Interview with Taleen Kali by Julia Gibson
“We are all flowers”: The blossoming of Taleen Kali
Taleen Kali will often end her live shows with a sincere and sweet, “Thank you for hearing my heart.” This phrase perfectly sums up what she is all about: she puts her spirit in her music and she is grateful to be able to do so.
Los Angeles native Kali cut her musical teeth as a frontwoman in the Echo Park-based riotgaze band TÜLIPS. She had been the “doom” half of TÜLIPS’ “doom & bloom” dichotomy, but when the band called it quits in 2016, she envisioned something different for herself.
Her debut solo EP Soul Songs is the result of that vision. It’s an aptly named record—these songs all came from somewhere deep within her, and are as multi-faceted as anyone’s psyche. Her guitar playing is as heavy as ever, and ranges from fuzzy to moody to crisp, thanks to the generous use of pedal effects throughout the record. Experimental layers of synth, singing bowls, and tuning forks set her sound apart, although you can hear echoes of the likes of Garbage, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Hole in her exuberant punk tracks. Today’s Taleen has a much more hopeful outlook as well—she’s grown, and her lyrics about self-knowledge, release, and renewal show it.
Kali also takes special care to create live shows that are practically ceremonial, complete with outfit changes and flowers spilling across the stage. She herself is the ritual leader, and her guitar and her mic are her tools. The music isn’t thrashed through haphazardly—rather, she presents it intentionally, powerfully, and authentically.
Authenticity is the golden thread that runs through all Kali’s projects. When she isn’t on stage, you might find her at your local zine fest repping her art, lit, and music zine DUM DUM Zine, or teaching yoga and performing sound healing in her Kali Punk Yoga classes and workshops. You might even catch her walking her punk rock pup Leeloo around Los Angeles. Whatever she’s doing, she’s no doubt doing it with curiosity, care, and not a shred of cynicism.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Taleen about taking care of yourself as a musician, mixing artistic mediums, challenging femme invisibility, and falling in love with flowers.
Julia Gibson:What has your transition from band member to solo musician been like?
Taleen Kali: We had done my previous band TÜLIPS for so long, for five years as an active gigging band. I felt like I was so ready to tackle something more challenging, something where I was going to be in charge of every single part of the compositional process. After TÜLIPS, I spent a lot of time in silence, just processing and listening to a lot of records. I had been really interested in sound healing for a long time, and I had a lot of time and space to go more in depth with it and get more acquainted with different frequencies and the ways that they affect the body. During that time, I felt like my capacity for sound was growing in a really interesting way and my brain space was opening up to the point where I started hearing more harmonies, more bass parts, more drum parts. I was maturing into this role of just knowing that I wanted to challenge myself with bigger musical responsibility.
Julia: Can you tell me more about exploring sound healing?
Taleen: You know, after gigging for so long, sometimes I would pick up a guitar and feel like there was an unhealthy dynamic with how I would approach songwriting. I would feel like I was on the stage or something, you know what I mean? I would be like, “Oh! Let me thrash out this song real quick, I have a song idea.” That’s a really dope energy, but not one that I could personally embody all the time safely. Once I started doing yoga, I was able to find a little bit more balance, and then through yoga I found sound healing, which really, really hit home for me. When I play a crystal singing bowl, I will literally break the crystal if I’m not careful, you know? It’s the same with our spirits.
Julia: Yeah, you won’t get the sound that you want out of a crystal bowl if you’re rough and tumble with it.
Taleen: Exactly! You can’t crash on a crystal bowl! My music is still punk rock, but I wanted more sustainability and more generativity from everything I was doing.
Julia: I love how big you are on self-care. Why is that important to prioritize as a musician?
