Los Angeles-based dream pop sensation Whitney Tai invited us all recently to “…find a lawn nearest you, gaze into the starry expanse, hook into your Hi-Fi dock & prepare for astral travel.” She was of course alluding to her dazzling new album Apogee, which draws on all her incredible vocal strengths and lush sonic arrangements that she is renowned for. Interestingly, at the core of the new album is an underlying feeling of rebirth and release. It is also clear sighted and balanced and I cannot help but think that this is without a doubt one of the best cathartic dream pop albums in its most powerful form released this year. As always, I’m thrilled when musicians take the time to drop by for a chat. I’m especially thrilled Whitney Tai decided to talk to me about her new album. Here is some of what we talked about.
First and foremost, I sincerely hope you are staying safe at the moment? But also I understand that in the midst of our global pandemic you had emergency oral surgery? How’s your recovery coming along?
Hey Robert!! Thanks so much, I’ve been doing my best to stay safe amidst this chaos. The quarantine has been sobering and emotionally heavy but has awarded a much needed period of self-care. We all could use it since most of us are usually moving at the speed of light. I feel like so many others do, motion sick in the varying stages of grief and turmoil. Most of our lives are on hold and we are navigating a new way at sea to stay afloat. My heart truly breaks for all the lives lost. Strange times for sure. I am doing much better now, it’s been a long difficult month of excruciating pain but I’m feeling more like myself again.
Releasing a big new emotional album is a pretty big milestone in any artist’s career, even I guess despite your discomfort of oral surgery. How special is this new album to you?
Releasing this album has been pretty cathartic. Especially because of the ironic timing of everything. Been surfacing to the top soil after 2 years of working on this record and refining the tracks with Tim, trying to look at myself in the mirror to recognize this new person, ridding my body of poison accumulated from toxic situations, relationships, existential crises. Apogee represents a complete and total surrender to the great universe. It’s the end of a long fight as a prisoner of trauma, not being valued and redefining my self-worth. Every melody, lyrical avenue was this sort of bloodletting into the eternal vacuum of space.
How did you balance the strong evocative presence of the album with what I can only imagine to be a lot of pressure to still make it relatable to listeners?
I am not always aware of this tangent to curve when creating, songwriting for me is a personal call and response. The art manifests, presents itself to me and I do my diligence to be a humble conduit to facilitate it. I always assume my listeners are sensitive enough to interpret what they need from the art I am creating. Songs are merely languages we can learn to broaden our experience. I naturally end up planting my pains, joys and various energies of what I am going through in the music and by default I think that creates relatability. Tim also has an incredible way of orchestrating our music to bring relatability using a balance of intimacy and expansiveness. He really gets me as a songwriter and his evocative touch makes the music lift into another dimension.
With a patchwork of great references throughout the new album, which song(s) are you hoping listeners will pause awhile and soak in?
At this moment, I would say Incantation. This song really captures the essence of Apogee. I remember when we finished it, I was completely winded that I’d finally been able to say something I couldn’t admit to myself for so long. “Faced with myself, again and again. Wasting myself, again and again. Taking myself, again and again.” Trauma can make you feel like a danger to yourself and this trauma was a deviant parasite I wasn’t fully prepared to destroy. Pain is funny like that, it attaches and confuses your brain to think it is one in the same. The lyric is the realization of error and dying of past selves. A cataclysmic moment of floating in parallels of space time, gazing lovingly into the darkness, meditating on my heartbeat and accepting the trauma before detonating the sucker for good.
The new album has many influences, including a solid dream pop presence that I’m thrilled to hear. Was that an intentional shift or something that grew organically in the studio?
I was really excited this time around to give my fans a more stylized, intimate and transcendent look into who I am as a creator. I wanted a record that was as textural, ethereal and diverse as a mythical forest but also felt that way on the palette. Tim and I write music in many genres and his vision for Apogee really aligned with mine. He captured these magic sonic textures and new atmospheres. Our melodies began to swirl like galaxies with lyrics and vocal warmth that root you to the center of your being. My influences range from psychedelia, rock, pop, trip-hop and synthwave, but having Tim and our lead guitarist, Andrew Kingsley (both of incredibly vast musical influences) in the same room brought a natural synergy that helped us nose dive into a deeper dream pop experience.
