There’s more than one way to sing a protest song. Just look at the video for Tasseomancy’s “Missoula”. It’s a brilliantly subversive take on a news broadcast, the rolling news feed is headlined with “Toronto’s Breaking News: Don’t Be Afraid, Do Easy”, as a variety of surreal sub-headlines roll underneath, such as “Police melt guns down to create elaborate friendship rings.”
Romy and Sari Lightman have always done things their own way, their aesthetic is unashamedly humanistic and one that embraces the power of magic. When one hears the word magic in the context of music, images of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and his fascination with the 20th Century occultist Aleister Crowley come to mind, but Tasseomancy’s approach to magic is anything but a musicians’ whim, it’s part of who they are and something that they take incredibly seriously.
So when Donald Trump won the US election, Sari posted a cri de cœur on Social Media about the importance of magic and self-expression.
“Now more than ever there is a need for Magic. It’s a feminine entity; an autoimmune eye-roll for most sceptics - especially to hardened cultural critics who love to tear the shit out of anything overtly feminine or magic-based. It’s been commercialised in products and flaunted through passing moody aesthetics, but the practice of it magic itself is active resistance, used for centuries by the oppressed, the silenced and the marginalised.”
Sari’s words get to the heart of how passionate the sisters are about life, equal rights, the state of the politics and the importance of magic in the modern world. The word Tasseomancy itself is the term for fortune telling through tea leaves and a reference to the practice that has been handed down through their family for generations.
They released their debut Ulalume in 2011, but then took a hiatus from Tasseomancy as the Lightman’s toured as members of Austra. In 2015 they returned to their alma mater with their second record, Palm Wine Revisited, which was followed at the end of 2016 with Do Easy, (their debut for Bella Union).
It’s their best record yet, where they mix pop music with a baroque flavour. The songs could have appeared at any point in the last 40 years and would have still retained a uniqueness in comparison to whichever music scene they found themselves a part of. The point being that Tasseomancy don’t sound like they’re part of a scene, they make music that sounds out of time.
We speak as they’re in the midst of a European tour, which started in London, a city they have an affinity with because of its culture. Romy talks fondly of the audience that night. “I felt like the people were with us, they were quiet and attentive. Is that common for London audiences?”
I tell her London audiences can go one of two ways and if they were quiet it’s a good thing. Her response is as considered and thoughtful as the Lightman’s music. “With people who live in a big city there’s so much information, right? I always find that in larger cities it’s harder to get people’s attention, but they were really attentive.”
It’s not just London that inspires the Lightman’s; they also have an affinity with Europe - the continent that the UK is currently in the process of divorcing, rather messily. Romy describes the weather of early European Spring as akin to a “winter gloom, I like how tragic it is; sadness is beautiful. California is a place of permanent sunny days, full of potential hope and optimism; it’s kind of nice to give yourself permission to be a little more introverted.”
Sari echoes her sister’s love of Europe. “I feel like music and arts are more integral to the culture. There’s more reverence and a better sense of an integrated ideology, that artists are necessary and important. You can feel that.”
Given that they moved to California from their native Canada a year ago and are currently touring Europe, how do they feel about the political upheaval in both continents? Romy explains that with Brexit. “I have a lot of sympathy for the youth and the post-youth of the UK, it must be heart-breaking.” It prompts another question, “…I don’t know if you’re a supporter of the decision?”
I tell her I thought Brexit was a tragedy, won by politicians who had an altogether separate agenda of party leadership, to which Romy says “It’s hard to trust in the Government and the world of politics, there’s always something that people tend to be sceptical of, but to make a move that’s so blatantly archaic and racist must be heartbreaking and a little bit scary.”
She thinks the Western regression to a right wing political agenda means it’s more important than ever to find like-minded allies. “I come from an immigrant city, my sister and I grew up in Toronto where it’s very rare to meet someone that’s beyond third-generation Canadian, everyone has fled from somewhere else.”
It prompts the first of several musings on the new US President. “It’s hard not to do this repetition of comparing Trump to Hitler… but it’s brought out this fascist land in a country where… I mean you knew it existed, but it’s hard to believe that it’s as strong as it really is. It’s really fucked up.”
