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by Kat Parsons

Tali: The Future Lives Here

by Kat Parsons

Tali: The Future Lives Here

‘Future Dwellers’ is the eighth studio album from Tali, also known as MC Tali and otherwise Natalia Sheppard. Released at the end of July, this cinematic, emotional and energetic album is the Kiwi artist’s first self-produced drum’n’bass recording. A versatile powerhouse of the jungle/DnB genres, Tali talked through the album with NZM’s Kat Parsons. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

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“It’s like we’re seen as the bastard child of the music industry because there’s this stigma that what we do isn’t real music or that we don’t use real instruments.”

Sometimes referred to as our first lady of drum’n’bass, the passion that emanates from Natalia Sheppard/Tali is undeniable. A love for her craft drives her onward, and a fierce desire to support her peers and the industry around her is evident. She stands firm in her commitment to educating and introducing DnB music to the wider world.

“The fact that it’s got an electronic element to it, or it’s got a DnB beat, immediately puts people off because they seem to think it’s some sort of vacuous, shallow music that’s really facetious – kids jumping up and down and taking drugs – and it’s not at all,” she proclaims. “It’s some of the most deeply beautiful, moving, intelligent, emotive music you could ever listen to. Music that’s based on orchestra structures and layered harmonies and beautiful poignant vocals.”

MC Tali first dropped onto the global scene with her 2002 single Lyric On My Lip, which became the title track of her debut album in 2004. That year the single made it onto the UK Top 40 Singles chart and thus began Sheppard’s incredible career.

The classically trained singer and pianist has since toured the world and performed alongside DnB legends including Roni Size and Andy C. She has won numerous awards including the Tui for Best Electronica Artist with her seventh studio album, ‘Love and Migration’, at the 2019 NZ Music Awards.

She has a Diploma in Performance Art from NASDA and a teaching qualification. Singer, songwriter, producer, author, teacher and inspirational speaker, Sheppard has her hands in many baskets. It’s a little crazy to think that it was a mere coincidence that started her on this odyssey.
“It was rave culture first and foremost that kind of hooked me,” she reveals. “I discovered rave culture one night by accident. I happened to stumble across a party that was happening on a Sunday night when I was walking my best friend home from church. We walked past this alleyway – we could hear pumping music and we walked down to have a look. There was this bar that was closing down and they were playing like pumping house music.

“This guy handed me a flier at the door and he said, ‘This bar is closing down, but if you like this music we’ve got something else coming out.’ So we started going along and checking out these smaller venues.

“What really struck me was how everybody was dressed how they wanted. Everyone was different and interesting, there were lots of different cultures, gay and straight people. You can do what you want, dress how you want, and you don’t have to fit the mold.

“So dance culture was the first thing that kind of pulled me in and made me feel like I’d found my tribe, I’d found my people,” she concludes.

“I started listening to different genres like trance, house, techno and I started to get into DnB because out of all the genres I liked it the most. For someone like me who loves to dance it was very waist down movement and stomping your feet!”

Mixed by Tiki Taane and mastered by Benny Tones, from beginning to end Tali’s ‘Future Dwellers’ takes you on a consuming journey of sound and expression. Vibrant first track Mansion demands attention from the first flutter of synth, and each moment of the 11-track project, unique yet cohesive, engages until the last delicate notes of My Remedy. Sheppard’s classical training is evident throughout, an ability to create atmosphere and tension allows her self-produced album to transport listeners through place and time.

“I’ve always written music that’s quite orchestral, whether it’s my own production or when I’ve been working with other producers. I just love orchestral music and cinematic music. My dream would be playing this album in its entirety with the APO.

“I wanted this album to be really cinematic,” she expresses. “I wanted the music to sound like an underscore of a film and I wanted to think about what it would be like if my live band and Ebony Strings were playing. So there’s cohesiveness throughout all of the album; there are lots of string sections, live horns, and I’m playing piano. All these elements tie the album together. So even though there are lots of different vibes and feelings throughout the album, the overarching theme is that it could be played by a symphony orchestra.”

Heavy rain and a rumble of thunder introduce fifth track Elements. Her use of space and soft synth woven throughout allows the dynamic builds and deep bass line to hit hard when introduced.

Elements is interesting because I had literally just come out of an endometriosis operation and I was lying in my bed at home feeling sorry for myself,” describes the artist. “I was in my bed just longing to get into the studio and continue with this process that I’d started during lockdown where I was learning and creating, I just had so many ideas in my mind. I was lying there and my husband brought my computer, keyboard, headphones and soundcard, propped it all up on my bed, and then propped me up so that I could start creating something!

