Cosmic Femme Punk Visionary: A Conversation with Taleen Kali

Taleen Kali photo by Emery Becker

I first encountered Taleen Kali at a small zine fair that was taking place in an open air courtyard in an arty Los Angeles strip mall. “How LA,” I thought. While browsing, I was struck by Taleen’s beautifully put together publication, DUM DUM Zine, and the sense of both playfulness and artistic gravitas surrounded her. So of course, after picking up a copy of the zine, I did what any fangirl would do: I followed her on Instagram. Through the images and stories she shares I learned about Taleen’s work as a yoga instructor, guitar shredder, dog-mom to an adorable pup named Leelo, her recent shoot with BUST magazine as a glitter makeup model, and got a sense that there’s almost a mystical girl gang that hovers around her. She seemed to embody the spirit of Weird Sister, so of course I had to talk with her more. We caught up over email about intersecting artistic identities and communities, cultivating creative rituals to survive these current political times, and the upcoming EP she is recording.

Eleanor Whitney: You do so much! You are a writer, editor, artist, musician, yogi, glitter makeup model and all around badass. Do you distinguish between your different projects or do you see them more as one integrated art practice?

Taleen Kali: The glitter makeup story for BUST Magazine was definitely a fun surprise!

As an interdisciplinary artist my projects have always been conduits, helping me to excavate and express different parts of my identity. I think it’s human nature to compartmentalize, yet the more stuff I make the more I realize it’s coming from the same source, even if it’s expressed through different mediums.

EW: You have played in punk bands around L.A. for a few years and now you are gearing up to record and release a solo EP and play a type of music you describe as “cosmic femme punk.” How did you hit on that description for your sound?

TK: All the writing and music projects over the years helped me figure out what I really wanted to write, and ultimately sing about: transcending the bullshit, comprehending the beauty of the divine feminine, and elevating my surroundings. Arriving at that mindset is what cosmic femme punk means to me.

Over time my music began to evolve from this “doom” persona, becoming less about bleak narratives and more about sonic expression and reclaiming femme visibility, and getting to decide what that means. As a first generation Armenian American it’s really important for me to use my voice and resources to uplift fellow women of color, queer communities, trans folx, and other marginalized voices. What we need to talk about will change too as media and culture evolves, so I thought: why not start with “FEMME AS FUCK” and go from there?

EW: Ah, I noticed a theme with the f-bombs, especially with your new t-shirts that have “Who the fuck is Taleen Kali” printed on them. How did you develop those?

TK: Haha yea! My friend Aurora Lady who collaborated with me on the shirts had this great idea of plastering that phrase based on a shirt Keith Richards was wearing in the ’70s. When I saw it I thought…wow…this means something completely different when we talk about a woman. I heard this voice in the back of my head saying “who the fuck does she think she is?” I think it’s a voice a lot of us are familiar with, and it scared me. That’s when I knew we had to do it. So we had them screen printed by hand at ALL(MOST) Studio & Gallery. They just came in last night and they’re up in the merch shop with Buttons by Bummer Popsicle.

EW: I love appropriating old, white-dude rock and roll for your own purposes. Good work. Who else are some of your “cosmic femme punk” influences?

TK: Right now Hedwig is my biggest influence… I can’t stop watching. I was a latecomer to it! In addition, Alice Bag, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Arthur Russell, Brad Laner, Blondie, PJ Harvey, Kathleen Hannah, my glitter angel Aurora Lady, and my cosmic friend Yumi Sakugawa, who will also be doing illustrations for each of the songs on my EP for a companion zine. It’s the third zine we’re collaborating on together!

EW: Congratulations on your upcoming EP! Tell me a little more about the songs you will be recording and releasing – what influenced you to write them and what are your hopes for realizing them in the recording studio?

TK: I began writing these EP songs after I realized I wanted to stop reliving the pain around me: I wanted something more, especially if i was going to be singing them over and over again. I wanted to honor possibility, transition, expansion, a glimmer of hope that shows you something can change.