She’s still baffled by the fact that Trump became President. “I don’t even see him as a monster figure; he just seems like such a fool, he doesn’t have an attention span, that’s what’s scary. When you listen to him speak he can’t even finish a sentence, how can you put your faith in that? In some ways, it seems like this is a battle cry of the patriarchy or the white privileged of the world who are trying to rise up from the grave and have this renaissance. I don’t know if it’s going to work but I do know it’s going to have a pretty nasty impact.”
Her native country is in a different stage of transition. Romy cites the “nice neutral rep” that Canada has and the celebrity status of their current, and very liberal, Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, but thinks his predecessor Stephen Harper was very conservative and cut-throat when it came to environmental policies - more akin to what’s now happening in the US. “That was the climate we left and we’re now in the thick of Trump-land, and from my perspective it's heart-breaking. There will be and already are real consequences.”
Such consequences include potential implications for the Lightman’s, given that they’re Green Card holders. “We were wondering whether we’d be let back in when we came back. The week before we left, Trump was denying re-entry to a lot of citizens who had Green Cards, but at the same time I also know I’m not his focus, because I’m not a Muslim and I’m white, that’s the part that’s really concerning, knowing just how many lives are going to be ruined. “
Rather than watching the situation passively, Romy actively seeks the opinion of those with different views to her own, sometimes not revealing her personal beliefs to get an unfiltered view.
“I think it’s really important right now to have real conversations with people that you would usually define as ‘the enemy’. Talking to Trump supporters, pretending to be open to it, so you can have the conversation. I’m really curious to hear why someone would want to overlook what he said about women. It’s not even sexism, it’s beyond sexism: its misogyny, its hate. I’ve realised that a lot of people who voted for Trump were afraid of Hilary Clinton, they thought she was some kind of master manipulator, whereas Trump wears it all on his sleeve like a child. I think his sense of reality is so off that he believes his own lies.”
Which brings us to magic. She references Clinton’s infamous, (certainly in the right-wing press), spirit dinner with Marina Abramović. “People were freaking out. You think that things have evolved, but I don’t know if everybody has come a long way. In the music industry and in life I notice women who are propelled through the system and have to play along with these heteronormative standards of what is safe. When I think about Trump it’s so homogenised, there’s a lot of female supporters that voted for him and that’s really fucked up, thinking that this guy who said that he grabbed women’s pussies… they need these male figures to feel protected in a world where they’re actually like predators, it’s a real problem.”
Such deference and conformity isn’t something that can be ascribed to Do Easy. From the sleeve imagery to the songs, it’s a body of work that harnesses expression, individuality and more than a touch of magic in the sound of the music itself. Romy explains that making it was “mainly just survival. We’re musicians but we’re not institutionalised. For the most part, it’s the age-old ‘it’s hard to be an artist and it’s hard to survive.’ It’s also hard when your intent is trying to develop an authentic voice with the intention of building a language so you can have a conversation with other people.”
“For any person that’s trying to create a life with their own sense of meaning, sometimes it can feel… not futile, but overwhelming, you think you’re reinventing the wheel but then you remember that there were other people who managed to make it their own.”
Such thinking provided the initial inspiration for Do Easy. Romy stumbled across a text by William S. Burroughs called The Discipline of D.E. which was written after his most famous works The Naked Lunch and Junky. “He sort of became this gentle cat-man and lived on a farm.” She loved his collection of poems The Cat Inside about that time of his life but The Discipline of D.E. struck a chord with them both, that there was what they describe as ‘this pretty unhinged artist who wrote a gentle doctrine - domestic advice of how to move through life physically and what to do.’ Romy says that ‘I wanted to write a pop song about it and I didn’t really think beyond that.”
She tells me that Tasseomancy and Burroughs’ mutual connection with magic only became apparent after Do Easy was recorded. “A friend of mine told me that he was a practitioner of magic and people were apprenticing under his techniques and spells, some of the lighter spells. It gave another component to the story, it wasn’t just life advice, it had an aura to it.”
Magic in the modern age prompts lots of associations. It’s a term that ranges from the adolescent world of Harry Potter to the darker work of Aleister Crowley. Magic has always been a part of the fabric of culture, be that through music, literature, films or more historical associations of the macabre. I ask how she feels about the perceptions that magic has a dark side?
