Tom Graham chats to the Tobago Tracks affiliate about mumble rap, defining his style as 'pop music', and how he uses lyrical obscurity to heighten his music's emotional resonance
“I’m not making music so that you can know about me,” states Tim Zha AKA Organ Tapes. The Shanghai-born, London-based artist’s latest album, Hunger In Me Living, came out on TT (FKA Tobago Tracks) this summer, and is filled with tender ballads that draw from hip-hop, dancehall, emo and indie rock and pop. The opener, ‘Servant’, features muffled, reverb-soaked keys accompanying Zha’s heavily auto-tuned vocals. His melancholy murmurings entangle, as if the layers are interrupting each other. No string of words dominates, nor can you completely recognise what all of them mean. It’s like trying to decipher the words of someone crying, too emotionally overcome to communicate clearly.
Much of Zha’s music adopts this technique of foregrounding emotion through incomprehensibility. With a vocal style inspired by ‘mumble rap’ artists like Future, Zha soaks his words in auto-tune in a way that causes them to blur into one another, meaning you can just about make out the odd word or phrase but rarely decipher entire verses. But the unintelligibility of Zha’s lyrics in no way dampens their affective resonance. Individual lines on the emo anthem ‘Condition’ – ‘Something in me falls apart… / … I don’t wanna stop, I don’t wanna go’ – are delivered in a way that is enough to evoke distinctive feelings even if you can’t connect those fragments together. It’s the kind of music you can sing along to without knowing the words, and emotionally identify with without being able to describe exactly what it is you’re feeling.
Zha’s expression of ‘pure’ emotion and his desire to conceal himself from the listener are something of a fruitful contradiction. “I’m someone who’s incredibly averse to expressing vulnerability. Not on the level of me thinking that it’s bad to do so, just that I find it incredibly difficult to do so… But I still have this compulsion to make myself vulnerable like that and to make this music that I feel is emotional and intimate.” He resolves this tension between self-exposure and self-awareness precisely through the intangibility of his vocals. “That’s kind of like my cowardly way of navigating that I guess – to make this music in such a way that I can only show so much but at the same time I know I’m creating something that will let you know the feeling.” What he achieves is a beautiful, paradoxical balance between transparency and opacity; the absence of specific details in Zha’s intonations never detract from their stark honesty. It’s a cloudy means of portraying a cloudless emotion that can only be expressed through its inexpressibility, like a dream that dissipates as soon as you try to put it into words.
Occasionally, the decision to conceal individual lines or verses according to their subject matter is a deliberate aspect of the creative process. “Sometimes I’ll try and second guess myself and obscure certain things, even on the level of how I mix the vocals. If there’s a line I just don’t want people to hear too clearly then I will sometimes just be like ‘let me adjust that and make it sound hard.’” However, Zha admits that his overriding approach is to let the obscurity arise naturally. “I’m not the kind of artist who thinks about a track and how I want it to sound and then enacts that, and that extends to the lyrical content and the delivery of the singing as well… If I write something, and then realise that the way it’s going to sound on the recording is clearer, then it just needs to be that way because that’s what the song is gonna sound like.” Although the obscurity of his lyrics may be a conscious stylistic choice, the flow between clarity and obscurity in Zha’s music is mostly a natural product of whatever is being felt in those moments of recording.
