L'Rain's Taja Cheek on Touring in COVID, Animal Collective, and the Music Industry

L'Rain's Taja Cheek on Touring in COVID, Animal Collective, and the Music Industry

I, like many others, loved L'Rain's Fatigue from last year. I also saw Taja's tweets about hitting the road as 2021 was winding down—and Omicron was creeping into view—and I realized I hadn't had a solid convo with anyone yet about what it's actually like to tour during COVID. So we hopped on the phone last month and had the following, very enlightening chat.

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‎‎What have you been up to the last couple of months?

I got COVID in December, and I've been here in L.A. for the last month escaping the cold. In November we were in Europe—wow, that feels like years ago.

Was that when you were touring with black midi?

No, that was right before that tour, in October.

Tell me what you remember about the first time you ever performed on stage in front of people.

I used to dance very seriously, and one of my first memories was going to Brooklyn Music School, right next door to BAM. I was very young, getting dressed in a costume, getting ready to go on stage to dance with my class and being totally terrified. At that time I was also taking piano lessons there. I used to get so scared of going on stage that I'd pretend I was sick [Laughs], because I couldn't bear it. I still feel pretty similar.

I was going to ask if it's a feeling that's gone away.

I'm learning to manage it, I guess. I'm still catching up with my life. I keep having this thought of, "Oh, I think I may be a professional musician now, but I'm not sure. Oh, that's scary and weird." [Laughs] Once we're on stage and doing our thing, there's nothing you can do but lean in really hard, and it's amazing and I love it—but also, it's completely terrifying.

Fatigue got a lot of attention from year-end lists, which I was honestly surprised by. It's a record I'm really into, but that doesn't always translate into something everyone else's into. What's it been like to have your profile elevated like that?

It's weird. I've been just as surprised, because I know this industry to be—how do I say this—it doesn't want to take risks on artists that are making kinda weird stuff. Not that I'm the weirdest songwriter in the world, but it's not the most mainstream stuff. I'm used to complaining and feeling bad about that. I went into Fatigue not expecting much to happen—I was making it because I wanted to, and I had no expectation as to what would happen. It's good to still be in that place of wonder and excitement about everything.

Have there been any negatives to the increased attention?

Because I've been doing this for so long, I have pretty measured expectations for all of it. I'm like, "Eh, who knows how long it will last." I know what to take with a grain of salt, but right now I feel pretty grounded about everything. Nothing feels like it's something I can't handle yet. It's good to be in that place.

There was a four-year gap between the self-titled and Fatigue. Tell me what was going on in your life during that time.

The band was playing a lot of shows. We played a million shows in 2018 and a bunch of them in 2019. I started recording Fatigue right after the self-titled, but because I was playing so many shows, I was connecting with my engineer when I had a spare moment, which was not often. I could've finished it in a shorter time if I had more time. But it was also good, because I realized I need time to think about what I'm doing in between. With the first record, I was like, "Just do the thing!" I didn't really build in time for reflection or rethinking things. There was some of that, but it's better for me to have more of it.

We talked about your early experiences performing in general, but tell me about entering the live music space as you got older, in some of the early pre-L'Rain bands you were in, like Throw Vision.

Our first ever show was in Glasslands, and I was totally unprepared for being in soundcheck and knowing what questions to ask. I was so overwhelmed, and the show went horribly. We didn't really know how to book a show, which you have to learn when you're just starting out. There's promoters who will put you on a random bill for $10, and we did that. The story of me playing my first shows is also about me trying to find an artistic community, because that's how you really put together shows. You have friends who play music that is compatible, and you play wherever you can. But that was hard for the first few years of playing music in New York.

What went into developing the artistic community you counted yourself as part of?

It came down to going to a lot of shows and knowing who the bands are that are playing in New York. People will ask, "What was it like growing up in New York?" It's kind of like any other small town. There's a bunch of teenagers trying to have fun, play shows, and figure it out.

When the pandemic began, revenue streams for artists—like touring—totally disappeared. What changed for you in that way when COVID really kicked off?

We'd been playing a lot of shows, but we didn't really tour a lot until now. We weren't traveling for a month and a half at the time. So we were kind of lucky in that respect, where we had one or two things on the calendar but not much else. We ended up being kind of okay. Throughout the whole pandemic, we've been pretty lucky with our timing until this point, where we had to cancel a bunch of dates in California—which was sort of the main reason why I was supposed to be here. But I couldn't even be upset because we'd been so lucky.

