Out today, Colourgrade is a genre-dissolving, collaborative journey into the south London artist's ‘village’
Taken from the autumn 2021 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
Tirzah sees her south London ‘village’, her thoughts and her family in colours, codes, and feels. It came out on Devotion, in which her love, joy, and hurt were drawn like shards of memory across horizon-wide piano loops. It’s coming out even brighter and more vitally on Colourgrade, where, with the help of Mica Levi and Coby Sey, she is turning sound into paintings.
“Carefree, not careless” is how Tirzah describes her creative partnerships with Mica Levi and artist and DJ Coby Sey. Lately, the south-east London trio has been working on the Essex-born singer’s much-awaited follow up to Devotion – an album obsessed over as a prototype for imperfectly perfect modern pop. While Tirzah and Mica, known affectionately to each other as ‘Taz’ and ‘Meeks’, met as kids at Purcell School for Young Musicians, Coby’s role has blossomed since Devotion, for which he contributed a few tracks. On Tirzah’s new LP Colourgrade, the trio has collaborated to build a world of heady, lovestruck vignettes that are both soft and rough in texture. It’s music that feels equally at home through the soundsystem of a sweaty basement club night as it does through headphones in an intimate moment of reflection.
In real life, Tirzah is not so much introverted as she is comfortably reserved. Sat on the floor in a quiet room, she greets me with a warm smile, poses questions back, and we enjoy as much random small talk as we do earnest musical discourse. When I paraphrase an old interview where she explained that Mica brings “the chaos” and she brings “the calm”, she puts a hand to her face and asks, “I said that?” with a laugh that’s equal parts coy and amused. (Tirzah avoids reading her own interviews back: “It’s quite weird reading things you’ve said. Things just feel very different being written to when you say them. I think that’s why I don’t like texting so much as well. Written words, I don’t know, I find them hard.”)
But if she had to sum up Coby’s essence in the new and improved grouping, she lands on him bringing “the knowledge”. “(He’s) one resourceful library, Coby is,” she says, nodding to her collaborator’s far-reaching knowledge of a wide range of musical genres. And from the way their latest work morphs to embody a wealth of different sounds, palettes, and emotions, it’s no surprise that his encyclopaedic musical brain would come in handy.
Every aspect of Tirzah’s life and art coils into a wider collective effort. She refers fondly to “the village” throughout our chat. Depending on the context, the term can mean anything from Coby, Mica, and herself as one creative entity to her children’s grandparents babysitting the kids during studio time and touring. There’s a sense in which Tirzah feels safe to be her fullest self precisely because of the network around her. In fact, that’s her favourite thing about the ‘village’ (in the musical iteration, at least). “They leave it open,” she explains. “You feel very comfortable to just take things wherever you want. Whether that’s somewhere really stupid and goofy or somewhere meaningful to one of us. Everything is allowed.”
“They do feel like a collection of diary entries really, that’s what it feels like when you don’t write something all in one block of time” – Tirzah
Open-ended creativity has always been at the forefront of Tirzah’s process, from her days ad-libbing fluidly over Mica’s DJ sets in a worn Slazenger sweatshirt to the warped and wonky tones of her catalogue that continue to intrigue and fascinate. But on Colourgrade, boundaries are stretched further than ever. Where Devotion reconstituted familiar R&B elements into new, shiny, asymmetrical objects, Colourgrade throws out the sample pack altogether. “I suppose in a sense there’s no one theme, but they do feel like a collection of diary entries really, that’s what it feels like when you don’t write something all in one block of time,” Tirzah reflects. “You’re in different places feeling different things, and we were travelling on and off. So, yeah, it just feels quite transient.”