“Half Lie” is about choosing to walk away and allowing yourself to live in the moment of indecision before letting go.”Lost & Bound” is the name of a DUM DUM Zine Issue we made. I loved the title so much I decided to write a song out of it. It became about knowing you’ll be fine even though the world tries to tell you that you’ve lost everything, and it has a disco beat because why the hell not dance to that epiphany? I’ll leave the rest a surprise, but I love the way they sound with our full band and I can’t wait to bring them into the studio to experiment and see how the sounds stretch out in a new way.

TK: We recorded those ourselves DIY style with the amazing musicians Miles Marsico, Natasha Pasternak, Catherine Serafin, Rachel Fannan and a buncha gear packed into my music studio Bedrock in Echo Park. We’ve been playing these songs live for a few months and I wanted to hear how they got captured in a more controlled environment. I also created the demos for sentimental reasons and to get a cool snapshot of what things sound like now before we go into pre-production and studio time.

EW: It’s awesome you collaborate with so many other artists, especially other women and people of color.  seems like there’s a lot of energy behind the art, music, and cultural expression coming out of LA right now. What does it feel like on the inside?

TK: The DIY and zine scene in L.A. has saved my life over and over again. I’ve met some of my closest friends through L.A. Zine Fest and I feel so grateful for it. I love Junior High in Hollywood, a rad feminist space where I teach yoga every Sunday and the girls rock camp scene brings me joy every summer because we get to meet awesome young girls and teach them how to make zines and rock out!

Like any other part of L.A. though, we have a seedy underbelly and a rat race that breaks my heart, organizations that capitalize on the word “feminism” as hype, parroting its hallmarks but not really valuing inclusivity or safe spaces. I hope that can change over time.

Taleen Kali by Aurora Lady

Photo of Taleen Kali by Aurora Lady

EW: What impact or influence does LA and the punk, feminist community you are part of have on what you create?  (also no joke I just took a pause from writing these questions to order gold metallic ankle boots that were on sale on Topshop… okay back our conversation)

TK: Hahah I love it, I bought a pair of glitter boots recently too! My female friendships are irreplaceable pillars of my support system, and they empower me to keep making stuff in spite of the negativity in the world. I love playing cool DIY, community and feminist shows that benefit organizations like Trans Lifeline, ACLU, and my show on March 4th at Women Fuck Shit Up Fest has all the proceeds going to Alexandria House. These kinds of events mean something more than just a good show—it helps us go beyond our individual struggles to try and find new paradigms of helping through our art.

Taleen Kali by Jennifer Emerling

EW: Okay, so real talk because life and art is not all glitter and you mentioned LA being somewhat of a rat race—how do you balance all the many projects and jobs you do and stay grounded in the process of creativity?

TK: Rituals help me a lot, whether they’re related to the moon or the time of day. I learned about rituals with my beloved yoga teachers Christy Marsden and Bekah Turner at Yoga Blend. I do morning pages and a personal yoga practice as a ritual every morning, and I’ve just started doing music rituals for an hour each evening, to sort of bookend the day.

EW: Since the election I’ve seen a lot of posts from my artist and creative friends that basically read, “Art is an act of resistance! Keep making!” while I agree, I also ask myself, what does that really mean? Ignore what’s going on and keep making? Get literal and create something to benefit planned parenthood or the ACLU? What does “art as resistance” mean to you? Does it resonate or is resistance and art really an expression of who you are?

TK: I remember those posts started popping up the day right after Trump got elected and I thought: “Make art? I can’t even think straight right now!” I taught yoga the morning after election day and I view yoga more as an act of service. I was so grateful to teach that morning because I was too numb to do anything else, and I wanted to be in community. It was really inspiring to watch my friends make art when I couldn’t think about it at all. I watched and cheered on and helped however I could, again, looking for that sense of community, lifting each other up.

My act of resistance is honoring my own process because it generally isn’t valued in our culture. I’m working to be more intuitive, swimming through ideas to find the one that has that kernel of inner truth. It’s often hard work to find that kernel when we’re constantly told how to be. Whether or not I’m writing a new song or making a piece of art, the biggest act of resistance I have is the ability to take up space. I’ve been using it onstage to make people feel safe during shows, whether they’re DIY or in a sleazy club, to let them know they can speak up if they feel unsafe. I  think offering safety is the most sacred thing you can give anyone right now.

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