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Escape Velocity

Hold The Phone: TAAHLIAH Interviewed
Skye Butchard , April 4th, 2022 09:00

After appearing at Mary Anne Hobbs' All Queens night at Fabric and brand new single 'Bodies', TAAHLIAH speaks to Skye Butchard about her ambitious and emotional next chapter

TAAHLIAH holds her phone between us. We hunch over a wobbly table, a tea candle heating our faces as we strain to make out a song she’s written just days ago over the din of the bar.

“The speaker is terrible, I hope you can hear it”, she says, moving a couple of inches closer. The Glasgow-based electronic producer has just returned from a songwriting camp, as she works on the follow-up to her debut EP, Angelica. She’s excited to share what came out of it.

This phone speaker song is fragile and emotional – a different beast from club-ready material you might know her for. Take her cartoony new single ‘Bodies’ with Luca Eck, which is built on pummelling kicks and cute synths that buzz around like slinky toys.

TAAHLIAH was signed to London label untitled (recs) with ‘Brave’, the first song she’d made, after a couple of years of building a reputation with her hyper-speed, high-impact DJ sets. Still learning how to harness her sound while in a period of personal upheaval, 'Brave' documented her transgender identity with stunning openness. It’s an impressive range for an artist who’s just as likely to make a ridiculous edit of Kim Petras’ ‘Coconuts’.

The song we’re listening to is ‘2018’, made with her long-time collaborator Sophie Thornton in their hotel room. She calls it the saddest song she’s ever written. Even through a dodgy phone speaker, it’s clear she’s shooting for a more elaborate kind of pop catharsis.

“Sad songs are a good way to get something out of your body," she explains. "It’s speaking on a feeling I’ve had for a while – of heartache, and that empty feeling after a relationship that happened so long ago but you’re still thinking about it.”

We’re in the CCA in Glasgow, just down the hill from where she cut her teeth as a DJ while attending the Glasgow School of Art. It’s where she was in 2018, and it’s what she reflects on as she moves into this next chapter.

You’ve lived with the songs on Angelica for a while now. How do you look back on the period when it was made?

TAAHLIAH: I hear the things that need to be fixed. I have a huge appreciation for the songs, obviously. They’re near and dear to me. I made them during lockdown. The last song for Angelica was made in February 2021, so they were still new to me when they got released.

There are many moods on Angelica; what are you interested in exploring now?

T: I’ve thrown myself into songwriting. The new music is all about emotion. First and foremost, it’s going to be dance music, but there’s an emotional songwriting element that I touched on with a few tracks on Angelica. This album is going to be chunkier.

When did you find your voice with the dance music community?

T: I found that community when I moved to Glasgow, but like with anyone, it takes time to find the people you can rely on. That didn’t happen for me until last year. I started out as a DJ back in 2018, being transfixed by hyperdance music and hyperpop. I moved to Berlin, and got interested in more traditional techno, and finding ways of fusing them together. It wasn’t until lockdown that I found my sound. The reason I make music is for my community and for my friends, and if people can identify with it, that’s great.

Do you have any specific memories of your experiences in Berlin?

T: It’s a bit of a blur because I was on drugs a lot of the time. I went there on a student exchange. I always knew it was going to be temporary, which I liked because I love Glasgow as a city. I get homesick easily. I moved to Berlin at the start of my transition, which was a hard time for me emotionally, physically and mentally. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about clubbing. It was a different calibre to what I’d experienced in Glasgow. I don’t think I’d move back. It can get very dark. It’s a city that can swallow you up. You don’t realise it until you’ve been spat out.

What draws you to Glasgow?

T: It’s where my friends and family live, but it’s also the city that I feel the safest in. That might be because I’ve been here a long time, but it might be because Glasgow ultimately is friendlier than places like London or Berlin. I feel at peace here.

There’s a strong gabber and trance influence in your music. Did you grow up with that?

T: When I was in primary school, my primary six or seven teacher would come in with these CDs that his son had made for us. They would have happy hardcore on them. Every Friday after lunch, we would have our own time and be able to play, and he would play those CDs. It’s bam tunes basically, playing to this class of ten-year-olds.

That carried forward when I went to high-school. I’m from Kilmarnock so it’s very rough, and I guess I was a part of that. I was a part of ned culture. As I grew, I started to become more of an individual. As my queerness started to show, I retreated from it and became more of a recluse. That’s when my interest in art-pop and alternative artists came about. I got really into Purity Ring. That was when Lorde was coming up. That’s when FKA Twigs started to emerge as well.

We’re probably similar ages. Twigs was massive for me.

T: My first concert was Twigs in 2014 at Oran Mor. I was down at the front. I remember the tickets were so fucking cheap, £11 or something. I forced a friend to come with me. I remember it so clearly, because it was the first time I’d used my debit card online. The people I’d hung around with were just not like me. They were so straight, heteronormative and mainstream, and living a life that I wasn’t interested in. Coming to Glasgow and experiencing that concert meant a lot.

Seeing someone like Twigs at the start of her career must have been special.

T: She was the first artist I saw an element of myself in, her being mixed race within the alternative electronic scene and being successful in it. SOPHIE was the artist I saw myself in, in terms of being trans and successful. There are all the different strands that I pulled from to live my own life comfortably.

Before anyone had seen Twigs’ face, no one knew how to categorise what she was doing. As soon as a visual was attached, it was suddenly ‘Oh, this is R&B, this is "urban".' Is that something you’ve had to come up against yourself?

T: "Urban", exactly. No, but my music is so fundamentally not what people think Black music is. I’ve found it difficult that within my field, there’s no successful Black people. That conjures up feelings of imposter syndrome. It’s difficult when you haven’t seen anyone who looks like you do it before. I’ve had people label my music as hyperpop, which I don’t negate, but it’s difficult when you don’t identify with it on a personal level. That music feels like it’s for White middle class art kids, and my music is not that, so it shouldn’t have that definition.

When you’re trans and making electronic music, people are going to say it’s like SOPHIE’s music, or it’s like Arca’s music. If you were to listen, you’d know that all these sounds aren’t the same. It’s laziness when people make those comparisons. I don’t think it’s right to compare artists that way. You’re already creating a hierarchy there, especially when comparing a Black person’s music to a White person’s music. It doesn’t matter whether you’re saying something positive or negative.

How do you feel about the support you’ve gotten from people like Mary Anne Hobbs with her All Queens showcase?

T: I fell into my career. It wasn’t as if I was doing electronic music for a long time. I didn’t know about the history of it, or what Fabric meant, or what Mary Anne Hobbs meant. I’ve only grown to know these things as I’ve grown as an artist. I never expected to be at this point. I never expected to play at Fabric so early on. I’ve only been once myself, and it was to see SOPHIE. That was the night that I met her as well. It’s crazy to be back in that space as the artist when the only time I’ve been there has been as the fan.

And a fan for someone who’s had an impact on your music.

T Yes, and for someone who’s now gone. Mary Anne Hobbs’ support of my music was just never expected. She’s shown such an overwhelming support of my work and I appreciate it... It’s a full circle moment.

TAAHLIAH's 'Bodies' is available to stream now

Mary Anne Hobbs' set and Jamz Supernova's set from the IWD All Queens night at Fabric, are available to stream at BBC Sounds