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An Interview with Tamar-kali

July 2010

Our review of Tamar-kali’s debut album, Black Bottom, hailed the album as “an exhilarating,
cathartic rock n roll tour de force.” It’s aggressive, melodic rock for the 21st century. What
follows here is an extended conversation between Tamar-kali and Boldaslove.us contributor
Jen Williams, during which they touch on many things including the significance of the title
“Black Bottom”; the influence of PJ Harvey; the surprising relationship between her songs
“Boot” from an earlier EP and “Pearl” on this album; and tarot, to name a few. Sit back and
enjoy this wide-ranging dialogue.

--Rob Fields

Jen Williams: I’m really fascinated by the album’s title Black Bottom and I was reading that
you were inspired to use that title because you were at a particular place in your life. Can you
say more about that?

Tamar-kali: Yeah, as you grow and evolve as an artist and when you make the transition
from doing it without thinking to doing it purposefully with a goal of sustaining yourself through
doing it, a lot of things can happen, emotionally and spiritually. Not to mention the external
forces of just trying to support yourself economically, especially living in one of the most
expensive cities in the world, New York. And also one of the most expensive cities
particularly to be a musician in. In terms of resources, rehearsal space, things like that.

172 Fifth Avenue | #1| Brooklyn, NY 11217 | info@boldaslove.us
So over these past years, when I transitioned from being a kid in a scene that was getting up
on stages with my friends and joining in for fun to starting to develop myself into a musician
and then define myself as an artist and decide that it was a professional choice that I was
going to maintain, a lot of things happened and one of the things was that I started getting
robbed of my joy because of just what’s necessary in trying to maintain yourself as an artist.
Once you make the break from having a day job and you’re out there just trying to do it, it’s
really intense. And when you’re doing it independently, you get to a point where you’re so
busy trying to handle all the details that it takes to maintain yourself that you get to a point
where you find you don’t even feel like an artist anymore because everything is about
building a business. Whether it’s learning about contracts and deposits, and booking yourself
and trying to be a working artist in a more generalized sense so that you can just be diverse
enough to support yourself solely on your art. It takes a lot of mental power, it takes a lot of
time, it takes a lot of administrative work. You get to a point where you‘re like, “I don’t think I
can write a song anymore.” So I kind of went through this phase where I wondered, “What do
I even have to say?” So it’s about me trying to fight my way out of that space. And it’s still a
constant struggle. I think it’s probably going to ebb and flow until I reach a space of security.

jw: Do you think that the struggle is just by virtue of being in the music industry or does it
have to do with being an independent artist instead versus being part of a major record label?

t-k: I think it’s compounded by being an independent artist. But I think these challenges are
the challenges of being in the musical industry as it stands to date. It’s not even the music
industry anymore, it’s the record industry. It’s the recording industry, and that’s the
appropriate name for it. Music business has to do with ‘music’ but a lot of what’s going on
now doesn’t, it has to do with the manufacturing and selling of records. Period. So, any artist
who is truly an artist, who’s someone who expresses themselves artistically and hopes to
make a living through that is going to be challenged in that type of climate. At the same time
there are a lot of new technologies that create more opportunities for people to be involved
themselves and get things done, which is cool having a DIY background. Now, you don’t
have to stay up for hours and assemble your records yourself. There are so many options to
get things out faster and easier. But I think the lines were drawn some time ago between
people who are musicians, who are artists and people who are performers and want to be
famous, people who just want to be stars. And the industry has definitely shifted toward
celebrity. That’s old hat at this point. So I think it’s important to be aggressive in finding out
who’s still interested in music and finding those people.

jw: Do you think larger audiences are getting drawn to independent music?

t-k: I think mainstream audiences will be drawn to whatever the tastemakers and the
anointed trendsetters draw them to. It’s a matter of choice at a certain level. But if you think
about it from the perspective of a label, as a corporation, they’re trying to incur the least
amount of costs while gaining as much profit as possible. They might not necessarily want to
work with an independent artist who writes their own material. They’re going to own their own
masters, they’re going to have publishing. There are going be all of these things that the label
can’t reap the benefits of. So if a label truly wants to have ownership of an artist, their
trademark, they want to work with a lump of clay. They can mold it into what they want it to
be, they can create a persona, and a name and a brand that is trademarked by their
company. They can assign the writers and have a certain deal with them, have them on
contract and now I heard that labels are even getting into merch money and all kinds of stuff
before that used to be serving the artist so it doesn’t necessarily behoove a major label to
support a self-sufficient artist.