What's your pandemic-era touring schedule looked like in general?

We played a few virtual shows, which didn't really translate for us with the resources we had. We tried to stay away from those things, because we couldn't make it good enough for it to be worth it. As things started opening up, our first show was a residency at Mass MoCA. Then we played Elsewhere, then we ended up ramping up into the black midi tour and the Euro tour that followed. Now we're playing shows more regularly, save for January because it wasn't the right moment with Omicron.

What is the stress like right now with having to figure out whether it's the "right time" to tour? I have a hard time figuring out whether it's okay to go to the movies, so I can't imagine making a decision that will affect your income.

It feels like something that none of us should be burdened with, right? In the absence of any real support or guidance from the government, we're left to figure out how to be responsible. That's a lot of pressure, but it also feels impossible sometimes—then, other times, it feels very clear, like cancelling the shows on the West Coast. Everything is a measured risk. The choices we make will always be under scrutiny no matter what, so you just have to try to do what you can with all the information you have.

Looking to a disability community is really crucial to figuring out what conversations are happening with people who are most susceptible to harm. It changes so frequently—you'll have a gut check one day, and then hours later you'll be like, "I don't know about that, actually." It's about having a lot of conversations, trusting the people you're around, and checking with the people who are most at risk to see how they're feeling.

We're in an era where, because of long COVID, we're gonna have a bunch of people that are disabled and never thought of themselves as such—and they're not given tools to navigate what that means. It makes sense to defer to people who have been thinking about these issues for way longer than any of us have.

Tell me about returning to live performance at Mass MoCA. What did that feel like?

It felt like being an alien. [Laughs] There's a ritual of performance that you get really in touch with, that I took for granted. Things as simple as "How do I set up my equipment?" or "What does the soundcheck look like?" felt so different, and the energy was different. I was rehearsing and trying to figure out how to adjust the live set through the pandemic, but it's so different when you're on a real stage and not in the basement, and there's a front-of-house team to engage with. It took a lot to jog my memory.

Was it a relief once everything came together? I've talked to some people who felt catharsis, and others who felt unsure about whether they're even good at this anymore.

I can relate to both sides of that. We had the best possible scenario at Mass MoCA, because we had the gift of time. We could set up on stage and leave our stuff together and have an extended soundcheck, instead of something that's compressed into an hour. It was a relief to have those handlebars for a bit. But I had this feeling the whole time that everything was so different that I had to change the set, and my relationship to performing. I felt frustrated, because I couldn't figure out what, and how.

I didn't have the answers, and I'm still navigating that, and I'm a little bit on the other side of that now. But my relationship to the audience and to performing changed. It felt weird to go back to the set I was figuring out in my basement. That was the most frustrating part for me. I was like, "Everything's weird, man—what am I doing?"

In terms of types of live experience, you've had a lot of them in the last nine months—the residency, supporting black midi, a tour of your own. That seems significant to me, to go through various tour possibilities right now, especially since getting around Europe is so different than playing the residency?

It was my first Euro tour, and I felt like a newborn baby. I hadn't even been to a lot of the places we were playing in, so it felt like I was learning a lot. I joked to a lot of people that it's kind of like boot camp, and I kind of needed that to understand how touring works, and how to be more confident as a performer. I hadn't been in lots of fast-paced environments, so it was valuable to go through that even if it was uncomfortable in the moment. I'd also reached out to a lot of friends who'd done a lot of touring. I wrote to a friend who's a front-of-house engineer and said, "What do I do?" She gave me a lot of pointers. I understand a lot more know about performing.

Also, pretty much everything that could've gone wrong went wrong, and I say that with a smile on my face because it was helpful to know what could go wrong. Your guitar could break, you might get sick and not be able to sing, the front-of-house engineer might be really bad, your vocal processor might break. But we got through it.

Before the pandemic, the notion of getting sick on tour was completely different. It comes with a new set of anxieties now.

When I first started, I had a cold, and we were testing pretty regularly on the road. So I was like, "Still not COVID! Just a regular cold!" But the thought going through my mind every time I tested was, "Oh man, this is over, we'll be stuck in a random city and we'll have to cancel the tour." Your mind goes to the worst-case scenario, and it really sucks to have that pressure looming over you the whole time that you're performing. The travel's really intense, too, so that didn't help things. But it also made me more responsible. "I'm not gonna hang out with everyone after the show—I'm just gonna go home and sleep."

