By Meg Fair
Pittsburgh Current Managing Editor
Seeing The Childlike Empress perform is a transformative experience. Banjo in hand, they sing songs that are emotionally raw and challenging with a voice that’s at times soaring and powerful and at other moments quiet and unbearably vulnerable. It’s hard not to get sucked into the songs, into the world and aura of The Childlike Empress. It’s 25 minutes of emotional catharsis and magic, and it’s electric.
Their debut album Take Care Of Yourself, set for an October 26 release, is much anticipated by the strong following they’ve gained from playing live shows for about three years, and it does not disappoint. It’s a half-hour of beautiful melodies, dynamic vocals and moving string arrangements. It’s pretty and ethereal, but it’s incredibly powerful too. The emotional openness and huge sound of Take Care Of Yourself make it a force to be reckoned with.
The Childlike Empress — known as Tatiana in their day-to-day life — was previously a solo endeavour, but the live performances and record feature a full band. That band consists of Shani Banerjee on violin, Eric Weidenhof on cello, Sam Cope on drums and Rowdy Karanek on guitars, with Tatiana playing the banjo and singing. The album was recorded by Karanek at his studio in Hazelwood.
The story of Take Care Of Yourself began long before Tatiana moved to Pittsburgh from New York, right after their 18th birthday.
“This album, in summary, is about the relationship I was in before I left NY. We met each other and fell in love instantly–like, I went from never knowing this person at all, met him once, didn’t see him for a day, and then after that we were attached at the hip. It was very passionate, very fast, and what I was looking for at that age.”
But very quickly the whirlwind relationship went south, and things took a turn for the worse.
“When you’re madly in love and severely attracted to someone you romanticize the red flags, and you zoom right past them,” says Tatiana.
As their partner’s drug abuse and mental illness escalated, Tatiana was in the position of taking care of someone who they deeply loved (and who deeply loved them), but in an incredibly unhealthy way. There’s a grim, strained moment on the song “Yikes” where Tatiana belts about watching their partner get sick after mixing downers, about him getting arrested every time he promises to introduce Tati to his mother.
The end of the relationship was messy. On the same day that Tatiana discovered their partner had been cheating on them for months, they also discovered that they were pregnant.
“We were gonna hang out and talk about it, but he went down to the train station to go steal something to sell it. I was gonna go back to the house with him when he came back to talk about our problems, but in a split second, clear as day, I was like, ‘If you stay, you’re gonna die. You’re gonna become like him and die in New York.’”
They turned around and left before their ex returned. They spent the next few weeks in total self-isolation, terrified to be pregnant, with no one to turn to. Tatiana’s best friend Natasha was living in Pittsburgh and invited them to come down for a visit.
“The way I saw was, I either check myself into a psych ward because all of my mental and emotional issues were at the surface and were raging in my brain, or I’m going to take my life,” says Tatiana. “But I felt that I needed to go see my best friend one last time, that’s where my brain was at.”
“I came out here, and we had a really good week. I was supposed to leave, but I cancelled my return bus ticket. Once I was here, I felt like I could breathe again, like I was a person again.”
So they stayed, got a job, got an abortion, was gifted a banjo and began and the healing journey.
“Once things started scabbing over I felt like I could turn it into something artistic,” says Tatiana. “I started writing it out almost as the healing process itself.”
The songs came fast, and each song on the album took only about five or ten minutes to come to life. As a result, the album is a very tangible manifestation of self-preservation, of healing and protection.
“The album is called Take Care Of Yourself because it was about me being pushed to absolute rock bottom and, in turn, that made me realize how poorly I’ve treated myself my whole life. My destruction at the hands of someone who was not worthy of destroying me made me realize that nobody is allowed to do that to me ever again.”
“If you’re not taking care of yourself, if you’re not putting love into yourself, if you’re not checking in with yourself first, that lack of self-awareness and self-care is going to bleed into all your relationships,” says Tatiana.
Tatiana’s self-love is infectious, and that’s intentional. They hope that others will see them doing their thing without hesitation and be inspired to do the same.
“I’m stoked to be in this place where I’m fearlessly who I am. I’m just here to fuck shit up, to make noise, to take up space,” says Tatiana.
“To be a genderfluid, sexually fluid, black, indigenous person that plays the banjo, I think it’s really important. I know I’m not the only one out there, and I think that’s so dope,” says Tatiana.
“Hopefully I can be a source of inspiration for anyone, but especially for some weird little emo black kid that doesn’t think anyone like them exists.”
“I’m excited to see what these songs do once they are out in the world, for me and for other people, and how they’ll continue to manifest in my life and continue to heal me,” says Tatiana. “I’m excited to move on from them and really put this part of my life to rest.”
That closure comes to life on the title track, as Tatiana gently but firmly sings, “Let go of that anger, clean off that shelf. Make a vow to grow and take care of yourself.”