In Conversation: L’Rain

The Brooklyn luminary on the emotional discord at the heart new album 'I Killed Your Dog', and archiving memory through song...

There’s an untethered inscrutability about L’Rain, the musical project of artist, bandleader and curator Taja Cheek. Since her self-titled debut, L’Rain, alongside core collaborators (and live troupe) Andrew Lappin and Ben Chapoteau-Katz, has blurred the distinctions between abstraction and modes of representation; threading together computerised composition and soundbites, with a mesh of jingle-jangle experiments and electro-flecked RnB meditations.

L’Rain’s third full-length, ‘I Killed Your Dog’, amps up the vertiginous psychodrama – a deviation from the brooding, funereal feel of breakthrough project, ‘Fatigue’. Beyond the loose narrative of relational mishaps, breakdowns and the wounds we inflict on those closest to us, ‘I Killed Your Dog’ is an album about modern decay. Playing like a pressure cooker across it’s sixteen tracks, the album is skittish to the point of neurosis, brimming with unease and foreboding. It isn’t monotonal, however. Just as a calvacade of squealing noise, reverb and distortion threatens to engulf the listener, L’Rain perforates the moment with whimsy and warmth – with a suite of songs foregrounding the soul-searching clarity in her voice.

In conversation, L’Rain unpacks a project that hovers between truth-telling, allegory, softness and surrealist horror, detailing the evolution of her creative practice, and the beauty of drawing the listener in close just to disarm them.

Congratulations on the release of ‘I Killed Your Dog’. It’s up there as one of my favourite records released this year.

This is so sweet of you to say! Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting in person sometime in the near future, I hope.

In your bio it says L’Rain was created after your Mother’s passing but also the dissolution of your creative community. I’ve wondered what that dissolution means in the context of your progression as an artist in Brooklyn? How did you rebuild yourself in the wake of these cataclysms and transitions?

I found it hard to find community in music as a young person, or at least I never really felt like I belonged to any broader music community in Brooklyn. I had a small band I spent a lot of time with, and our process was deeply collaborative and consensus-based. I was an especially horrible collaborator in those days, so eventually the band broke up. Ultimately, looking back, it was probably good for me to forge a path of my own and learn more about myself as an artist separate from the group, but I was definitely resistant to it at the time. I grieved when that collaborative project ended and I had no interest in making a record of my own.

My friend Andrew asked me if I wanted to work on a solo project, and, partially to humour him, I did. We ended up making the self-titled record together (‘Fatigue’ and ‘IKYD’ too). I only later remembered that my Mom had also always urged me to make music as a solo artist. Maybe that was in the back of my mind the whole time. Now, I’m kind of having my cake and eating it too; I’m leading a sort of solo project (I’m the only songwriter for now) but also incorporating collaboration in vital ways at key moments with a group of co-producers, Andrew and Ben.

My entry point to your work was ‘Fatigue’, which became the defining score of 2021 for me. I remember listening to ‘Suck Teeth’, picking out the hypnotic RnB-phrasing and the dark, proggy production. We’re deep in the throes of the pandemic, and this is a record that provided catharsis for people experiencing enforced isolation. With time and some distance, how do you view an album that shifted the trajectory of your career?

I honestly still think I need more time to fully understand this record in context. I’m slow! I really rely on others in the industry (historians, writers, critics, etc) to understand how my work operates. I like to bounce ideas off of them, to be inspired by a new thought: to disagree and discuss. Time will reveal more, but at the moment it still feels like a really honest record and a portal into a new world, same as it felt when I was creating it.

In terms of my career, yes, it definitely did shift the trajectory of my career. It took me around the world and helped me connect with so many people. I am forever grateful, but a part of me is also deeply sceptical of the industry and the ways it swiftly lifts artists up only to watch them crash back down. I think a lot about legacy and credit. I hope there isn’t a glass ceiling above me.

Personally, and creatively, where do we find you in the latter stages of 2021? When did you begin pooling together ideas for what would become ‘I Killed Your Dog’? How long did the process take and what does that process with your primary collaborators look like?

