Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, and producer Talia Billig began composing her most personal project to date, taali, by trying to not write about herself. On the other side of three semi-autobiographical, emotionally candid projects Billig, who records as Taali, decided to reorient herself creatively. A seasoned pop songsmith who has collaborated with artists like Aloe Blacc, Moby, and José James, she began to treat her writing sessions more like days at the office. “I started demoing out songs the way I do for other artists when they call me,” she explained. “As if I were the songwriter for Taali.” Tracing an arc of transformation, the album she ultimately made is an introspective suite of keyboard-driven chamber pop propelled by sweeping melodies, a live-wire rock rhythm section, and lyrics urging the listener to look deeper inward and take bolder action.
While writing and recording in New York and Amsterdam in 2020 and 2021, Taali drifted toward a more open-ended style of songform and performance, channeling the intimate and rough-hewn aesthetic of musical heroes like Fiona Apple and Sufjan Stevens. Eventually, abstracting her life experiences in her writing helped her burrow into several crucial themes and get closer to herself. “It quickly became a story because there were quite a few things I needed to exorcize or process on this album,” she remembers. The result was almost 300 pieces of music, which she condensed into an unadorned, soul-stirring 13-song statement about grief, wanderlust, self-discovery, and empowerment.
In many ways, Taali’s writing regime took her back to her roots as a songwriter—by “starting from no knowledge” and “having no boundaries,” she explains. She wrote her first songs at Manhattan’s New School while studying jazz performance and taking in intimate singer/songwriter shows at Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side. At that time, she recalls, she felt “not tethered to form and working much more in service to the song.”
After school, Taali went from working at Blue Note Records to Los Angeles, where she worked in the realm of modern pop songwriting. Her ambitious 2019 debut, I Am Here, reflected her widening musical knowledge base, combining state-of-the-art electronic production with richly layered vocal arrangements incorporating elements of traditional Jewish music. The process of making taali felt like a way to reclaim her past and discover what she could achieve with a more stripped-back and unstructured approach, partially inspired by the erudite singer-songwriters she grew up worshiping: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell.
When they began to officially make the record, Taali and Grammy-nominated co-producer Brian Bender aimed to not move too far afield from the energy of her piano-and-vocal-based demos. The album’s vocal takes are full of grit and idiosyncrasies, triple-tracked to create a simultaneous sense of hyper-intimacy and otherworldliness. The synth sounds are dirty; the performances by the seasoned rhythm section of Grammy-winning bassist Ben Williams (who also plays with visionary jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington) and drummer Dustin Kaufman (who also plays with other boundary-pushing acts like St. Lucia and Moon Boots) are raw and dynamic (often, the players were learning the songs as the tape was rolling). Strings were handled by the deft players from Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
“I try to not restrict any musician I play with,” she says. “I wanted there to be a lot of humanity—I missed humans.”
The singles from taali demonstrate the album’s thematic breadth, their drama enhanced by the liveness of their performances. The first, the doomy rock track “It Comes for You,” is anchored by one of the most notable hooks on the record—an infectious keyboard melody—but is one of its bleakest tracks. An exploration of trauma, it illustrates her seasoned, broad-strokes lyrical approach. Rather than writing about things that have affected her in recent years, she focuses on the corporeal effects of that psychological damage—“what it feels like to be hit by trauma, the frustration of it coming like a lightning bolt and ripping everything out of you.”
Though taali reflects the Talia Billig who lived and breathed Manhattan for the first three decades of her life, it deals heavily with the joys of leaving the city behind. For her, the exuberant pop anthem “Anywhere” reflects the elation of self-rediscovery. “Throughout my life, I have always staked my identity on a place or a theme or something outside of myself,” she says. “The idea of considering who I was outside of a place or a group of people was terrifying and not something I was ready to look at.” The bridge of the song is one of the album’s most cathartic moments: “I’ve been a failure / I’ve been a smash / I’ve built up a dream to watch it all crash / But nothing can scare you or hold you back / If you take that border off the map.”
In the interest of escaping context, Taali also worked very hard to avoid the tropes of COVID-era albums. Nonetheless, the pandemic’s effects on the world around her seeped into the framing of taali The record is bookended by the intro “Did We Die?”—an instrumental suite for strings she wrote and arranged—and closer “Did We Survive?,” an elegy that includes the only specific references to the pandemic on the album. Talia describes being haunted by the sound of sirens, recalling the deaths in her neighborhood at the advent of the pandemic. “Is the siren an echo, or are they back? / Did the world fall apart just to get on track?” she sings. “Will we know what we lost?”
Despite its occasionally time-specific implications, Taali is confident that the album will loom larger than its cultural moment. Rather than recalling moments of isolation, she hopes it will inspire listeners to feel very much a part of the world around them. “I like the idea that people would listen to this album in motion—in cars, on planes,” she says. “I hope it would encourage somebody to consider that they might have the tools within them to shift their situation—to build something better out of it, to take a terrifying leap.”
Bold, mature, and empathetic, taali is a fully realized study of the toll that modern living can take on our bodies and hearts. Here, the soaring melodies and pop-rock apexes that characterize Taali’s music feel like triumphs over the noise.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Taali over Zoom video! Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and producer Taali unveils her evocative new single ‘It Comes For You.’ A seasoned songsmith who has collaborated with such luminaries as Aloe Blacc, Moby,...