Filled with stark, striking imagery and captivating visual metaphors, Tal Wilkenfeld’s video for “Killing Me”—often the opening song at Wilkenfeld’s shows, and now the first from her compelling 2019 album, Love Remains, to get the cinematic treatment—is everything you’d expect from the introspective bassist/singer-songwriter. We asked Tal about the video, the song and bass line, and what she’s up to in these unprecedented times.
What led you to make the video, and why “Killing Me”?
I sat with my record and thought about what would be the most inspiring song to put a visual to, and I narrowed it down to “Corner Painter” and “Killing Me.” I decided to go with the latter. Honestly, I wish there was a way I could make videos for a bunch of the songs on my record. I completed the video right before I went on a five-week meditation retreat late last year. When I returned, the plan was to release the video with an American tour announcement, which was going to be in April, but of course had to be cancelled. Now that we’re in the heat of a pandemic, I felt like the video could be useful to some people, seeing as it addresses topics like isolation and self reflection. So, even though there’s no touring in my immediate future, it was important for me to release it.
What’s the concept of the video?
I wanted to share my experience of spending time in solitude, and how the most vulnerable or ugly aspects of yourself can surface. I spend a lot of time alone, which I enjoy and which is an integral part of being a writer. When I met the director, Marielle Tepper, I explained what it was like living in a monastery: An unadorned room with a bed, and you’re there with just your thoughts… or non-thoughts. That gave us a visual starting point. Once we had the final script and shot the video, the most challenging part was the editing—balancing the long, slow shots with more choppy cuts to keep the momentum of the song’s groove.
The two central characters appear to be you and your shadow.
Yes. Your shadows are the things you haven’t confronted about yourself. In the lyrics to “Killing Me,” I’m singing to and addressing “love.” Love could be another person, myself or my shadow self. It’s purposely left open. For the video, we wanted to keep that ambiguity with the other character. At first, my shadow [portrayed by dancer Amanda MacLeod] and I are in a battle of sorts, but things begin to shift after I take a bite from the book of knowledge.
Needless to say, you recommend a regular pattern of solitude and self-examination to everyone?
I do. It’s not always a walk in the park, but the results are exponential—at least they were for me. Many people don’t allow themselves to spend time alone. They don’t want to face their fears, but that’s the only way to free yourself from them. Even if you live with a lot of people, try to find some you-time to sit with your thoughts. Then, move past your thoughts to the spaces in-between them. Thats where the freedom is, and a lot of creativity can come from that.
Let’s focus on the song’s bass line, which carries the main, shifting rhythm, and for which you detuned your bass down to.
Even though “Killing Me” is in 4/4, a lot of people have asked me what meter it’s in, because the drum beat is syncopated and the groove starts with the snare on the one. Tuning down provided a darker sound, and the idea was to create an Eb pedal tone kind of feeling, with the addition of the occasional half-step movement up to E. Live, we open up the song before the third verse for some improvisation between [guitarist] Owen [Barry] and I. The tonality is based off of Eb Phrygian Dominant [The fifth mode of the Ab Harmonic Minor scale: Eb-Fb-G-Ab-Bb-Cb-Db-Eb]. For the album tracking, I played Jackson Browne’s P-Bass, which had roundwounds, and I recorded it through an Ampeg guitar amp. I was singing and playing at the same time, and we liked the overall take, so we kept and used it. Ever since I found my 1969 Fender Precision in Japan [Pictured below], I’ve played the song on that.
Let’s talk drummers. You’ve played songs from your album, with Jeremy Stacey, Tamir Barzilay, Keith Carlock, and Nate Werth. What has that been like?
It’s been a very enjoyable and rewarding experience to play with all of them. They each brought something very unique to my music. Jeremy is a song-playing master. He has an unbelievable pocket, and is able to approach so many different genres of music with an educated authenticity. Since he played on the record, he created the foundation upon which the other drummers embellish. On a few of the songs, I wrote the drum beat and then he’d put his signature sound and feel on it. Tamir, who has played my music the most as a consistent member of my touring band, brings his stylistic versatility and world music sensibilities. We grew up listening to a lot of the same music, so we had an instant musical connection. Almost mind-ready stuff. Keith has his signature energy and drive. Playing with him feels like you’re on an unstoppable train! It was great to play Jimmy Kimmel Live! with Keith because it felt like a reunion of sorts. That was the first time we’d played together since we toured with Wayne Krantz back in 2008. For that run, we played music from Wayne’s catalog and music from my first album [Transformation, 2007], which they both recorded on. When I started playing with Nate Werth, our intention was to play a more stripped down version of my songs. He created a hybrid set up, combining percussion with elements of a drum kit, which we showcased at the Bass Bash this past January. Doing that helped me reconnect to the lyrics and the essence of the compositions in a fresh way. It was fun to be able to play with someone who is virtuosic and can essentially play any style of music, and yet always plays what’s best for the song.
How are you passing time during lockdown?
Writing, cleaning, organizing, cooking, watching movies/TV and catching up on old projects that I never had time to finish. I’ve been going through older song ideas that I haven’t listened to in a while, along with writing new material. I’m also preparing a solo show. I did my first and only solo show in Berlin, Germany last September which ended up not really being a solo show because Jeremy Stacey and Kurt Rosenwinkle sat in for the majority of the set!
What’s upcoming for you when the world gets going again?
I’d like to do some solo performances, resume touring with my band, and make up some of the cancelled shows. Eventually I’d like to get into composing for film. Who knows though, after all this blows over, I might just become a professional chef! I like to take it day by day.
Tal Wilkenfeld’s bass line on “Killing Me” is a blend of pedal and non-root tones, melodic fills between vocal spaces, and funky, 16th-note subtext simmering under an 8th-note rock pulse. Wilkenfeld has further expounded on the part, as seen in live performances of the song on YouTube. Ex. 1 shows the main verse groove. With her P-Bass tuned down a half-step [Gb-Db-Ab-Eb], Tal hammers on the octave and ends each bar with a half-step move to E natural—adding a modern rock sensibility, while alluding to the song’s Eb Phrygian Dominant tomality. Ex. 2 contains four fills Wilkenfeld played when performing the song on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, see if you can locate them [link below]. Although Tal’s vocal melody echoes the key color tones of Eb Phrygian Dominant, for her fills she favors bluesy phrases. Finally, Ex. 3 shows the song’s B section/chorus. Wilkenfeld uses C#m and C (both with thirds in the bass) and a seamless bar of 6/4 to transiton to C major for the chorus—filling at the ends of measures 3 and 5.