Photo: Grace Coudal

“We cannot save the world if we are burned out…”

There’s always a lightbulb moment in every artist’s life. For the Chicago poet, activist and songwriter Tasha Viets-VanLear, known mononymously as Tasha, it was Nikki Giovanni’s poem ‘Ego Tripping’. “It was cool to read a poem from a black woman about her talking about how she’s the shit,” says Tasha. Giovanni’s positive affirmations introduced Tasha to the majesty of language, with which she would create songs that contained worlds where black women could be fully themselves.

Released on Father/Daughter records (whom she was introduced to by New York singer-songwriter, Vagabon), Tasha’s debut release Alone At Last is a succinct seven-track album made up of delicately-cooed acoustic songs about love, healing and self-care. “I try to make music that will allow folks that respite for a moment,” says Tasha. “We cannot save the world if we are burned out.”

Tasha was born and raised in Chicago with her mother and two brothers. As a kid she was involved in theatre and her mother taught her how to play guitar at the age of 15. Musical theatre classics and folk singers from her mum’s music library were the soundtrack to her early years. As she got older her stereo was taken over by Michelle Branch and eventually R&B and soul in high school.

After studying at the majority-white liberal arts college St. Olaf in Minnesota, Tasha became more politicised but found her attempts at organising weren’t working, so she moved back to Chicago after graduating. There she organised around racial justice and police violence with Black Youth Project 100. For Tasha, politics and creativity are always intertwined and are based on her identity as a black queer woman.

Her sound is reminiscent of early Lianne La Havas or the sparser offerings of Laura Mvula. Though she takes cues from soul, she’s reluctant to allow it to define her musical output and aware of the racialised categorisation that can go along with the label. “If I were on a set of all soul singers I don’t think I would fit.” She adds: “One of my biggest inhibitors comes from trying to fit into other people’s expectations of what I should make.”

Tasha is one of many young women of colour who are creating on their own terms regardless of genre. Her fellow Chicago musicians Jamila Woods (whom she toured with), electro R&B singer Kaina, and the neo-soul influenced Akenya all follow this path.

Tasha’s first release the Divine Love EP (2016) was a far cry from her later musical explorations as she melded black positivity with relaxed neo-soul beats. Her musical interest shifted when she fell in love with the guitar again in late 2016 and focused on the soft sounds that would become her debut.

Mostly written at her grandfather’s house in the woods of Wisconsin, Tasha took those early Alone At Last demos to Chicago producer and drummer for The O’My’s, Eddie Burns. Burns helped Tasha keep the lo-fi aesthetic of her early demos while adding a hazy, dream-like quality to each song.

“It’s an amazing thing to have our exceptionalism praised and recognised in such a way but then it turns into a pressure…

The album’s message of healing is directed specifically towards black women, turning the term ‘Black Girl Magic’ on its head on ‘Lullaby’ to question why black women always have to be perfect. “It’s kind of a rebuttal almost to this expectation of black women to always be sharing their magic with people and using their magic,” explains Tasha. “It’s an amazing thing to have our exceptionalism praised and recognised in such a way but then it turns into a pressure.”

As a black woman playing across indie circuits Tasha knows the power her identity can bring. “My presence in spaces and on stages will mean something different than a white man being on those stages or a white woman being in those spaces.”

Though she has had to cut down the amount of organising work she took on, her activism can still be heard and seen on every stage she graces. She says: “If there’s a young black girl who comes to a show and sees me playing guitar I want her to think that’s something she can do. Whenever I see women leading bands or being on really big stages it makes a huge difference.”

Tasha new album, Alone At Last, is out now via Father/Daughter Records.