TARA JANE O’NEIL: IT’S GOING TO BE ALRIGHT
photography by alex the brown
Tara Jane O’Neil’s path is a winding path, taking her from Louisville, Kentucky, where she was a member of the crucial post-hardcore band Rodan, through new music composition, experimental performance, visual art and more (comparatively) conventional singer-songwriter material, not to mention an early star turn in the indie flick Half-Cocked. But she’s an L.A. spirit now, and her self-titled new album—her ninth—is a reflection of that journey and a meditation on it, too, one touched and tempered by the California sun. On Tara Jane O’Neil, O’Neil offers encouraging words to the fellow wanderer and a conversation about the Los Angeles, the ‘last city.’ But there’s one idea in particular that runs through everything: the malleability and continuity of our existence, what she calls ‘the endless change of shape.’ O’Neil sat on the back patio of an Echo Park café on a recent weekday afternoon, the sun sinking behind her in a scene not so different from Tara Jane O’Neil’s muted cover. She has a wry sense of humor and a seasoned thoughtfulness about her own oeuvre and process, and soon the conversation turns from the work of music to questions reaching far beyond this little table. Tara Jane O’Neil performs Wed., July 26, at Zebulon. This interview by Chris Kissel.
I like the song ‘Cali’ a lot. There’s a line that says, ‘After all the maps had burned/ You called me California.’ Why would someone call you California?
Tara Jane O’Neil: I’m glad you’re reading it that way. It could be that, or it could also be me being called by the place.
As in, ‘you called me, comma, California.’
Tara Jane O’Neil: It works both ways. In fact, I’ve been wondering how people are feeling that or taking that.
There’s an element of Califonia that feels pervasive in the sound and the themes.
Tara Jane O’Neil: It was definitely written here. But going back to where I’m at as an artist, it’s like … why do I do anything? There’s this large element of California as a condition. Everybody comes here after everything else falls away. That’s always been the thing. ‘People come to California to seek out gold! Or to become a star!’ And there’s always been that. There’s got to be a degree of optimism for someone to jump into that scenario, but there also has to be a degree of desperation because everything else is played out or isn’t working.
California is the end of the line.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Exactly. And in lots of ways, I wouldn’t say that’s my personal story, but in our time here, all of us in L.A.—I mean, I’ve been riding the fuckin’ gentrification train for the last twenty years. Every neighborhood I’ve lived in around the country has turned into the food court—the totally white-dominated monoculture. And my friends who are here, I’ve either lived in their city or spent time there, and they live here now, and it’s kind of like the last city. That flowers into so many other things. But also … it’s a love song. [laughs] I think finding yourself where you are is the general thing, and it just so happens that California is the place, and here I am as that kind of gentrifying, train-riding person. Not necessarily seeking gold or stardom, but it is the end of the line—the last city.
Can I ask you about the ‘endless change of shape’ in the ‘Laugh’? Every time I hear that song, that’s the line that really resonates.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Well, I said it twice! [laughs]
So I heard it twice as much! But I had an inkling it might be about death.
Tara Jane O’Neil: The song is very much about death.
How, then, did you arrive at the idea of an endless change of shape?
Tara Jane O’Neil: Well … one thing that is true is that ‘life is change.’ Jefferson Airplane.
You can’t escape ‘em, those 60s California vibes.
Tara Jane O’Neil: No, you can’t. You cannot. I’m steeped in that shit. I mean, that’s just what’s happening all the time. You can’t get away from the 60s stuff, but also in Rodan … In one of our songs, there was this mantra in a song called ‘The Everyday World of Bodies’ that Jason [Noble] wrote about ‘everything changing.’ That’s just a truth that keeps coming around. But specifically in ‘Laugh,’ there have been a few people in my formative friends circle and in my family who have died in the past several years. The song is actually about my father’s last few days of living—weirdly, because it’s a really upbeat number.
And it’s called ‘Laugh.’
Tara Jane O’Neil: And it’s called ‘Laugh’ because there was laughter. When you get to see something like that, it’s worth noting that there are really specific ways that prove that truth. That line, it means so much. Your body changes shape, our relationships to each other change shape, other people change their shape. We’re all shapeshifting, whether you engage with that or not. And when you see somebody die, it switches your perspective about anything at all being true—or fixed.
Do you think of it all in the Buddhist sense—of continuation?
