With multiple creative revenue streams to her name and a new record out next week, the Scottish multi-instrumentalist knows that the juggle is real
As the Electric Lady herself, Janelle Monáe will tell you: 'Whether you're high or low / You gotta tip on the tightrope'. Scottish-born songwriter Tamara Schlesinger, better known to you and me as prolific pop maker MALKA, knows the art of the balancing act only too well. While her time studying fashion at Central St Martins feels fresh from a Pulp song, her childhood spent representing Scotland as an international gymnast is possibly more of a surprise. Less so though, after watching the video for latest single 'Moving Together', which finds Schlesinger teaming up with her former partner Lorna to pull off a dazzling 10/10 routine.
'I've totally got the gymnastic bug again,' she tells us from her home in Glasgow. 'Obviously I'm aware I'm probably going to injure myself but the video follows the sentiment of the song; reconnecting with people and reconnecting with that life. It meant so much to me as a kid. Becoming a gymnast was all I ever wanted at that age.' After an ankle injury put pay to her gymnastic aspirations, Schlesinger headed to London to find a new focus, although she admits even that was a bit of a happenstance. 'I fell into fashion as I was good at art and, at that point, I didn't really know what I was going to do.'
But Schlesinger's breakthrough moment came with folk fivesome 6 Day Riot whose noughties-era nu-folk earned them performances everywhere from Glastonbury to Green Man. When the band came to an end in 2015, the songwriter made a noticeable shift away from her acoustic guise. But for Schlesinger, it was a very deliberate evolution. 'I was so familiar with picking up a guitar or a ukulele to write songs that I instinctively did the same thing. I had this one rhythm I could play and I felt like the only way to make a distinction from ending the band was to never pick up an acoustic again and make it sound very different,' she states with conviction. 'That was the initial process with MALKA. To turn my back on it all.'
MALKA's debut Marching to Another Beat showcased that pivot, serving up a bold new sound bolstered by Burundi beats and the pop sensibilities of fellow alt-experimentalist Merrill Garbus. In the face of such a brave new venture, some critics positioned Marching as an exercise in experimentation rather than a cohesive whole. Almost in defiant response, 2017's follow up Ratatat built on the percussive power and added in a political potency – a statement that felt necessary against a backdrop of failing NHS resources and the ongoing refugee crisis. Three years on and Schlesinger is battle-ready with her forthcoming third record, I'm Not Your Soldier, and a firm sense of self. 'I feel much more secure in what MALKA is and that people are no longer wondering why I left the band to sound exactly the same. I'm at ease being who I am and not trying to conform to anything.'
Talking with Schlesinger, it's clear that creative freedom is a huge motivator for her as an artist. From the grace of her gymnast days, she revels in stretching herself to her limits, pulling shapes she never believed possible. As she sings in the tUnE-yArDs clattering 'Get Up': 'Come on / Let's go and break the mould / Now's the time these two worlds collide'. Only for the multi-instrumentalist, of course, there are more than two worlds. Schlesinger is a self-funded, self-managed musician but also a record label owner (all of MALKA's releases have come out via her label, Tantrum Records) active staff member at SAE and a mother of two. The juggle is very much real for her. 'My eldest is seven and it's taken this long to get that balance. If I didn't love it and I didn't have this absolute need to create then I think I would've given up a long time ago,' she confides. 'There's that sense of feeling like myself when I'm doing my music and that's really important to me. To be a mum but also be who I am and who I was before I was a mum, that keeps me connected in a way but it's a tough balance.'
But if anyone can land feet-first against adversity, it's Schlesinger. I'm Not Your Soldier nimbly explores feelings of positivity and perseverance (recent single 'Tiny Fires') and acknowledges the decade-spanning devotion to her craft ('I'm Not Invisible'). Of penultimate track 'Seize The Moment', she explains, 'It's about having that strength and resolve to carry on and be confident in who I am and what I am doing.' With its soaring vocals, there's a quiet confidence and a much-needed pat-on-the-back that she's got this: 'Know myself / Know my place / Take my time / This ain't a race'.
MALKA's career trajectory has been far from a flat-out sprint but her latest release proves she's a true artist of her sport.
I'm Not Your Soldier is out Fri 28 Feb on Tantrum Records. MALKA plays Stereo, Glasgow on Fri 6 Mar.