East Bay artist conjures charm
Ominously distorted minimal synth chords bang underneath a whooshing chant cranked on my best speakers while I think about how best to describe this music. The artist’s name is Spellling because that is what she does, cast spells.
“I would say it’s progressive, pop,” said Chrystia Cabral, known to the music world as Spellling, with an extra L. “I listen to a lot of pop music. I love pop music.”
That Cabral can call her music “pop” with a straight face shows just how expansive mainstream music has become since her birth at the rise of hip-hop, alternative rock and house in the ’90s. It was a decade that changed the sounds that a broad swath of people are willing to accept. Now there are hyperpop superstars and freaky-ass spiritual space music like that of Spellling.
She was about to headline the Great American Music Hall at the Noise Pop Festival as we spoke.
“It’s really cool to be a part of Noise Pop; they are always holding it down for the Bay Area, and I thought this year especially had such fun lineups,” she told me at the time. “I played at Phono Del Sol music festival, which was put on by Noise Pop in 2019, and had a great time. Getting to headline Great American Music Hall this time around felt so special. Last time I played Great American was opening for Boy Harsher, who also played Noise Pop this year and put on such an epic show at 1015 Folsom.”
Playing with a full band as she has been doing since the recording of 2021’s The Turning Wheel, for her the Noise Pop gig had a more dream-rock style to it. This style was more familiar than that of the earlier Spellling albums, while maintaining the aura of uncowed feminine energy that emanates from some mystery that history’s prosecution of witches has failed to extinguish.
I was intrigued. There is still something dangerous about a woman coming into her full power, singular, on stage, shrugging off the norms established by male dominated institutions like rock and roll. With her trusty Korg Monologue synth set off to the right of the center stage mic, Spellling the daemon swayed around from the audience to press those weird universal chords-that-appeal onto the electronic keys. The crowd danced together like a room full of lovers.
Before she was known as Spellling, when Cabral turned to music as her main vocation, she was still a teacher in Oakland. Spending her days in the world of children, talking as one does in the sing-song voice of an early grade classroom, helped to shape the sound that became Spellling.
“I have a very strong sense of melody, and I would just, you know. I approached making music with my MicroKORG, the first instrument I got, just jamming around on it and making these really elementary kinds of melodies,” Cabral recalled.
In a classroom, finding something that works for the kids and sticking to it can be essential for holding the attention of the class. Cabral described how the approach translated naturally to her music: “[My early music] had much more playing on repetition and like, just a gradual enveloping seductive sort of wash of sound. So I would layer synth noises and then slowly start to say certain words or like repeat words; it was much more like poetry in a musical format.”
“That was how I was doing my earliest shows. It’s just like yeah, it had this more trance-like energy,” she said.
“And how did that become Spellling?” I asked in a phone interview in which we both sat in our cars by the side of the road on opposite ends of the Bay Area.
“I was offered to play my first show by a friend of mine, and I just needed to come up with the name. And I took Spellling because I thought it was cool for it to sound like a creature. [Adding] the third L made it even more like that, like its own word. It’s its own creature,” she explained, “like a spellling.”
“Spelling out a word is the idea that it’s the elements that make up a whole, [so] I was just playing off the definition of the word spelling. I’m putting something into being, uttering something into existence,” said Cabral. “[In choosing the name], I thought, yeah, that was my whole MO, the content of what I’m inquiring into with my music, concepts of creation itself, like what it means to make something and to love what you make.”
“It’s just the magic of that to me in its simple form,” she said. “It’s making these things, something that didn’t exist before, [and] now it’s here and it’s a song. I found that bewitching.”
“People say there’s a witchy element in my music, an aura of magic, and that’s because to me, yeah, the making itself and being an artist and putting something in the world is the magical element to me that I just find,” she waited for the words, “I find it joyful and I find it challenging.”
Cabral found herself in that mode of thought when choosing this quirky name for her musical project.
“The name was thinking about all these things and being like, I’m playing around with the idea of ‘spell’ and like ‘magic,’ ‘spelling,’ and then I saw someone had shared on Instagram an Erykah Badu tweet, being like, ‘words are magic. Spell it out. If you want to make something happen, like, write it down with a pen and paper and spell it out and watch it become real.’ Well, I love that, and it felt like an affirmation from the universe to go with the name,” she said.
