Back in 2006, the tenacious Tal Wilkenfeld arrived in New York City toting a guitar and a dream. Mere months after her arrival, the then-teenager not only met the Allman Brothers but was soon jamming alongside them onstage. Since then, the multi-instrumentalist has shared stages with Herbie Hancock, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton; collaborated with Jackson Browne; and is spending March opening for the Who on their The Who Hits 50! tour.
Wilkenfeld is working on new music that sees her evolving from an instrumental prodigy into a formidable singer-songwriter — you can hear her first non-instrumental single "Corner Painter" below, a rollicking banger inspired by experiences real and imagined. Rolling Stone caught up with Wilkenfeld before a Toronto Who show to talk about her "this is it" moment.
You're shifting away from your past as an instrumental musician.
Yeah. I've been working on new music with the same band, which is Blake Mills, who I'm sure you're familiar with, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on keys and Jeremy Stacey on drums. We've also been recording some stuff at Jackson Browne's studio. Jackson Browne has been a big part of this, he's been super supportive of me and my songwriting.
Would you consider Browne a mentor?
I would describe him as a mentor. He doesn't like when I say "mentor" because he says that he likes to see me as a peer. But he has mentored me as a songwriter. And every time I write a new song he's the first person I play the song to and ask, "Did you like it?" and "What'd you think," you know? … It's really a privilege to have this sort of opportunity as a songwriter with one of the best songwriters alive.
How did you end up sitting in with the Allman Brothers back when you first moved to New York?
I was gigging several times a night in various clubs. I was just trying to play all the time. That's how I met a couple of the guys from the Allman Brothers and they asked me to sit in with them. And I just remember we played "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," and at one point there's just a bass solo and then moves into a drum solo. So everyone was off the stage except me at this theater in front of 5,000 people. And I was a teenager and I'd never been on a real stage before! It was really exciting. That was my first moment, really.
Were you scared at all?
I guess I sometimes surprise myself with the lack of fear I have. It just feels so right to be playing and performing for people that the fear sort of escapes me a lot of the time. Sometimes it catches up to me and I get butterflies in my stomach but mainly I'm so overwhelmed with excitement that I forget that I might be nervous.
I'm telling you, the first time I picked up a guitar, the first chord I strummed, a tear started rolling down my face. I thought, "Oh my god, this is what I want to do forever." It was instant.
What drew you you to the guitar in particular?
I really have no idea. It was some strange circumstance. It just appeared in my life. One day I walked past a guitar, I looked at it and thought, "I need to play that." I don't know why. I'd never seen anyone play the guitar, and I actually grew up in a household that didn't expose me to too much music. So it was sort of strange that it came to me. I don't know why I want to play guitar but I just know I want to play.
Also one day a letter came home in the mail saying, "Look if any students want to study guitar or keyboard, or piano rather, you can do that." I begged and begged and begged my mom, and the answer was no quite a few times. But I was relentless. I needed to play the guitar. There was nothing anybody could say that could stop me! Eventually some negotiation was made between me and my mom where I got my way.
Do you have a particular place you like to write songs, or is it just wherever you have an idea?
It's the latter. Although that I will tell you I see a pattern in my songwriting whereby when I'm doing automatic pilot activities, like walking, showering, cleaning, driving, a lot of ideas come to me. Because I'm not caught up in my own mind. Especially when you see repeating patterns, like palm trees or poles that just keep going and going and going while you're driving, and it really puts you into a trance.
L.A.'s never-ending palm trees will put you in some kind of mood.
Neverending palm trees! I'm going to write a song about that.