wears the trousers magazine

tara jane o’neil: cloudbusting
June 3, 2009, 12:03 pm
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , , ,

Interview also available in print – order a copy of issue seven here.


words in edgeways with tara jane o’neil

Modern-day Brixton is a long way from Harlem in the 1930s but you can still get a pigfoot and a bottle of beer. Tara Jane O’Neil, however, has to settle for a near-fluorescent Chinese takeaway and a pint in the backroom of The Windmill pub as I scramble in from the mid-November drizzle too late to whisk her away for our promised dinner date. Peering nervously out from beneath the fringe of dark brown hair that falls over her eyes, she nonetheless seems happy that I’ve made it to see her, coolly shaking my hand and flashing a shy and sweetly goofy grin.

“I get so nervous doing interviews,” she admits as we sit down to chat, and promptly lights the first of many cigarettes (smoking ban be damned). I’m pretty nervous myself, I think, recalling the YouTube video I’d seen the night before in which a very strange interview with Plan B magazine founder Everett True ends up with Tara cutting his hair. To be fair, that video gives a false impression of Tara, who I quickly find to be easy company, warm and friendly. She’s in London for one night only and is not looking forward to her 7am flight out of Gatwick to her home in Portland, Oregon. It’s the last gig of a low-key European tour that most recently took her to Helsinki and Manchester, and she’s feeling apprehensive.

“Typically shit is fucked up when I do shows in London,” she says with a small, edgy laugh. “Something blows up; somebody doesn’t have the amp they said I could use; I get stiffed on the cash; there’s too much shitty travel on the Underground…” – the list is probably endless. “I can’t say that the rock show part of London has ever been that awesome for me,” she admits. “I mean, people will come to the show but there’s always some kind of fuckin’ thing…like an anvil falling on my head. It’s really strange.” Please, I beg, do not get crushed tonight.

She laughs. “I hope I don’t. I really want to break this tradition! I like London but it’s not one of those places where I’m like ‘God, I can’t wait to do that again!’; it’s more like ‘Fuck, I hope that when I do this I keep all of my limbs!’. If nothing falls on my head or breaks tonight then I will feel better about London.” This is Tara’s first visit to notorious Brixton – she normally stays up north in Arsenal near the stadium, a place she describes as “quite desolate, very residential” – and she’s finding the Caribbean vibe pretty cool. Less cool, she huffs, was lugging her heavy equipment from the tube station in the rain.

As a renowned alchemist of pedal-altered experimental guitar figures, even a solo show involves a fair amount of gear. There’s the guitar (a beautiful electric Gretsch), an effects mic, a regular mic, numerous pedals and “a bunch of tambourines and bells and things”. She pauses when asked how many pedals she thinks she owns in total – “Including broken ones? I don’t know…too many” – adding that she doesn’t actually use them all that much. “It’s just for the edges, it’s not like a pedal extravaganza,” she grins.

We’re here to talk about her latest album, A Ways Away, which, she says with all the pride of a new mother, she has recently completed and has right there with us in the room, safely stored on her iPod. She tells me she hopes to have it out in the Spring, but first she has to find a label for it. The four major solo releases that preceded A Ways Away were all released through Quarterstick Records, an imprint of legendary Chicago label Touch & Go, but Tara admits she isn’t keen on maintaining that relationship. There are several reasons, she says, not least the fact that she wants a European label that’s actually based in, y’know, Europe. “When I’m at home I know the record stores so if Touch & Go overlooks them I can get in touch, because I like them; or maybe I’ll be on tour and I’ll bring them my books or something. That’s how I like to do things in the world, but I have none of that knowledge over here.”

She has no interest, she says, in Touch & Go getting into bed with Warner Music’s Alternative Distribution Alliance. She’d rather go with a smaller label, provided they are willing to press vinyl. If I’d had a crystal ball to hand I would have been able to say, “Hey Tara, don’t worry, the equally legendary K Records will take you under their wing and be your spiritual home. You are from the Pacific Northwest after all.” I would also have been able to foresee the drastic scaling down of activities by Touch & Go, who seem to have been well and truly credit-crunched. Instead I just took a sip of my Coke and smiled.

Now in her late thirties, Tara doesn’t talk much about her childhood growing up in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. Her high school years were spent listening to a lot of psychedelic music and she admits to feelings of being on the fringe, spending hours in her bedroom singing and playing guitar to no one. It was only after discovering the few places in Louisville where underground music was thriving that she found people she could really relate to. She credits local hardcore bands with having a profound effect on her, and by the age of 21 she was playing bass in (at least) two bands: Rodan and Drinking Woman.