“I found this forlorn sounding string, and this kind of rainy effect and I guess it was matching my mood. Even though it is moody and melancholic, it’s also quite beautiful. It’s got a lot of ‘80s synth wave influences and the string sound that I’m playing. That also harks back to a lot of late ‘90s drum and bass which had influences of ‘80s electronica – lots of synths. lots of strings, quite discordant and melancholic…”

Cause & Effect, plays host to the smoky vocals of Auckland-based INF (Amon Tyson), one part of the SWIDT collective. A blend of spoken word and melody, the song leans more towards hip hop and RnB, but provides some classic elements of DnB.

“I’d seen him on Instagram,” Sheppard recounts of the INF hook up. “I didn’t click that he was from SWIDT to begin with. His voice captured me. He’s got such a sick voice, really gravelly, sounds like one of the Wu-Tang Clan. He just really reeled me in.

“So I commented on a few of his videos and then messaged him and was like, ‘I’m working on a new album. I don’t know if you’d even consider rapping on a track with me’, and he was like, ‘Yeah, send over some beats’. It all happened fast. I sent him the track and within three or four days he had written something, recorded it, and sent it back to me. Then I laid my verse down on it and sang along with his chorus.”

Luca George joins Tali on the album’s second track Starcrossed. Hauntingly exquisite vocals and trance-inducing rhythm create a hypnotic and soothing musical experience.

“Again, with Luca George, he was somebody that I discovered by going through Instagram. I clicked on him and heard him singing in the stairwell of his apartment block and was like, ‘Wow, this kid sounds like James Blake, he would be amazing on a drum and bass track’.

“I co-wrote some of it with him and I asked him to sing in a certain melody line because I’d previously been toying with the idea of using a sample on there that I’d found. I got Luca singing a similar melody line because it works in the same key. So between us both, we ended up with this beautiful track that I think is probably one of my favourites.”

Though it is a slower track off the album, the honest and profoundly moving Firecircle still manages to generate energy and articulate the lyrical content sharing private pain and sorrow.

Firecircle is a deeply personal track for me,” Sheppard explains softly. “It’s basically about the fact that I’m unable to have a baby. The expectations that you have for yourself and how you feel like you blame yourself; the guilt that you have around not being able to do it and having waited so late and all that kind of stuff. So that was a song that only I could sing and I didn’t want that to be a DnB track. I wanted it to be something that stood quite alone in its emotiveness. It’s a pretty sad song but it’s also a really beautiful song because it’s the reality of what so many of us go through.”

Sheppard obtained a teaching qualification before her music career began, and with all of her many ventures recognises the importance of passing on her knowledge. She currently juggles teaching and mentoring songwriting and production, managing up-and-coming Kiwi DnB artist Elipsa (Molly Mexico Foster), and guest speaking at places like MAINZ and NASDA.

“It’s so fulfilling, passing on knowledge and empowering other people,” Tali enthuses. “I think what is a really beautiful thing about this is that I’m leaving a legacy that’s not about the music that I’m making, but it’s about the inspiration and knowledge that I’m passing on. Hopefully, kids will remember me for years to come as somebody who maybe changed their life or had an impact on them.”

With all of her achievements and multiple project activities, one can’t help but wonder how she manages to fit everything in and prioritise the projects she feels drawn to.

“It’s interesting because I’m actually a total procrastinator,” she laughs. “You would probably not assume that because of the amount of stuff that I managed to churn out, but it will take me so long to get to the point. Once I’m on a roll, I’m on a roll, and I have to just keep going because if I get off I’m doom scrolling, looking for snacks in the cupboard, doing the washing – everything but what I’m supposed to be doing!

“So I would say time management is really important, making lists and trying not to say ‘yes’ to everything. Being a little bit more conscientious of having some of your time to process all of the things you are doing. If you don’t have time to reflect and process then you will definitely miss some things, or things won’t be of the quality that you want.

“Oh, and delegate! Don’t be afraid to delegate.”

Already embarking on her next project, Sheppard takes a moment to reflect on the conception of ‘Future Dwellers’, and share her respect and appreciation of the people who helped it come to fruition.

“I’m really proud and excited,” she gushes. “I’m chuffed with the way that it has been received. I’m just glad it’s resonating with people. So far the feedback has been really positive, so I’m running with that!

“I am grateful to have a cool supportive network of friends and a great husband. And I’m grateful to have had Pippa [Ryan-Kidd] by my side as publicist on this. I’m also super grateful to have had people like Tiki Taane engineering it and Benny Tones mastering it. Even though there have been some really challenging aspects, I’m grateful to have had a really good team that has helped me pull it together.”