Tara Jane O’Neil’s path is a winding path, 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. 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." /> L.A. Record


July 25th, 2017 | Interviews

photography by alex the brown

Tara Jane O’Neil: I don’t think creatively I am. I think in the presentation it is a kind of ironic stare-down, as it were. I started writing this a couple years ago, and I had the strong intention to do a collection of songs that had some semblance to an accepted form. But I wasn’t sure I would even put anything out because at this point there’s so much music I haven’t put out. I think that switch from ‘I’m making this work’ to ‘I’m also putting it out’ is an important part of the process for me and my intentions.
Was the actual creation of this music different from how you’ve worked before?
Tara Jane O’Neil: A little bit. There’s some aspect of always having to go into the deep freeze—thinking through and opening up to receive messages to make a song. But previous endeavors I would go into what I call the lab, which is me in the fuckin’ lab composing music with mostly studio materials. I have friends come and play; it’s not like I’m in a solitary fortress or anything. But that becomes just another element I get to work with and sculpt. Whereas with this record … knowing I wanted to have, like, some guitar jams, or a playable piece of music in a room with others, that totally informed how I wrote the songs. Less filigree, more streamlined. Which is kind of hard.
That’s a completely different creative process.
Tara Jane O’Neil: There’s definitely some reckoning about not relying on textural trickery and sonic devices and tropes that I’ve used before. I like those too, but that wasn’t my assignment to myself this time. The bones had to feel very deliverable. And there were tons of songs that didn’t make it, but you have to see those through, too.
You’re in between legs of a tour right now. Is this the first time you’ve played these songs live?
Tara Jane O’Neil: Some, yeah. I always end up playing in different arrangements, because I don’t have a regular band. A few of these I’ve played solo, or if my friend Devin Hoff, the bass player, is around—we did some shows last summer on the east coast as a duo. There are various drummers. I was out with Tortoise like a month ago—
I saw a video of you jamming with [Tortoise drummer] John Herndon.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Yeah, he was playing with me duo. Every time I go out, it’s different. It’s fun. It’s more like being an instrumentalist playing the material than having a band that knows its parts and it’s set and we’re reproducing the song.
I read that part of your objective with this album was to add positivity into the world.
Tara Jane O’Neil: I feel like I’ve been concerned with that for the last couple of records, and just in general with my life. I’ve made a lot of records and I kind of grew up making records—the first one I recorded when I was 20. I spent the whole time of growing into myself as a person also growing into myself as an instrumentalist and as a songwriter, and doing that all on record is kind of insane. At the juncture I reached around 2009, I didn’t put out a record for a few years, and I didn’t tour like I used to. I stepped off the treadmill of it and checked myself … if I do continue to go out, why do I do that? What is the purpose of all this in the world? By 2009, I had been touring for the better part of 15 years. Like … I’ve collected all the perks of touring, I have all these things I’ve done. What is the intention of it at this point, as my human self right now? I’m not making happy-go-lucky pop music, but it feels like I’m trying to contribute something and be, yeah … posi-core. [laughs]
There’s the pull-quote for the interview. You have to be careful when you create genre labels like that!
Tara Jane O’Neil: I know—maybe we should not say posi-core because I think that exists and I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate. [laughs]
When you went to Chicago to start recording the album, were you like, ‘I want an album that sounds like … ’? Were you trying to make it sound the way it ended up sounding?
Tara Jane O’Neil: I didn’t have that vocabulary but a couple of the guys who were playing were dropping a couple band names they use as reference points. But no, I didn’t have that so much. I did the demos and they had drums—really shitty drums—and so the feel was already there when I got to Chicago. Those guys are just really sensitive, amazing players. We didn’t even get to rehearse. I just sent them demos, and I guess they thought about it for awhile because they showed up and totally had the vibe on. So it wasn’t so much, ‘Let’s make this genre record.’ Because I think also—especially the second side—they’re very different sounding.
It has a very free kind of feel, for a singer-songwriter record. There’s a twinkling of keys here or a short burst of trumpet there—it feels like a loose arrangement.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Devin [Hoff] played on that ‘Cali’ song, and that one we just tracked live in my garage room, hoping for the best. Many years ago, I wrote these complicated structures with lots of parts, and it was really fun and also really difficult to use—they were more sculptural things, and they were hard to live with on a stage or in a live scenario. But because the Chicago recording was essentially a live recording … one of my interests is to have the material be strong enough that it can stand up against factors like me having this kind of drummer or being alone or having this weirdo play. And first of all being able to be instrumentalists. Because I love playing guitar, and it’s not just being able to play chords, which is also a great thing and a fun thing to do. But I do like to stretch out as an instrumentalist, and I like it when people hire me to play on their shit. [laughs] It was a few of those things—going in without any rehearsal, and the material being like that, it was open to people just playing.
