Intertwining soothing vocals with breezy melodies on tracks that feel like a sonic caress, Hope Tala makes music that cures the soul.
Hope Tala’s artistic journey has been a wholly organic one. Born Hope Natasha McDonald, she began her musical education by playing clarinet and guitar at school. It was on one fateful day in 2016 that she made the leap and uploaded her “Peace Freestyle” demo to SoundCloud. Instagram creative platform Art Hoe Collective noticed and shared the song, leading Illegal Civilization founder Mikey Alfred to stumble upon the track and spin it on Pharrell’s Apple Music Beats 1 radio show. The moment acted as the launchpad for Hope Tala’s dream to become a reality. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, she boasts 1.2 million monthly listeners on Spotify – and counting – with fan favourites “All My Girls Like to Fight” and Aminé feature “Cherries” sitting at a whopping 10.8 and 9.3 million streams respectively. As testament to her popularity, almost all of Hope’s other tracks, such as “Lovestained” from her 2019 EP Sensitive Soul, pull in similar numbers.
Latest single, “Party Sickness”, is Hope’s first of 2022 and the second taste of a promised upcoming debut album, after 2021’s “Tiptoeing”. Both tracks stay true to her consistently summery, lighthearted sound, which pulls on everything from pop and R&B to jazz, indie, folk and bossa nova. “I’m such a harmonically-led person,” the 24-year-old muses when we catch up for this cover interview. “I’m very much led by chords when I’m making music… In bossa nova, often the lyrics and meaning take precedence over vocal dexterity. That’s something I’m very passionate about – letting the lyrics and the meaning be at the forefront of the music that I make. I like to think of my voice as the vehicle for that.”
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Having built a unique and instantly identifiable sound for herself that fans have come to know and love, Hope tells me reassuringly that she found her sound very early on, “And I’m never going to diverge too far from it.” Despite this, she feels it’s imperative to continue experimenting, growing, and switching it up with each project. “I think as an artist you just have to. Because you’re creative, the creative part of your brain is always challenging you. Once you consume new things, you use them in your work but still stay true to what you love and understand. It’s a very innate thing. That always comes quite naturally, just knowing what the sound should be like. But it’s striking that balance between making sure you know your sound and where you’re rooted, and still having space to experiment and change,” she explains. “The thing about me is that I know what I like. Even if I experiment a little bit, things are always going to follow a similar trajectory sonically.”
When Hope Tala was about 14, her mother played her “To Zion” by Lauryn Hill, and she describes it as “the most transformative thing I’ve heard in my life.”
“I would love someone to be able to say that about one of my songs one day,” Hope tells me, “but I just want people to have a connection to it in any way that they can. That’s why I think my sound being unique and original is so important to me, because I know that’s what I really gravitate towards when I listen to artists. I love when I’ve heard something that goes a little bit against the grain, or feels really authentic and unique to that artist. But connection in any way. I want people to feel something when they listen to my music… I want people to feel possessive over it, like it belongs to them.”
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Defining herself as a ‘Death of the Author’ type of artist, Hope stresses that rather than being a purist over her work, she wants listeners to find their own meaning in the songs and relate them to their own life experiences. Certainly, with many of her tracks discussing love, desire and romance, it’s easy to relate to Hope Tala’s music. 2021’s “Tiptoeing”, for example, looks at the trepidation experienced at the threshold of a new relationship. It’s an almost universal feeling that Hope once again captures succinctly.
As a self-described amourist who will “never not write love songs,” she tells me that she has recently been expanding beyond the borders of romantic love in her songwriting to sing about other types of love – that with her friends and family. And although she says she doesn’t write about politics, the state of the world or climate change, “I do think my work does have a political slant to it,” she asserts. “You can’t take politics out of it, because I am a queer woman of colour. Even if I’m not directly talking about certain issues, it’s implied or not extractable from the art. When I use female pronouns to talk about a woman in the song, that’s political, because it’s still controversial.” Often, Hope doesn’t use specific pronouns at all in her music, noting in a previous interview that she is “really conscious of the fact that there are people out there who need to feel seen and represented,” and that she wants “everyone to be able to like my music, no matter of creed, race, religion, gender, or sexuality.”
