During the summer of 2019, Hope Tala, a musician from London, faced a tough choice.
At the same time that her newest single, ‘Lovestained’, was climbing charts and getting her attention from magazines like VICE and Rolling Stone, she had just been accepted into a graduate program to study literature at Cambridge.
Since she was a teenager, Hope had balanced music as a side gig while in school, and the artist started uploading her original music to Soundcloud when she was 18. But at 21, Hope knew she had to make a choice – and she chose to pursue her art. Less than two years later, the decision has already paid off: after releasing her latest EP Girl Eats Sun, the artist was named in the NME 100 for 2021, called “one to watch” by The Independent, and has gained nearly one million monthly listeners on Spotify alone.
“I decided it wasn’t the right time for my masters degree because music was really picking up, and I knew I could always return to school in the future,” Hope tells me over Zoom, the deep rumble of her speaking voice a startling contrast from the delicate whisper present in her music. “I’ve always known that was the right decision, and the name ‘Girl Eats Sun’ was a way of saying that I’m strong enough to take the heat and really pursue the dream of music.”
“The name ‘Girl Eats Sun’ was a way of saying that I’m strong enough to take the heat and really pursue the dream of music”
This past year has proven that nothing will stop Hope from pursuing her dream. Despite the pandemic, the artist dropped her EP in October and was able to film music videos for two of her songs, ‘Cherries’ and ‘All My Girls Like To Fight’. Girl Eats Sun also demonstrates significant musical growth for the artist, who used the project to experiment with different instrumentation, more varied storylines and an overall bolder sound.
Many of Hope’s earlier songs, such as ‘Eden’, ‘Jealous’, and other hits off her previous EPs, embodied the combination of sounds that we had come to expect from the artist: a mix of acoustic rhythms, neo soul beats and a lo-fi bedroom sound that somehow manages to soothe and entrance the listener all at once. Her most recent project pays homage to these musical roots in certain songs, such as ‘Mulholland’ and ‘Drugstore’, but also strays away from her past sound in impressive ways that demonstrate her growth and versatility as an artist. In ‘Crazy’, an opening piano interlude provides a surprising breakaway from the artist’s usual sound and successfully underscores the simple vulnerability of the lyrics. In ‘Cherries’, the combination of fast-paced guitar and an unexpected rap verse provide something refreshing and upbeat.
Perhaps the most musically and visually stunning single off the EP would be ‘All My Girls Like To Fight’. From the very first note of the string symphony introduction, the song draws the listener in with it’s dramatic intensity. Just as we settle into the slow, percussive vibe, Hope throws her listeners a curve by picking up the pace of the music and adding in an intense, clapping beat underneath the strings. The result is a mixture of classic flamenco rhythms, an almost matador aesthetic, and a contemporary R&B sound that most artists would not be able to pull off, but Hope’s artistic versatility allows her to blend these two styles effortlessly.
The accompanying music video, directed by Millicent Hailes, is equally compelling: every shot features bold colours, rich textures, and artistic fight scenes that beautifully embody the physicality of the lyrics. At the end of the video, following the artist’s impressive rap verse, Hope, donned in a striking black leather jacket, is driven off into the night while hanging out the car window, leaving listeners wanting more. (“Thank you for calling it rap!” Hope exclaims when I ask about the song. “A lot of my friends were calling it ‘spoken word’ and I had to say, ‘come on, this is a rap verse. Put some respect on my name.’”)
Whether it’s rap, song lyrics, poetry or literature, Hope Tala is a lover of words. When she wasn’t working on making her EP this year, the artist spent a lot of her downtime reading titles like Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Free Women by Lisa Tadayo, and Educated by Tara Westover. “If you show me a picture of a really famous actor I wouldn’t be able to say what they’re called but I will remember authors’ names and book names forever, it’s just always in my head,” she says.
