Taking Risks: Deciphering Tara Lily

Taking Risks: Deciphering Tara Lily

“You’ve got to fake it till you make it.”

Sitting outside the Premises Studio café, Hackney traffic and hordes of pedestrians flurry around us. Solitary band members and session musicians dip in and out of the nearby studio door for brief smoke breaks. Rolling cigarettes and sipping our respective coffees, I admire Tara Lily’s Gucci logo embossed tracksuit. “I got it from a Nigerian market… I’ll never be wearing the real designer, I’ll always be wearing the fakes,” Tara jokes. “You’ve got to fake it till you make it.”

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A resolute individual and being a classically trained jazz musician, Tara Lily is earnest about her craft. Conversely, her playful temperament precludes any risk of taking herself too seriously. “I don’t really care who listens to my music, I just want people to understand what I’m doing as opposed to following me because of how I look or something like that. So many people are out there just because they have a cool image. It’s sad that you have to do that now, because if you don’t then you’re fucked.”

Tara undoubtedly possesses a cool persona and alluring appearance, not by design but rather by nature. Her love of traditional jazz and the era it accompanied seeps into all areas of her life and work. “A lot of people doing jazz in the contemporary field, like the neo-soul people, they look more at 70s jazz whereas my song and style is influenced by jazz from the 30s, 40s and 50s,” Tara explains, “If you’re someone who’s really living something like jazz, you reflect it in everything you do. Your imagery, your life, your appearance and your music, it’s all going to tie into one theme.”

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The young artist lights up as we discuss life in the times of early jazz. Although still contemporary in her style and sound, there’s a sense of feeling displaced by today’s world, of not entirely belonging and wishing for a different time. “Jazz was everywhere. All the nightclubs and bars. I’d love to go and experience it all and play all those venues like the Savoy Ballroom and the Carlton Club. It’s like what grime was when it first started. Jazz had the edge. It was exhilarating, it was wild, it was promiscuous. Jazz now is not that; all that stuff has been stripped out of it.”

“But back then, jazz was the rap music of now. Jazz singers were running everything and they were the shit. The people who were involved in that scene were up all night taking crack and then on to the next. It was a fun time and an exciting movement when it was happening. I would have loved to be a part of it but things move and times change, scenes transform.”

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Jazz was a chance discovery for Tara. She started with a little keyboard on her kitchen floor. Taking a few piano lessons in her local community church, she kept up her taste for improvising by playing classical pieces and mixing them together. Tara took up the opportunity of jazz piano lessons in secondary school and started learning standards at 12 years old. Her curiosity for the genre flourished once she began singing jazz, and went on to study at the BRITS School and Trinity Laban Conservatoire. Growing up in Peckham, Tara was gladly immersed in rap, R&B and grime. Her father played Bengali folk and Bollywood music around their council flat whilst her mother, who was in a folk punk band, opted for soul, country and folk. This rich musical landscape of influence percolates Tara’s unique sonic imprint.

“I never really thought about what I wanted to be, I really enjoyed playing those standards and that’s what I wanted to do at the time. I always found that there was always so much excitement in electronic music and rap music and I always felt very interested in those genres as well as jazz. Jazz has a whole cerebral element to it which I don’t fully resonate with. But the improvisational elements of both genres are very similar. Jazz is completely about improvising and rap is fully based on improvising. Grime is 140bpm and it’s all about freestyling and jazz is a similar thing. I felt I related a lot to the rap community through that. I love the improvising and risk taking.”

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The task of deciphering Tara’s ideas and bringing them to fruition has been a long and arduous one. Working with this concoction of genres proved difficult when finding the right people to work with and community to operate in. Eventually this search led Tara to Hannah V’s studio at Premises. In this top floor studio, the pair saw eye to eye and brought to life Tara’s debut EP ‘Lost in London’ - a befitting locale for the photoshoot.

Describing the process, Tara says, “I do everything myself pretty much and then I’ll get people involved. Having ADHD, it is hard to work with others because you are completely in your own world and your own space and your own time zone. Before I met Hannah, I was doing sessions with different people and I couldn’t find anyone who could do the sound that I was working on which was rap production, jazz with a modern sound that I felt had energy, was dramatic, edgy and melancholic. I was trying to produce the EP myself but it was a lot of work and it was difficult.”

“When I went to Hannah, she was making a similar sound to me. She is also a South Asian female who went to Conservatoire and she was like me. It was like, thank god there’s someone else who gets my point of view in terms of jazz and we can reference those things and she’ll get what I’m talking about, but then also has that whole rap background as well.”

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Feeling both enthused and isolated by the art she has chosen to create, Tara reflects sincerely on her bittersweet position. “Rap production and electronic music is so invigorating. It makes it all more current but it has also made it harder for me because I don’t really fit in anywhere – the rap community don’t know where I go, jazz people don’t know where I go. It’s hard to get people behind you when you do something that’s different. That’s the tricky thing about it because you don’t really have a community in the same way. Most people in music have a community and that’s how they thrive. I don’t feel like I have anywhere to congregate. I don’t know where I belong. I don’t know where I’ll go.”

“At the same time, I have worked with people that get it and I’m around people that get it and people who are doing interesting things. I hope that the people who actually get the music are going to be there for it.”

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Words + Photography: Yasmin Cowan

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