Taleen: Because I have felt myself burn out! I found yoga and I found sound healing because I needed it, because I wasn’t prioritizing self-care. We live in a very “doing” culture where the more we do, the better—like, make, make, make. We all have a propensity to fall into that because that’s our culture. We’re all in danger of burning out if we don’t take a minute and reflect. So for me I started prioritizing it because I need it [laughs]. I’m going to be the best artist I can be, the best person I can be, the best friend I can be if I’m taking care of myself first. In our culture, too, I feel like women are often the ones who give first, instead of giving to themselves. There’s that whole trope, that whole idea.
Julia: That’s absolutely true. Your femme identity is at forefront of the way that you describe and present yourself as a musician. You even use it to subvert that male rock god thing by putting the slogan “Who the Fuck is Taleen Kali” (originally “Who the Fuck is Mick Jagger” and worn by Keith Richards in the ’70s) on your merch.
Taleen: Oh my god, my face is all hot because I’m so excited to talk about this. Hell yeah! It was so interesting the way that slogan played out because you see somebody like Keith Richards wearing it, and culturally I feel like the inclination is immediately to think like, “Oh wow, who’s this cool guy, this cool rock god?” It was so interesting feeling out my immediate reactions to it and seeing other people’s immediate reactions to it. I felt like it was an attack on women or something, like “Who the fuck does she think she is?” That tone came up as a voice in the back of my head, and that’s just our cultural tone of misogyny and patriarchy. That’s when I knew that we had to do it [laughs].
Julia: That’s a good sign [laughs].
Taleen: I was like, “If I’m someone who is interested in subverting this slogan and I’m getting triggered…” you know? It feels like a charge. I was like, “Oh my god, this is terrifying and we have to do it.” Another part of the reason I was so excited to do it is because I am so hyper-femme in the way that I present myself artistically. I felt like it would be a really interesting dichotomy to put out there, you know?
Julia: Totally. When you say femme, what does that mean to you?
Taleen: When I think of femme I think of punk rock and I think of queerness and I think of control. I’m a queer POC femme, and performing femininity and having it be on my terms feels really powerful. If I decide to have curls in my hair, or to put on makeup and eyelashes, it’s how I choose to represent myself, no matter how somebody else might read it. It’s also a way of reclaiming the divine feminine and the idea of the goddess that has been taken away from modern civilization. I have the name Kali (also the name of a Hindu goddess), and I really believe in that goddess energy: transmutation, transformation, transcending whatever barriers you were brought up. It’s also a way of saying, “No, I’m not going to be invisible.”
Julia: That is powerful, especially since femme invisibility is a real thing.
Taleen: It’s everywhere! And with femme identity, we usually prioritize the visual: how we present ourselves and adorn ourselves. But so much of it is coming from the inside.
Julia: How does the femme part of your identity influence your music?
Taleen: It has a lot to do with playing with people’s expectations of what somebody who presents as femme-like is expected to sound like. There are certainly many times where I’m singing in a higher register because maybe that’s what the lyric is about, or maybe that’s what the song calls for, but there are also times where I’m singing in a very powerful and aggressive register that sometimes people hear and think, “Oh, only guys sing like that.” I’ve had a deep voice ever since I started singing, but it wasn’t until I got on a stage that I realized that I could perform femme in all these interesting ways. I could go into that kind of siren-like wispy angelic vibe and then come back down again. Sometimes femme is angry. Mama’s angry! [laughs].
Julia: I love that! You incorporate spiritual practices, like ceremonies and rituals, into your music and your writing. How did you start exploring your spirituality?
Taleen: I started going to yoga and then I started to meditate, and from there it moved from my body into my mind. A lot of the classes I’ve taken touch on ways to take care of yourself spiritually, whether that’s setting an altar, or making a ritual out of a mundane task. Like putting a little intention into what you do, you know what I mean? What really sealed the deal for me though was starting morning pages, which is a daily writing ritual. That stuff is so magical.
Julia: Do you just sit down and write whatever’s on your mind?