jw: Right. I want to get back to the name of the album again because when I first saw it, I
thought, ah, Ma Rainey!

t-k: (laughs) And that’s the point of using a term like that, it’s going to bring imagery to
people’s minds. I think it’s an iconic term. It alludes to Ma Rainey, it gives a nod to the past
and also to all of the different black neighborhoods that got destroyed through the highway
systems. A lot of those traditionally black neighborhoods in America were called Black
Bottom. So if you have that information, if you have that reference, it alludes to that as well. I
just think it’s a loaded term.

jw: Very loaded. That’s awesome. Are you influenced by the blues and by artists like Ma and

t-k: Not directly. Clearly it’s part of my lineage and it’s part of America’s musical lineage so
it’s in there, but not directly.

jw: Who would you say are some of your musical influences?

t-k: Right off the top, Grace Jones and P.J. Harvey. Grace Jones was really impactful in
terms of my identity as a young girl. It had a lot to do with how I was raised because I was
raised as a person not a girl. Further evidenced by my father exposing me to her art when I
was really young. We were really into her show, a one man band.

jw: Yes!

t-k: That was cool stuff to me as a teenage girl. It really helped to inform my reference to who
I was as a female and kinda making it boundless. P.J. Harvey has been a huge influence on
my music. She’s an artist that I just adore in terms of her approach, just being herself. She
has a wide range and she expresses it at will. I respect her a lot in that regard and people
who are into her are into the artist and what she’s going to do next. You don’t know if it’s
going to be a piano solo show or if she’s going to rock out of whatever, but you’re down
because you respect her artistry. She’s the rock that I gravitated towards as a teenager but
before that I was a Prince fanatic. It was an obsession.

I was an only child so music was my best friend. So I intend to enjoy artists who are fully
realized and expressed and that’s why I guess I haven’t really entertained boundaries and
why I haven’t really fit into anywhere. I definitely performed for a lot of hardcore shows in New
York City at a certain time. But my music is not just hardcore. It’s aggressive rock and it runs
the spectrum from completely deconstructed, alternaclassical with Psychochamber where it’s
strings and voice, to acoustic where I incorporate piano compositions with rock and strings.
But it’s all the same in terms of how I write and what it sounds like. And the thread that flows
through all of it is my voice, which can go anywhere from a howl to a growl. It’s very soulful.
I’m definitely a singer not a screamer but there are a lot of colors in there.

jw: That’s for sure. Is rock your first love?

t-k: I guess it’s the first thing that clicked. It’s weird because, I’m a second-generation
musician, I love music. Music is a big part of my life. I could never pick out just one genre.
Rock just happens to be what I tend to write, what fits my palette, but I listen to a lot of things.
I’m definitely a New York child. Loving hardcore or punk rock. It’s strange to other people who
aren’t from New York and don’t know about a certain period here. But I will also be singing
along to some freestyle from the 80s, some Lisa Lisa. I love some wonderful old soul. It’s all a
part of me. And I know a lot of hip hop. Old stuff primarily.

jw: You ever thought about rapping?

t-k: I would never play myself like that. If I really had the heart and I started way back when
maybe. I just saw Jean Grae the other day, she’s a friend of mine, and I was watching her
perform and thinking “She’s just so dope, she’s so dope,” you know. Jean is one of the most
musical rappers you’ll ever hear. She’s a musician, she can’t help it. She’s got jazz musician
parents and it’s just in her. She has such a melodic flow and her pocket is sick! I feel like
when you can talk about people who are lyricists and MC’s and not “rappers” in that kind of
way, you can talk about them like you would a jazz musician. There are aspects that are the
same. Their “pocket,” their sense of rhythm, they stay in the pocket, like how they flow. Some
people are like the crazy loud avant-garde soloists. Some people are really, really melodic.
And some people just have a rhythmic capacity that’s amazing. Music is music and I enjoy
many different genres. But my voice in terms of composition falls in the rock category.