“It’s important to me to write music that queer people can see themselves in, but I don’t want to force my own narrative onto anyone”
Her love of words helps explain her uniquely creative lyrics, which are often vivid, dramatic and almost Shakespearean in nature. In ‘All My Girls Like To Fight’, for example, she sings “I lick their hands clean of bark and bite/so they can sleep deep at night” while in ‘Eden’, she cleverly rhymes “You want me to sing you a song of sixpence/Write you another rhyme/I would open my bones for you but I just don’t have the time/So the stories in my veins will have to do.” Her lyrics strike an impressive balance of feeling both deeply personal and open-ended at the same time. The artist wrote ‘All My Girls Like To Fight’, she says, about being in a relationship with someone who can fight while she feels too timid, but says that she doesn’t want the original meaning of a song to colour a listener’s interpretation.
“It’s important to me to write music that queer people can see themselves in, but I don’t want to force my own narrative onto anyone,” she says. “When I write I’m just doing what feels natural to me, but I’m happy that my lyrics are a bit open ended. I don’t think I can tell someone a song means one thing when they feel completely differently and have shaped it to fit their own experience. Once I’ve released my songs I always say, ‘these have nothing to do with me anymore.’”
‘Cherries’, one of the most popular songs off the Girl Eats Sun EP, is a prime example of how Hope’s words can take on several meanings. True to form, the tune is chalk full of fruit imagery and nature metaphors. The songs opening bars, “The cherries in your mouth spill stars/Scarlet venom to keep in jam jars,” endear and intrigue the listener in equal measure: while the image of cherries in jam jars suggests the song is shaping up to be a sweet love tune, the phrase “scarlet venom” introduces another, darker layer to the narrative. The rapper Aminé, who has supported Hope’s work since she started posting music on Soundcloud, is also featured on this track, and his bars help elevate Hope’s quiet sensuality to overt sexuality.
“Collaboration is such an incredible thing and I think it can bring out the best in people and really challenge you to bring your A-game,” Hope says. In 2019, Hope was also featured on singer-songwriter Raveena’s debut album, Lucid. “I’ve had the absolute honour of collaborating with some of my favourite artists, and it’s definitely something I hope to do more of in the future.”
The fact that Hope can collaborate with both rapper Aminé and sultry singer-songwriter Raveena, is once more a testament to her artistic versatility. The artist has long had an eclectic musical taste. Growing up, she took clarinet and piano lessons and later went on to teach herself guitar. At home, Hope was fed the greats of R&B by her mother – Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo – while her dad, whose music tastes Hope describes as the most “controversial” of the family, would often play rock and funk hits by the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the like. Her music tastes remain wide ranging today: “I’m listening to Ariana Grade’s new album every moment of the day,” she tells me while scrolling through her Spotify, “I really love the new Fiona Apple album, I’m loving the Skullcrushes EP. I don’t listen by genre at all, I just listen to whatever I think is good.” Her listeners are similarly diverse: Hope has recently garnered the attention of musician Ellie Goulding and even former US president Barack Obama.
Despite all her success, Hope remains steadfastly humble. “I appreciate that,” Hope remarks when I ask her what it’s been like to blow up as an artist, “but I definitely feel like it hasn’t happened yet.” Though her audience is steadily growing, Hope’s “undiscovered gem” status may just be part of her appeal to listeners.
Unlike many artists of her size, Hope has consistently shared her personal life with fans: her Instagram is full of intimate film photos of her and her friends, and she and her friend Talulah even created behind the scenes videos of music videos and the Girl Eats Sun EP. The way the artist shares herself online feels personal, like fans and listeners have been allowed to experience her growth alongside her. “I think people want to see my authentic life or parts of my life that are a bit more personal and I’m happy to share,” she said. “I love having my friends around in photos, and I just feel safer and more protected when they’re involved in the things I’m doing.”
2021 is set to be big for Hope Tala, who hopes to put out an album this year – though, as she says, “I don’t want to put crazy pressure on it.” If covid precautions allow, she also hopes to go on tour across Europe and North America. “I’ve never gone on tour so I’d love to this coming year,” she said. “I’d say releasing more music, going on tour, collaborating, and going to other people’s shows, that would be the dream.”
The future may look uncertain right now but one thing is for sure: now that Hope has chosen to pursue her music for sure, she can take the heat in 2021 and beyond.
Hope Tala is one of gal-dem’s Ones to watch for 2021. You can read the full list here.