’s this character—it’s based off of tarot—but a character who’s just finding empowerment. I had to just really put myself in the mind of the character. I think each song has its own sort of force. I imagine just the character that’s in the song; it’s like method acting.”

While shows and tours are starting to happen again, SPELLLING doesn’t have anything specifically planned beyond an appearance next year at Spain’s legendary Primavera Sound festival. But she has ideas for her return to the stage, as well as for how she’d like to approach the next album.

“I’m thinking about opportunities like that to do music production for theater, maybe creating a performance that aligns with my background with performance art from school,” she says. “Doing that in a music venue and having that on tour, certain aspects like that I think are really exciting to think about. Also, just after how much energy this album took, I’m also thinking maybe the next thing I put out will be really minimal.”

Copyright 2021 KQED