Photos by Mikael Gregorsky
“I like a bit of ear candy,” says TĀLĀ, bopping her head to the tune blasting out of her iMac. We’re in her bedroom in Kingston, where she’s playing a selection of demos and breaking down the sounds embedded in each one with a grin-inducing excitement that totally matches the tune. Dragging up a library of samples and field recordings and other ear candies, she tells me the track we’re currently listening to contains dog barks as well as a bombastic horn sound that she’s obsessed with; plus all of her tracks apparently contain, “somewhere in the mix”, a cameo from her giant cat Zion, who during the day we spend in her flat doesn’t leave her side once.
The horn-laden track we’re listening to is the oneTĀLĀ’s gearing up to play for Tom Krell, pop experimentalist How To Dress Well, who she’ll be recording a song from scratch with over the next 24 hours. Where Krell is all emotional catharsis played out over lush yet minimal R&B, TĀLĀ’s debut EP The Duchess goes hard with sugar-rush electronic pop. What brings them together, though, is a love of playing with vocals. TĀLĀ has a horde of “vocal samples to fuck with” and an upcoming track that features what she describes as an “Arabic wail”; she says she wanted to work with Krell because “his intricate vocal melodies work so well with the space he leaves in his production.”
Meanwhile, Krell is currently crushing on tracks that totally gravitate around a vocal performance; during the initial brainstorm in TĀLĀ’s flat, he name-checks Rihanna’s “Get It Over With” and Nicki Minaj’s “Pills & Potions” as tracks that keep things on an “even keel,” minimising deviation in the production so the vocal can pack a greater punch.
“Really good pop songs tend to be modelled on symmetry and balance, and for every moment of peak there’s a moment of valley, some kind of calmness and stillness,” Krell tells me later. In the process of writing with TĀLĀ, this means a stripping back of the sounds swirling in the mix until enough space is opened up that suddenly both singers are on that same keel. The minute they start wordlessly singing their tune’s central hook in harmony, everyone in the room knows they’ve got it.
The next day, that melody still swirling in our minds, we drive to Genesis’s Fisher Lane studio out in the Surrey countryside to wrap it up. On the leafy drive out of London, Krell turns up the radio when he hears Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life”, excitedly pointing out how few musical elements there actually are in that song
The pair spend the majority of the sweltering afternoon playing the skeleton of their song on a loop to themselves as they sketch out ideas about how the pop tropes they love translate into a digital age voice;TĀLĀ later says that this is where she feels it began to “fall into place.” Krell freestyles a Migos-style “you can run and tell your basic friends” on the mic, and from there unravels a familiar pop fable about being with someone who all your friends say is bad for you. Tala has a cheeky grin as she throws the line “all over my screen” into the mix, working the phrase “future romance” into her verse to give the whole track a self-aware 2014 undertone.
Art by Jules Julien
“The One” ends up being something that shows some calm in the desert storm of TĀLĀ’s production and some playfulness in the emotional intensity of How To Dress Well’s songwriting. “I tried to bring some of the manic UK bass references down a key, to a little bit more of a grown sound,” says Krell. “Making sure that it’s classic and not cliche. That’s always the challenge when you’re writing pop music.”