L'Rain: The Musical Doula

L'Rain: The Musical Doula

The first time I heard L’Rain’s heralded 2021 album Fatigue, I had the striking sensation that she truly understood the complexity of contemporary life. Even more, she was able to translate this complexity into beautiful, daring, and, yes, uplifting songs full of police sirens, drum bursts, and reggae horns.

Over an extended Zoom call, L’Rain (whose real name is Taja Cheek) spoke about her music making process, her dual identities, and what it means to be a musical doula.

L'Rain in LA. Photo: Ger Ger.

SHANE ANDERSON: How’s LA?

L’RAIN: Good. I’m mostly just being a snowbird and trying to get the recording process going again.

Are you working on new material?

I don’t know what it’ll turn out to be yet, but it will probably include things I will write on the way to the studio and things that I wrote when I was much younger. I have material that I’ve been sitting on that is anywhere from 10 to 15 years old. I always mix things from different periods of my life.

What’s your archive like?

Archive is a strong word.

Laughter.

It’s just a real mess of files that I continually go back to. Logic files, fragments of recordings, stuff like that. It’s truly horrific how they’re organized but it’s also fun to wade through this pile of shit and discover something interesting, some of which I panned a year ago.

Do you have an example?

Well, I have nearly 1000 recordings on my phone and some of them are very deliberate —like, voices memos I recorded of songs. And then there are files from when I turned on my recorder and forgot that it was on. The recordings are mostly triggered by the world around me. But the primary focus of the recordings on my phone is to remember my life. I have such a terrible memory and these recordings are like a diary I can return to.

L'Rain laughing. Photo: Ger Ger.

This intermingling of your own subject and the world around you is also very much present in your work.

I start with the self because I have authority over myself. I wouldn’t know where else to start from.

Well... Music concrete also used field recordings but in an attempt to get away from the self.

I can’t do that. And not only because every artist has an ego. I’m so hyper-aware of myself because of my identity markers. I’m hyper-visible, hyper-visualized, but I also feel invisible. And so, I have this very intense inner dialogue going on about who I am — who I am to myself and to other people, and about that negotiation as I move through the world. The way I think about myself in the world and the way I think about how I want to be in the world have a lot to do with legibility.

In this internal dialogue there are also questions about how I approach my art. And while I want it to have a sense of illegibility, I also want my work to be universal. I hope that my own experience will communicate some kind of universality, even if it’s vague. I mean, no one really knows what’s happening on the recordings, but they provide access to something intangible and immediate.

Your work often features contradictions. The album Fatigue moves from clarity to illegibility very quickly, and also jumps from short songs to longer ones.

They’re all quite short, in fact. I feel like if I can’t say what I need to say in a short period of time, I probably don’t need to say it. I don’t need an hour. I just need a moment of your attention for these — well, they’re not quite songs. They’re approaching songness but they’re something else. And I really do think of the album as a complete work. You have to listen to it from beginning to end.

The first album has a lot to do with grief and the second one revisits those questions – “Take 2” is even a newer version of “Bat.” Will the new album be dealing with the same themes?

The same themes always get recycled and morph into something new. Right now, I’m thinking a lot about my relationships to other people, about how those function. I’m also thinking about love and intimacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about bell hooks lately too.

Does this thinking about relationships feed directly into your music?

Earlier in my music making days, I was a horrible collaborator. Part of it was because I didn’t realize I had a vision that I needed flesh out on my own. A lot of it was ego too. And now, I feel like I’m in a process of trying to figure out how working with others works. I ended up collaborating with a lot more people on Fatigue and I hope that can continue. The album process is a process of discovery and I’m always trying to figure out how to surprise myself.

That’s what diaries are for: surprises and self-discovery.

Totally. And making a record ends up being a self-reflexive process. You’re faced with a lot. It can be very intense.

How so?

