Tia Cabral is a shapeshifter, with an eye and ear tilting toward the fantastical. In the visuals for her experimental pop project SPELLLING, she has appeared as an entity dipped in glittery goo, a rodeo princess, and a silver-faced harlequin. In her new short film for “Turning Wheel”—the title track of her enchanting new album—Cabral leads a gaggle of circus-chic misfits up a grassy knoll, a butterfly perched on her lavender cheek. The video’s striking getups and face paint come courtesy of Cabral herself, who spent days sourcing vintage clothing for the shoot, and daubed every inch of vibrant stage makeup on her subjects.
Cabral is no stranger to whimsical worldbuilding: Growing up in Sacramento, California, she worked as a face painter at a children’s park called Fairytale Town. While studying art at UC Berkeley, she recorded 2019’s eerie synth opus Mazy Fly as her MFA thesis project. Color, theatrics, and mystery have always been inherent to her work, and scenes from a SPELLLING show might include vivid projections of castles or even a seance.
Zooming in from a sun-filled space in her Bay Area home, Cabral’s look is relatively subdued. She sits in front of giant, long stemmed plants, fresh-faced save for a swipe of red lipstick. She is warm and candid while talking about The Turning Wheel, her most detailed creative universe to-date.
She self-produced and orchestrated the album—a grand wonderland exploring reincarnation and eternal love. Though her previous work was primarily synth-based, Cabral opted for an array of acoustic instruments on The Turning Wheel. She gathered an ensemble of more than 30 musicians to craft the record, which is split into two halves: “Above” and “Below.” The former is gilded and lofty, embellished with harp and horns, while the back half feels sunken into the Earth, grounded by minor key piano and coarse percussion. It is a sonic representation of the life cycle: The sun must set, the flowers must wilt. The Turning Wheel is SPELLLING going full fairy tale—these songs are flamboyant and sad, sweet and foreboding, like Kate Bush reading you The Complete Brothers Grimm.
As she sat shuffling through a deck of green and white tarot cards, Cabral elaborated on the rituals, paintings, and libations that informed her latest dreamworld.
Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman in Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images.
Tia Cabral: I love that movie. The effects happen in such an analog way—they’ll just put peacock feathers across the screen. It’s very reminiscent of theater. And I mean… Winona Ryder: hot. So hot. And the movie just keeps going and going, which is hilarious. You think it’s going to end, and then it’s the next chapter and the next chapter. It’s so melodramatic, and I’m a huge sucker for that. I love Gothic literature so much—the blend of terror and beauty.
That movie started to creep into my mind as I was writing the track “Always.” Secretly, that song is kind of a vampire romance. There’s little nods to that with the visuals of a bell tolling, and I put the sound effects of bat wings flapping in the background.
Over quarantine, if I got bored or restless, I would go drive around. And this song was always popping on the radio when I got in my car. It just kept happening. I would get in my car, turn on the radio, and it’s this song, right at the intro. And then I get out and do something, get back in the car, and it’s literally on again. So I just got addicted to it. That intro is one of my favorite intros in music. It’s just beautiful, floating. When the guitar comes in, it’s that ’80s personality, like, “Here I am!” It’s glowing.
I’m Black and Mexican, and just knowing, growing up, that there was this iconic visionary artist that was so ahead of her time, that was interested in the surreal and the afterlife and projecting herself into this fantasy world—it was really comforting. I went to her art house in Mexico when I visited, and seeing the work in the flesh was transforming. I latched onto the painting “The Wounded Deer” and thought about it a lot as I was making the song “Little Deer.” I just love how she incorporates symbols into her work. It’s so powerful. And in that painting, the number nine is really prominent. There’s the deer that has nine arrows stuck in it. And then in the background, there’s nine trees. Nine is this number of crisis, like the end of the cycle. And I think it represented her relationship to pain and death, so “Little Deer” became about that for me. It’s about embracing death as a sort of dance. As I was writing it I was processing death as a part of this existential questioning: There’s suffering and cruelty in the world, but how do we meet it?
