On The Turning Wheel, Chrystia Cabral’s third album as Spellling, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist gives us a collection of insightful tunes that explore feelings often hidden in the deep core of the heart. The 12-song record is a musically and emotionally ambitious undertaking. Cabral worked with 31 collaborators to weave together strands of folk, rock, pop, classical and soul to create an impressive tapestry of sound.
“Little Deer” opens with ominous strings and ghostly, wordless harmonies. Cabral’s vocals convey the fear of a fawn trying to escape the arrows of hunters, as strings and horns provide a suggestion of salvation and eternal life. The ballad “Boys at School” decries the unconsciously anti-social behavior of the high school ruffians who terrorize their classmates. Cabral’s anguished vocals and the menacing string charts add weight to her wailing chorus: “I hate the boys at school.” On the brighter side, “Turning Wheel” is a laid back R&B track, with a breezy choral arrangement. It celebrates the joys of escaping from the city for an idyllic life in the country.
Cabral said Buffy Saint-Marie’s “Little Wheel, Spin and Spin,” majorly influenced the writing of that song and the album as a whole. “‘Little Wheel’ is one of my all time favorite songs,” she said. “[Sainte-Marie] does everything I wanted to do on this album in that one song. The theme of ephemerality of time and how special it is to be here, on this planet, as a human. Trying to grasp these big moments we get to share with each other while here and trying to hold onto them. She can speak to grandiose concepts, but the words are so detailed. My album is about that.”
The previous Spellling albums, Pantheon of Me and Mazy Fly, were recorded simply, featuring only Cabral’s vocals and minimal textures from her synthesizer. She produced this album with orchestrated backing tracks that feature a classical string section, horn charts and backing choir. She began work on the record a couple of years ago, but much of it was recorded during the Covid lockdown.
“The songwriting was asking for this approach,” she said. “I was listening to arty pop and ’70s soul albums by Marvin Gaye, Barry White and the 5th Dimension, the soul avant-garde of the time. I was also enjoying the Beach Boys, Beatles and Kate Bush. There’s a lot going on with these artists. They employ a lot of musicians, but it’s still simple and easy to listen to. I was inspired by that challenge. In these times, a lot of artists are minimizing. I wanted to go against the current. I did the minimal thing on my own already.
“Some tracks were recorded at rigidly socially distanced studio sessions, with players in separate rooms with headphones to communicate. I’d write out demo parts, place holders that would get changed later, to work out the final compositions. I’d play bass on synth, and replace it with real bass. I imagined what each part might sound like, then send off demos to have an arranger translate my stuff and make charts.”
Cabral said the music on The Turning Wheel reflects the major concerns of her artistic life, the struggle between love and loneliness, creativity and inertia, action and surrender. “I filter these feelings through my songs without any expectations; I want people to take out of them whatever speaks to them, in a spiritual sense,” she said. “What your intention is, and what you put into the songs, takes on a totally different meaning outside the songs. When I write, I connect to something that exists outside of myself. If I can give that experience to other people, then I’ll be happy.
“Music is my spiritual practice. I leave it up to the listeners as to what it means to them and how it influences them. I was thinking about the album as an experience for the listener. As it progressed, I wanted to give the people a feeling they’d made a complete emotional revolution by listening to the songs.”
After leaving her Sacramento home to study art at UC Berkeley, she was introduced to poetry slams. “In my first year at Berkeley, I joined a writing workshop at the poetry club,” she said. “I saw someone reading with a loop pedal, and that was an opening for me. I never thought what I was writing was musical, but was intrigued by that artist converting poetry into a more musical form. It sparked my desire to perform, so I ordered up a BOSS rc-30 loop station.”
She began to create songs and perform as Spellling. She did some solo gigs, and released two self-produced albums—Pantheon of Me and Mazy Fly—on Bandcamp. The buzz they created got the attention of Sacred Bones, the label that had just released The Turning Wheel. “The pandemic delayed the release of the album, but people are more receptive to new music right now. It’s a good time to put it out in the world.”