Of the two, it was Rodan that made it far enough to put out an album. Released in 1994, Rusty was a chaotic revelation. Six mind-bending songs that rocked supremely hard, both physically and mentally; 43 minutes of deeply felt emotion drawn out through long and restless, occasionally frightening arrangements. The band broke up shortly after it was released, though drummer Kevin Coultas would later rejoin Tara in another of her bands, The Sonora Pine.

Upon moving to New York, Tara formed a duo with her then-girlfriend Cynthia Nelson. Naming themselves Retsin after a so-called “wonder ingredient” in a US brand of mints (which was eventually shown to be nothing more exciting than vegetable oil), they continued to make music together until 2001, releasing three albums. It was early on in the Retsin years that Tara met Dan Littleton and the rest of the Ida folk-pop collective, forming a strong collaborative bond. The two bands recorded an album under both of their names, and Dan and Tara have featured regularly on each other’s recordings ever since.


Blogging about the new album on her Myspace last year, Tara hinted at the prospect of “superstar guest vocals”. When questioned further she laughs and shrugs her shoulders: “Yeah, I have to inflate things a little.” The guests, she eventually reveals, are the esteemed Mr Littleton, Jana Hunter and Tara’s frequent touring partner, Mirah. When we speak, Tara has not long been back from NYC’s annual industry schmoozefest CMJ (“a weird orgy of rabid music fans but mostly musicians”) where she had played a show with Mirah, apparently to a crowd of adoring female fans. With The Windmill already filling up with a noticeably queer crowd (these things tend to stand out in Brixton) whether she feels her audience is predominantly LGBT seems an obvious question to ask.

“You know, it totally depends on who I’m playing with. Most of the time in the States I feel like the queers are not there. Usually it’s…” She pauses for a second. “I learned this term last night, ‘musos’. You know, the beard-strokers and the guys who have gone bald recently. Usually it’s them. I went on tour with Samara Lubelski, who is a total muso, and one night she said ‘You can always count on a few lesbians,’ and I thought, at least I have that! But no, I don’t feel like my shows are populated by queers at all. In the UK it’s a little different; in the US, if I play a Mirah show or with another queer artist then they’ll come out, but no, typically it’s fucking musos!” She laughs. “I’m so glad to have a name for them now!”

As anyone who has attended a TJO show will know, Tara is pretty keen on audience participation. In the early days she would often drag people out of the audience to join her on stage; now she prefers to simply distribute her stash of percussive bounty among the crowd and feed on the energy and rhythms that reflect off them. “It’s fun and exciting,” she says, shifting in her seat. “When I go and play the shows solo it can be a bit like, ‘Dude, this is fucking boring! I know the words, I wrote this 17 years ago!’ So if I were playing the same songs every night the same way it would be a super drag, and I don’t think that performance is about that for me. I don’t like that curtain of separation between artist and audience, especially at DIY shows. Sometimes I play shows where people are, like, eight inches away from my feet. That’s a little intense actually.”

Suggest to some artists that they should let their audience go mad with tambourines and shakers and they might run for the hills, but Tara’s long and healthy history of collaboration has geared her towards making the most of the clattering, rattling chaos. She’s even formed a revolving collective around it, wonderfully dubbed the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra. When at home she will often meet with friends and their various instruments and improvise endlessly. “It’s a really important part of music and spirit for me,” she explains. “It’s less of a cerebral thing, but it does help me learn my instruments. And if you are playing with someone you’ve never played with before you have to change what you do, so it’s this whole conversation.”

In a sense, A Ways Away is the product of two years’ worth of conversation between Tara and her guitar. Unlike previous albums, these songs were written on stages all over the world. Tara would start off with a basic sketch that she’d play on the night and find that each time she would add a couple of little things to it. Keeping the song structures loose and fluid, she found that she was able to pull them off night after night and watch the songs evolve. Perhaps surprisingly, the result is possibly the most song-based album of her career and the looser feel is a welcome change from 2006’s moody In Circles, which Tara says her friends call “cloud music”.

“The new album is very song-y. Recording it I was like, ‘Don’t fuck it up…don’t put your clouds and shit all over it’,” she laughs. There was even a time when Tara considered it to be her “pop record”, but that idea was swiftly discarded after she played it for a couple of her friends who didn’t quite see where she was coming from with that. She smiles ruefully and stubs out her cigarette, adding, “So it turns out it’s not that intensely pop or anything, but it’s definitely more sing-song. There are some abstract moments, of course. The last song is an instrumental called ‘The Drowning Electric’.”