“Some of it could be argued to have a slant on it that could be manipulative and self-serving. It comes down to the person, but this is a very ancient desire, that we want to initiate ourselves into different phases of life and we want there to be meaning in what we want to do, that we’re working towards something with a kind of mindfulness.”
Romy describes magic as a very practical tool but is well aware of its history and baggage. “This goes to the pre-industrial revolution, but I think that people do get afraid. With the Church, there’s an infrastructure at work that’s more controlled and without that sort of infrastructure, magic is a little bit more direct.”
“That’s where the danger comes in, from the history of magic, going into the ancient, talking about alchemy and monastics. That’s why they were so scary, there’s that view of them being heretics because there was no text. Sometimes when people come into their own power that’s a really frightening thing, but we use words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to define it, when in actuality it’s just people embracing themselves and their own language.”
As a result, she thinks that “sometimes magic lends itself well to artists because there is a certain fluidity and a commitment to a knowing of yourself. That’s why they go hand in hand a little bit, but it’s dangerous, there’s some kind of protocol but a lot of it is self-invention. When I think about the record maybe it has that quality to it because my Sister and I are really just trying to do our own thing.” The songs on Do Easy, such as the epic “Eli”, where they sing “We’re thinking of never coming back” and “Wiolyn”, with its refrain “Run away, run away…” are anything but earthbound, they create a feeling of otherness, that isn’t tethered to the mundane.
Sari cites the gap between the rational and so-called irrational ways of thinking. “We live in a pretty sceptical, cynical time. Obviously, there were a lot of things going on pre-Trump, but as it’s become more expensive and costly to live in the majority of cities in North America, there’s a more whittled down approach to existing.”
“It comes hand in hand with this idea of being practical and rational and neglecting or repressing these more exciting, emotional elements of living. Magic would be part of that. People need to present themselves in a way that they’re going to be taken seriously in a capitalistic market. I think that people have given themselves a lot less room to be more playful and exploratory and I think spiritual.”
She mentions the recent fire at a warehouse known as the Ghost Ship in Oakland, which was a home to an artistic community but since the fire, it’s been bought up by property developers and the previous residents have been moved on.
“Those spaces are founded on a belief of community and ideologies where people are more spiritual and believe in magic. It’s a sign of the times, there’s a lot of conflict and a lot of people who get pushed out when cities become more inaccessible due to commerce and financial reasons, one of the first things to be squeezed out is counter-approaches to perceiving the world.”
So when Sari talks about LA, the city that they call home she describes it as a ‘world of fantasy’ and on Do Easy’s album cover they decided to replicate “that kind of fantastical, glamorised perspective.” Through a friend, they had access to a backdrop that was used in film production. They hired a horse to be part of the shoot and when its handler, who Sari calls ‘the horse guy’ turned up, he was expecting a rather grander location than the one he walked into.
“He was immediately a bit confused by the lack of projection, it was just people in this kind of weird loft space and one smoke machine and a lamp. I think that was also something we wanted to get across, that there’s this juxtaposition, there’s this idea of glamour and grittiness.”
“That’s something that’s really evident living in LA. You can be walking along at sunset and there’s all these palm trees next to a dumpster and all these chateaus and a lot of homelessness. It’s a place of juxtapositions and that’s what also makes it aesthetically exciting as an outsider. I don’t necessarily think that I’m participating too much in Los Angeles culture; I feel a little bit like an observer.”
We come back to the role of magic, which Romy explains is about having a practice and that practice can be arbitrary. “Maybe you’re baking bread or trying to communicate with different realms or understandings of what reality is, that’s up to the person, but I think magic is about having a practice that connects you with yourself, that’s the basis of it to me. I think we all need to loosen up a bit, get a little more instinctual and revere different types of intelligence that are more intuitive and more physical.”
Sari returns to the theme that less expressive ways of thinking go hand in hand with capitalism. “The austere, rational way of seeing the world through the business realms. I definitely feel it’s a sexist approach; it’s dismissive of feminine ideologies and of women. My Sister and I have been criticised in the past as being whimsical, spacey people, which isn’t true at all.”