It was also weird, because a lot of the places we were in, the people in the cities weren't even responsible. There was one place where we tried to go out and had to leave because we were uncomfortable with how people were behaving. It varied so wildly. Some places weren't even checking if we were vaccinated, and I'd be like, "I don't know. I don't feel great about this."

Yeah, I saw your tweets about some of the bullshit you guys dealt with on the road. Tell me about how that affected you.

By and large, I'm really happy we did that tour. I learned so much that is invaluable. Mostly, we had a good time. [Laughs] But it's tough, because we're also very small-fries, so we're not gonna have the ideal tour experience. We still have to hustle and take all of our luggage on the train. When you're in that situation, other things follow. There were a couple of shows where we were playing in environments that were less than ideal.

We played a festival that was mostly for other promoters, and people in the industry—they are who they are. They don't think they have to pay attention, they're talking on their phones, and that doesn't really work for the L'Rain set. It's built on attention and having a special bond with the audience. I try to play a really short set on purpose so people can pay attention and then go on with their lives, and it was very clear that that wasn't what people wanted to do.

I don't always talk a lot during my set, but if I do, it's because I feel like I have to, so I ended up saying something like, "We have this moment together, can you guys just chill out?" Sometimes I'll stand and put my hand out, indicating for people to be quiet. We're in different spaces, culturally, than we have been, so there were a couple of people online afterwards being like, "You were so rude! You told us to be quiet!" And I was like, "What?" So that became a whole thing.

The performer-audience dynamic is different in every city you're in, all the more so internationally. Now I know to stack the deck so I have better experiences, even when it comes to traveling more efficiently so the people at the airport or train station have less of a reason to bother me. Ease is the name of the game, and it's a work in progress.

What was it like playing in a support slot versus playing with another band?

It's a pretty different experience, but we've also gotten extraordinarily lucky with people we've gone on tour with. They've all been so supportive and helpful, and black midi were no exception. They were the loveliest people, constantly trying to help us with equipment and letting us borrow things—and any musician on tour knows the anxiety about borrowing equipment from other artists.

black midi's audiences...I've never experienced anything like it, they were so open to new experiences and sounds. We continually see on the internet how people from the black midi tour will be the first to shout us out. When the Anthony Fantano review of Fatigue came out, people were like, "Yeah, I saw them on the black midi tour, they were awesome!" I feel really lucky that we did that. We've been constantly going out with people who are really good people, and that really matters when your energy is in close proximity with each other.

You're touring with Animal Collective in the spring, which seems like a good fit. What's your relationship with their music?

It's funny being like, "I'm such a huge fan of Animal Collective!" Because there was a time when everybody liked them. It feels like a non-statement because they're so beloved. But back when I was trying to find a musical community and feeling isolated with the things I was doing, I heard their music for the first time, read about them, and saw them and felt like I belonged and was less weird. It was really cool to see them be so beloved, because I was like, "Wow, I didn't know it was possible to make music that's left-of-center that's so beloved." The way they thought through vocals in particular, with song structures...it was love at first listen.

I would've made very different music, or felt weirder about the music I've made, if I hadn't heard Animal Collective. I used to watch YouTube videos of their early performances, and it was so eye-opening for me. So much clicked in my brain when I saw them.

What are your hopes for the future in regards to making music? What would you like to see change, and what are you hopeful for?

I feel like so much is broken in the industry, honestly. It's hard to know where to begin. I hope that more labels, magazines and writers, and people in the industry in general are more willing to take a chance on things that they haven't seen before. I know that it's possible. It just needs to happen. A lot of Black and brown artists in particular get pigeonholed, and I've been really lucky to feel like—as much as I can, in the constraints of the industry—I have a career and am able to make music on my own terms. That might change, and I might not feel that way forever, but right now it feels really great, and I want more people to have that experience.

There's so much good music right now. It's a great time for creativity, and people are really going for it and making really amazing stuff. The things that we see and hear about that get traction are the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but it doesn't have to be that way. It makes people feel like they have to fit in to survive, but everything would be so much better if artists could just be themselves. There's an audience for that, even if the industry and the people with money think otherwise.

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Jamie Larson