By Caleb Oldham
Liberty Styles is a singer-songwriter and tap dancer who manages to combine both art forms live, looping and layering her voice while tapping out an accompanying (often show-stealing) rhythm section. We got a chance to talk to Styles this past week about her musical influences, aspirations, and process.
When did you start combining tap dancing and singing?
I started this summer when I was living in Cincinnati. I was doing labor organizing and conducting oral histories with Walmart workers, and on my free time I started putting the audio clips into Garage Band and setting them to a beat. I started humming, drumming my fingers on the table, and tap dancing. Once I got my loop pedal, my interest in combining the two grew because I could do it live.
Have you ever encountered anyone doing anything similar to what you're doing?
Singing and tap dancing have been best buds for a long time! James “Stump” Cross, the Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly… they all were song-and-dance men. I haven’t seen much done with a loop pedal nowadays, though I bet it’s out there. In terms of mixing electronic music with tap, I really dig Nicholas Young -- he taps on a board that hooks up to his computer so that he can alter the echo and create other effects. He doesn’t sing but he loops together outside voices and body percussion in a cool atmospheric way.
What artists influence you? What are you listening to these days?
My favorite band of all time is Talking Heads -- they’re tight, upbeat and unapologetically strange. Tune Yards and Rubblebucket definitely inspire me in terms of vocal complexity and punchiness. I’ve been listening to a ton of hip hop too because it’s so wonderful to tap to. I especially like Vince Staples and Isaiah Rashad a ton because of the way they tell stories... and their rhythms are nasty.
Your music has got a beautiful trance-like quality with mantras like "Um Shali" and "Wang Dang Doodle." Are these expressions products of a jam session or do you usually start off with them?
Wang Dang Doodle is actually an old blues standard, my version was a cover… but yeah, I definitely wanted to make it into a party mantra towards the end of the song. The phrase “Um Shali” was invented by me and my high school friends and we chanted it to each other a lot on weekend nights, so it just came out of my mouth one time after I had already made a loop, almost by accident, but it fit.
When you're writing music do you usually start with the beat or the melody?
It really depends. Sometimes a melody randomly comes into my head and I record it on my phone so that I can loop it later. Other times I’m clapping and drumming into my loop pedal and find an entrance into it with my voice.
You've recently been collaborating with Columbia rapper Jonah Hemphill. Do you see yourself doing any other collaborations in the near future?
Yes, I hope so! Jonah is really amazing and super fun to jam with. I am definitely interested in making my sound deeper… by adding bass, maybe, or a synth. I live in a house with some sick musicians, so there’s a lot of great musical fusion going on all the time. So we’ll see!
The subject matter of your songs are characters from your life: your mom, your dog. How important are the people in your life to the music you make?
They’re everything! People make my world go round, and they completely shape who I am. I’m the kind of person that wants to know everything about your mom and dog, so I guess that’s why I sing about mine. And I like to sing about things the way they are, not the way they should be. I like specific words and actions that make people strange and vibrant.
Where can listeners see you perform next?
You can see me at the “Power Collage” art show on December 4th that goes from 7-9:30 in Altschul. I’ll holler out soon when I have another gig in the city!
Listen to more from Liberty Styles at her Soundcloud.