Cabral grew up in a house full of music, and especially listened to an eclectic selection of music collected by her father. “He’s just a collector,” she said. “We’d go to thrift stores or record stores and just pick things randomly or by whatever he was attracted to about it and just like, get on these kicks. So, yeah, listening to outlandish music” was a part of childhood.
As a result, “I didn’t ever approach making music in one particular way. I try to let each song speak to me. Kind of like I’m an antenna just picking up a signal, like a radio or something. Like you’re just changing the station and, like, whatever it lands on, like, working from there and letting the song be itself instead of trying to mold it in a certain way,” Cabral said, describing the superposition of how she was introduced to music and the way she brings her own music into the world.
“Sometimes I felt insecure that every song that I make feels so radically different from the other, and how do I kind of coalesce everything and make it feel like a body of work?” she said. “And then I was like, ‘Why does it matter?’ It doesn’t need to; each song can be its own entity.”
There is that idea again, the exploration of bringing into existence, like with the name, like with each song, like the exploration of the magic of creating. Over the course of Spellling’s 3 LPs, that musical witchcraft has evolved. Each album has its own aesthetic, its own take on pop.
Her first album, 2017’s Pantheon of Me, retains the feel of those early loop and vocal experiments founded on magic and kindergarten classes. Slow, seductive, at times frightening. Words being a form of conjuring, the album’s title captures perfectly the creative act of pointing back at the artist as a springboard for a supernatural set of songs that might well have emanated from the walls of a haunted music hall, calling listeners deeper into the unknown. They make it out alive only because her voice has stayed with them, strange, at times distorted, always resonating with their shadow-selves.
In Spellling’s second album, Mazy Fly, that pop sensibility starts to gel, but not without a challenge to the listener. Vocal melodies play along with the wild howl of musical elements brought together more for their creative power than for their likely appeal to a broader audience. The spellling creature lives free in a cosmos of its own manifestation.
“I think the style still comes through,” Cabral interjected. “My voice helps to mold it all.”
“My first little attempt at making music was called Crayola Church. The theme of that was like just making a little song for every color in a crayon pack,” explained Cabral. “They were just super simple, one minute, 30 seconds, like little blips of concepts. That’s my roots with things; I have the tendency to just go simple and classic. As I’ve gotten more skills with my writing and working with other musicians, it’s like ‘Oh my god,’ like there’s some sort of impulse in me to want to make the ultimate pop song. But I don’t want to let that overshadow, yeah, the other instincts that I have.”
To be fair, Spelling’s 2021 release, The Turning Wheel, her third LP, has more of the melodic pop stylings she aspires to, while remaining highly unusual. Think Erykah Badu covering a Supreme’s Christmas song recorded underwater. You know, pop. In fact the album, and the music as performed at Noise Pop, is uplifting, accessible and straight weird. Like, wyrd, the Druid for “fate”—playing it feels like putting one’s destiny in the hands of this sprite-like diva and her forest of pop music references obscured in a mist of flange and loops.
“What’s it like now that you are recording and playing with a full band?” I asked the sprite-like diva.
“I have a really fantastic band. They have really helped me to come out of my shell,” she said, referring to past challenges with collaboration. “Most of the band have jazz roots, but they are also all super versatile to be able to play the wide range of style and tone and spirit my music has. One of the best parts of being on stage for me is having my background singers adding such wonderful rich dimensions to the sound and also bringing in movement, which is such an important element to our show.”
“I formed the band after The Turning Wheel. I made that album working with a large number of various musicians, working layer by layer on individual instruments to build the songs in a kind of Frankenstein fashion in the studio. There was no way I was going to be able to continue Spellling as a solo act and play music from that album, so it was time for me to create a band,” she said.
“I’m writing some new music right now. I have an acoustic guitar. I got it at Subway Guitar in Berkeley. It’s like really hodgepodge,” she laughed, “different neck, different body, but it sounds incredible. It kind of sounds like a sitar. It’s really lightweight and just has these beautiful harmonics. I love the way that guitar sounds, and I feel like it does the writing for me, you know? I’ll just like mess around on it and I’m like ‘Okay, I hear this,’ and then build a personality out of that.”
“Each little instrument that I have in my studio, I go for high character, high personality synthesizers or like, you know, old, acoustic, junky instruments that are going to just have a really unique personality. And then I build songs around that,” she said. It calls to mind the eclectic collecting of her father, or of a witch stocking up her curio cabinet.