My friends used to joke that everything I do goes through a “Taja filter” that makes it all cohesive. I have a collection of ideas ready to be developed, that I can pull from at any time. All three of my records contain material from particularly creative moments of my childhood that I stashed away in this collection. I could probably include that material on records I make until the end of time. There’s that much. In terms of time, I always expand to the amount of time that I’m given.

Recording is deeply rewarding for me but also extremely challenging on an emotional level. I’m always worrying about my technical musical abilities; I can be riddled with doubt, and I’m very aware of my positionality in the world as a Black woman, and sometimes that is too much to bear even when I’m in the studio. Specifically, it makes it hard to ask for help and also hard to allow people to give it: that’s why I write all the music and play most of the instruments myself. If I don’t, I’m worried people will write me off. I’m a pretty horrible collaborator in many respects because of these neuroses and the deep awareness of how this industry and the world at large works. This time around, despite all of that, we tried to have a bit more fun during the process. We travelled a bit more and ended up in New Paltz, NY and Gainesville, Florida. We took days off to hang with manatees. We sat on hammocks and shucked oysters. Those are the moments when I’m grateful that my work life and personal life are so intertwined. I’m grateful that I get to work with my friends 99% of the time and they’re all extremely good at what they do.

Our first taste of this album came in the form of ‘New Year’s Unresolution’, which is the closing track on the album. It’s a gossamer synth-pop moment at odds with the rest of the album sonically, but in keeping with the album’s embrace of unknowns and opaque storytelling. Is that why you opted for this to be our introduction to ‘I Killed Your Dog’?

In a way, it was like starting at the beginning. This song is actually quite old, and was one of the first songs we all had a vision for in the studio. Also, we’re in a cultural moment where dance music is taking centre stage again, we were about to go on tour with LCD Soundsystem at the time, and I felt like I wanted to show the depth and breadth of my musical interests. Zack, a friend I used to work with, suggested dropping this song first and I immediately knew it was a great idea. At the heart of it, I’m a deep music nerd, and while people pigeonhole my music as “jazz”, no one in the L’Rain crew thinks rigidly about genre. I also have never studied jazz. I think I can make all kinds of music, and that music actually already exists within the project. I wanted to start in a place of openness and possibility.

It also felt like the right song to use to unveil the project because I thought it would create some confusion, especially once I dropped ‘Pet Rock and ‘r(EMOTE)’. Those songs feel extremely different from one another, and I wanted people to hear those tracks and wonder, “What even IS this album?” I always want to keep my audience, and ultimately ourselves as creators, guessing, while also staying true to myself as an artist. I hope I can keep expanding this sonic world I’ve created. I have no interest in doing the same thing twice.

The title itself – ‘I Killed Your Dog’ – is disarming, but as you experience the record and embrace its knotty contradictions, you realise there’s moments of softness and bracing vulnerability amidst the gore, chaos and madness…

That’s exactly it! I’m so glad you said this. I wanted to show the contradictions for sure. I think, as a society, we are fully unprepared to support repair, reconciliation, harm reduction, anything like that. We punish, we banish, we abuse, we forget. We aren’t given time or resources to address our traumas as individuals and that only ramps up as a society, and as a country. On that level, we don’t address our traumas either. To think through all of this I wanted to start with myself. I always try to start there because I only have control over myself, no one else. I wanted to think about the ways that I’ve hurt people close to me, in particular thinking about close relationships, friendships and romantic relationships, and what it means to break up with someone. The title is absolutely brutal, precisely because it’s an attempt at approximating that hurt and trauma I was just talking about, and especially because I love dogs. They sometimes show up in my lyrics as symbols of what I hold dear and close. Beyond the initial sting of the title, I hope it provokes questions: Why? When? Who? Do I feel regret? Was it a mistake? I wanted to temper the ugliness of the title with softness and vulnerability because I think that is why people hurt other people. I don’t think people often hurt people because they truly feel hatred. Or at least, I haven’t.