Tara Jane O’Neil: Absolutely. Those Buddhists are really on to something with all that. [laughs] It’s true—everything is temporary, and that is a really liberating thing. That might be one of the themes of the record, I guess—just thinking about ‘Joshua,’ too. We move through this, and we keep going. And we are changed, and the way we see things is changed. It all curls back into this wonderful tide pool. All the time.
Did you know when you started making the record that you wanted it to be self-titled?
Tara Jane O’Neil: No. No. I was coming up with these other things and they were so fucking wordy. I was just, like, ‘God, shut the fuck up. Bring it down, girl.’ And I had a couple that were short, like, ‘Tara Jane O’Neil—The Pond,’ or whatever. [laughs] Or ‘Tara Jane O’Neil—An Orange.’ Whatever it was, but that seemed somehow so stupid. And it served to kind of bust up any individual meaning in the songs. ‘Oh, everything must refer to “an orange.”’ And there just wasn’t that. And to do something so lofty as, like, The Endless Change of Shape—that would be so fucking lame, oh my God.
It sounds like an Iron & Wine record.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Some people can get away with it, but it just didn’t feel right to me to title it anything. I had also toyed with a bunch of record covers, and I was just like … fuck it, dude. This is where I’m at. And it’s funny. It’s my ninth record, and it’s my self-titled record.
People have compared you to Judee Sill and mentioned the idea of Laurel Canyon. How do you feel about that?
Tara Jane O’Neil: I’m down with all that stuff for sure … but I wouldn’t identify my music with that. And Laurel Canyon is … I think since I’ve already taken the singer-songwriter tag away from the sometimes overworked or undermotivated music writers—is that OK to say?
Please—I mean, I’ve been that person too.
Tara Jane O’Neil: And you know—whenever people are doing something in the fast world, they’re looking to the catchphrase or hashtag and all that.
If you’re doing 10 premieres a day on your site it can be tough to be thoughtful.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Yeah, so I get it. But it has been interesting to see that since I reclaimed that singer-songwriter tag there isn’t that much more to say about it … so people have come back with Laurel Canyon. And I get it. It’s kind of risky—it’s a woman doing a self-titled singer-songwriter record, the cover—though ‘sunbathed beauty playing guitar’—is actually a sort of a foreboding heavy cover. It’s not like, ‘Hey! We found paradise!’ It’s like paradise sat out in the sun for a while.
And you aren’t foregrounded in the picture.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Yeah—I’m just sort of like the weird cat in the yard. I was playing it for a person, and we have very different musical references, and he listened to it and said, ‘This reminds me of a lot of things.’ I said, ‘What does it remind you of?’ ‘Well, of course, Joni Mitchell.’ I said, ‘Is that because I have a girl voice?’ I mean, I love Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite records is by her. But I don’t actually hear that—other than female voice, and some kind of weird harmonies. Judee Sill is a nourishing thing in my life, so I could see her cycling through more than Joni, even though Joni has been with me forever. I was so happy because I think later that same day, I think it was when I was working on songs at home … I played ‘Blow’ to a friend, and I don’t know if this is revealing too much, but I was like, ‘What does this sound like to you, man?’ It was that same day, it must have been or else I wouldn’t have continued the conversation. He’s like, ‘It’s Pink Floyd.’ I said, ‘Thank you!’ There are all kinds of things that people are reminded of in it, and they’re all probably pretty true.
This record has been described as your true ‘singer-songwriter’ record, and it is more straightforward—for lack of a better word—than some of your other work. Why?
Tara Jane O’Neil: The last record—Where Shine New Lights—felt like the resolve of this thing I’d been working toward for a few records, for a few years. It felt like I completed that particular journey. Also … I really like singer-songwriter stuff. I was like, ‘What do I actually like?’ I fuckin’ love blastin’ my tunes. Feeling feelings and singing along. And there was some growth into letting myself not even give a fuck anymore. Like … maybe I’ll make an R&B record. That’s one of the privileges of middle age—being able to say, ‘Whatever, man—I’ve done all that heavy stuff. I want to do this now.’ But also … introducing it as a singer-songwriter record feels like me playing with that tag. Because I get tagged with that all the time, regardless of what kind of record I’m making. It’s a gendered thing for sure. There aren’t many men songwriters who are also instrumentalists where it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re singer-songwriters.’
In terms of being immediately classified that way.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Yeah. And it seems a little reductive. It’s a gendered thing. So it’s kind of fun to play with that. The record is self-titled, and my actual image is on the cover. It feels fun to play that, even though that’s what I’m actually doing. It’s subtle.
How do you stare down—or creatively engage with—that singer-songwriter label?