Permanent Rotation: L’Rain

By in Features





Permanent Rotation is a series in which producers, DJs, and musicians go deep on the albums that have inspired them.

Taja Cheek, who performs as L’Rain, is a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer-songwriter. Blending elements of folk, rock, indie, soul and dream pop into her impressionistic compositions, she’s a singular artist whose lifetime spent obsessing over sound informs her emotive, enigmatic music.

It was back in 2009, while interning at Anthology Recordings, that Taja Cheek first encountered Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. “Everybody who worked there was a head, and they knew a lot about music and played so much music in the office,” she says. “But I remember hearing this record for the first time and my mind was just so blown. I’d never heard anything like it ever in my life.”

Feeling a little intimidated by her erudite colleagues and wanting to make a good impression, Cheek was initially reluctant to ask what she was listening to. She’s glad she did–A Rainbow In Curved Air, and especially its B side, “Poppy Nogood And The Phantom Band”, would prove a formative influence on her music. 

Riley, a legendary experimental musician, whose works have inspired everyone from Brian Eno to Pete Townshend to Mike Oldfield, was one of the first musicians to start using tape loops in the 1950s. By the time he released A Rainbow In Curved Air in 1969, he’d developed, with the help of a sound engineer, something called the ‘time lag accumulator’–two Revox reel-to-reel recorders with tape spooled between them.

“He devised this way of looping and creating long delays that influenced the sound before delay pedals or anything like that existed,” says Cheek. Throughout “Poppy Nogood”’s 21 minutes, phrases are looped over and over before glacially fading out and giving way to a new arrangement to begin the next loop. 

L’Rain // Photo credit: Leo Mascaro

“It’s very repetitive, but you end up in a completely different place from where you started,” says Cheek. “That’s something I’m compositionally very interested in, in an abstract way. It’s like you’re sitting in a river and the waters are changing, but it feels the same.”

She notices similar patterns emerging in her own music. “I’m the kind of person that will listen to the same two-second clip of a song over and over again if I really love it, and I think I write like that too,” she says. “I also feel that there are often repeating elements in my songs, and then you somehow end up in a new place and you’re like, how did I get here?”

Cheek has a piece of equipment, the COSMOS “drifting memory station” made by Soma Laboratories, that approximates the effect of Riley’s time lag accumulator, and she uses it throughout her third and most recent album, I Killed Your Dog. On “Clumsy”, for example, “there are some faint loops and overdubbing,” she says. “Gradually, the loops get taken over by things that are more recently recorded and it shifts very slowly over time.”

When Cheek first heard “Poppy Nogood,” she was in the fledgling phase of her music career, and not yet doing a lot of performing. But even then she was planting seeds that are still bearing fruit today. “I was writing a lot and figuring things out,” says Cheek. “I was playing in a band that was really collaborative at the time, and music that I made at that point, I’m still referring to and pulling from on some of the records.”

Cheek, who helped create the sound program for the Whitney Biennial next month and formerly oversaw the music program at MoMA PS1, has been rigorously documenting her music consumption since she was a teenager. “I wanted to hear as many different things as I could. I would listen to satellite radio and go online and download as much music as possible,” she says.

L’Rain // Photo credit: Megan Elyse

“Then I used to make these kind of psychotic notes that I’d just write on small scraps of paper—I’d write down every single song I ever heard and any reference that anybody made so I could look it up later.”

Similarly, she has an archivist’s habit of saving every piece of music she’s ever worked on, and will often incorporate old ideas into her current compositions. “Pretty much everything [I’ve made] from like 2006 I have saved on a weird drive,” she says.

On the rootsy, muggy “Sometimes”, what sounds like an old sample is actually a saved snippet that Cheek plucked from her Soundcloud, while “Knead Bee” borrows the riff from “Fatigue” on her 2021 album of the same name. 

I Killed Your Dog, released last year, was Cheek’s best-received to date, and is what she describes as her most accessible, largely due to the universal subject matter: a breakup. But the music is no less complex and bewitching, qualities shared with Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air.

“Poppy Nogood” was actually drawn from Riley’s all-night, acid-addled, improvisational performances in the ‘60s. “It’s that long-durational, repetitive, psyched-out druggie stuff that I don’t have any real connection to in my life, but spiritually, it and the community that was built around really appeals to me,” she says. It’s not by design, but “people are always telling me my music has a psychedelic heart,” Cheek says, “which there definitely is.” 

In a satisfying full circle moment, Cheek’s past two albums have been released on Mexican Summer, the parent label of Anthology Recordings, where she interned back in 2009 and first encountered A Rainbow in Curved Air.

“It really shaped me, a lot of the music they released and also the music they were playing in the office,” says Cheek. “I’ve been thinking a lot about [Riley’s record] lately thinking, wow, how, what a funny turn of events.”

I Killed Your Dog is out now on Mexican Summer.

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