Necessity is the mother of invention: Tamar-kali on “Shirley”

Tamar-kali Shirley "Shirley" composer Tamar-kali.

Welcome back to the Spool’s weekly interview podcast, More of a Comment, Really…, where editor-in-chief Clint Worthington talks to actors, filmmakers, composers and other figures from the realm of film and television.

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Brooklyn-born artist Tamar-kali has made huge waves as a composer despite being only three years into the gig. Her first feature-length score was her sparse, chamber-infused work on 2017’s Mudbound — but she’s spent years before that as a vocalist, Afropunk musician, and composer for projects like the Psychochamber Ensemble and her own five-piece alt-rock group. Her sound is infused with a melange of cultural and historical signposts, from her Catholic upbringing to her Afro-Indigenous roots, bringing a clear strain of Afrocentric feminism to her musical palette.

Josephine Decker‘s Shirley is no exception; a fictionalized snapshot of the life of American horror writer Shirley Jackson (a fuming, righteously angry Elisabeth Moss), Decker’s film peers into her struggles with mental illness, agoraphobia, and the tricky tightrope of female genius in a male-dominated world that both celebrates and patronizes her. Her sounds are ambitious, startling, and unexpected, leaning into the sparseness of voice and piano and string in ways that seem to creep into the psyches of her lonely, isolated characters.

Tamar-kali’s score is a perfect accompaniment to Decker’s camera, yearning vocals brushing against pizzicato strings and lilting piano. It’s beautiful and haunting at the same time, and traps you in Jackson’s mind just as Jackson traps herself in her home.

Shirley received a very positive notice from us at Sundance, and now that the film is available in virtual theaters and on Hulu, we sat down with Tamar-kali to talk about the film, working with Josephine Decker, her long-standing collaboration with Dee Rees, and her other ambitious projects on the horizon.

Listen to our podcast interview with Tamar-kali above, and listen to the score for Shirley on Spotify below.

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)

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