This past August I attended a CD release party at the Hotel Café’s Second Stage and when the music was over and hellos and goodbyes said slipped into the larger Main Stage. I found myself in a packed room dominated by a stunning creature on the stage who filled the venue with some of the most beautiful music I have heard there or at any club. I say “creature” in a good way – a beautiful apparition clothed in a shear black bodysuit overlaid with intricate silver arrays, swept back purple-dyed undercut hair and a smile like a small sun. This was the first time I encountered Whitney Tai and I was blown away.
I only heard half of her last song, but I could tell from the verse and chorus I did hear that she had a rare ability: she could convert notes to feelings. I worked my way through the crowd, introduced myself and booked her an interview next month on my radio show. But before the interview I wanted to experience a complete live performance. The first opportunity was last weekend at Bar20, an fashionable high-style watering hole attached to a upscale hotel on Sunset Boulevard. If she could achieve the same level of engagement and emotion from Bar20’s tiny stage and minuscule PA, it would validate my first impression. She did.
I should not have been surprised. Whitney Tai is a singer-songwriter daredevil who creates dream pop by balancing deftly on the cutting edge of pop and indie, floating between the two worlds with an emotional honesty and a soft gut-wrenching voice. She is simultaneously totally authentic and downright otherworldly. Her voice, her arrangements, and her personal style come together in a way best described by the word “creature” – a being that has musically evolved beyond human limits. Her evolution began when she lost her mother to cancer at 10 years old, surfacing her own health issues including severe anxiety, depression and drastic weight loss. She channeled her feelings into songs and poems and performing no matter the darkness inside of her. Singles led to albums like her debut Metamorphosis and the EP Forever, followed by a series of single releases and breathtaking videos.
I knew little of this when I watched her sitting on a stool at Bar20, flanked by her tight three-piece band – guitarist Andrew Kingsley, Cajon player Matt Paris, and guitarist/bassist Christian Rivera. That night her emphasis was largely, but not completely, on songs from her albums, beginning with “Enigma” from the Metamorphosis, followed by a soaring “The Cure”, and then “Royals”, delivered simply and powerfully with her hand on her heart – and ours in our throats.
She moved on to “Gravity”, again from Metamorphosis, which was scaffolded by exquisite guitar playing. Then Tai came off the stool and sat down at the edge of the low, tiny stage for an intimate and moving take on Emma Louise’s “Underflow” from the Supercry album. In some ways, this was when she was at her best at Bar20 — close, interior, exposed. Given her past, that exposure meant a lot. She moved back to the stool for “Fool for You”, delivering it with an urgency that cut through the bar chatter and made the room seem uninhabited except for Tai and the listener. She ended the night with “Falling” from her 2016 EP Forever, upping the Cajon-driven tempo and leaving us humming.
I look forward to seeing Tai again on a real stage with a real sound system, but the opportunity to sit a few feet away from her and feel the tide of sensations rolling over me was an honor and a treat. It is not often you get to experience up close an amazing creature so evolved she can convert notes into feelings.