I usually play most of the instruments and so I might be in a studio and know that I only have it booked for another hour. I’ll feel like I need to come up with this bass part and I have to figure it out in this moment, or the day is wasted. High pressure situations make you face your demons. Like, am I good enough? Is this all a mistake? Should I call someone else to do this? All of that gets brought to the table when you’re faced with time and money and ability.

Not everything is high pressure in that way. And it probably wasn’t even that high pressure in those moments. It feels that way though.

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Being aware of your feelings while also rationalizing them away reminds me of a text on your website, where you speak about “emotional multiplicities.”

When I say things like that, I’m talking about what it means to be human. We’re all grieving, we’re also experiencing moments of intense joy. We are confused, we’re elated, we’re dealing with everything at the same time.

And I’m specifically thinking about how that operates for marginalized groups like Black people, and especially Black women. This intense layering of feelings often exists for us. We’re not usually given a break to process. Sometimes the grieving doesn’t stop.

The music also mirrors this. The listener is guided from one genre or emotion to another.

The music mirrors that experience but I wouldn’t say it’s guided. Like I said, I start with the self and I’m just presenting the breadth and depth of my experiences, knowing that it probably resonates with others.

One thing that resonated with me is the quote at the beginning of Fatigue that says, “What have you done to change?” You recently suggested on Twitter that you’re trying to change. How? What? And what have you done to change?

I’m still trying to figure that out. But right now, I’m trying to move slower, talk less, and listen more. I spent a lot of my life being angry and rattled, and now I’m trying to find calm for myself. That doesn’t mean I won’t let myself be disturbed by things, but I’m trying to look at the way they affect me, especially now when we’re starting another year with a lot of uncertainty and fear. For me, living like that isn’t sustainable. And I hope that if I can channel calm then I can radiate outward to others.

What is the cause of this anger?

Everything.

Laughter.

But mostly my experience as a Black woman, and feeling ostracized and alone in the environments I move in.

You don’t seem angry.

Well, that’s the multiplicity. I am a very smiley person, I laugh a lot, but there are other parts of me, and I’m sorting through all the different Tajas and trying to reconcile them.

Is the L’Rain Taja different from the Taja I’m speaking to?

I’ve never talked about her in the third person, but I do think she’s a different person. And even though the name L’Rain comes from an alter ego I made up a long time ago —L’, le apostrophe; it’s supposed to be a joke — I’m still trying to figure out who L’Rain is. It’s always funny when people call me L’Rain in real life. People often tell me on tour that I seem so shy. Then they’re like: “Who is this person on stage?”

If Taja is trying to change does the same go for L’Rain?

I think she is. I used to find a lot of power in small movements and being very quiet. I would never talk to anyone during the set and would sit on the side of the stage so the rest of the band would also have some visibility. I found power in softness. At a certain point it stopped working. I don’t know why yet. The project is evolving into something else.

It sounds like what Taja wants to learn is what L’Rain is doing. And now it sounds like L’Rain needs to learn from Taja.

Totally. I use the project as a way to understand my own life. Like I said, I struggle with hyper-visibility and my self-image, which is why I put myself on the album cover. These are very intentional decisions.

What could L’Rain learn from Taja?

L’Rain is learning how to be more assertive from Taja. She’s also learning how to navigate the ways being assertive can be productive or not.

L'Rain's handle

Another personality might be your Instagram handle, Turrell James. Are you a big fan of James Turrell’s work or how did this come about?

I definitely love his work, and I created that handle around the time that I accidentally walked in on him working on Meeting at PS1 when I started working there. I thought the handle was telling and summed up a lot of my experiences in the art world, like, how differently we imagine a person named James Turrell to a person named Turrell James.

So, Turrell isn’t an influence. Who is?

