Before being known as the talented multi-instrumentalist L’Rain, Taja Cheek was interning at Anthology Recordings, a reissue imprint of independent label Mexican Summer and the label she’s currently signed to. While she was upstairs working on reissues in the Brooklyn offices and absorbing knowledge from her music head colleagues, downstairs they were building a studio they would call Gary Electric.
Despite being encouraged to check out the studio as it was being built, she never once peeked at the 1,000-square-foot, 30-foot ceiling space until years later when it was time to record her third album, I Killed Your Dog.
“It was a very surreal moment for me, like a real homecoming,” she says. “I wouldn’t have imagined that would ever happen to me. I really wanted to peek in and the people that were working there at the time, they were like, ‘Yeah, just come back and come check it out.’ They were telling me about it and I’m like, ‘Wow, it sounds really beautiful,’ and it is.”
Despite also recording parts of the album in Florida and on the West Coast, Brooklyn is home for L’Rain and that’s where she finds a lot of her inspiration.
Growing up, her grandfather owned a jazz club that she found out recently she lives just 10 minutes away from. Her father worked for Select Records and radio for 98.7 Kiss FM, which is now the signal for ESPN New York.
“I always feel the presence of the people in my family, who are here and those who passed, and who love music or who are in music,” she says. “It’s a beautiful thing to be connected to a place and to be connected to your family in that way.”
She also pursued radio while attending college at Yale serving as music director for the school’s radio station. She says if she could build the perfect station, it would be women guitar playing. But she always knew she wanted to be a musician, even while interning for Anthology Recordings.
“At that time, I was definitely writing music and playing music,” she says. “But I don’t think I ever thought that I would be able to tour with someone like Brittany Howard. [Laughs] That’s not something I just assumed I would be doing. I’ve been writing music my whole life. To be touring on this is dream come true for me.”
Her albums take a deep dive musically into what she’s going through at the time. She discusses grief after her mother’s death on her self-titled debut. Her second album Fatigue explored the power of change after grief. Her new album continues the trilogy.
“It’s a little bit about grief, it’s a little bit about change, but I’m thinking about relationships,” she says. “That’s romantic relationships, that’s friendships, all the people I have in my life and what happens when those relationships end and all the feelings that you feel. How you get into a mode of being solo, alone and what that feels like and how that can be tough sometimes. A lot of digging inward but thinking about the people in my life.”
To drive that point home, she picked a title that would grab your attention right away, I Killed Your Dog. It’s not literal and she says she loves and adores dogs, especially her poodle mix Icon, Ike for short. But she noticed that dogs would show up in her lyrics as a stand-in for things she loved and held dear, as a metaphor.
“Thinking about how relationships end and about how we hurt the people that we’re close to and how horrible that feels,” she says, “I wanted the title to reflect that and to feel it immediately. It’s not a fun title for me to say either because I love dogs so much and dogs are all over the record too. We always record around a lot of dogs, so it’s important to me and to the process.”
Her process can start in a lot of different places. Sometimes it will be a harmony or melody. Sometimes it’s a lyric idea or a sound, as she keeps voices memos of ideas and memories like an audio diary. She would stay in a room to herself and improvise, sing and play the guitar.
She knew what the record was going to be about — some of these songs were written for the last two records — but was still figuring out the approach she wanted to take sonically.
“After a few years, we’re like, ‘OK, now we know what to do with this, we can put it here,’” she says. “All the lyrical content all made sense and it all flowed. But rock music is something I always listen to. I played in rock bands a lot, but it just came out that way this time. We don’t want to sound too close to any one thing. We’re going to try to be a little bit slippery about it, but ‘Pet Rock’ is kind of a reference to The Strokes. I’m from New York, I can’t help it.”
While “Pet Rock” dives into the origins of rock music using influence from The Strokes and “Song 2” by Blur, other songs on the album hit different stages of the feeling after the end of a relationship. On “I Hate My Best Friends” she looks for comfort from the people closest to her despite them not being able to fix the problem. “r(Emote)” reminisces on how long it takes to forget someone after being so caught up with them.
The album closes with the song “New Year’s UnResolution” a time to wash away all the baggage from the relationship but still going into the new year with a level of uncertainty.
“That was exactly that feeling of not feeling resolved,” she says. “Feeling like you don’t know how to move on. You’ve been so caught up in this person’s life for so long. How do you evolve into a new chapter or a new way of being around someone? That can be for like a romantic relationship, that can be for friendships too, because I feel like friendship break-ups are hard. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to give someone space, or how to rekindle a friendship, or how to have boundaries and respect someone. I’m just grappling with all with all of that.”
“There’s always something around the New Year like, who are you spending the New Year with and who are you going to celebrate, what party are you going to go to? I feel like when I’m going into a new year, I end up thinking a lot about my relationships and who I’m close to, and just reflecting on relationships that have ended and passed. It’s just a time of reflection in general for a lot of people and definitely for me.”
With her first three albums all falling in line with each other, L’Rain has already been reflecting about the topic of her next album.
“I’ve been joking with my collaborators, they’re like, ‘This is the end of the trilogy, you have to start totally new.’ I’m trying to figure out what that means for me,” she says. “I go to certain instruments first and I’m trying to just put them away and figure out how to step into new territory in a way. I don’t know what that means yet, but I’m excited. I’m recording at the end of the year, so this is really on my mind.”
In the meantime, before stepping into new musical territory, she will open for Brittany Howard, including a stop at Ryman Auditorium on November 7.
“Brittany Howard is a legend,” L’Rain says. “I feel like I learned so much from watching her, she’s incredible. I remember seeing her live for the first time, and I was just so struck by her performing presence and how she’s an incredible guitar player, incredible singer, such an amazing songwriter. I’ve listened to her so much. I feel like every tour we go on, there’s something to learn from everything you see, even things you don’t like.”
“You can always pick something up and learn from it, but you can especially learn things from people you like. You never know what that is, it could be something simple. It’s like maybe they put their amp on a certain setting or maybe they introduce themselves in a certain way. But I feel like I’m always a student on tour. You learn from the audience, you learn from the people performing and her band is also so great. I’m so excited.”