Taali Releases Her Self-Titled Debut
The Grammy-nominated songwriter / producer talks track by track
Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer Talia Billig, who records as Taali, returns with her most personal work to date.
Entitled taali, the album was created in an omniscient way in that found Billig writing these songs for herself as though she was penning them for another artist.
“Writing for other artists has taught me sometimes that is the best target: Just get started,” she explains. “Get moving on something new. So I did. I started demo-ing out songs the way I do for other artists when they call me. As if I were the songwriter for Taali. Initially it was just piano ideas, little song refrains. A sentence or so of lyrics. I didn’t push any stories or ideas.”
While writing and recording in New York and Amsterdam in 2020 and 2021, Taali drifted toward a more open-ended style of songform and performance, where she channeled her affinity for such artists as Fiona Apple and Sufjan Stevens to create almost 300 pieces of music, which she condensed into an unadorned, soul-stirring 13-song statement about grief, wanderlust, self-discovery, and empowerment.
“taali was definitely borne of the COVID-19 pandemic and my trauma through it (seeing our neighborhood die, having a fever for 51 days, fleeing America for Europe, etc),” she explains. “But it’s not simply a COVID-19 album. I’ve heard many COVID-19 albums, and while I love and respect them all, they all feel ‘of a time.’ They reference details like ‘six feet distance’ and ‘masks’ and ‘getting back together.’ It all feels beautiful, but very obvious.
“With this album, I made the choice to take three years to live with these songs through the trauma of COVID-19 and build it out,” she continues. “I wanted to emulate my north star songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, who broaden their experience into songs that we can all live with and enjoy beyond their specificity. The album, in the end, feels a lot larger than a COVID-19 album and that’s because I found myself through it.”
Bold and advanced, taali is a chronicle of how the events of the last three years affected the human condition. Adding to the atmosphere are performances by the seasoned rhythm section of Grammy-winning bassist Ben Williams (who also plays with visionary jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington) and drummer Dustin Kaufman (who also plays with other boundary-pushing acts like St. Lucia and Moon Boots). Strings were handled by the deft players from Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
“This album, finally achieves the sound I was looking for,” she says. “A mix of my New York songwriter background, Los Angeles pop ears and even a bit of my jazz training. It is self titled because I happily found my sound and myself in the process.”
Rock & Roll Globe had the chance to go track by track with Billig while in conversation about taali, offering insight into each song with the same knack for exposition she brings to her music. Please note the José she refers to is her life partner, acclaimed Blue Note recording artist José James.
“I like the idea that people would listen to this album in motion—in cars, on planes,” she says. “I hope it would encourage somebody to consider that they might have the tools within them to shift their situation—to build something better out of it, to take a terrifying leap.”
taali comes out today on Rainbow Blonde Records.
Did We Die?
“The album opens with one of the central questions that circled my past three years: After near death, how do we experience life? I address the question through a central melodic theme that I ended up arranging for strings. I wrote the parts on my computer and then sent them to a venerable string arranger friend of ours, Sam Hyken. Sam actually declined and insisted we use the string parts I wrote, which was a pretty wild experience! We recorded the strings in Amsterdam, with four genius players from the Concertgebouw orchestra.”
When The Dust Settles
“This song came to me while we were in the peak of it all in New York. All I could think was that we were in a hurricane. What world were we emerging into? More than anything I worried that when we emerged, when the dust settled, I wouldn’t recognize myself. I couldn’t shake the idea of what the world would look like when it reopened, and what we would find there.
“To be honest, now the dust has settled I don’t know that I’ve hit land more than I’ve found a whole new ocean to sail. I’m alright with that.”
Is It Right?
“This was the first song I attempted after 51 days of COVID fever. When the thermometer finally read 98.6 the world was still shut down, and our shows were canceled for the foreseeable forever. There was abject panic, a kind I had never known before and hope to never know again.
“We had this little studio that we had been slowly assembling as we got our lives back together. The process was slow going, because at that point I could barely get up a flight of stairs. But when I could finally sustain some notes I sat down at the computer and got to demoing.
“Trauma shifts us, it shapes us, it changes us. Makes us into an ever changing mosaic, a composite of the pieces we keep putting back together. So I centered around a question: If it isn’t wrong, is it right?”
“A tiny interlude that carries my whole heart in it, Convoluted City chronicles my impossible, delicious and lifelong love affair with New York City (my birthplace and forever hometown). It is the precursor to ‘Anywhere,’ the moment I realized that I could, finally, leave New York for Amsterdam (a previously impossible choice).”
“In 2021 I took a massive, terrifying leap and moved to Amsterdam. In doing so I left behind my family, my community, and, most jarringly, my home town of Manhattan. Leaving NYC, a town tied to my creation, self, family, identity, all of it, was wrenching to say the least. It brought me to a startling and compelling precipice.