I’m aware of the way albums like mine, artists like me, have proximity to a certain kind of careful and gentle reverence that puts the music on a pedestal; this comes from a place of admiration and I appreciate it on many levels. But I am also weary of what that kind of listening can bring, especially when I have proximity to institutional spaces, art spaces, and the like. I instead wanted to create something messy and complicated. That feels more honest. That’s how I feel much of the time, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s also at its core deeply anti-celebrity and anti-role model. I’m just a person, just like everyone else.

I’ve gotten some messages from people online who are like, “this album title sucks!” and I’m like “I know! I hate it too!” Art doesn’t always have to be beautiful and pleasant. The title is like a horror film: it’s fake, it’s metaphorical, it’s allegorical, it’s based around a character. It’s funny that people sometimes think that whatever is being presented to them is the absolute truth. Maybe we’re used to getting something we assume is the truth from social media and influencers, knowing every intimate detail of their lives. But just as that is fake, everything I create isn’t the “absolute” truth either. My bandmate Zach told me once: “You think this is music? This is theatre.”

Two songs struck me on first listen: ‘Our Funeral’ and the title track. I love how your voice morphs from this sweet, earthy coo to something deranged and digital. Purely to sate my curiosity, I’d love to get the lowdown on how these two tracks came to be and what they represent in the context of the album experience?

‘I Killed Your Dog’ started out with a harmonic progression and the lyrics just kind of came to me instantly. I was surprised when they came out but I held on to the words. My collaborator Ben was joking once and was like that should be the title of the record (I didn’t know he was joking) but it immediately resonated. The end of the song came together in Gainesville, FL at a studio called Pulp Arts, mostly with this pedal we all fell in love with: the Vongon Polyphrase, a stereo echo pedal.

‘Our Funeral’ is an old song at its core, but the arrangement was new for this record. Something about the line, “End of days, are you ready?” felt like the right invitation to start a record. It’s a hell of a mantra, but I mean, the world is literally crumbling around us. It’s really the end of days. That is the starting point. Having a really sweet group of kids sing along is perverse, but again: just look around at the sick world we’ve inherited.

Photo Credit: Tonje Thilesen

Your work from the very beginning has taken on the form of tape and sound collages, interspersed with conversations and zany interludes. Why is that mode of design important to you? Why is it important you resist the conventions of traditional song craft?

For me it’s a matter of mental health. Stepping outside of traditional songwriting methods helps me circumvent negative thoughts. I don’t need to start wondering if I’m “good” enough, I don’t need to start comparing myself to other people. Collage is pure: it’s fun and intuitive. I immediately know what needs to go where; I can’t even explain it in words, I just have to do it. I’ve always been interested in recording and looping. I have a lot of devices that do that in different ways, both hi-fi and lo-fi, instruments and toys. I also record moments of my life because I have a horrible memory. I record my life to remember it. To hold on to moments that matter to me, just like some people keep a diary or take photos to document their life.

The track ‘Clumsy’ reminded me of the starkness and vocal clarity of ‘Blame Me’. It contains a poignant lyric: “How do you trust the ground when it betrays you in ways you didn’t think imaginable? How do you trust yourself when it feels like everything you do is bad for you?”

What are you trying to communicate here? Why did it take the form of a simpler folky reverie?

I wrote this song right after I broke my foot. I wanted something tangibly good to come out of something awful. I sat down with the explicit purpose of writing a song so that I had at least one good thing to point to that came out of an experience that rocked my world for so long. I think I knew pretty early on it had to be a ballad. It was just a gut feeling. Honestly, probably because it’s new territory for me and I’ve found that anything that scares me musically is worth looking into a bit deeper. As I was writing, the literal injury ended up becoming a metaphor. I’m a clumsy person in many ways. I trip and bump into things a lot (anyone who has spent time with me knows my distinctive yelp when I’ve hurt myself). But I also often feel that I say and do the wrong thing even though I’m trying so hard not to. It just comes naturally to me to fuck up. So, I wanted to transmute this physical injury into an emotional meditation on my clumsiness. The title came to me in a flash when I was recording scratch vocals at my friend Ryan’s studio Welterweight in New Paltz.

