switched on pop

The Appealing Uneasiness of Listening to L’Rain

“It’s important to me as a Black woman musician to set on my own terms how my music is being looked at, to not fit neatly into one box.” —L’Rain

L’Rain is the musical persona of singer and multi-instrumentalist Taja Cheek, whose new album, Fatigue, begins with a lyrical quandary: “What have you done to change?”

What follows is a journey of self-discovery, the songs interwoven with home recordings of practicing piano, clapping games, and everyday life. The first full length song, “Find It,” repeats the mantra “Make a way out of no way,” looking for a path out of darkness. An unexpected sample of a preacher at a friend’s funeral service — recorded with permission by L’Rain — interrupts the chant promising that “Good days outweigh my bad days.”

But L’Rain doesn’t provide quick solutions for making change. Rather, she takes us on a journey that evades easy understanding. By avoiding conventional structures, L’Rain asks the listener to lean in close to the music. The sounds are at times unsettling — on “Blame Me,” the guitar warbles in and out of tune — though the uncomfortable moments are blanketed over on songs such as “Take Two,” where warm synthesizers mix with angelic voices. The melodic hooks and captivating rhythms on “Suck Teeth” reveal L’Rain’s command over the experimental work — she is meticulous about building layers of sound on her many instruments.

Had L’Rain pursued a more traditional style of songwriting, or further fleshed out Fatigue’s catchiest moments, the record might be an easier listen — but not as rewarding. Instead, its undulating moods and nonlinearity mirror the unpredictability of human emotion and the up-and-down nature of personal change. To help decipher this album, Switched On Pop’s Charlie Harding spoke with L’Rain at JBL’s flagship store in Soho in front of a live audience. You can listen to the interview above and read an excerpt below.

Charlie Harding: What is it about choosing these kinds of sounds that helps you evoke the message you’re trying to get across?
L’Rain: There’s something about a feeling of wooziness that just feels right. There are so many levels of pitch modulation on all of those tracks. I don’t know about the non-directness of the relationship between the pitches. I just feel like it kind of mirrors my interest in illegibility in some way, or my interest in evading direct relationships between things.

There are ways in which you kind of are trying to escape meaning. What’s the purpose of choosing this sort of formlessness?
A certain degree of illegibility is important for me just because I don’t want everybody to know everything about my life. Like, I’m putting a lot out there, but also I need something for myself. It feels important to me as a Black woman musician to set on my own terms, how my music is being looked at — to not fit neatly into one box. You kind of have to spend some time with it and look at the details to really understand what’s going on.

The project when we listen to just the lyrics can sometimes seem very heavy. You say that your late mother was really good at finding joy and a bright side. And one of the things I hear on this record is a lot of joy and bright side in these interlude moments.
The interludes happened as they were recorded. For the most part, there is some manipulation, but I try to really weave together some of the heavier moments with some of the lighter moments, and you don’t really know what to expect and then you’re in them, and you’re like, Okay, I guess, so we’re laughing now. And then, Okay. I guess we’re crying now, which, I don’t know — life is like that. Right? Sometimes you don’t really know. It’s about to happen. And then you’re just there.

On “Two Face,” you sing, “I can’t get no new nothing. No new, nothing from me. I’ve gotten all of my bricks aligned, but mortar’s escaping me.” It seems like there’s this real contrast between the music, which feels really joyous, and the lyric, which is struggling with change.
Totally. I’m glad you picked up on that. That’s kind of the whole crux of the song, that duality, that confusing juxtaposition between something that is supposed to be sunny and bright and the lyrics that aren’t.

On the final song, “Take Two,” you slowly sing the phrase “I don’t know what is going to happen to me” for more than a minute. We’re left unsettled. If we’re asking the question “How are you going to change?” and we end with “What’s going to happen to me?,” where have we gone throughout this album? What does it say about change?
It’s funny because that’s kind of the most sincere, straightforward part of the record. When you make a record about changing, you’ve still got to do the work to change. This is just sort of me doing research and thinking out loud, but the work is still happening. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing and how I relate to people. So I guess, yeah, that’s where I am. Maybe.

The Appealing Uneasiness of Listening to L’Rain