Chicago-based Lebanese American electronic artist Natalie Chami has released her fifth solo album as TALsounds, Acquiesce. She is also in many other groups as one third of Good Willsmith, one half of Damiana and one half of l'éternèbre. The new album channels an intriguing blend of ambient, pop and experimental music with her classically trained choral singing as added bonus on top for certain more complex records. The album can range from soothing and relaxing, to almost alien-like. There are moments of therapeutic bliss with her voice softly cooing over gentle synths on “No Rise,” though it can also be a bit strange and weird, which offers balance and contrast.
We decided to have Chami dive a little deeper into the record for a Director’s Cut feature. The album was recorded between spring of 2018 and summer of 2019 and produced by Cooper Crain, who is mentioned throughout the piece.
Listen to the album now and get your copy here.
I initially recorded all of the songs on Acquiesce as live, improvised performances with no overdubs. Because of this, for the most part, I didn’t go into any of the songs with an objective or emotion in mind. I would first let the sounds reveal themselves, then those sounds would bring on some feelings, I’d react to those feelings with other sounds, and the cycle would begin. After each session, I would date each jam in a spreadsheet, write notes on what they sounded like, maybe write some ideas for edits, and lyrics if I sang any. Then eventually I ranked the improvisations on a scale of 1 to 10. It all seems like a pretty Type A way to describe art, but I have to have some sort of checks and balances system for me to organize and consolidate all the hours of freeform, unrestricted music.
“Opening” was from the last recording session I had before putting the whole album together. I think it was also the first song to be edited and to get the magical production touches of Cooper Crain. Originally, the song started with more percussive and detached synth parts. It wasn’t until deep into the session that I transformed my loops into the swelling synth lines that are now on the album. I originally considered cutting this song because I really didn’t like the beginning, but we edited out the part I didn’t like and now this is probably one of my favorite tracks. The title came from listening back to the swells and imagining clouds opening, and it’s honestly a coincidence that it also worked well as the first track on the record.
"Soar" starts with this heavy, plodding MS20 bass line, uneasy, like a long walk during an argument. From there, I added some long tone swells from my Juno-60 to sort of wash over it and cool it down like a liquid air, or like the jelly juice between the skeleton of rattling bones. Then I threw in some Mother-32 melodic bass lines—those were more climbing and questioning. And finally I added some shimmering spirals from the sequencer that function both as magic and chaos. This improvisation had me reflecting on my new relationship. Was he grounded enough for me? Were we living contradictory lifestyles? Would we be able to find balance together? Was our happiness just a facade? I think all of my uneasiness came out in this song in an ominous kind of way.
This track originally started with the sequencer on the Mother 32. I was mostly playing to the contrasting tones, and I started feeling some alien vibes, imagining an alien dynasty and how messed up our own political system is. When Cooper started working on this track, we both knew it needed some more umph—he started running some of my synth parts through a funky spring reverb and some other modular synths to chop up and randomize the vocals. So many parts of this improvisation synchronistically lined up in postproduction. Now as I’m working out how to play this song live, I have to reinterpret some of the effects Cooper used in the studio in order to pull it off. I have to keep getting creative and out there!
"Conveyor" was actually a test recording song to make sure all of my recording levels were solid, which is why it’s just a short little ditty. Once I heard it in postproduction, I wanted to keep it on the album to function as a transitional piece. The two instrumental tracks on this album honestly might be my favorites (“Conveyor” and “Opening”). As far as the title, this one kind of sounds like a carousel to me, but I didn’t want to go that whimsical with it, so I called it conveyor to also play with the double meaning of someone carrying a message, but also transporting and transitioning on to the next song.
5. No Rise
The long, instrumental beginning of “No Rise” was just me obsessing over sounds—letting them spiral together organically, much like thoughts have a tendency to do, while also trying to make sense of them. The song was originally over 9 minutes long, with me just jamming on the MS20 trying to make it sound like a guitar solo. It wasn’t until I started singing that I realized I was actually working through feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. I eventually got to this moment where there was nothing good, nothing bad, nothing spiritual going on, just me and my breath.
