Words by Emma Warren

Brooklyn’s Tamar-kali says she is not much of a gearhead. But when the multi-instrumentalist got her first film score commission – an award-winning soundtrack for director Dee Rees’ Mudbound – she learned her way around a digital audio workstation at warp speed, going from basic DAW skills to an entire score in four and a half weeks. 

Since then she’s continued to adapt her practice from DIY punk roots into scores that experiment with the form including Dee Rees adaptation of Joan Didion’s ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ and recently scoring Josephine Decker’s critically acclaimed Shirley

For now, like most people, she’s now working at home in Brooklyn. “I had a collective of friends who are throwing punk shows on a certain intersection,” she says, “but for the most part, I’m just staying put. I’m pretty fortified inside.” 

Hi Tamar-kali. What can you tell us about your studio space?

I have a very basic setup. It's really for the purpose of creating a facsimile of my ideas. I’m working with my laptop, I have monitors, a couple of controllers, a keyboard and a MIDI keyboard. I have an assortment of guitars. Shekere, djembe, tambourine, things like that.

Are you in a corner of a room, like I am now, or have you got a separate room? 

I have a dedicated room. I'm looking to put a little bit of audio treatment, just get some panels up. It’s an old house with parquet hardwood floor and I’ve realised that I need to do a bit of treatment work. I’m not using it as a recording space so it’s more about dampening or blocking out ambient sound from the neighbouring buildings.

What is the ambient sound of your immediate surroundings?

Well, unfortunately, there's been some construction. We're taking bets on what's happening because they've dug this incredibly deep hole. And we're like – someone’s building a fallout shelter? Is that a doomsday cellar? – there’s quite a bit of drilling happening at present. Also, because there’s homeschooling, there are certain times when children take their recess. We were like ‘what is that?’ Then I realised, well, that's a pogo stick. You don’t know if you're in the 21st century or the Fifties.

I know that you said you're quite a low kit person. But what's the go-to piece of technology which you always find you're using in your compositions?

I have a chamber background. So I'm often using strings. But because I'm not inclined in that gearhead way, I know I'm only scratching the surface in terms of what the products can actually do. I'm hoping that I'll have the time to really explore more in the forthcoming year. I'm very utilitarian, in my approach – bare bones – so it's taken time to unravel what's there. I like to keep it super simple and I always want the live to blow away the demo. I’m not the type of composer to recreate organic, human, live sound through technology. It's all about live recording being the pièce de résistance.

Why is chamber a good fit for translating the ideas and the expression you want to convey in your scores?

I’m often using a palette that includes strings. Strings have always been the meat and potatoes of what I am composing, with the exception of Shirley, where I had a string quartet and I used a lot of my voice. That project created an opportunity for me to really lean on my choral classical past. I have a project coming up that might be more conventional to my experience playing in rock bands. We’ll see what that brings forth. Basically, it’s about giving a voice to the piece of art that the director has made.


Strings have always been the meat and potatoes of what I am composing, with the exception of ‘Shirley’, where I had a string quartet and I used a lot of my voice.

Where did you do your choral training?

I was a Catholic schoolgirl, from kindergarten through 12th grade. It was my parochial religious schooling.

You used a lot of your own voice on Shirley. What can you tell me about how you began that process?

Josephine [Decker] the director initially posited to me that she was really interested in the female voice as a lead instrument. So I was thinking of the characters: Shirley, Rose and the missing girl, Paula. There was something about the membrane between the seen and the unseen. The film was the precipice, the veil. Immediately, my mind went to [1980s all-female Bulgarian folk group] Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares. I knew I wanted it to have that type of energy. I settled on a sound and a main chord, Shirley being alto, Rose being mezzo and Paula being soprano.

What’s the starting point generally when you’re thinking about how the story can be best translated into sound, or amplified through sound?

I think of it as divination. I'm listening, I'm looking for the work to tell me which way to go. With strong work, there's going to be an impression that you get right out of the gate. And certainly, that happened with Shirley because it’s very strong work. 

Is it that you started with sketch in your laptop? Or a little recording in your phone?

I work in Logic. If I'm having difficulty with a cue, sometimes I'll work it out in my sleep. I end up waking up and then I just have to grab the phone and do some voice notes, sketching out what I've heard. A couple of times, I ended up just jumping up and playing something on the keyboard, just throwing the phone on the keyboard so I could record some ideas. I enjoy writing to picture. It’s how I started. Improvisational layering, you know, just seeing what the imagery and the picture brings out of you. 