Taleen: Totally, it’s a brain drain. Three pages of uninterrupted, free for all, stream of consciousness flow. It’s not supposed to be Dadaist or anything. It doesn’t have to be mindful. It’s actually supposed to be mindless because it dumps out any negative feelings that might’ve crept up through your unconscious while you were sleeping. Once that’s out, I feel really focused and ready to work on whatever is laid out before me that day.
Julia: You also kept an album diary on your Patreon while you were recording Soul Songs, detailing that process. That’s more edited than morning pages, but what was it like for you to share all of that with the world?
Taleen: Those were evening pages! I felt like I needed to do those. It was just as important as the music, it was so vital. It felt like a cool way of validating what I was doing at the time, when it was actually quite hard. It was a really nice support system and a way to talk about what it’s like to make something as elusive and esoteric as music. It was really grounding.
Julia: And now you have that forever, an account of what it was like to record your album.
Taleen: Totally, dude.
Julia: Whose album diary do you wish you could read?
Taleen: Oh my god! I would definitely choose (David) Bowie’s. Wait, have you seen Iggy (Pop)’s album video for “Après?”
Taleen: It’s just him hanging around his resort home and tending to his vegetable garden and making himself a salad for lunch while he talks about slowing down from punk rock life and getting more balance into his life. I was just like, “Iggy you’re my father.” That video is the only reason why I wouldn’t need to read his album diary. He is so precious with his salad. [laughs]
Julia: What a cutie! I love that you’ve married the two mediums of music and writing. How do you make those decisions to present your art in an interdisciplinary way, or to collaborate with other artists?
Taleen: I just think that as artists, we’re better together. For this album, I’ve collaborated a lot with (visual artist) Aurora Lady, who is also one of my best friends. As artists living in a world that doesn’t always appreciate art, it feels really amazing to support each other’s work. When we have more collaborators, when we have more art forms, when we have more bandmates, it helps us constantly see more than one possible way of doing something. It keeps us from like getting myopic.
Julia: How did having collaborators help you expand Soul Songs?
Taleen: Well, the zine that Yumi (Sakugawa, visual artist) and I made together, that was made a year before we started pre-production on the record. I only had demos of two of the songs at the time, and I would tell Yumi all the time, “You know these songs are really multi-layered; there are going be so many layers.” So she ended up layering a bunch of beautiful mixed media collages as a way to make a statement about the music. That was the first time she worked with that art form. As far as the album artwork, Aurora did that. I knew that I wanted something elemental and tactile for it. She ended up developing these beautiful brush strokes for the name of the album and for my name, and she came up with all these really beautiful paint swatches that she told me were inspired by the way the sound was moving.
Julia: You were inspiring each other back and forth!
Taleen: Exactly! The CD doesn’t even have a title on it, just paint swatches, because, you know, art punk vibe.
Julia: Totally. Your music video for “Half Lie” has that art punk vibe too: lots of colors, lots of flowers, fingers and fruit all over the place. It’s honestly queer as fuck. What was it like to create that video?
Taleen: With that song, “Half Lie,” the whole concept has always been about half truths that we hear from others, and half lies that we tell ourselves. I had always wanted the video to be this kind of queer universe, or a place where reality is questioned in some way, or new rules are made. It was so beautiful to see performance artists literally acting that out. MRK (Madison Renée Knapp, performance artist) was wearing a body suit covered in flowers and acting out some of the feelings in the song, so you see where those emotions juxtapose with her movements. That was my first time working with performance artists! Actually, I’m going to ask you a question.
Taleen: You said it’s “queer as fuck,” which, oh my god, that’s so exciting that you said that. What’s queer about it to you?
Julia: Just the fact that it was a bunch of women having a sexy fruit picnic…
Julia: But not in an objectifying way… Okay, so you know those fucking Carl’s Jr. burger commercials? It’s like, the opposite of that. We’re watching this really free, carnal experience and you’re right in the middle of it. You’re singing and they have their hands all over you. It has a sensuality and a sexuality to it that doesn’t feel commodified. It’s independent sexuality…
Taleen: It’s post-patriarchal!
