Sure, she’s playing major music festivals now, but in the 2010s, experimental pop musician SPELLLING passed her days at Berkeley just like any other Letters and Science student: by writing disappointing poetry.
“I was mortified every time I walked off stage,” SPELLLING told The Daily Californian of her days with spoken word poetry organization CalSlam. “It felt like ‘This is wrong, I’m being way too vulnerable.’ And I knew this wasn’t truly the art that I wanted to express … I think that was my first realization that I could find the courage to share things that are deeply personal and be in front of an audience.”
The afternoon before her set at Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, Chrystia Cabral — better known as SPELLLING — dialed in for a phone interview with her alma mater’s paper of record. The topics? Film cameras, festival attendees who don’t know who she is and her “secret superpower” of not having formal musical training.
“It creates moments of surprise that I want to hold onto,” she explained in regard to learning as she goes. “It just feels a lot like freedom.”
The Turning Wheel, Cabral’s eerie yet uplifting 2021 masterpiece, blends Frida Kahlo paintings, early horror and the Brothers Grimm (if this syllabus sounds familiar, Cal English majors will be pleased to learn that Cabral studied literature during her tenure.) “It’s, like, crawling with references,” Cabral said of The Turning Wheel’s literary reach, mentioning some hallmarks of her recently reorganized bookshelf: gothic writing, surrealism and ethnic studies.
But for Cabral, there’s something to be said through visuals that can’t quite be expressed in music or writing. For her birthday, a close friend got her a Super 8 camera, and Cabral described the medium of film as creating a “dimension that’s really magical.”
“You can’t just do takes over and over and over,” Cabral said. “Knowing that there’s a limited amount, it creates this desire to just really be inside the moment instead of thinking about, like, all the different ways it could be. Because that’s infinite.”
That in-the-moment magic is perhaps what makes Cabral’s music so distinct, and what makes her performances so intriguing. “It’s something about the authenticity of really, really, genuinely, genuinely meaning it when you know you only have the moment,” Cabral explained. “Sometime this year, I want to make some sort of visual piece and a song to go along with it on Super 8.”
Though Cabral is famed for her spirituality, constantly drawing inspiration from everyday life can get a little draining, for both herself and her phone battery. Cabral finds inspiration everywhere she goes, and she’ll often take voice memos when some particularly interesting sound catches her attention.
“Lately, I’ve just been challenging myself. If I’m on a walk and something comes to mind, I’m like, ‘Let me just keep walking and not record it and see if it sticks around,’ ” Cabral said. “And if it does? Then I feel like … I’ve got something there. There’s something to treasure.”
Yet, for Cabral, gigs like Outside Lands demand a little less observing the world and a little more imagining the audience in underpants. “Sometimes when I’m really nervous, I kind of just put on my glazed eyes,” Cabral admitted. “I don’t really look at anyone as an individual. Nowadays, I’m learning to have more confidence and, like, make eye contact; I can have those moments that feel intimate. But yeah, it’s like… it’s a trip.”
And, one imagines, a bit strange for artists like SPELLLING — acts that have received acclaim from industry bellwethers such as Pitchfork and Anthony Fantano (theneedledrop on Youtube) but ride just above the mainstream.
“You can kind of see people like… walking in unaware who’ve never heard my music,” Cabral said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, what is this?’” From the stage, Cabral gets to watch this curiosity play out. “I’ve seen people not paying attention whatsoever. Like, ‘Oh, like, let’s have our beers and dance.’ And then they’re like, ‘Wait, what is this?’ It takes them by surprise. And I like that element. It keeps it new.”
So what’s on the horizon for SPELLLING?
“I would love to have Weyes Blood,” she considered when asked about her dream collabs. “I’d like to work on a song with her. I think that could be really beautiful, like, an easy collaboration.” Cabral also named Moses Sumney and Yves Tumor as artists she would like to work with in the future.
But for now, Cabral is just enjoying the ride. “I’m not in any rush,” she clarified, “I’m really letting these songs slowly unravel. And, yeah, no compromises this time around.”