by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Skilaa: A Tiger By The Tale

by Nur Lajunen-Tal

Skilaa: A Tiger By The Tale

Skilaa‘s distinctive sound is a decidedly quirky jazz-RnB-folk hybrid, but like all innovators, the Tāmaki Makaurau band aren’t afraid to explore new territory. Four years on from debut EP ‘Fantasy Life’, Skilaa release ‘Tiger In The River’, their first full album, this winter. While staying close to their roots the album sees them experimenting with new styles, most notably hip hop as Nur Lajunen-Tal reveals.

With most members already knowing each other from the University of Auckland‘s jazz school, Skilaa began in 2015 with Michael Howell on guitar, bassist Tom Dennison and Adam Tobeck playing drums.

“Adam booked me and Mike to play a gig with him, down at Flight 605,” Dennison recalls. “As soon as the three of us started playing together, it felt like it was greater than the sum of its parts. It just had really good musical chemistry, and we all felt that. I think we just felt pretty inspired playing with each other and it was really easy. It was a joyful combination of musicians.”

In 2016, vocalist Chelsea Prastiti attended a performance by the trio and was impressed enough to want in.

“I just thought, ‘This is the best rhythm section I’ve ever seen!’ I was younger, just by a little bit, than those guys (except for Mikey), and remember thinking, ‘These guys are just, like, crazy. I can’t play with these dudes!’ But I kind of plucked up the courage to ask the three of them together if they might wanna be in a kind of neo-soul project with me? And when they said yes right away, I was like, ‘Come again?'”

It was Prastiti who chose the name Skilaa, which comes from Greek. She is half Cypriot Greek, on her father’s side, and admits the name is a little cheeky.

“It means female dog, or bitch,” she laughs. “I liked the sound of the word, but I also think, as a singer, I get to express things that I wouldn’t normally express in real life. In music, I feel safe to express things that are maybe not appealing characteristics normally. I get angry, or I feel really sassy, feeling these kinds of feelings that you wouldn’t in polite society express. Skilaa is a nice avenue for me to express those feelings and those parts of me that I wouldn’t normally show. I can be a bitch secretly!”

Named ‘Tiger In The River’, the band’s debut album has been a luxurious but long four years in the making. It was recorded at Prastiti’s home by her partner, musician and engineer Callum Passells.

“One of the things that’s nice about recording with Callum is that he gives really great feedback on the musical elements of the takes,” praises Dennison. “He has really good ears and hears things that a person who just specialises in being a recording engineer wouldn’t be able to comment or think of.”

Prominent in Skilaa’s sound are Prastiti’s layered vocal harmonies. The band members confide that recording these slowed the album process considerably.

“Chelsea’s vocal takes will be layered up, usually three if not maybe like five different harmonies!” Dennison relates. “We tracked all the rhythm section parts, probably finished like two years ago, and tracked them over a period of a couple of years. Chelsea has just been layering up vocals ever since, which obviously is a much slower part, because we can record three parts in a single take, whereas Chelsea can only record one.”

“I was writing as I was recording,” adds Prastiti. “I had an idea of what the arrangements were gonna be like for the vocals, where the harmonies were going to go, but when I was layering them up, I was just kind of going by ear for the chord quality that the harmonies would make. So sometimes it was becoming like a writing process as we were recording.

“When I work on a song, I’ll do one section at a time, and then, if it’s the melody line, I’ll do that section five times, and then we’ll pick something from that five. We won’t composite a line together. I’ll just try and improve on what I’ve done. I’ll listen to takes one and two, and then go, ‘Okay, what’s going on there, am I getting this tone that I want here?’ And then, if I’m not, on takes three, four and five, I’ll try and get that tone, or whatever it is I’m aiming for. Normally, by then I have it. Otherwise, I would rather just go away and practice, and then come back and record it. I think some people get caught up in practising while they’re recording, and that’s kind of wasting the time of the recording!”

