A muffled jazz record was playing on Tara Lily’s side of the call when she picked up the phone. It didn’t take long for her persona to resemble the instrumental - organic and authentic. Tara refuses to be confined to one music genre, her sound is a melting pot of different cultures and musical eras. After running with the term ‘dark RnB jazz’ for a while, she quickly realized that, “RnB is generally not as ‘hard’ as the music I make. My music isn’t typical neo-soul R&B. It’s got that dark edge to it; it’s quite melancholic. I’m drawing on real experiences and moods.”
The first Tara Lily song I stumbled across was Stormy Nights in 2018. I remember being mesmerized by how nostalgic yet refreshing her voice sounded. I went to Youtube and Spotify to find more songs but there weren’t any. Tara is now a more established artist, having caught the attention of Virgil Abloh and Motown Record UK, and continues to blossom, most recently with her debut EP Lost in London.
Despite her recent success, she likes to keep lowkey and refuses to jump on trends that are meaningless to her as a person or an artist. “Everything I include in my music I study and internalize.” Her sartorial style as an artist is a reflection of the songs she’s making, the sounds she’s looking into, or what her band is wearing. “I think that everything I’m doing musically and visually has to fit together. It has to be a part of a bigger story.”
Tara’s ability to draw on different genres and seamlessly fuse them together results from her experiences with contrasting musical scenes and subcultures. She grew up with immigrant parents in a council flat in Peckham. Her Bangladeshi father was a self-taught musician, her mother was in a folk band, and her friends from her area and school were grime artists, rappers, and musicians.
After a short spell at the Brit School, Tara’s desire to study jazz in depth deepened. She landed an audition for Trinity Laban Conservatoire, one of the top music schools in the country, and her time there brought to her attention the racial and class disparities prevalent in classical music training. “I felt on my own, out of place. I was the only woman of color in my year,” she reflects. “But I wanted to study jazz. I felt a calling to do this. It felt like for me it was my connection between this world and the next.”
Over the next few years, Tara paired being a classically trained jazz musician with her love for grime and other musical influences to develop her debut EP Lost in London which was released in October of last year. The EP is a product of mix-matching music genres in a way that no other artist could. “My sound is kind of just my own thing really. I’m always drawing on lots of different styles, whatever producers I'm working with or whatever I'm listening to at that time.”
Lost in London merges sounds of jazz, rap, electronic and RnB. “Things You Do” was initially released as a single a few months before the EP debuted. “If I’m making a single, it’s because it fits in a larger body of work,” Tara tells me. “I’m always thinking about how a project flows from beginning to end.” “Things You Do” creates the image of broken dreams and shattered assumptions, as saxophones spill out over cold electronic rap beats. The music video was filmed in Art Deco cinema, which added to the vintage-inspired theme of Lost in London.
Lost in London is about being young, lost in relationships, lost in music and heartbreak. The five songs were written and produced at different times in her life. Some songs were written during her teenage years, others were produced laterally. “I made “The Ones I Lost” about a year ago. It felt like a good transition going from that sort of electronic sound to “Blue in Green (honeymoon)”, which had a classic 50s and 60s feel.”
Having worked so long to perfect Lost in London, I wondered whether Tara felt apprehensive about reentering that creative space and starting a new project. “Lost in London was my first ever project, I have to accept that it’s out there and move forward from it and make something else. Now I’m completely back to square one in terms of my artistry. I’m trying to find new experiences and new feelings.”
Since releasing Lost in London, Tara has been focusing on developing her musical relationship with her South Asian heritage. Training with a classical Indian singing teacher, she has been studying traditional Indian singing and discovering the similarities between it and jazz. She incorporated some of the scales used in classical Indian singing in “Blue in Green”, but she wants to expand on this exploration more in future projects. “When it comes to the traditions I’m studying and wanting to incorporate, it has to be respectful of the music and the culture it comes from. For me, it’s not about adding things to my music for the sake of it - it’s about embodying that sound and understanding the stories of the icons and the teachers behind it.”
Tara admits that getting back into a creative space and preparing for a new project has been hard, and she emphasizes the importance of alone time for her as an artist and how “the songs need to lead themselves.” She writes her songs alone, produces them at home and then takes the mock-up to the studio. “I feel like if I was in the studio with all these other people, I wouldn’t get anything authentic,” she observes of her creative process.
When Tara told me about her plans to release a new project later this year, I couldn’t help but express my excitement. I asked her how she’s planning on incorporating her original style with classical Indian musical techniques and other new musical influences she’s been studying. “It’s going to be about exploring all these different sounds, putting them in the pot and seeing what comes out. ”
By Katy-Ann McDonald