“I found questions, answers and melodies at that juncture. I learned to build a new home and to finally step into the beauty and opportunity of my own nomadic life. But most importantly I found a truth that I now cherish: My freest, truest home is not one finite space. It is the open air.”
“Sfinari captures the in-between phase. Written while José and I lived in Greece, the former stomping grounds of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, for a summer. The song itself began in Amsterdam. I produced a little demo because I wanted something to bike to. José and Bender liked it so much they encouraged me to build it out. It ended up a Paul Simon-esque accounting of the process of discovering oneself, of trusting the process and not stressing (aka ‘pull your shoulders from your ears’ and let go).”
Made To Fly
“The ease of an Amsterdam inspired demo turned into song “Made to Fly,” created in a moment so ebullient and free that I barely recognized myself. I wrote the demo in about 15 seconds. I couldn’t even believe how happy I felt. Those words came out of me in less than a minute. I realized how much I had missed movement, how fulfilling it was to finally have escaped to Amsterdam.
“Though the song form came to me quickly, I tortured myself over the lyrics because when a song is this poppy I think it’s essential to have lyrics that are all killer no filler. I busted out the big poster board and went a little ‘Beautiful Mind’ on it. I also recorded the vocals in my home to make sure that the lyrics got the most time I could possibly afford them.”
VIDEO: Taali “It Comes For You”
Somewhere Over Kansas
“‘Somewhere Over Kansas’ is a little sleeper cutie on this album, to be honest, and contains many of the elements that would tie back to my previous debut album ‘I Am Here.’
“It uses, for example, breath as a rhythmic instrument, all the way through, and includes a full ‘Taali choir’ midway through. Its song form doesn’t really adhere to any pop or conventional format. I wrote it the way I used to write songs as a young jazz student at the New School.
“It began from a demo I had, just that ‘Where Do You Fit?’ part, with my own delay programmed in. I wasn’t sure it fit on the album, but was so tickled that I couldn’t find a fit for a song called ‘Where Do You Fit?’ that I stubbornly kept working on it. Then, on the flight to LA with my Yamaha reface keyboard on the airplane tray table, I looked up and saw Kansas on the screen. The whole song clicked and I realized that the song was, in essence, a consideration of LA as a destination again. Now that I’m living there for the second time it feels like I tapped into something prescient at that moment, though I’m still not sure I know where I fit.”
Burn It Down
“I have been trying to write some version of this song for a good decade. ‘Burn It Down’ is, most of all, for women, but it is for all of us who crave a cleansing fire. There have been so many times that I’ve burned the field for more fertile seeds, but this past three years feels like the most compelling of them, and therefore finally allowed me to finish this song.”
It Comes For You
“‘It Comes For You’ is another song about trauma, but this time the wrenching, electric nature of it. I wrote it while in Amsterdam. We were, ostensibly, safe. Everything should have been perfect, but it wasn’t. The trauma would hit me at weird moments, render me completely powerless. ‘Like lightning,’ I kept thinking to myself. ‘It comes like lightning.’
“So I wrote a song thinking on that, with a central synth line that I felt did it justice. The song’s video features my footage of this last 3 years from New York to Amsterdam to Sfinari to Tokyo to Los Angeles to everywhere in between. Self directed, filmed and edited.”
Silver Bullet (Song for Sima)
“This song began with its ‘chorus,’ a meditation on my often irresistible desire for a quick fix. A mirage I have chased for as long as I can remember. At some point in 2021, though, one of my dearest old friends Sima called me. At the time she was doing something so incredibly brave, just running right into the fire. I ended up weaving in a narrative about Sima’s magnificent ability to inspire through her very way of living. The whole song, in fact, honors this idea of a friendship so deep that it can shift and move. At first we start with me meeting her, then her meeting me. But the central theme is both of our futile searches for silver bullets, or easy fixes for pain. (Spoiler alert: They don’t exist!). I put (Song for Sima) to honor Joni Mitchell’s Song for Sharon.”
One Way Flight
“This song first came to me while in an AirBNB in Hudson, NY. José and I had booked a one night excursion there right before we got our visas to move to Holland. That pending one way flight was the only thing keeping me going, and I thought it was a really compelling theme that might resonate with other people.
I didn’t finish the song, though, until the day before we left. That last verse (‘when the sky obscures that last north star / right before the whole thing falls apart / you either break or move into the light / find me on a one way flight tonight’) was written in tears, in my childhood bedroom, just praying that we were making the right choice.
That’s the beauty and the terror of a one way flight – you have to jump before the net appears. I hope it inspires people to do the same.”
Did We Survive?
“’Did We Survive?’ is the only song on the album that directly references COVID, (specifically the sirens that plagued Manhattan and were our constant soundtrack for months as our neighbors died around us). As I was finishing the song’s lyrics I was tempted to make the lyric an answer, rather than a question. I.e. ‘We survived.’ I chose to leave it as a question to remind myself that everything is relative.”
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