jw: So when you’re writing, do you hear the melody first or do you hear lyrics?

t-k: In the beginning I use to start from the baselines a lot and I credit that to being the child
of a bass player. Other times, I’m just playing around on the electric guitar and I come up with
something. Then sometimes I’ll hear a melody and lyrics together then write around it.

jw: I also noticed that several of your songs are very narrative. They have this storylike
quality to them.

t-k: Oh! Really?

jw: Two of them that come immediately to mind are “Boot” as well as “Pearl.” I find myself
wondering who is this girl that you’re singing about.

t-k: That’s an interesting because I would have never drawn that parallel. But now that you
said it. You know, “Boot” wasn’t me, it was someone else. But “Pearl” started with me and
then just went out from there. “Pearl” is based on personal experience of just feeling beat
down by the city. Just all the bullshit, and the negativity, and the misogyny. It’s about how you
maintain your identity and your sense of self. How do you keep temperance basically?
There’s this card in the tarot, in the Major Arcana, that’s The Tower and the lesson is
temperance. It’s about being able to withstand all the moving energies around you and stay

jw: Yes! I know that card.

t-k: That song was basically a sonic/lyrical extension of that concept. That’s why I talk about
her being a pearl roughly confined in the city that’s her oyster and the challenges that you
face in that context. Whereas “Boot” was me looking at a situation. It was my commentary on
how the lack of self-love within a specific community can create opportunities for another
community. There’s this beauty that this woman has and she doesn’t get it because she
doesn’t have these other features that she feels are attributes. And as “sweet tasting fruit,
whose juice is bitter tears,” she’s so sorrowful, she doesn’t realize how beautiful and ripe and
wonderful she is but other people do and they take advantage of it.

It’s also a common thing with women who don’t recognize their self-worth and they get
involved with men who see it but are aware that the women are not aware of it and can take
advantage of the situation. And the song can be universal in terms of any person who doesn’t
know their own self worth and their own beauty, and because of that can become victimized.

jw: It’s a really deep song. One of my favorites. How long have you been performing?

t-k: Since I was a wee child. My dad was a musician. My aunt was a singer. And in the 80s,
the family helped her bring to life her dream of having a club downtown. We used to have
bands come down all the time so I grew up around musicians and that’s why I’m not
impressed by them (laughs). You get to see the ins and the outs and I was never a girl that
thought musicians were hot because I knew the underbelly. I was able to witness at a young
age what happens when these musicians come to town, how everybody turns into these
other people that you didn’t know they were. And I’m just gonna leave it there.

jw: So now the shoe’s on the other foot a little bit right? You have the talent as well as the
allure and the sex appeal, do you find that you have a lot of … I don’t know if I should call
them “groupies?”

t-k: Oh, no, chile.

jw: People who gravitate toward that kind of allure and that sexiness that you give off?

t-k: I’m such a letdown in that way because I don’t really create an environment for that type
of worship. I chill with my people. I’m always approachable. When people say hi to me in the
street, on the rare occasions when people recognize me, they’re usually cool about it. You
know, I don’t give off drama in that way. I was actually grocery shopping the other day and
this brother was like, “Tamar right?” and he was with his family and he said, “I really enjoy
your music” and I said, “You have a beautiful family,” and it was really peace.

People get weirded out every once in awhile. One challenge I do notice. It’s not a groupie
thing but sometimes people think everything’s wrapped up over here because of how hard I
go in terms of presenting a certain type of quality when I perform. And that’s just because
how I was raised. Go hard or go home. You wanna really represent. I’m very competitive in
that way. I want to destroy the other band but not really. We’re very bloodthirsty. And it’s not
that we think you’re band is shit, we just come to destroy. And I think because of that, people
think I’m on cloud nine and everything’s perfect so they might not consider me for something
because they think I’m out touring the world and meanwhile I’m on Park Place.