Romy thinks this makes it harder for women, and by default, for their music to be taken as seriously as it should be. “I know that if we were males it would have been a really different interpretation.” Sari adds “I think it’s dismissive of a greater picture and a greater conflict, what’s feeding into these ideologies is that people don’t have any room or space in their lives for different modes of thinking because it’s not financially productive.”
Different modes of musical thinking are all over Do Easy. The first song is called “Dead Can Dance & Neil Young”. Namechecking two artists, one of whom emerged in the 60s as part of the West Coast movement and another who were a seminal 4AD band in the 80s is an interesting juxtaposition of styles, what was the thinking behind putting the two of them together?
Romy explains both artists are part of Tasseomancy’s musical lexicon. “A lot of how I feel about this record is giving myself permission to hang out with my heroes. That song in particular, the concept I had behind it was that Neil Young was going to narrate the song. We put these samples of him speaking at a show he played at Massey Hall in Toronto, but the record label didn’t let us use it, in case we were sued. I was just kind of playing with bringing these heroes of mine into the world and having them there. When I was writing the song they were just there at the time and that’s why they’re in it.”
I’m curious which Neil Young she had in mind, was it the folk troubadour of Buffalo Springfield, the grizzled rocker of “Rockin’ in the Free World’ or the experimentalist of Trans? Romy says that Trans is one of her favourite Neil Young records. “I’m interested in the emotionality of songs and going back to magic, you can be manipulative. I don’t want to put any judgement on it, but in some ways pop songs are very emotionally manipulative; sonically there are techniques that are used to get people hooked onto certain riffs.”
She feels that the fact that with Trans Neil Young wrote a record for his autistic son, using a Vocoder rather than his natural singing voice was a statement of artistic integrity and bravery, Sari and Romy also used a Vocoder on Do Easy: “Putting a Vocoder on your voice is almost universal; it sort of sounds an alien lullaby, non-human. That’s why Trans feels so moving to me. I think that’s why people didn’t like it, it wasn’t like a Neil Young record, it didn’t have his essence, his voice, his ego was out of it, it’s like he’s the catalyst of something else, I think it’s really selfless.”
She also talks of her admiration for This Mortal Coil, who over three albums released on 4AD in the 80s and early 90s saw a collective of artists guest on a collection of original material and cover versions, most famously with a take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” by The Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie. “That kind of music to me is a real journey and it’s really deep, but it’s without the Rock Star ego”.
She describes the fact that Tasseomancy are now signed to Bella Union, which is run by Simon Raymonde, formerly of The Cocteau Twins as surreal, and finds comparisons in what the Lightman’s do musically flattering, returning to the importance of individuality in music. “The quality with The Cocteau Twins is that they were inventing a language that was their own, the singing especially, using words that weren’t English. I felt like it was so brave to sing like that, so I take it as a compliment.”
As our time comes to a close, I ask one final question about Do Easy and the fact that they recorded a refrain of the title track and put it on the record, which struck me as something you don’t hear in music very often anymore.
Sari says that she considers the refrain to be a really exciting element of music.
“An album is thematic; it’s nice to have a foundation for the listener to return to. That’s something that’s a really beautiful part of more classic records or maybe the type of records that people don’t do as much anymore. I don’t know how other people write albums, but we like to think of a theme. It’s a more creative way to tie the songs together.”
The Lightman sisters are also tied to the beautiful music they make together and as the closing words of Sari’s post just after Trump was elected make clear, to magic too. In an age where many politicians are seemingly unaccountable for their actions, there are still artists who are standing up for what they believe in, as well as writing brilliantly inventive and original music. With Do Easy, Tasseomancy have created a record that occupies its own world, one that isn’t afraid to cast a learned eye on the world we live in and sees a light amid the darkness.
“My sister and I come from a lineage of Matrilineal tea leaf readers who survived the pogroms in Europe and practised magic for survival… Women, queers, POCs, the poor, the disabled have been vilified and died in the name of magic. But we know that magic is hope; its protest to the bleak plate of reality served to us. So in releasing these songs, we hope that this album serves as a tiny wave in the ocean of expressive resistance.”