There’s a transportive and almost whimsical route through the project: on the single “Tectonic”, one minute and 49 seconds pass before you even hear Tirzah’s voice. It’s a trance-like, almost deadpan performance knotted up in a metallic, wind-filled bassline – a spoken-word ode to the kinetic energy of sex. “Beating” is a literally fizzing rumination on matters of the heart and of family as Tirzah narrates different expressions of the central concept: “You’ve got me, I’ve got you, we made life, it’s beating.” Her satin vocal riffs over the simple synth loops so quietly that you must lean in that much closer to catch the best bits. “Crepuscular Rays” is a track named after the image of sun-beams breaking through clouds as the sun sets over the horizon, sometimes known as the ‘God rays’. It’s a wordless, dreamlike journey through soft and curling mouth sounds and humming over faintly strumming guitars that sounds like listening to seashells on a beach at dusk.
“Leading up towards the end of (recording) when we were shuffling the songs together, I was just slowly getting more and more heavily pregnant, so that kind of gets intertwined with my thoughts and feelings about them,” she says with a laugh. The album was recorded during a period that was busy both personally and professionally for Tirzah – touring on and off, and giving birth to her second child, C. And yet, Colourgrade feels anything but frenzied.
Instead, the songs feel like short meditations on a fast-moving train, with their emotive, patient loops, and ability to capture these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments of tender mindfulness, whether it’s marvelling at the miracle of birth, the electric spark of skin-on-skin contact, or reveling in nature’s wonders. Tirzah’s favourite track when we talk is called “Sleeping”. “It’ll probably change, but that’s the one that keeps coming to the forefront. For me, obviously, I’m thinking about my daughter, but I feel like it can easily be applied to anybody’s thoughts; even if it’s not about a child, it could be about a partner.”
On the scuzzy observational, Tirzah sings adoringly of watching her baby sleep: “She’s sleeping, ooh she’s sleeping, ooh she’s sleeping / my baby, she’s sleeping tonight, I don’t want to go.” There’s an innate non-conformism to how Tirzah and her village tackle even a subject as lullaby-like as this – with hard-edged guitars and lopsided melody, where others would soften and rhyme. Is that kind of musical freedom in response to the rigid classical structure that both Mica and Tirzah grew up around? “Yeah, I think how we work together is definitely filtered through that,” she says.
As a teenager, Tirzah felt stifled by her classical harp training: “I think it was just the situation of my learning environment, not the school but the harp teacher that I had.” Later on, she came to see the instrument’s deeper potential, discovering the world of jazz groundbreakers Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby as well as South American harp ensembles. “I was probably in my mid-20s, like, a lot later on, and I was just like... damn!” And though it was too late for Tirzah to relaunch her pursuit of a classical music career, her own stream-of-consciousness flow and recurring mantras seem to mirror those of Coltrane and improvisational jazz: instinctual motifs that crop up and build over time, reaffirming certain feelings in both listener and per- former.
When I point that out, she nods slowly and agrees, “Yeah, that’s such a nice way of seeing it... I do love a loop!” As satisfying as it can be to dissect and analyse Tirzah’s art, she’s led by mood and emotion more than anything. There is a quiet ease and simplicity to her process and her outlook on life. She makes the music she wants to make, when she wants to and has the time to make it, precisely because she feels like doing so. Those feelings and instincts are buried deep in the fabric of her songs, and what you take from them is broadly up to you. She’s genuinely tickled rather than standoffish when she says, “It’s crazy because it’s something that comes really naturally to you, and then other people have their questions or opinions on how you do that.”
Colourgrade catches the immediate, accidental magic of Tirzah’s expression morphing in real-time. The album’s recording sessions were live jam sessions in disguise, sifted through afterwards for golden flecks. Carefree creation via meticulous curation. “We would revisit these sketches without lyrics where there’s just a melody there or a long sequence of improvisations,” she says. As we finish up, I ask if she has any theories on exactly why her totally instinctual approach has captured the hearts of so many. Is it a reaction to a world where art is becoming increasingly overthought and constructed? “That’s a nice thought... there’s always a place for everything, isn’t there?” She pauses, tilts her head, and smiles. “There are all different kinds of ways of feeling something.”
Tirzah’s Colourgrade is out now