Natalie Chami of TALsounds opens for Xiu Xiu at the Empty Bottle on March 31. Credit: Anthony Nguyen

For the past three months Natalie Chami, a Chicago high school teacher who’s been making music as TALsounds since 2011, has been fastidiously learning songs from her new album, Love Sick. If you think it seems backward to record first and learn the material later, you’re not wrong. Right from the beginning, Chami has improvised every TALsounds performance and recording, using digital looping technology to layer piano, synthesizer, and other electronics with her ethereal vocals. She creates her meditative, richly melodic ambient pieces from scratch each time, and only recently has she even tried to repeat herself—for years, she never played any songs from her recordings onstage.

Love Sick comes out Friday, and it’s the first TALsounds release on New York label Ba Da Bing. Chami considers it her fourth full-length, among several splits and shorter recordings. In her live sets, she generally leads her audience on an uninterrupted journey, but when she records (almost always at home) she typically divides her music into shorter chunks, ranging from four to ten minutes. As she prepares to embark on an east-coast tour this summer to support the new album, she’s decided it might help to be able to reproduce some of its tracks live.

“Maybe some people will want to hear a song they can recognize,” Chami says. “It’s been weird. It’s challenging as far as theory goes, trying to figure out which parts are important—’How can I redo this?’ I’m super type A, and when I do this I’m not feeling or vibing as much as I would like to. I’m concerned with getting this part right. It turns into something like classical music, which I love, but it’s the opposite of how I like performing.”

If you’ve heard TALsounds’ music, it might come as a surprise that it’s completely improvised—with its poppy polish, it could hardly have less in common with established improvisatory genres such as free jazz or noise. Chami’s moody confections flow with organic grace, and in performance she never seems to be at a loss for what comes next—she arrives at an idea and brings it to life, with no perceptible latency.

Max Allison, one of Chami’s bandmates in the trio Good Willsmith (and a solo performer under the name Mukqs), is as familiar with her approach as any outsider could be. “She has mastered the art of ‘live production,’ for lack of a better term,” he says. “The layered loops she creates live sound like deliberate overdubs that were pored over in a studio setting.” She’s mastered this style of performing with discipline, focus, and determination—the same virtues she’s applying to the transcription of her improvised songs for her tour.

Chami, 30, was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, by Lebanese immigrants who’d arrived in Canada in 1982, about five years before her birth. When she was ten, her mother and a new stepfather moved the family to Falls Church, Virginia, where she remained until coming to the midwest in fall 2005 to study at Northwestern.

She began formal piano studies when she was five and she sang in her school choir. Her listening habits were largely a product of her environment—first she absorbed the rap, R&B, and dance music that her older sister loved, and later she got into Deftones and Incubus alongside her middle-school peers. Her tastes were broad from an early age, and that openness has stayed with her over the years. During high school in Falls Church she joined an indie-folk band, and after moving to Evanston for college she sang backing vocals and played organ in another folk group. It wasn’t until she moved to Chicago in her senior year that she discovered synthesizers and the local rock scene.

Chami had decided in high school that she wanted to be a music teacher, and at Northwestern she studied opera and education. After graduating in 2009, she landed a plum gig teaching at the Chicago High School for the Arts, which was just about to open—originally located inside Pershing Magnet School at 32nd and Calumet, it’s since moved to Humboldt Park. “It’s my dream job,” she says. Chami’s coworkers are a community of working artists, and one of her students, R&B singer Ravyn Lenae (who’s finishing her senior year), recently toured with Noname and signed a deal with Atlantic.

Lenae has loved having Chami as a teacher. “As a sophomore, I remember being extremely inspired by her music when she performed for the class,” she says. “At this time, I was beginning to create my own music and needed that last push. I thought her music was very intriguing, especially because her performance is very nontraditional and exciting. I immediately thought to myself, ‘Hey, chicks can do cool things too!'”

In late 2010, Chami launched her first serious performing project in Chicago, an ambient duo called L’eternebre with bassist Brian Griffith. They secured a weekly residency at Wicker Park bar Rodan, but when Griffith moved to Los Angeles the following year, Chami was left in the lurch—so she began performing solo as TALsounds. (She’d been using the name since 2009, though not in public—”Tal” is a shortened version of “Natalie”). Those shows soon brought her into Good Willsmith: Allison and the future trio’s third member, Doug Kaplan, had been told by a friend to check out Chami’s music. They saw her play at Rodan and enlisted her for an experimental rock band they wanted to start.

Allison and Kaplan introduced Chami to Chicago’s thriving DIY scene, a sprawling network of largely underground performance spaces whose community of artists defines itself more by self-reliance and a progressive punk ethos than by any specific genre. Good Willsmith itself certainly doesn’t fit into any one genre—it collides jammy psychedelia, electronic dance music, and a trunkload of other sounds, among them Chami’s lush ambience and concise melodies. The band quickly put her on the map, and after Allison and Kaplan founded the Hausu Mountain cassette label in 2012, they began releasing not just Good Willsmith’s music but also Chami’s work as TALsounds.

TALsounds has steadily developed over the past six years. Chami retains her talent for lengthy excursions, some shot through with thrilling dissonance and blobby abstraction, but she’s sharpened her practice so that she also has the option to develop an almost poppy feel, with her music covering its luxurious sweep in a swifter, more assured way.

