SPELLLING Walks Us Through Her Sci-Fi Influences for “Mazy Fly”
Bay Area experimentalist Tia Cabral explains how Kubrick, Sun Ra, and Frankenstein inspired the unique aesthetic for her sophomore LP.
Tia Cabral released Mazy Fly, her second LP as SPELLLING, over two months ago, and it’s already clear that this is exactly the type of record that gets exponentially better with repeated listens. On the surface, Mazy is comprised of a handful of pop songs that artfully dodge convention—per Sacred Bones tradition—but it’s also the rare record that pulls you further into its aesthetic universe the more time you spend with it. Where “Haunted Water” stands out as an engaging enough standalone single, landing somewhere between the experimental intrigue of Jenny Hval and the dark energy of Zola Jesus, “Under the Sun” takes the listener much deeper into Cabral’s, uh, spelllbinding sci-fi vision inspired by her fixation with the blank canvas of a big sky.
“Overall, right now with Mazy Fly, I’m really interested in themes of outer space and just what’s in the sky, or what’s beyond the realm of the everyday,” Cabral tells me, “but also within the everyday that you could encounter.” Although Cabral’s Juno-106 synthesizer often paints a picture of early B-grade science fiction, her music more specifically feels influenced by the thought-provoking and visually arresting sci-fi renaissance that occurred in film directly after the ’50s—not to mention many of those films’ soundtracks. With unspecified plans to write and direct her own short film to complement her also-unspecified third record, Cabral cites the imagery of science fiction film and literature as a major influence on her ideas.
“I collect a lot of moments from films and books—like visual images—and I can recall accessing them and translating them into a certain sonic aesthetic,” she continues. “I think I’m really drawn to less plot-driven or dialogue-driven things, and more to stories where the moment is more something you can rest inside of.” As evidenced in the cryptic, repeated poems making up the lyrics sheet for Mazy Fly, this detail comes as no surprise. To get a better idea of which moments, specifically, went into the making of her album, we asked her to talk us through eight titles that were on her mind during the recording process.
The Real and the Unreal, Left Hand of Darkness, and Wild Angels by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin I found more recently. Someone gave me a book of her poems called Wild Angels, and it’s really sweet because a lot of other science fiction feels hard to engage with. I have a hard time remembering names, so when there’s a thousand characters with hard names… I like that her work is simple and concise, and to me, that’s what music can be, too. You wanna connect right away, so being concise is important. I like that about her lyrics—I see it as lyricism, how she writes. I’m always working with really big ideas, but I want it to be accessible. So a lot of times I disguise it as a love song or something like that. I would look to her for ways to do that.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Space Odyssey is one of my all-time favorites. I hated it when I saw it when I was young—I was like, “This is so boring!” Later I saw it—I think I watched it again five years ago—and fell in love with it because of how the music was used. I was just starting to get really interested in the idea of making music myself, and I was like, “Wow this is cool!” I loved when the monolith arrives and that choir of voices that are like [imitates choir pretty accurately], and they’re, like, trembling. It reminded me of a chorus of flies or something. I always think about that moment—I thought about that moment a lot when I was making Mazy Fly because I thought it was really cool how people have the impression of hearing these different bodies, and I was really interested in using sounds that would remind you of something with wings, or something that could live in the sky.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I think I threw that one in here because it’s a children’s book. I’m a teacher in East Oakland and I work with kids a lot, and when I get stumped writing music, a concept I try to think about is “how would I explain it to a kid?” Not to dumb it down, but to make myself aware of “what are the things I could be missing becasue I’m just so used to it?” I think it’s cool to have a sci-fi novel for kids because it takes you through all those steps and makes you not miss out on the magic of ordinary things. That’s why I love this book still. It was the first sci-fi I ever read, and I always sort of cherished it.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
I think what I love about this movie is just this idea that music is a code, and if you can unlock the right combination, then you get this new knowledge, and you can connect to other people. When the spaceship lands and it repeats that tonal combination that humans had been sending out, it’s just like, “Ahh!” I love that moment! This is also one that I watched as a kid, and I would play it on the keyboard and wait for the UFOs to come. To me, that was like, “Oh my god, this is something I don’t understand.” Music can be something you don’t understand, but you feel so powerful making it. I was just really into that idea of music as a code, as a language, and that inspired a lot of themes I deal with in my music.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I think when we write about aliens, it’s always gonna be a reflection of ourselves, or when we think about extraterrestrial life it’s hard not to project ourselves. I’ve always liked Frankenstein—it’s gothic and dreamy and scary. It’s this idea of fearing something that you can create because it can bring tragedy to your life, and I think that’s the part about being brave as an artist, or even as a parent, or somebody who puts anything out into the world. It’s a risk, and it can bring you tragedy. In the story this scientist makes this thing and he loves it, but it’s hideous and he’s scared of it. I dunno, it’s so perfect to me as a story.
I was really scared to put out my record. I was just scared to put out music in general for a long time, but it’s nice to get over the fear. It’s great to feel that people enjoy it, and that it’s having good reviews and everything, but I think getting over the fear feels best of all because I can keep going.
Of all these really drawn-out movies that I like, I think Contact is the driest. It’s really kind of reliant on one idea, that what you believe and where you can travel in your imagination is real to you, whether an event happened or not. Being such a big fan of fiction, I feel like I do travel a lot and have all these experiences with the stories I read, so I resonate with that. I’m really interested in the power of belief, and harnessing it, and what that can help you accomplish as an artist.
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler
I’ve read most of Octavia Butler’s novels—she was sort of the first sci-fi author whose work I engaged with in high school. Dawn was one of my main influences. It’s post-apocalyptic, and the main character wakes up in this chamber at a loss as to where she is, and she’s communicating with this voice that’s feeding her and resisting giving her information on where she is. You slowly come to find out that earth has been destroyed, and these aliens are helping to make it inhabitable again, but the compromise is that they want humans to interbreed with them.
The rest of the series is about that conflict and possibility, and what I valued about that book and reading her work is how she turns around some of your prejudices on you and you don’t realize it’s happening. I was thinking so much about, “What do we value most about being human, and what’s most sacred to us about being human?” And I feel like this idea of interbreeding is compromising that, or challenging that rule that we think we need to live by, or that defines who we are. It’s an adventure to sort of let your ideas be challenged, and to consider these sorts of possibilities—that’s why I love science fiction.
Space Is the Place
Sun Ra isn’t actually a figure I grew up knowing about. I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and I heard a professor talking about how he did a lecture series there called “The Black Man in the Cosmos.” I was really into that, so I started listening to his music and getting into his philosophy, and this film is sort of just a platform for him talking about his ideas. It’s visually striking—it reminds me more of a series of vignettes put together, and music is the main part. His band plays a concert—like, they really had a concert in the Bay Area and it was filmed—then they kind of chopped all these scenes and connected it with this really, really surreal, sort of chaotic plot. But it’s definitely Afrofuturist, it’s science fiction, it sort of celebrates his idea of music as a vehicle, and I latched onto that.
Sun Ra, as a philosopher, believes that music has this energy and fuel to shape consciousness, and his spaceship in the movie is powered by music, and he wants to take black folks in the Bay Area and around the world with him to this planet. It’s far out, and it’s cool because it’s borrowing themes from blacksploitation to talk about outer space. He’s wild, I just love the way he talks, and the music sections throughout. It’s really fluid. FL