Another differentiating factor of A Ways Away is that it was partly recorded in an actual studio, Portland’s Audible Alchemy. “This dude Steve [Lobdell] who was in Faust [not the German one], he built this fucking spaceship studio. It’s insane!” she grins. “I have a friend who engineers there so we went in for a day and recorded these four songs. It was me and a drummer and the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra.” With all that technological wizardry to hand, I ask whether it was tempting to indulge in a more electronic sound of the sort she hinted at on 2004’s You Sound, Reflect. “There’s a little bit of that, but this is more textual experimentation. It’s not an experiment as far as the arrangements go. There aren’t samplers and things.” She pauses for a minute, thinking, then shakes her head and laughs. “I don’t know. It’s really hard for me to have any accurate take on what is happening. I mean, two weeks ago I thought it was a pop record!”

One bona fide pop song that Tara has taken to playing on her recent tours is Cher’s ‘Believe’. “It’s hilarious to do because it’s really hard and I want to crack up,” she grins. “But if I laugh it’s ruined, right?” Giving it a typical TJO twist, she transforms the song from digitally manipulated disco stomper into a fragile, almost spectral lament, as if she were singing from the bottom of the superstar’s wig drawer. It’s the latest in a fairly short line of covers, which also takes in Yoko Ono’s ‘Move On Fast’ (“It’s super punk rock from 1972 and it’s amazing. That song kicks ass!”), Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’, Judee Sill’s ‘The Phoenix’ and You Sound, Reflect’s memorable interpolation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, re-titled ‘Famous Yellow Belly’ and given new lyrics.

Unbelievably, she says that very few people have actually picked up on the link between the latter two songs. “I thought it was so obvious!” she exclaims, leaning forward in her seat. “I mean, the chord progression is the main chord progression of the song, and it’s obvious in the way I’ve structured the title!” She sits back having made her point. “I suppose it’s more homage than cover but I’m not usually into super-referential music. Bands inserting pop culture into stuff bugs me out, but somehow that song and the scenario I wrote about, they fit together.”

Another cover she’s recorded is a take on Nick Cave’s ‘Straight To You’, but it’s one she insists will never be heard. “It’s just a snapshot of total drunk despair,” she giggles. “2007 was a break-up year for me and I was playing a lot of guitar and happened to capture myself doing a cover of this song, and it’s awesome, but it’s not for anybody to ever hear. Maybe when I’m dead it will come out.” Almost self-consciously, she lights another cigarette.

If she gets some alone time, Tara will often just sit in her living room and play her guitar while plugged into her laptop and somewhat sheepishly admits to having around four years’ worth of idle improvisational solo strumming and group jams stored digitally somewhere. “You should see how many hard drives I have!” she laughs. “I have piles and piles of OK music!” One idea for the winter, she says, is to go through it all, to which I raise an eyebrow. “First I need to push the things that are ready to go out…but then there’s no end. It’s really hard and you can’t keep up!”

One of the things she’d like to put out later in 2009, almost as a reaction to A Ways Away, is “a bunch of truly experimental and abstract stuff” that she’s been recording, a bit like the companion CD to her latest book of drawings, Wings.Strings.Meridians, which is full of rough takes and demos, some of which go only by the date and city in which they were recorded. Does she really hate boredom that much? “I’ve never thought about it that way,” she shrugs. “But, yeah, I guess so. I do spend a lot of time spacing out though, although I never watch television or anything like that. The greatest quote I read as a teenager when I was despondent and bored in the suburbs was a Grace Slick quote and it just said ‘Bored is stupid’, and I could really relate to that. It’s not to say that over-activity is smart, but bored is stupid for sure!”

Alan Pedder
A Ways Away gets a physical UK release on July 20th through K Records. Out now digitally.


4 Comments so far
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Such a good TJO interview, she rules! Well done WTT!!

Comment by mavis grey

[…] referred to as “a total muso” by her good friend Tara Jane O’Neil in our issue #7 interview, Samara Lubelski’s reputation as a musician’s musician precedes her in every […]

Pingback by free music friday: samara lubelski « wears the trousers magazine

[…] Heaven! [4/5] 79 Nite Jewel – Good Evening [4/5] 78 Tara Jane O’Neil – A Ways Away [4/5; interview] 77 Leona Naess – Thirteens [4/5] 76 Gabby Young & Other Animals – We’re All In This […]

Pingback by best of 2009: readers poll results 99–51 « wears the trousers magazine

[…] Heaven! [4/5] 79 Nite Jewel – Good Evening [4/5] 78 Tara Jane O’Neil – A Ways Away [4/5; interview] 77 Leona Naess – Thirteens [4/5] 76 Gabby Young & Other Animals – We’re All In This […]

Pingback by best of 2009: readers poll results 99–51 « wears the trousers magazine

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