If the album is a dialogue between artist and audience, what are you most hoping to convey?

I don’t like to be very prescriptive but I hope listeners hear and experience something they might not have before. More importantly, I hope that feeling of newness opens them up to new ideas, repressed old ideas, memories, projections to the future. Maybe that’s a hyper-optimistic view of what music can do, but I’m clinging onto it anyway.

What is your favourite track from the album? Or the track you feel is the emotional centrepiece?

Favourites are always hard for me because that often changes drastically over time, but the emotional centrepiece is probably ‘I Killed Your Dog’. I also have been considering ‘5 to 8 Hours a Day’ as an anchor of the record too, which was funny to me because when I first started showing it to my friends, they kind of panned it.

On the subject of ‘5 to 8 Hours a Day’, we get some insight into the extractive nature of being an artist, especially an independent Black femme one. It’s a commentary on the constraints of genre; the way we consume music, the way pigeonhole and gatekeep. There’s a line: “You didn’t think this would come out of me”. Three albums deep, have you reached a place of freedom, disregard and abandon?

That line is definitely a direct address to the industry. I’m not sure if I’m there yet, abandon and disregard, but I wish I were! I’m stubborn in an artistic sense, but I’m also trying to build a business – that’s a tough place to be in, right between a rock and a hard place. I feel lucky that I have, so far, been able to build this project on my own terms. I wish more artists could. I’m anticipating the glass ceiling. Maybe I’m just doomsday prepping but there aren’t very many artists that are making a living from their work that both look and sound like me. That reality weighs on me for so many reasons. Regardless of that fact, I don’t think I can do anything other than what I want to do. I’m stubborn and determined, so even though I care more about what people think than I’d like to, I end up just doing my own thing anyway.

With regards to nascent musicians who want to bypass the major label system – and we are increasingly seeing more artists take the autonomous route – what do they need to seek out in terms of resources and frameworks without compromising their instincts? Naturally, it’s not a one-size fits all solution...

I found tremendous value in knowing how things work on my own, without help, before finding resources and a team. It was frustrating at the time, and I thought that doing it all on my own meant I would never ever find people to work with, but now that I can reflect on that experience of being truly independent, I can now see how much I learned. It’s important to research all the costs for touring and make your own tour budgets, understand the ins and outs of your deals, make lists of your favourite publications and imagine how you want to be covered in them. I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating: artists are small businesses. We are the CEO and president. We are the HR. We are the Director of Communications, we are the Art Director, we are the heartbeat.

I hosted parties in a DIY space before beginning curatorial work at MoMA PS1 and so much of what I learned in that tiny little DIY operation was directly applicable to what I ended up doing in a fancy institution. I think it works much the same for me as an artist too.

Do you see L’Rain going “pop” in the near future? Do you feel you’d need to assume another identity/alias if you wanted to step into that world?

I’ve always been interested in what a L’Rain pop collaboration would sound like to be honest! I’m always interested in tracking weird underground ideas and concepts as they float up to the mainstream. (A lot of times that happens without proper compensation and credit, which isn’t cool). I dream of working with someone who may have a well-defined sound but is looking to evolve. I think it would be so rewarding to play and experiment in the studio alongside someone as they’re finding themselves and to help them along in that process. In general, I’m really interested in producing for and with other musicians at all levels and helping artists find their voices.

L’Rain UK/Europe Tour (2024)

Feb 19th – The Hug & Pint, Glasgow
Feb 20th – Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Feb 21st – Barbican Centre (Milton Court), London
Feb 23rd – YES, Manchester
Feb 24th – Simple Things Festival, Bristol
Feb 25th – Patterns, Brighton

Feb 27th – AB Club, Brussels, Belgium

Feb 28th – Bourse De Commerce (As Part of Les Inrocks), Paris, France

Mar 1st – Netherlands Utrecht EKKO

Mar 3rd – Kampnage, Hamburg, Germany

Mar 5th – Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

Secure your tickets here.

‘I Killed Your Dog’ is out now.

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