I think people do get open and every artist has a responsibility depending on the quality of
person they are because if you just don’t give a fuck, you just don’t give a fuck. But if you see
yourself as a person with integrity, respect and care for people who are being moved by your
music, you have to be mindful that people do get very open and you just wanna be respectful
of that. So, I try to interact with anyone who approaches me after the show and have an
earnest interaction with them. I could care less about the autograph thing. It’s really weird.
Not even since I was a kid. I remember I got one autograph and I was like “Ugh.” It didn’t
even feel good. I had a funny instance where I went to a Prince concert and this crazy rapper
he had, Tony T or something, just took my tour book out my hands and signed the back of it
and I’m standing there like “No, you didn’t.” I was so pissed. I had this pristine tour book and
this man just up and took it and defiled it. So, I’m not into the autographs but I’m definitely
into hearing your name, hearing what you thought and being very appreciative and wanting to
thank you for supporting.

jw: How do you find that your international audiences compare to your US audiences?

t-k: I haven’t had a lot of intimate interactions with European audiences because when I’m
performing in Europe there’s a budget and there’s an event. I’ve done a certain amount of
interacting and it’s been cool. I’ve done a couple of things in France and I did one thing in
Spain. But for the most part, it’s a little bigger and not as intimate. It’s not like I’m out touring
Europe all the time but the most economically beneficial opportunities I’ve had in my career
thus far have come from abroad.

There’s an appreciation and desire for black American artistry in France and other places.
People are just eager and appreciative and excited! They’re truly fans of the music as
opposed to fans of a brand or a look or a lifestyle or a scene. There fans of the music. The
kinds of conversations I have with other musicians here are the conversations you’d have
with anybody in France. And clearly there’s a history of revolutionary, genre-defying,
boundary-pushing artists becoming a success abroad and then spreading, whether it’s Nina
or Jimi or Miles, you can go on and on.

jw: What artists do you have on constant rotation right now? Who are you listening to?

t-k: That’s funny because I was just thinking today that I haven’t listened to music in some
days. I go through periods where I just need silence, especially when I get off the road. My
ears are just overwhelmed. The last thing I listened to was a record from a band I just did a
show with. They gave me a vinyl copy of their album, they’re called “I, Crime,” an indie band
out of Detroit. We were listening to them when we were driving home. I really need to buy the
new Deftones album. And I’ve been thinking about this old school punk hardcore band out of
Chicago called “I Attack.” We’re looking into getting some of their stuff. And the new P.J.

jw: So the album drops on the July 13th?

t-k: July 13th and the record release party is on July 16th at Littlefield.

jw: “Pearl” is a wonderful single, what other kinds of variety should people expect from the

t-k: The single presented an opportunity to have variety through releasing one song in
different formats. That’s what I did with “Pearl,” but in terms of the album, it’s straight ahead.
There’s an appearance by Psychochamber Ensemble, me writing string parts on one of the
songs on the album.

jw: I love how you go between rocking out to the very melodic and moody strings orchestra.
What inspired you to do that, to go back and forth like that?

t-k: I first developed a strong appreciation for strings as a child listening to Stevie Wonder
and Prince. Prince always used a lot of string orchestration so I really developed an ear and a
taste for strings at that time. An artist that made me realize I could just incorporate it into what
I was doing is P.J. Harvey because she just does what she wants and she doesn’t give you a
warning, she doesn’t make excuses. I remember getting her track demos and this man-sized
sextet did string versions of her songs. And there’s this band, the Geraldine Fibbers, out of
San Francisco, that included a cello in the band.

jw: So last, a quirky question, if you could perform with anyone, who would it be?

t-k: Prince. I know he’s rolling real holy. I’m always so jealous—it’s an obsession—when I
see him working with these artists and I think “They don’t even love you like I love you. I bet
they never sat in the darkness of their room singing ‘Anastasia’ rocking and crying.”

jw: Right!

t-k: And I would love to do something with Polly Jean Harvey. Love her! Love her love her.
And I do enjoy Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers. These are women I have a fond
affection for. Their artistry has moved me so deeply where it’s sorta like a mosh posh of
emotion: respect, admiration, romantic love. Patti Smith. These really iconic women just hit
me in a certain place and I would love to share that space with them.

Jennifer Williams is a writer and professor who approaches literature, music, and visual
culture from a black feminist perspective. Jennifer teaches and writes in Brooklyn, New York,
and she blogs at Black Feminisms, http://blackfemme.blogspot.com.

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