That’s hard for me to say because I was always more anti. I’m trying to not sound like things more than I’m trying to sound like them. I’m inspired by everything and nothing. And if I am inspired by someone it doesn’t have to do with their music necessarily. I feel empowered, for instance, when I think about Nina Simone. The ways she interacted with her audiences and demanded a certain kind of attention – this always felt out of reach for me but I’m trying to figure out how to do something like that, in my own way. I’m also inspired by all the women gospel singers who are often instrumentalists too. They lead a whole church in song while playing the piano. Even though I didn’t grow up in the church, that’s really empowering to me.

I’d also say those are two musical influences on your work, especially gospel music.

True. But the gospel recording on Fatigue wasn’t something I wrote. I just reinterpreted it. Growing up in Brooklyn, you’re surrounded by churches. I heard this music constantly. And when I was younger and playing classical piano – which is another biographical connection to Nina Simone that excites me – I started seeing connections between the R&B music I was listening to on the radio and the Baroque music I was playing. I realized at a young age that at the end of the day it’s all church music.

Are you also making church music?

I hope so. I mean, I was so resistant to any form of spirituality growing up and rejected it because I thought it was irrational and illogical. But I’ve spent the past few years shedding myself of this prejudice and embracing spirituality and religion from an intuitive place, which also feels scary to do without a teacher.

Why this newfound interest?

Just realizing that logic can fail you. There’s something to be gained from believing in the intangible. There’s a lot out there. There are so many things we don’t know. When I was younger, I thought if you just read and research enough, then you’ll have the answers. Now I realize the more you read and research the more you realize you don’t know.

So, we’re getting closer to Turrell’s sense of awe and transcendence.

Laughter.

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I always feel hesitant talking about the spiritual elements of my music, since I feel like I’m new here. I’m just trying to find my way. I wasn’t necessarily trying to explore healing but now I want to be able to relate to other people who are also trying to find their way. I clearly don’t have it all figured out. I’m just an example of someone who’s trying. We can learn from each other and keep going.

Do people come to you for guidance? And if they do, do you feel responsible towards them?

When people come to me after shows wanting to share stories about intense life experiences and tell me that I helped them get through a horrible illness or situation, I do feel responsible to them. I’ve been thinking about doulas, lately. People who are paid and trained to really hold space for people in extreme situations like birth or death. And in those few seconds when people approach me, I feel like a doula.And maybe just talking to the person in that moment is enough, maybe the music is enough. Still, maybe I can learn something from people who are working in other healing modalities that aren’t strictly musical.

Wanting to aid others during periods of grief feels right. As mentioned before, processing grief is a big theme in your work.

It is. And not always in the way people interpreted the first album, which was mostly done before my mom passed. There were a lot of professional and personal things that were just crumbling or had already died, and then it became more literal. I think grief can be more abstract. You can also grieve the dissolution of a friendship.

You used to use an Amiri Baraka quote on your bio: “new Black music is this: Find the self & kill it.”

That comes back to the question of change. I’m not an expert in Tarot, but I’m interested in the death card. It’s not about death. It’s about change, rebirth. And that quote sums up so much of what I’m trying to explore.

Isn’t this in conflict with grief?

It’s hard to move on and become a new person. I know that I’m resistant to change, that I’m stubborn. That’s how I am as a person. It’s hard to know how to evolve and change or to admit that things are evolving and changing.

You strive to keep Taja and L’Rain separate. As Taja, you work as a curator at MoMA PS1. Do you think your curatorial practice has influenced how you approach music?

I always tried to keep them separate to maintain a code of ethics. The ways everything has been institutionalized has also made me feel like I needed to compartmentalize these parts of myself. But now I’m realizing it’s all water from the same well. The things that interest me as a curator interest me as an artist. For me, curation is a public service. It’s about providing a context or an understanding of a context. It has less to do with ego and more about translation for a public. And yeah, I think it might be fair to say that I approach music with a curatorial sensibility. The process of translation becomes so important on an album with so many complicated and conflicting ideas. But it seems like people kind of get it. So that’s good. I guess we did okay.

L'Rain in LA. Photo: Ger Ger.

N.B. Taja Cheek is no longer a curator at PS1.

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