At the beginning of the year, Hope flew out to LA for writing sessions with eight-time Grammy award winning producer Greg Kurstin [Adele, Sia, Lily Allen] and songwriter Mozella [Miley Cyrus, Madonna], as well as friend and emerging producer Anoop D’Souza. “I’ve been making some music that’s really upbeat and fun, and a little bit 80s-tinged at times,” she reveals. “And then I’ve been making other stuff that’s on the flip side – slow, sad.” The artist set out each day with the task of writing one complete song – her usual process – as she believes it’s how the purest ideas form
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Her latest single, “Party Sickness”, released in February, was born out of a stagnant musical period when Hope was in LA last year, churning out writing sessions and unsure which direction to go in next musically. “It was my brother’s 21st birthday that day and I was really far away from him, so I wanted to write a fun song in celebration,” she recalls. “Something that I really like to do is make up new terminology within my music. With ‘Party Sickness’, I thought: ‘What’s a good way to describe this feeling of you go to a party, you have a couple drinks, and the fumes of the party get to your head? Or the vibe just like makes you feel a bit messy and chaotic?’ You want to have fun, cause a bit of drama, or be silly with your friends all clubbed together.” Her intention was to create a merry, lighthearted song, a goal she most definitely achieved. “The world’s been a depressing place as of late, and I think it’s important to make fun, happy music; to make people happy and to be the backdrop of happy experiences. I’m hoping that some people actually play the song at parties when those are possible,” she says.
Hope Tala has achieved so much since that first SoundCloud upload, but then again, she’s always been a high achiever. Securing a first-class degree at university, she was later accepted onto an English Literature postgrad at Cambridge University, which she ended up turning down as her musical career took off. With sold-out shows, 10s of millions of streams and global fan base, it would seem that Hope is ticking off every goal on a musician’s bucket list. “I do really focus on achievement,” she states. “I come from a family where my grandparents are Jamaican immigrants and were extremely poor, and I always think about the fact that my ancestors were slaves. I have always pushed myself.”
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“I am very, very aware of my privilege of having this incredible support system around me in my work life and my personal life, as well as from my fans,” Hope continues. “Having that support makes me want to please everyone and make everyone proud. It’s coming from a really positive place, but it’s definitely pressure nonetheless.” It’s not necessarily pressure to win awards or to have a certain number of streams, she elaborates; it’s more of a pressure to be the best artist she can be, to make the best music she can make, and create the best debut album possible. “A lot of people in my life have high expectations of me,” she says. “I often have to remind myself that if some of these things don’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. What I’ve done already is something to be proud of. It’s just a balance. I think if you don’t put any pressure on yourself, or feel any external pressure, it’s hard to strive for more. It’s a balance between acknowledging that pressure and not being afraid of it – embracing it a little bit, but also not too much where it engulfs me.”
Notions of pressure and achievement are captured in the title of her 2020 EP, Girl Eats Sun, which she has said is about being “strong enough to take the heat and really pursue the dream of music.” Looking back, does she now feel like she has eaten the sun? “I think I definitely have eaten the sun,” Hope asserts. “My confidence has grown so much… It’s performing live the last couple of months. Doing shows has boosted my confidence, helped my self-esteem and assuaged my imposter syndrome.”
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Originally, Hope’s plan was always to pursue education, do a Masters and then a PhD. “Although I would have loved that, I think that would have been in my comfort zone,” she ponders. Whilst songwriting has always been easy for her, it was gigging that initially had her on edge. “Now I’m way more comfortable doing them, and I love it so much,” she says. “The first few shows we did in October, on the Alina [Baraz] tour, were really, really nerve-wracking. Once I got over those nerves and started to love playing, it made me a whole new person. Once you learn what your priorities are and you start to see all the good parts of something, it does make you more confident. I think that happening has made me feel so happy to be here and know that I deserve to be here at the place I’m at in my career.” Transformed in her performing ability, Hope is about to hit the road with BENEE as the support for her UK and Europe tour this May.
At the end of it all, she hopes that she leaves a musical legacy behind, but affirms that she will “never put anything above my own happiness,” and knows that there are so many other facets of her existence to bring her joy and make her feel successful. “To me, I think it’s all about having really good relationships with the people in my life: my family, my friends, and always trying to be a better person and leave a good impact on the world. That’s small things like being kind, but also bigger things. Hopefully my music will create some type of lasting impact.”
The way Hope Tala is going, we have absolutely no doubts about that.