I know this is a bit of a false opposition, but in terms of planning and improvisation, where did those two sit in your work in Shirley or another film like ‘Mudbound’?

Planning is about the instrumental palette. I don't try to plan too hard. I decide on the tools I'll be using. I knew that with Shirley I had the three voices and wanted it to be very specific, you know, minor, melancholy chords for the three voices. I knew I would use the finger cymbal because I wanted some type of chime. When you do it the first time, it's improvisation but then when you repeat it and shape it, that’s writing, right?


If I'm having difficulty with a cue, sometimes I'll work it out in my sleep.

How do you manage the problems that inevitably surface in the middle of a big project, and how do you deal with them?

It’s always a challenge to be balanced. I've been an independent artist for 20-plus years. When you are able to move past feast or famine it’s like you have two speeds: kill yourself or veg out. That is not sustainable. I always want the Muse to bless me, I always want to be inspired. But at the same time, I want that healthy order of getting up – you know, washing your face and drinking some water before you go to the rig.

Can you tell us about a specific problem you encountered and how you deal with it?  

Sometimes, you’re just stuck. I think it's great to go for a walk. Or if you're really crunched on time, do some busywork. When I was getting towards the finish line [with Shirley], you just feel the weight of the deadline pressing down on you, and sometimes that really messes with your creative flow. So I just did prep work, prepping the cues that were approved, mix prep for the Pro Tools operator. OK, put the square with the square and the triangle with the triangle shape. It frees up your brain a little bit so you can go back to flying creatively.

What would you say the ingredients of a good collaboration? I'm thinking particularly here of your long-standing relationship with Dee Rees.

It’s trust and belief. I met her when I did a cameo in her first film [Focus Features’ Pariah]. She wanted to work with me as a film composer, even though it's not something I'd ever done. First off, her having that vision and confidence that I can compose. And then me saying, ‘I haven't composed a picture yet, but I'm moved by her vision and her ability, and I will make it happen’. That’s the belief. The trust that you will bring your best self to the project. I think those are the key components.

Where does your Psychochamber Ensemble fit in? 

I started Psychochamber Ensemble in 1998. I understand now, in hindsight that I was filling the void that was left by my choral classical life as a Catholic school girl. So I created this all-women string sextet and voice project. At first, I initially deconstructed my original straight-ahead rock songs and arranged them for strings. It ended up having legs of its own. I loved finding my voice in a punk rock scene here in New York, but I love strings, and I missed their presence in my life. I missed the presence of classical music in my life and so I was creating this safe space to have it in my life again. My initial experience was oppressive. It was in the context of religious parochial school, of classical music being seen as this very conservative Eurocentric thing.

Did you have a feeling that you were explicitly expanding the idea of who or what a composer is?

I've been composing since I was a child and I didn't think about it that way. I certainly knew that I was expanding what classical music could be, even in the context of experimental classical music. You know what I mean? I certainly know. Psychochamber was primarily women of colour. I was meeting the sisters on the scene. There was this one I had known from the punk rock scene, and I didn't know that she was a classically trained violinist. She’s classically trained and I have a classical background and we didn't know that about each other. She worked at this piercing shop, and that's how I knew her, through body mod. And it was just so crazy, because I was like, how didn't we share this with each other?


I loved finding my voice in a punk rock scene here in New York, but I love strings, and I missed their presence in my life.

Why do you think you didn't know about each other’s classical training?

Sometimes you operate in spaces in a very specific way and you keep things separated. I know I did. It wasn't that I was ashamed or embarrassed. They just didn't seem compatible. I operated independently in all these different spaces, but I never really brought them all together.

That’s interesting, isn't it? You wonder how many other people working in DIY spaces just don’t share that fullness of their skills or their training…

It’s kind of frowned upon in the punk rock scene, you know, everybody's trying to figure it out, that whole DIY ethos of not being hierarchical.

What have your own composition brought to the music you're making under your own name?

I've always been composing just for myself, and now I'm composing for other people. There's a certain dexterity and a strength that I get from navigating spaces where I have to collaborate. When I'm composing for film, I understand that I am making this work exclusively for the situation, and so I don't relate to it the way I relate to my personal work. The fact that I have an outlet for my personal work allows me to be at peace with that. All of these things feed my creativity. I get to collaborate across disciplines, which is exciting. There's a certain amount of ease in that singular focus, and it really feels like a gift.