When I was on tour, before I’d go on stage, I would drink whiskey and honey and coat my voice. And then as I came out of tour my voice was worn out, so I would take a shower to get all the steam and then go straight into recording right after, so that my voice was at its most lubricated. And I was, like, “Why don’t I combine the two?” Drinking whiskey in the shower helps me to have this little jolt of mischief like, “OK, now I want to make something freaky and command my voice how I want.”
Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Buffy is everything to me. She’s the ultimate, authentic, raw talent. She’s like God to me. I would love to meet her one day. People have said my music is sort of Gothic, and I think her music is like the ultimate divine Gothic. The way she can mix sweetness and pain and sadness all together, it’s so delicate and extremely haunting. It’s this endless rush for me to listen to this transcendence at work.
My favorite albums are Illuminations and Little Wheel Spin and Spin. Those are both the epitome of the kind of songwriting that I aspire toward. Little Wheel Spin and Spin was one of the albums that unlocked the deeper concepts for The Turning Wheel for me. That album’s title track is about the ephemera of our time here on Earth and the seemingly infinite cycles that sustain life—and she does all of that in just one song. That’s what I want this whole album to be about.
I worked at the Berkeley Art Museum as the visitor services person, and it was awesome to get exposed to all kinds of avant-garde experimental film. I remember seeing one of [Terayama’s] films and researching him, like, “Who is this figure?” He creates these family portraits with face paint that are very queer and strange. He also had a performance-art troupe, which is so cool. I think a lot about wanting to make mini plays or mini operas or have this ongoing entourage around the music so that I can bring the songs to life in a totally different way than just a band performing.
This is one of the two new synths that I got before I worked on The Turning Wheel. I turned it on to the first preset, which is called “Universe.” It’s one of the most popular synth sounds, and it sounds like a choir of voices mixed with this strange, percussive noise. It’s that quintessential ’80s synth, trying to be New Age and futuristic, and I love it. All of the presets are almost so cliche that they are magical. I was like, “Yeah, I want to use this.” It has this preset called “Magician” that I use on the song “Magic Act,” and it sounds like a fog horn. It has this billowing oscillation and it’s just so cool.
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images
I got into tarot two years ago. Someone got me a deck, and I just started pulling cards and using them to write lyrics. It’s an instinctual way to lay out your options and see things that you might not have seen before, which I love because I’m getting out of my own way. As a person who creates, it’s important to find a way to set your ego aside so you can get to the authentic thing that you want to say. Words are so powerful, but they can be so convoluted, so working with pictures and symbols does something to your brain where you can access a different way of thinking.
The Wheel of Fortune card is emblematic of the album, and tarot in general was a huge part of the process of making it. Every single song represents a different card. In tarot there’s two tiers of numbers, one through 10, and the Wheel of Fortune is the 10th card and it represents the end of the cycle and the idea of inertia and chance. You know: What goes up must come down.
I was reading about the Tibetan book of the dead, and one thing led to another. I started listening to this album as I was working on The Turning Wheel, and I was so struck by the way [Tibetan singer Tenzin Choegyal’s] voice was this piercing, guttural, angelic sound. I got this random idea to reach out to him and ask if he would want to sing on the album.
I didn’t expect to hear back, but he wrote me in the summer of 2019 and was like, “I would love to be on the album. What do you want me to do?” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t actually know!” I sent him a few songs and was like, “Just listen, and if there’s anything you feel inspired to sing or contribute to, you can do it.”
Time went by and I hadn’t heard back. I just kind of gave up on that idea, like, “This isn’t going to work out.” Then, in the fall of 2020, I was in Athens, Georgia mixing the album. I remember it was election night, and we were in the studio. It was such a dissonant, surreal feeling to be focused on finishing the album, but then all of this turmoil was going on. And I got an email from [Tenzin] that night being like, “I was just thinking of you and what’s going on in America right now, and I thought it’d be a good time to send these to you.” It was the files of him singing. We were working on “Sweet Talk” right then, and that was one of the tracks that he sent. It was just kismet. I listened to it and it was just beautiful. It was the jewel in the crown of the song. It felt like divine timing. And I never heard from him again.