After so long in the making, the group are excited for people to hear the album, which among other interesting musical angles, introduces rapping into their mix.

“There’s quite a lot of broad strokes, I think, with the album,” says Prastiti. “We’ve actually got some straight hip hop tracks in there as well. Those are really fun because the guys come up with the most beautiful loops, and a hip hop loop is really hard because it has to be interesting enough that it holds your feeling and your groove, but it also has to still work looping around and around and around.”

One of the looped tracks is Money, which features Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson, a protege to J Dilla. This unlikely collab was facilitated by Skilaa’s mix engineer Jeremy Toy, who records with Simpson as the duo Leonard Simpson.

“We’re big Dilla heads,” gushes Prastiti. “We’re obsessed with Dilla, we love Detroit, and we love Slum Village. That’s our big fave, so having this connection through Jeremy to Guilty was mind-blowing. And then Guilty sent this verse through that was so unlike anything that I would’ve expected, and it was just beautifully introspective and poetic, and just picturesque. It’s an extraordinary verse.”

Prastiti’s own Money verse furiously tackles an issue relevant to musicians everywhere, the miniscule amount paid to artists in streaming royalties.

“I always feel like I end up accidentally being political, because I just feel this way, and these are things that occupy my mind as a musician,” she laughs. “Funnily enough, maybe people wouldn’t think this, but I actually secretly am quite an angry person. I dwell on things, and I feel sour about things a lot, and streaming royalties is one thing that I get quite vehemently angry about. I find myself getting angry about it a lot, which is probably not healthy or good, but at the same time, the feelings have to go somewhere, and so I put them into a set of lyrics. Rap is so great for expressing things like that, things that piss you off. Same with rock music and punk music. They really lend themselves to those emotions, and you can extrapolate on a point with hip hop a lot more than you might with other structures of lyrics.”

On the other end of the spectrum is soft interlude Sufficient, which began with a bass part written by Dennison.

“I just thought it was amazing what Tom brought in, and my lyrics over it were about my little struggle with feelings of self-doubt, or doubt about whether what you’re feeling is right or valid,” Prastiti confesses. “I’ve had a struggle with that for a long time, and also feeling like you’re always getting in your own way. I wrote about that and that track kind of brought that feeling to me. There’s something restful about the song somehow as well, which is nice.”

Skilaa songs often start with one band member playing a part and the others adding to it. Scratch Me Out, for instance, started with Adam Tobeck.

“That guy is just the most insane drummer,” Prastiti gushes. “He started playing this crazy feel, and we were playing in the boy scout hut. He was playing it and then Tom came up next with this beautiful bassline over the top, and then Mikey layered in something over the top of that, his beautiful sort of spacious playing. Even though we all wrote it together, I think about that a lot as Adam’s tune, because if it hadn’t had the drum feel the way it was this particular track wouldn’t have emerged.”

In this instance, Prastiti’s melody and lyrics were originally written years before, over a track by Jeremy Potts, guitarist for Rackets.

“He kind of disappeared into Berlin, and then sent me the stuff that we’d worked on, so I had it as a voice memo. I was like, ‘Crikey! Well, I like this, but it’s never gonna see the light of day!’ And then the fellas came up with this instrumental, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna try this over the top.’ And it just worked! So it found a new home!”

“Lyrically, it’s classic terrible angry-ex material. I was very hurt when I wrote the melody and lyrics. Some people get really uncomfortable about singing stuff that was from their past and is a time capsule of the way they felt, but I still love it! I can still take myself back there without it being too harmful, if that makes sense? I feel detached enough and yet it still feels cathartic even now to sing that tune.”

Even ahead of the album launch Dennison says Scratch Me Out is a clear fan favourite.

“I think that is maybe our most requested song. When we talk to audience members after, that is often the one they have the most questions about, and wanna know the name of, and wanna know how to listen to it. So I’m excited that we get to share that with people soon.”