Spellling Shoots for the Stars on the Dazzling “The Turning Wheel”

Like many indie fans, I often am fascinated by shambolic, minimalistic recordings, which can have an authenticity and relatability that is refreshing compared to the big budget slickness of more mainstream music. But there is still that part of me that craves big sounds and large-scale ambitions, and some of my favorite albums are when an independent-minded artist goes all out with a bunch of crazy ideas. The Turning Wheel, the new album by Spellling (Chrystia Cabral), is one of the finest examples of this in recent years: following up her excellent 2019 album Mazy Fly, she successfully crowdfunded over 20,000 dollars on Kickstarter and used it to pay a massive crew of musicians to bring her concept to life. These resources, along with her natural development as a songwriter, have allowed her to bring her music to dazzling new heights.

Spelllling earns the obvious Kate Bush comparisons here due to the complex studio arrangements, fantastical lyrics, and the way she bends and twists her voice into different registers, at times seeming to represent different characters in the music. Sometimes these comparisons are unfair and burdensome, but I’d argue nobody has come this close to capturing what makes Kate Bush so fun to listen to: the feeling of being totally in the grip of an eccentric artist and transported to her weirdo fantasy world. Spellling does not sound like anyone else, and beyond the specifics of the sound or lyrics, what makes The Turning Wheel so addictive is its spirit, its desire to show the listener something new and take them somewhere far away.

It’s probably worth noting that there are ways to be ambitious without using entire orchestras and making hour-long albums, and I’m sure more low-key artists are also often pushing themselves to the limits in their own way. But there is still an epic, shooting-for-the-stars feeling with The Turning Wheel that is exciting and something I’d been missing in indie music lately. The opener and lead single, “Little Deer,” sets the tone with a lengthy piano and strings intro that leads into Spellling’s mystical vocals and lyrics which are later joined by some horns. This song alone has more ideas and complexity going on than most albums, and the rest of The Turning Wheel is similarly constructed to overwhelm the listener at all points.

This is an album for anyone who gets excited when they see 30 different instrumentalists credited on the Bandcamp page, including a clarinetist, a brass quintet, harp, and “shredding electric guitar.” The sheer volume of sounds contributes to every song feeling a bit like a self-contained fairy tale, with Spellling’s voice also contributing to a variety of moods, ranging from haunting spookiness to more upbeat and stirring sounds that almost sound like part of a Disney soundtrack. To attempt to describe everything going on would be fruitless, and also would ruin a lot of the fun with The Turning Wheel. It’s rare to hear an album that is this different and so authentically quirky and surprising at every turn.

Beneath all the flourishes and extravagance lies a moving and presumably semi-autobiographical portrait of an intensely creative individual who sometimes struggles to connect with the outside world. On “Always,” she sings “How can I ever know what love can truly be/I want to live alone inside my fantasies,” and its evident from the surrounding music that this album is a product of that mindset. “Boys at School” goes into the past, portraying a lonely 15-year-old who says “four walls is all I need of friends,” while on “The Future” she is like a possibly time traveling Rapunzel who is “hiding inside my mind in a tower no one would climb.” It’s not hard to piece together that this is an artist who really needs this kind of art to express herself.

These songs and words are the key to what makes The Turning Wheel so effective: rather than just being weird for the sake of it, there is purpose behind everything on this album and it all works together to bring Cabral’s fantasies to life. While these songs are undeniably theatrical — sometimes it straight-up resembles a Broadway musical or one woman show — it also all feels organic and genuine. I think Spellling put a lot of herself into this and it’s her most successful album at grounding her musical experimentation in more tangible feeling. Anyone who still looks for something new in art and values the power of self-expression should seek out The Turning Wheel and celebrate it.

Spellling’s “Mazy Fly” is One of the Year’s Most Original Albums

Mazy Fly, the second album by Spellling, feels like a throwback to a sound that never actually existed. Its vintage, sometimes cheesy-sounding electronics bring to mind the 80s while Chrystia Cabral’s soulful voice is reminiscent of classic funk or disco singers. It’s an odd mix of traits that doesn’t feel like it should work, and it took me a couple listens to get used to the album’s sound and its weird internal logic. A few listens later, I’m somewhat awed that an album can be this listenable while having such a unique sound.

Cabral is a really good singer in a conventional sense — she can hit notes and emote in a way that is similar to a lot of much more popular artists who are on the radio. But rather than let that gift be used in generic pop songs, she has her own vision that is haunting, spacey and alien. The mix of the conventional and the uncanny makes everything on the album feel a little off in a way that distinguishes it from other music in this space. On the opener, “Red” she twists her voice into something more grotesque, reminding me of someone like Fever Ray. Other songs like “Haunted Water” have more of a darkwave influence, with creepy strings and a more macabre vibe. The album’s centerpiece, “Under the Sun,” is probably the best showcase of all of her traits, with its long cinematic intro, celestial lyrics, and retro-futuristic sound.

The mysterious, out of place sound of Mazy Fly fits with its themes, which are similarly hard to pin down. The album’s Bandcamp page has its own press release explanation of what’s going on, but I think it’s more effective as a vague, ambiguous journey, and the variety of sounds gives the listener a lot of freedom to put it together themselves. More than anything, the joy of this album is hearing such a talented artist maximize her abilities and go down her own path instead of taking the easier road traveled by so many others.