Julia: It was a post-patriarchal picnic.
Taleen: Oh my god. I’m so glad you told me that.
Julia: It’s so funny that we landed here because this kind of thing happens often with you—we’ll talk about a concept and two seconds later you’ll have a really funny name for it. You’re the queen of word play.
Taleen: Oh yeah, I love word play!
Julia: I think that’s a strength you use to your advantage, especially when it comes to your self-promotion as an artist. A lot of your social media presence will feature clever wordplay or punny names, and you know how to use it to make your presence known. How do you move through the fear of putting yourself and your music out there?
Taleen: I don’t know! I’m not like that with every area of my life. I’m like that with my art, and I think it’s because of the way I feel about music. Fears will come up, but then I will always feel more of a desire than fear. It’s the passion for the art form. It just takes me into override mode where I don’t care because I’m so excited to talk about something that I’ve made. It’s not always easy to make things in the world, so I think that gives me energy and helps me be fearless. It is such a fucking privilege to make shit.
Taleen: It’s really interesting that you pointed that out. That’s a really useful mirror for me, because now I’m like, “Oh, that’s actually true. I didn’t realize that.” And I think that what I can do with that is I could empower more people to do the same, you know?
Julia: I love that. On a larger scale, how do you think people in DIY music circles and spaces can work to support each other and elevate each other as well?
Taleen: I feel like it’s equally valuable and beautiful to make stuff on your own, and also to collaborate with other people and hold each other up and learn from each other. It’s also equally valuable to put your work out into the world, because then you’re seen, and you’re able to share a part of yourself. You never know who that’s going to help. I always tell people, make a zine. If you can’t make a zine, just write some morning pages. Once you like get started, it’s like a gateway. One little thing leads to another, which leads to another. I got into bands because I made a zine! I feel like zines are the most accessible format because you don’t have to spend any money to make one. You just need a piece of paper and an idea. It’s the DIY version of “start where you are,” which is like the yoga version of this advice. [laughs]
Julia: Totally, those small steps can add up to a lot of growth. Similarly, a lot of what you sing about on Soul Songs deals with transcendence, moving out of and healing from things, and generally rising above bullshit.
Taleen: When I was writing these songs, I was casting off old shells, old versions of myself. So they’re about moving past and rising above past versions of myself, without condemning them. It was healing to say to myself that it’s okay to write and sing about this person that I’m not anymore. “Lost and Bound” is a dirge to a former self… and it’s okay.
Julia: I think that’s a good outlook to have: you don’t have to live the way you always have if you don’t want to anymore, and you also don’t have to feel shame for moving forward out of that.
Taleen: We’re all flowers. [laughs] We all grow and change. It’s so hippy dippy, but it’s true.
Julia: I’m glad you mentioned that because I’ve been so curious about this: flowers show up in your art and your music constantly. What do flowers mean to you?
Taleen: God, they mean everything to me! They’re just so beautiful and expansive, and always growing. And they’re the things that get plucked the most; they get plucked and taken because we want to take beauty. We want to take it and steal it away, and commodify it. I relate to them a lot. Of course, I love tulips, like, forever, because of TÜLIPS. Last year I was in love with orchids: love them visually, and I love Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography. I got really obsessed with his still life photos of orchids. With Soul Songs, I got really infatuated with roses. My next album is going to be about flowers. I just love to work with flowers. They’re just so alive.
Julia: They’re your buds.
Taleen: They are my buds!
Julia: Wow, I didn’t even realize what I said until I said it [laughs].
Taleen: Also, flowers, especially roses, they don’t let you fuck with them. They’re beautiful, but you can’t fuck with them. You just can’t.
Julia: Try fucking with a flower, it’s not going to work.
Taleen: It won’t! They have that divine femme vibe, for sure.
Julia Gibson is a writer, amateur photographer, and cat mom. She is the Music Editor for DUM DUM Zine and spins records as DJ Julie Bean. Read more of her work at juliaeringibson.com.