How Tia Cabral’s Pup Cooper Inspires Her Otherworldly Song Writing
“She’s been to my shows where I was trying to focus on my witchy mood, but I also wanted to just laugh because she was doing her head tilt.”
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Often what makes pet parenthood so special is moments of unspoken care, a level of connection that exists outside of spoken language. For musician Tia Cabral, known onstage as SPELLLING, this wordless joy is a huge part of her love for pet parenthood. Cabral’s dreamy music, often punctuated by harp, strings, synths, and other instruments that help create an otherworldly sound, seems dominated by this desire to access direct communication outside of the confines of words. Though her lyrics are certainly meaningful, the act of singing them feels just as focused on creating a mystical sonic atmosphere as it does on conveying the written meaning of the words.
We caught up with Cabral nearly four years after her dog, Cooper, came into her life, and just as she’s beginning to seriously consider adopting a second canine for the family. We chatted about the meaning of music making, dealing with anxiety both in dogs and in people, and what exactly Cooper makes of the sounds Cabral so skillfully creates.
I read in a 2018 interview that you only picked up music a couple years before you released your first LP. What first drew you to making music, and what keeps you making it?
The real catalyst was a close friend of mine passing away. They were an artist and a creator who really showed a lot of courage with trying new things. I think for a long time I was interested in making music, I felt like I had a really great musical instinct, but I was just too afraid and maybe a little bit too self critical to ever really invest in myself. When that happened, it was like, life is too short to be afraid and to think about the opportunities you could miss out on by just waiting. I went and bought equipment from my savings — a loop pedal, synthesizer, and some recording equipment — and just got to work.
How did Cooper come into your life?
My partner and I had been living together for a couple of years and I was talking nonstop about wanting a dog. It was when I went to grad school at Berkeley in 2017. I was like, this is the perfect time to get a dog because I won’t be working; I’ll have two years to devote to having a puppy. I had a big studio off campus, which had a big yard space and my workspace, so it just felt like perfect timing. We rescued Cooper from a shelter in Berkeley, and she just looked like a little goth dog, perfectly black and white split, and every other one of her nails is black.
That’s so sweet.
I just felt like, Oh yeah, she’s the one. She had a very fearful, timid disposition and she definitely showed signs of coming from a traumatic past and was very, very, very afraid — which is not a good sign in such a young puppy. She was only four months old. I have a soft spot for the sweeter underdog, and my partner and I both fell in love with her instantly.
It does seem like that’s a proper goth disposition, being kind of guarded. How did you choose the rescue where you found her?
It was close to my house at the time, and it was kind of old school, like they just put signs in their window with pictures of the dogs. We were talking ourselves out of it for a while, like, “It’s a lot of responsibility, are we sure we want a dog?” In the moment, [when we saw Cooper,] it just felt like this is finally the chance. We had been looking online and at other shelters and the whole process of it can kind of get intimidating. It’s a big commitment, but in the moment, it just felt right and we were ready. We left and we were like, “Wow, we have a dog now. I guess we gotta go shopping for all of her stuff.” We were just looking in the rearview mirror at her crate in the back, laughing. We thought of the name that day because we’re really into Twin Peaks and we thought that Special Agent Cooper was a pure-hearted character and she’s just so pure.
What was your experience with dealing with her anxiety and trying to help her with it and through it when you first got her?
It was super challenging because I think the trauma was so deep rooted. It took a long time to gain her trust and we were really devoted to her, but it was tough to manage our impulse to comfort her a lot and baby her. Especially with me — my instinct was to want to protect her and shelter her because she was afraid of people and other dogs, so there was a tension between wanting to do that and also needing her to socialize and get over those fears. Some things that I would have changed were more of a reflection of myself, which I feel like that comes out a lot through being a dog owner.
She’s come a long, long way in the three years that we’ve had her. When we used to take her on walks, she would freak out when a loud noise happened or a car went by or a dog wanted to say hello — she would go in defense mode. I wanted to pick her up and just walk away from the situation, but it shielded her from learning that the scenario wasn’t dangerous. I had to get some counseling about it and figure out how much she’s in tune with my emotions, because when I’m reeking of my own anxiety and fear, she’s just picking up on that. It’s like an echo chamber.
It’s so hard because you just want to help her.
I know! We’ve been working on it a lot and she’s much better. She’s still definitely shy and we have to be on top of it. We set her up for a good day — that’s how I say it. When we leave the house, I’m like, We’re gonna have a great walk and we’re gonna see other dogs! You’re gonna do great, I’m gonna do great. I’m not gonna panic, you’re not gonna panic.
It’s a good demonstration of how a dog can help you with managing your own anxieties.
Exactly, exactly. I relate to her a lot too because I have social anxiety. I have a lot of general fear of people too, for no reason, so I empathize with her. It is definitely like I’m coaching myself as well, like, We got this!
Does she have any reaction when you’re making music in the house?
Oh my goodness, yes. She does these really signature head tilts when she’s listening closely — I think it’s a Border Collie thing. They’re so overdramatic and she does it so much that it’s hilarious. Whenever a song plays, she’ll sit up if it’s something she likes or something that’s funny sounding, and just start tilting her head over and over. When she was a puppy, at my music studio in Berkeley, I remember getting a new synthesizer that had some really cool and strange space noises; when I plugged it in the amp and started making these funny noises, she gravitated towards the speaker. I was turning the volume down, but she wanted to sit by it and she laid down by it. She’s been to some of my shows where I was really trying to focus on my witchy mood, but I also wanted to just laugh so much because my partner was holding her in the audience and she was doing her head tilt.
Your approach to creativity feels so vast, like you have such strong visuals, and a strong mood, like the “witchiness” as you said. Would you say that Cooper inspires you or helps you figure things out artistically?
Yeah, absolutely. I try to tap into animal magic and the themes of nature a lot in the sounds that I make. Having somebody that I feel so connected with, and the wordless aspect of it, [helps.] I feel like she’s been such a subconscious part of writing, especially when I was making Mazy Fly. The element of tapping into nurturing and being empathetic— in a degree that I’ve always shared in other relationships and with friends — with this different creature a new language of communicating really just synced with becoming a new creator and making music.
She still continues to inspire me, and lately I’ve been having a lot of dreams about dogs. I’ve been wanting another dog for a long time, but I’ve been having more dreams about it, so I’m trying to follow that. I just submitted an application, so fingers crossed that that works out! It’d be awesome for her to have another buddy too.
Rachel Davies is a writer who has written for numerous publications including Vox, Wall Street Journal, and Architectural Digest and the parent of a beautiful Cocker Spaniel mix named Thea.