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L’Rain: ‘All the music I make is political in a very personal sense. Especially when you’re crossing borders’

Brooklyn artist to play her gorgeous new LP in Ireland for the first time when she begins her European tour at the Button Factory in Dublin


Abbey Road Studios, in north London, is the closest popular music comes to a sacred space. The Beatles loved Abbey Road so much they named an album after it. It was where Pink Floyd recorded The Dark Side of the Moon and where Radiohead made The Bends. It was also one of the locations where the experimental pop artist L’Rain – alter ego of the Brooklyn producer and songwriter Taja Cheek – worked on the breathtaking I Killed Your Dog, her latest album.

“It sounds very woo-hoo to say, but sometimes there is a spirit there somehow,” she says of Abbey Road. Stepping over the threshold, she could feel the magic crackling in the air. And not just crackling. The sorcery trickled down into the gorgeous new LP – which she will play in Ireland for the first time when she begins her European tour at the Button Factory, in Dublin, at the weekend. “It somehow gets into the music,” she says. “It feels very meaningful to be in those spaces where so many really important records were made.”

The experimental pop Cheek makes as L’Rain is both mysterious and wondrous. Critics have raved, calling it “theatrical, elliptical, and bewitching”. One picked up on the contradiction between I Killed Your Dog’s provocative title – provocative to dog-lovers, anyway – and the lullaby-like quality of much of the material, noting, “The fact that the title song is a confessional but not exactly apologetic ambient lullaby only adds to the confusion.”

The backdrop of a lot of the music I am writing is about my relationship with other people. Romantic break-ups, friendship break-ups… what have you

—  L'Rain

As songwriter and composer, Cheek is more interested in asking questions than providing pat answers. Another new track, Pet Rock, interrogates her relationship with indie music: against a jangling guitar she sings, “You know I’m invisible.” The lyric references the distance she feels as an African-American woman engaging with the overwhelmingly white world of alternative pop – a universe layered atop older black traditions.

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“I grew up listening to a lot of rock music,” she says over Zoom from Brooklyn. “Only recently have I been playing more guitar. I didn’t really grow up playing guitar. I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of that instrument – what the expectations are of guitars and rock music. And my place in that. The roots of rock’n’roll are definitely black music.”

Moments of joy are sprinkled through her three studio albums – on I Killed Your Dog, in particular, beautiful, hazy riffs are spread like honey over toast. Yet there’s sadness, too: her album L’Rain, like her stage persona, is named after her mother, Lorraine Porter, a maths teacher who died as her daughter was preparing to release her first album, in 2017.

That melancholy remains a driving component of her sound, though on I Killed Your Dog she expands her range to look back on old relationships – the ones that worked out and the ones that didn’t.

“Sometimes I get a little discouraged when people think of my music as being ‘heady’. It comes from a very visceral and emotional place. The backdrop of a lot of the music I am writing is about my relationship with other people. Romantic break-ups, friendship break-ups… what have you. And so this felt like an honest way of making the record. Putting [heartbreak] to the forefront. A lot of the most popular music in the world comes from that place too.”

Cheek grew up in the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Her father worked in music promotion for Select Records, an imprint of the Warner group; her grandmother ran a liquor store. She studied music at Yale but, disappointed by the course’s lack of diversity, transferred to American studies. The absence of minority voices was something she again noted when cutting her teeth on New York’s experimental scene.

“Experimental music on the face of it could mean experimenting with sound. On the other part of it, there’s a whole history and legacy and culture to contend with. I lean into the first part. I definitely am aware of the middle-aged white guys [making] experimental music.”

She isn’t opposed to middle-class white guys’ avant-gardism. “I like a lot of [experimental] music. A lot of music gets overlooked sometimes. I always bring this up, it’s just true: hip hop is experimental by nature, the way equipment is used and repurposed. Some of the biggest figures in the genre, their whole sound is based on experiment. For me it’s less of a genre, more of a political space. Thus far I feel I’ve been able to have a career on my own terms. I feel really lucky.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments of struggle. She talks about the impact of streaming services such as Spotify on music and the challenges and opportunities it presents.

“There are lots of structures in the music industry that don’t necessarily benefit artists as much as they should. Streaming is definitely one of those things. It’s complicated. As much I would love to get paid more for my music on those platforms – all artists should get paid more, because they are the basis of these platforms – the other side of it is that there are people who come to my shows who have discovered me from playlists.”

Her social-media feed is a busy and fascinating place. She has discussed Israel and Palestine and the way countries around the world have responded to the conflict. As an American going abroad, it is a fraught issue. In a social-media post earlier this year she wrote: “What do I do with the sinking reality that US tax dollars are funding the grotesque murder of tens of thousands of Palestinians without bringing an ounce of safety to those held hostage?”

They’re questions she believes she has to ask herself as an artist sharing her work globally. “I feel all the music I make is political in a very personal sense. Especially when you’re crossing borders and engaging with people. Musicians and artists in general are part of the world. It’s important to think about that. I’m coming to terms with the fact my music does reach parts of the globe I never thought it would. ”

She’ll be in Europe when the American presidential election moves up a gear through February and early March. By the time she touches down in Dublin it will be increasingly apparent whether anyone can stop Donald Trump from running for the White House a second time. As a progressive New Yorker, she will be glad to be away from the noise. “It’s always nice to get out of the country for a little bit. But then I quickly remember that politics in one country are still related to the politics in other countries.”

She finishes by revealing that, growing up in Brooklyn, one of her most beloved music teachers was Irish. With that in mind, she can’t wait to kick off in Dublin. Cheek has a second career as an arts curator at institutions such as Moma PS1, in Queens. Touring isn’t always straightforward. But it’s worth it. “It’s really hard for a million reasons. But the most amazing part about it, honestly – and it sounds so cheesy, but it’s the truth – is that getting to connect with people over music is the purest thing there is.”

L’Rain plays the Button Factory, in Dublin, on Saturday, February 17th