“The way her tracks unfold in narrative arcs owes a lot to her piece-by-piece introduction of elements to her live mix,” Allison says. “She isn’t worried about her sessions fitting into a grid or coming off as a rigidly structured pop song. She makes very long loops that have tons of room within them for arrhythmic elements to loosely tumble together.”

Allison has also watched Chami increase her mastery of her gear and her voice. “Like any improviser, she has a box of tools that she pulls from in given situations,” he says. “She can dial in on a synth whatever tone she hears in her mind, within the limits of that synth. She can cast off vocal lines in so many different styles—from operatic highs to manic whispers to screams to gentle singsong melodies. She knows the EHX 2880 multitrack loop pedal front to back, and uses it like a digital audio workstation on a computer—fading loops in and out, blasting the whole mix into pitch-shifted madness when she sees fit.”

Last spring Ba Da Bing founder Ben Goldberg reached out to Chami about opening for one of his label’s artists, Georgia singer-­songwriter Claire Cronin. Chami took the gig—and also noticed that Goldberg had bought several TALsounds releases through Bandcamp. Never one to dither in the face of an opportunity, she asked if he wanted to release her music. He said yes.

In July 2016, Good Willsmith left on a short tour to support its latest album, Things Our Bodies Used to Have (Umor Rex), but Chami cut it short partway through. The band has essentially been on hiatus since then. “I love them, but I can’t be around Doug and Max 24-7 anymore,” she says. “I could when I was younger, but I don’t sleep well when I’m around them because they snore—it’s hard.” She breaks into laughter.

TALsounds at Silent Barn in Brooklyn on June 11, 2016
TALsounds at Silent Barn in Brooklyn on June 11, 2016Credit: Ashley Ayarza

Chami needed to take a break from Good Willsmith for more than one reason, though. When she confirmed her deal with Ba Da Bing last summer, Goldberg asked if she could get him a finished album in August—he was aiming for January release. At that point, she hadn’t even begun to record. The label eventually pushed the release date back, but the deadline lit a fire under Chami. She threw herself into the project with characteristic discipline, recording almost every day. On November 11, when she finished the final song that would appear on Love Sick, she had more than 18 hours of music to choose from.

For her previous releases—most of which have come out on Hausu Mountain—Chami has fed everything she’s played into her computer through a single channel, which has given her little flexibility in postproduction. Her boyfriend Erik Rasmussen is a sound engineer, and he’s often helped edit or master her recordings and do whatever limited mixing was possible. For Love Sick he was intimately involved from the beginning—Chami reconfigured her setup to use several channels, so that she and Rasmussen could extensively mix and manipulate the music’s individual layers of sound after she recorded them.

“I make a chart of every date that I record, and right after I’m done I add it to a spreadsheet,” Chami says. “I’ll number the songs and try to listen back and figure out the text or the lyrics that I sang and describe what it sounds like—the mood and the length—and later I’ll go back and start listening to them and rating them. I go through and try to pick things that complement each other. While I’m doing that, Erik starts to mix what I just picked, and then I keep recording.” After wrapping up recording in November, she spent two months mixing and sequencing the album with Rasmussen and submitted it to the label on January 17.

TALsounds, Mukqs, Sam Prekop, Matchess
Tue 5/30, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, $7, 21+

Sat 6/2, 6 PM, Reckless Records, 1379 N. Milwaukee, free, all ages

Three days later, early on a rainy Thursday evening, an inattentive driver hit Chami with his car as she left ChiArts. “I was crossing the street to go to my car, and I slipped in the crosswalk,” she says. “A guy turning left at the four-way stop didn’t see me fall or walk or be on the ground, and he ran over both of my legs. I had just fallen and I thought, ‘All of these people just saw me eat shit,’ and then my next thought was, ‘I’m getting run over by a car.’ And then I was like, ‘Am I alive or paralyzed?'”

Miraculously, Chami suffered no major broken bones, and she was discharged from the hospital that same evening. “I was thrilled . . . ‘This is awesome, amazing,'” she remembers thinking. “‘I’m going back to work on Monday.'” By Saturday, though, the drugs she’d been given were no longer a match for the pain—she was incapacitated, and she still couldn’t move her legs. While she went through a grueling rehab program, she missed six weeks of work and had to cancel several shows she’d booked. When she spoke to me a couple weeks ago, she’d just started wearing heels again.

Since finishing intensive physical therapy in March, Chami has been learning the beautiful songs on Love Sick, the most assured and cohesive album of her young career. “I think it all sounds more contained into a single vibe throughout, because it was all recorded in a shorter span,” she says. She made most of her previous albums over the course of a year, she explains, rather than in a few months. Her vocals are more present in the mix—she credits the sound of her favorite Björk song, “Cocoon,” as her model.

Chami is especially excited about the exposure she hopes a Ba Da Bing release will bring—it’s an older, more traditional label than Hausu Mountain, with a bigger staff and more resources. When a box of vinyl copies of the new record showed up in the mail, she says she cried. “It’s something I’ve been working towards,” she says. “I would love to be recognized for my music.” v