The emergence of fluctuating lyrical clarity from Zha’s current state of mind is something he discusses in relation to his development as an artist. “For me I’m like ‘everyone can hear, everyone knows what I’m thinking’, but then people are like ‘nah I don’t know what you’re saying’,” he laughs. “But then certain close friends have said to me ‘I know what you’re saying’, and they clock that it’s got clearer over the years, and that’s purely as a result of me becoming more confident about being in that position and having an audience that is consuming these things that are intimate for me.” There’s something beautifully poetic about the connection between Zha’s change in mentality and his friends recognising a change in his characteristically obscure lyrics, as if his increasing confidence enables those around him to access a new level of meaning in the music. Whereas Zha’s words on earlier releases fold into each other, like on his dancehall-infused 2015 track ‘Besitos’, the lyrics of some tracks on Hunger In Me Living tentatively rise to the surface. The refrain on the final track, ‘Sunset In E5’, partially emerges from the blur – ‘Everything was different back in ’02… / …Was I happy then or was I lonely?’. The feeling of nostalgia is fused with a sense of dislocation, yet the words are at their most recognisable. Deep piano chords swell before culminating in sunset afrobeat percussion, and Zha’s vocal layers harmonise like they’re coming together to form a new, more confident voice. It serves as a climactic, yet subtle, end to an otherwise tender and sensitive album.
These fluctuations in clarity indicate the importance of wordlessness in Zha’s artistry, and he traces the indescribability of certain feelings back to his early exposure to music. He speaks of his first experiences getting into hip-hop and R&B as a teenager: “You have pretty crude impressions of things. The same reason I got into skateboarding – I just thought ‘that thing looks cool and exciting and makes me feel excited’, and that was basically it. It’s amazing because you don’t have like a framework of understanding anything like that when you’re younger. It’s so demystified when you’re older but when you’re younger it’s like magical and mind-blowing.”
It seems like some things exist most compellingly in their semi-wordless form: their refusal to be unambiguously captured by language is central to their resonance. For Zha, attempting to communicate emotions in this manner is a way of solidifying those feelings without distorting them. “One of the qualities I like about making music is that when you make a song, it’s like an object that is separate to yourself… It still feels intimately connected to yourself, like there’s something of you in it, but it’s externalised and has become something else. It’s like fusing this concrete part of yourself, the voice, with something else or putting it into something else and externalising it, making a little monument out of it that stands there and that other people can interact with or have a relationship with. Maybe it’s all part of the project of like making oneself feel more solid.”
This honest connection between himself and his music illuminates Zha’s resistance to defining his sound in terms of any specific genre. “I don’t have a very strong sense of grounding in one specific thing… I don’t listen to music and feel like I’m a part of it, or like ‘that’s me’. I listen to it as someone who has a relation to it that is meaningful but not one of belonging. Because of that I don’t get a sense of any particular style being my own, aside from – and this is what I tell people when they ask what kind of music I make: I say pop music. I have to go to these really broad categories to feel like I can make a valid claim to belonging, which is also to say that I don't feel I belong anywhere in particular really.”
Zha’s free-flowing, open response to music may be what allows him to integrate various styles in a meaningful way, such as his blending of soft, ambient pads with rattling trap snares on ‘All’. “I just don’t think of [genres like trap and ambient] as opposed. I understand why someone would, but the way I relate to them as styles or forms is not like that – I don’t feel like there is a distance or gap there… In literature, writers don’t conceal the fact that they’re referencing other things, in fact they foreground it explicitly, and a lot of music does that too with sampling. But there’s this far greater tendency in music to view oneself as special or having a unique voice. And you do have a unique voice, but your unique voice is just like a writer’s – it’s comprised of many other voices that you’re channelling.”
Acknowledging the fluidity with which artists draw from their lexicon of musical material relates back to the contextual ambiguity that’s so pervasive in Zha’s music. Although the value of many works lies in their invitation to the listener to experience the deeply intimate details of the artist’s life, some music is different; some songs become powerful means of self-expression through the mistiness of the person trying to express themselves in the first place. In foregrounding emotion in the way that he does, Zha obscures the individual history with which his emotions are associated, leaving behind raw feelings that seem universal and intrinsically human. Perhaps that’s why his music is so moving and emotionally identifiable: ‘what it’s about’ is inaccessible, but the intonations are nonetheless relatable. Zha’s oceanic vocals are wordless, and thus they dictate a similarly wordless response; even if we find ourselves able to decipher a word, line or phrase, his music remains preciously indescribable.
Buy Hunger In Me Living here or stream below: