/ 16 January 2024

Tiya: A novel approach to music

Tiya (1)
Strings attached: Johannesburg musician Tiya says that the guitar is integral to her life and it plays a large role on her new EP Corvus. Photo: Radiya

On her new EP Corvus, Tiya enters swiftly, decidedly, urgently. Two seconds — one for each hum of the guitar string — and she’s off: “The confession sounded like something Corvus should’ve heard/ I’ve always felt the secrets of this soul were safe with her.” 

Fifteen seconds, and we’re introduced to Tiya, her voice, her subject, her intention. We’re taken into her confidence. We’re privy. 

To my conversation with her — late on a December evening, the sun sinking behind my laptop — Tiya enters late, in a repurposed hoodie and a velvet bonnet. She has her dinner in hand. “This isn’t a video recording, right?” she asks. 

To that enigmatic, slippery cacophony we wish to call “South African music”, Tiya enters a singular voice, not so much a breath of fresh air as a new mixture of the elements. 

I ask her to list her musical influences and she sighs deeply — all but cursing me for it: “I am afraid of this question.” 

The same exasperation plagues an attempt to list those musicians Tiya most brings to mind. Listeners of folk singer Bongeziwe Mabandla will delight at Tiya’s vocal lightness of touch; those charmed by last year’s breakout ensemble iPhupho L’ka Biko might find in her instrumentality the same touch of jazz, the evidence of a national tradition inherited.   

Released last month, Corvus is a slim project — five songs, 22 minutes — a fact which belies its true volume. The emotional terrain it traverses is vast and this finds expression in the proliferating quality of the EP’s musicality — transitions flow out of one discrete note; where one song begins tells nothing about where it will end. 

Corvus comes as Tiya’s second EP, following Cacoëthes, released in 2021 but which began in 2014. “There were some stupid names,” Tiya says. 

She doesn’t scorn that younger self though; she thanks her. 

“I just decided I cannot graduate high school without releasing this thing,” she remembers promising herself. It was a promise she kept. 

The singer of the line “these hollowed eyes have collected a lot of dust” is in fact just 20 years old. Tiya was born and raised in Johannesburg; she credits her making as a musician, at least in part, to driving through the city’s streets in her parents’ car with the music of the Nigerian singer-songwriter Asa setting the score. 

“The first thing I ever wanted to be was a rock star,” she tells me. 

This was more than juvenilia. She began playing the guitar at six years old; the thread which would continue into her adult life: “I think it’s integral to who I am; it’s shaped who I am a lot — the fact that I’m a guitarist and a pianist. 

“I don’t think I would have started writing, seeing music as expression or writing poetry if I hadn’t started playing guitar.” 

The photographer Nan Goldin — who Tiya admires — wrote, in the book of her photographic exhibition The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, “If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex.” 

The guitar — and all that combines to form this eclectic one-woman orchestra — seems to occupy a similar place in Tiya’s musicianship. “Your suffering unseen/ that’s what these songs are about,” we’re told. The further into the EP we get, though, the less the words need to say. Tiya’s unmistakable guitar solos emerge as an equal expression of her being, a vessel as essential as her voice. 

However, her lyrics refuse to be dismissed. “I’ve travelled paths to war and tunnels into sin/ there is nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you,” she sings at the inflection point of the EP’s third song, Middlesex

The song’s title alludes to Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel of the same name and then dissolves seamlessly into Giovanni’s Room, after James Baldwin’s classic second novel, and worthy of the title. In it, Tiya sings of “worlds made of flowers” — the lyric doubles as a description all who are familiar with Baldwin’s prose will nod their heads at.

Corvus, like Giovanni’s Room, has its main character, its muse. The EP, Tiya says, “is personal, a gift”. 

“It wasn’t made for the ears of everyone else. Arythmia, Green Jeans — that is how I confessed my love. I didn’t say the words. I sang those songs.” 

Why, then, go to literature, I ask.

“Choice of words and telling a story through images and equivocation isn’t an attempt to create distance from the feelings,” she retorts. 

“It’s more like there are things that can’t be commonly described — the most profound feelings can’t be described on a one-to-one basis.”

And this registers to Tiya herself as much as her listeners. She recalls performing songs from both of her EPs: “I almost cried on stage multiple times because these are such important, personal things to me.” 

She brings to her music a certain purity: “I’m not writing for the listeners,” she says. “I’m writing for the sake of the writing, for the sake of the emotions.”

Spending time on this question — why Tiya goes to novels — we were asking another: Why do we still go to literature, to art, when our image-saturated world presents many less-demanding demands over our time? 

Middlesex crescendos — as a number of the EP’s songs do — with a reverberation produced by Tiya’s voice layered on top of itself. We hear from a fractured Tiya, each version of herself living to tell the tale, refusing to present one emotion as all-consuming, realising the lie in singularity, submitting to the multiplicity of experience. 

That’s what the literary arts allow for — the ability to say an experience is this, just as Tiya presents her own experience. 

Corvus is a record of love and of solitude, of permanence (“kiss my neck leave your mark on me”) and ephemerality (“so you live beyond my memory”), of inevitability and invention, of confinement and transcendence.

The EP ends with Tiya singing of “a moment so gentle/ they pull at my heartstrings”, just as she strips back the guitar to a melody marked by two notes, guitar strings giving way. 

On Soon the scaffolding falls, the cracks are left undisguised, the blemishes made visible. The façade of precision, of perfection, slips away: “Make your mistakes,” she starts, “I don’t remember when it all became so convoluted.”

The final 45 seconds of Corvus are its crowning moment. Tiya’s voice envelopes itself, she is safe, held, loved, felt, at the same time. 

And then she’s quiet. She exits softly, leaving us with what we have heard, lived. In the five-second descent into silence that ends Corvus, we hear the echo of one of its lines: “Night ran away, I saw hundreds of years.”