I was interested in the way you sing on this record, all the quiet, steady harmonies. I recently heard the track you did for the Karen Dalton tribute album Remembering Mountains, ‘At Last the Night Has Ended,’ and you sing very differently on that song—louder, more clearly. Was the singing on this album inspired by the material? Did it flow out of the process?
Tara Jane O’Neil: Harmony, be it with vocals or other instruments, always ends up being something I work with a lot. That’s one of the fun things about getting to do studio stuff—the opportunity to have a bunch of harmonies. I’m not making records now that are documents of a great live band—they’re studio creations. Even though in Chicago we got to play live, and with Devin we got to play live, there’s still that fun thing about, ‘Let’s put four of me. Let’s do four parts. We’ve got the tracks.’ It’s the only time I’m ever going to do that with this material. And it’s just nice. It’s more like a painting. And, you know, when I’m live … most of the time when I actually get to play music, I don’t have that. So maybe when people see me live it’s more like that Karen Dalton jam. That’s something I want to do in the near future, though—I’m not sure if it would be the old material or whatever, but somehow do a decent recording of the bones. I’ve always fleshed things out and it might be fun to not do that.
The two sides of the record contrast a bit—the first feels more shadowy, the second warms up a little.
Tara Jane O’Neil: It was hard to sequence it because it is a collection of songs, versus the last one [Where Shine New Lights] which was one long piece. I had songs, but I had to make each song work with its next buddy to create a narrative arc for that one. For this one, I didn’t have any of that. I couldn’t figure it out. But a friend of mine did one little switcheroo [snaps fingers] and the whole thing came together. I mean, I knew some should be on the second side, but it’s also just a shape that makes sense to me. When I play live, I don’t come out large—I never come out large. I think that’s because my music requires a little bit of attention. It’s good, for me too, to find a little bit of ground within that. To be able to—energetically-speaking—create an access point. I mean, some people don’t like that at all as an access point, to have a dream-like thing. Some people need that go-for-it-all-at-once. But for me, it helps me wade into what’s about to happen.
Do you think of this record as the beginning of a new phase? Or a departure for you?
Tara Jane O’Neil: It depends on the next record, because isn’t a phase kind of a pattern? Does it have to be two or three?
I guess it has to be three.
Tara Jane O’Neil: OK—so I guess it remains to be seen if it’s a phase. [laughs]
OK, sorry! It’s not a phase. But do you think of going back to what you were doing? Or of what you’ve just done?
Tara Jane O’Neil: There are a few things I want to do next. I mean, I’ll never make the same record again. Even ten years ago, I was feeling like I was making different records. And I really have made each one pretty different. This one is more of a leap into something else, but none of them—including this one—felt against what I was doing or where I was at. I do a lot of actual drone work and instrumental work that I’m hoping to release physically in the fall—just instrumental work where there are certain elements that were once together that have been split apart just a little bit so they can be on their own. I still have a ton of pedals. I play an electric autoharp. I do drone shit.
It’s not as if you’re done experimenting with music.
Tara Jane O’Neil: I get to do a lot of that with the dancers I work with in town, and that’s a good balance for me. I think it helps to maybe serve the music, too, because I get to be the weirdo who is doing pitch-shifted air sounds with a four-foot-high frame drum and an electric autoharp. I get to do that and I really need to do that. But then I also get to try to play guitar well and sing songs in a sincere way. So, we’ll see what’s next. I don’t know what’s going to happen. 
I wanted to ask you about the song ’Joshua,’ which I thought might relate to that California theme—Joshua trees, in addition to the biblical Joshua. The song has a wandering-in-the-desert vibe.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Like ‘A Horse WIth No Name.’ [laughs] That song was written in one session in one day, which doesn’t happen very often. I was in an isolation zone, natural beauty zone, and … you know, I think rather than a personal journey, it’s some kind of reassuring message while on a journey to our hero, who’s on a hero’s journey.
There’s a line: ‘Let the moon be in the morning sky.’
Tara Jane O’Neil: It’s a blessing song, really. Like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ [laughs] ‘Don’t worry about it. We got you.’
Let the universe lead you to your destination?
I think, yeah … maybe there’s something about the discomfort of any sort of journey, but ultimately it’s a bigger thing, and maybe it’s some sort of blessing for having faith in that process, that ultimately it’s going to be alright.


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