So, you may have checked out Tamar-kali’s album release event photos. Hopefully, you also have the album, Black Bottom. You’re feeling pretty good about your girl, right? You can probably tell by her performances and her music that there’s a lot going on with her. Want to know more? If so, check out this extended conversation between Tamar-kali and Boldaslove.us contributor Jen Williams. The two women talked for a while, so I’m just sharing part of it here. If you want to read the full interview, you can download the entire conversation via Scribd. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this wide-ranging dialogue.
Jen Williams: I’m really fascinated by the album’s title, Black Bottom and I was reading that you were inspired to use that title because you were at a particular place in your life. Can you say more about that?
Tamar-kali: Yeah, as you grow and evolve as an artist and when you make the transition from doing it without thinking to doing it purposefully with a goal of sustaining yourself through doing it, a lot of things can happen, emotionally and spiritually. Not to mention the external forces of just trying to support yourself economically, especially living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, New York. And also one of the most expensive cities particularly to be a musician in. In terms of resources, rehearsal space, things like that.
So over these past years, when I transitioned from being a kid in a scene that was getting up on stages with my friends and joining in for fun to starting to develop myself into a musician and then define myself as an artist and decide that it was a professional choice that I was going to maintain, a lot of things happened and one of the things was that I started getting robbed of my joy because of just what’s necessary in trying to maintain yourself as an artist. Once you make the break from having a day job and you’re out there just trying to do it, it’s really intense. And when you’re doing it independently, you get to a point where you’re so busy trying to handle all the details that it takes to maintain yourself that you get to a point where you find you don’t even feel like an artist anymore because everything is about building a business. Whether it’s learning about contracts and deposits, and booking yourself and trying to be a working artist in a more generalized sense so that you can just be diverse enough to support yourself solely on your art. It takes a lot of mental power, it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of administrative work. You get to a point where you‘re like, “I don’t think I can write a song anymore.” So I kind of went through this phase where I wondered, “What do I even have to say?” So it’s about me trying to fight my way out of that space. And it’s still a constant struggle. I think it’s probably going to ebb and flow until I reach a space of security.
jw: Right. I want to get back to the name of the album again because when I first saw it, I thought, ah, Ma Rainey!
t-k: (laughs) And that’s the point of using a term like that, it’s going to bring imagery to people’s minds. I think it’s an iconic term. It alludes to Ma Rainey, it gives a nod to the past and also to all of the different black neighborhoods that got destroyed through the highway systems. A lot of those traditionally black neighborhoods in America were called Black Bottom. So if you have that information, if you have that reference, it alludes to that as well. I just think it’s a loaded term.
jw: Very loaded. That’s awesome. Are you influenced by the blues and by artists like Ma Rainey and others?
t-k: Not directly. Clearly it’s part of my lineage and it’s part of America’s musical lineage so it’s in there, but not directly.
jw: Who would you say are some of your musical influences?
t-k: Right off the top, Grace Jones and P.J. Harvey. Grace Jones was really impactful in terms of my identity as a young girl. It had a lot to do with how I was raised because I was raised as a person not a girl. Further evidenced by my father exposing me to her art when I was really young. We were really into her show, a one man band.
t-k: That was cool stuff to me as a teenage girl. It really helped to inform my reference to who I was as a female and kinda making it boundless. P.J. Harvey has been a huge influence on my music. She’s an artist that I just adore in terms of her approach, just being herself. She has a wide range and she expresses it at will. I respect her a lot in that regard and people who are into her are into the artist and what she’s going to do next. You don’t know if it’s going to be a piano solo show or if she’s going to rock out of whatever, but you’re down because you respect her artistry. She’s the rock that I gravitated towards as a teenager but before that I was a Prince fanatic. It was an obsession.
I was an only child so music was my best friend. So I intend to enjoy artists who are fully realized and expressed and that’s why I guess I haven’t really entertained boundaries and why I haven’t really fit into anywhere. I definitely performed for a lot of hardcore shows in New York City at a certain time. But my music is not just hardcore. It’s aggressive rock and it runs the spectrum from completely deconstructed, alternaclassical with Psychochamber where it’s strings and voice, to acoustic where I incorporate piano compositions with rock and strings. But it’s all the same in terms of how I write and what it sounds like. And the thread that flows through all of it is my voice, which can go anywhere from a howl to a growl. It’s very soulful. I’m definitely a singer not a screamer but there are a lot of colors in there.
jw: That’s for sure. Is rock your first love?
t-k: I guess it’s the first thing that clicked. It’s weird because, I’m a second-generation musician, I love music. Music is a big part of my life. I could never pick out just one genre. Rock just happens to be what I tend to write, what fits my palette, but I listen to a lot of things. I’m definitely a New York child. Loving hardcore or punk rock. It’s strange to other people who aren’t from New York and don’t know about a certain period here. But I will also be singing along to some freestyle from the 80s, some Lisa Lisa. I love some wonderful old soul. It’s all a part of me. And I know a lot of hip hop. Old stuff primarily.
jw: What artists do you have on constant rotation right now? Who are you listening to?
t-k: That’s funny because I was just thinking today that I haven’t listened to music in some days. I go through periods where I just need silence, especially when I get off the road. My ears are just overwhelmed. The last thing I listened to was a record from a band I just did a show with. They gave me a vinyl copy of their album, they’re called I, Crime, an indie band out of Detroit. We were listening to them when we were driving home. I really need to buy the new Deftones album. And I’ve been thinking about this old school punk hardcore band out of Chicago called I Attack. We’re looking into getting some of their stuff. And the new P.J. Harvey.
jw: I love how you go between rocking out to the very melodic and moody strings orchestra. What inspired you to do that, to go back and forth like that?
t-k: I first developed a strong appreciation for strings as a child listening to Stevie Wonder and Prince. Prince always used a lot of string orchestration so I really developed an ear and a taste for strings at that time. An artist that made me realize I could just incorporate it into what I was doing is P.J. Harvey because she just does what she wants and she doesn’t give you a warning, she doesn’t make excuses. I remember getting her track demos and this man-sized sextet did string versions of her songs. And there’s this band, the Geraldine Fibbers, out of San Francisco, that included a cello in the band.
jw: So last, a quirky question, if you could perform with anyone, who would it be?
t-k: Prince. I know he’s rolling real holy. I’m always so jealous—it’s an obsession—when I see him working with these artists and I think “They don’t even love you like I love you. I bet they never sat in the darkness of their room singing ‘Anastasia’ rocking and crying.”
t-k: And I would love to do something with Polly Jean Harvey. Love her! Love her, love her! And I do enjoy Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers. These are women I have a fond affection for. Their artistry has moved me so deeply where it’s sorta like a mosh posh of emotion: respect, admiration, romantic love. Patti Smith. These really iconic women just hit me in a certain place and I would love to share that space with them.