Could you tell us something about how the song The Cure came about?
When I was preparing to leave New York a few years back, I was fed up with the toxic shit around me and felt very much like a chess pawn by those who I had allowed into my heart and shown my deepest vulnerability. I remember sitting in my kitchen one weekend, guitar-in-hand singing, “Why you always bringing me down, while I push you up. Why you always bringing me down, can we rise above? Seems you stopped hanging around, what’s your agenda? Took a long ride downtown, never thought I would say I surrender.” I couldn’t shake the deep depression I was in, had massive trust issues and I think I cried almost every day for a straight year. I needed a cure, I needed to stop giving so much power away and love myself enough to let go of poison. I was abused a lot growing up and it left a wound that was hard to close. The Cure is about trying to reclaim a stolen or sold space inside yourself, demanding your value regardless of who tries to bring you down.
Why did you begin the album with the song Starfish?
I felt like Starfish was the best ice breaker. It’s gentle, unassuming, gradual and a curious fellow. There’s this earthy delicateness that allows the listener (who is about to experience a wide range of songs on the record) to have a neutral dialogue with me for the first time in a while since Metamorphosis. Metamorphosis was pleading and suffocating turmoil and Apogee flips you over into a meditative space. Starfish are nature’s little healers, they can grow new limbs or release compromised parts of their body to become entirely new starfish with a chance at starting over. The song has textures of innocence and wisdom, the humility that grows with the synths plus the floating vocal melody rising up towards awakening.
In Surrender, you sing “How does it feel?/ Straddling the line/ Always gambling your time/ How does it feel?/ While your time is wearing thin. What drove you to write those particular lyrics?
Do you ever ask those really hard questions in life? They keep repeating like Fibonacci, knocking at your skull till you finally listen. Out in deep space, in the apogee, you ask those difficult questions of why you keep wasting yourself, why you don’t just jump in and finally make the omnipresent moment the real soothsayer of your storyline. No one wants to live in regret or reach a point where they’ve missed their train because of resistance. Why not trust and let nature do its divine work? It’s the wake up call track of the record.
What was it like working with producer Tim Janssens again? How did he help and motivate you through the recording process for Apogee?
There really is no one I could have imagined writing Apogee with other than Tim. He is a visionary. His work ethic, knowledge, inventiveness and attention to detail are unlike anything I have experienced in the music industry. I’ve learned so much from him, he kicks my ass in the studio and makes sure to steer me far from any sort of comfort zone. What I also love is that he never tries to change me, he only chisels and works to bring out my best. I think that’s what separates a leader from a boss. Tim is a pro and dedicates his entire soul to our work. 110% at all times. I feel fortunate that we continue making art together.
Finally, the artwork for Apogee is incredible. Can you tell us the story behind it?
When I got the call from my dear friend and Los Angeles based pro-photographer, Anna Azarov for the concept shoot, my jaw straight up dropped. It felt like a sign from beyond about Apogee. I explained the album themes to Anna and she instantly knew what to do. We decided to completely dip my body in this golden-bronze, an allusion to our ability to cast, resurface or fill in cracks with something beautiful. The photo series began with a tryptic of sculptures. The first of the tryptic was my bust completely wrapped and swarmed in high gloss fabric (the version of me locked behind a layer that was not my own). The 2nd part was my figure emerging from the draped fabric (the version of myself breaking free from the walls and struggles). The 3rd and final stage of the tryptic was the revealed half body bust (the pure and renewed carving of self). It became very clear after our photo-shoot that we go through so many phases of grief in life, we accumulate extraneous space rock on our shoulders and must chisel away the unnecessary to meet who we really are at the heart of it all. We live in an equally beautiful and turbulent universe, but it’s possible to manifest healing regardless of the type of abuse one endures.
Whitney Tai’s new album Apogee, including her back catalogue, is available to purchase on Bandcamp and iTunes. For more information on Whitney Tai, including show updates, check out her website. Also listen to Whitney Tai via streaming services on Soundcloud | Spotify | Apple Music. Follow her on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram. Watch her on You Tube.