This improvisation was inspired by Mdou Moctar’s music and some sub-Saharan vibes. I’m pretty sure that’s the music I was listening to the most at the time. The improvised lyrics are “Fade out around now. The need to stay away. The Lone Wolf or the Hermit will return to be the same. ‘Cause we're scared and the same. The way our futures stay the same. The same... the same...”
I really love tarot cards, and I’ve always felt a strong connection to the Hermit card. I long for that life, and I identify with it. So the card is kind of a reminder of that. It’s the tarot card that lines up with my zodiac and exact birthday, as well. In relationships, I’ve personally gone back and forth between being the Hermit and also being the Lone Wolf. As similar as the two may seem on the surface, they are so different! The Hermit is wise, introspective, and reflective. The Lone Wolf pushes others away, and is exclusive and not cooperative. But the Lone Wolf doesn’t survive well without their pack, right? This song is about the fear of following the same path in my current relationship as relationships that have failed in the past.
When I recorded “Else,” I was attempting to slow down my thinking, my reaction time, the layering, and the melodic lines. I wanted to drone out without worrying about keeping some sort of momentum or worrying about the next part that needed to happen. I often feel that maybe I am moving away from drone music, but I LOVE droning. I love to lock into the stillness of long tones. I can't remember exactly why I sang the lyrics I did, but it might have been because I actually did lock in to that stillness. I sang, "there's so much more than I can even say" because I wasn't trying to cater the moment to lyrics. I didn't want to get stuck on words just because I wanted to use my voice. This is also why I let myself sing a more operatic line at the end, as well. We mixed it far back in the distance, but I also naturally pulled my mic away. I was physically creating that separation. Creating space for the stillness.
“Instance” was the earliest of all of the recorded songs that made it onto this album’s set. I love how minimal this jam is—the eerie MS20, the Juno like a warm wind blowing, the typewriter sounds that came from me hitting a drum patch on my 404 sampler and messing with the delay. The visual I get from this song is an orange lamplight and a green leather chair with gold arms. Truly, this song captures my mood for the whole album, and it was the inspiration for the album cover. My lyrics swell from a quiet and subtle questioning to this overdriven distortion: “Didn't we talk about the truth? And didn't we know how ruthless this could be...and I couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t tell you the...and IIIIII couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t tell you now...”
9. Muted Decision
"Muted Decision" was also one of my initial favorites. It has the same minimal and distant vibes as the track before (“Instance”). The main synth melody sounds like a muted trumpet to me, which is partially where the title comes from. It also comes from the internal battle I have with being both indecisive and strongly assertive. I deliberate everything in my life for a very, very, very long time, which is how I can be perceived by some as indecisive. However, when it finally comes time for me to make a decision, my assertiveness comes off as aggressive, because I have taken the time to know exactly what I want and need. So I’m seemingly both weak and too strong. It makes me feel like there’s this balancing act that I constantly have to play as a woman.
10. No Restoring
Strangely, I have no recollection of what I was feeling or thinking about when I recorded this song. This has almost never been the case—I feel like there’s always a story to go along with the sound meditations I sort of emerge from after playing a song. It was obviously a heavy moment, and I must’ve been stuck in some kind of way. I feel like this is probably the mood that drove a lot of my older songs, so I’m glad I still have the darkness in me! I have to give it to Cooper on this track for taking the lead vocals on this song and letting them never disintegrate. He made them incessantly bounce back and forth once I brought in the lead synth solo. If the sad and anxious inner workings of my brain and soul had to be represented by a single song on this album, this last track might be the one.
And truly, I have to thank Cooper for bringing all of these improvisations to life through his production skills. My normal work flow of using a hardware looper becomes quite limiting when I’m recording all of these live sessions onto a computer in order to multitrack and mix the in-the-moment ideas and figure out a way to make them sparkle and worble just a little more. He also convinced me to overdub some vocals, which I have never done before, in order to bring a little more clarity and finesse to the sound. So thanks, Cooper!