Transcendental/Transcontinental: An Interview With Tara Jane O’Neil

Posted June 2, 2011 in
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Tara Jane O'Neil PHOTO: Sarah Cass

Tara Jane O’Neil is an underground musical powerhouse. She’s known and highly respected for her work on multiple projects, never resting in any particular niche. Originating from not-so-humble beginnings in Lousville, KY, she became a fixture in seminal math/post-hardcore band Rodan, a brief stint as a founding member of The Sonora Pine, only to turn heel and experiment with the softer-folk amblings of Retsin. She headed West, joining up with Olympia’s King Cobra before settling in Portland, OR, where she’s been focusing on her own brand of soundscaping and audio shaping, releasing albums under her own name.

Over the past couple of years she has been collaborating with Japan’s Nikaido Kazumi. A vocalist currently based in Tokyo, Kazumi is known for her eccentric and ethereal vocal stylings in the lo-fi pop underground music scene of Japan. The two met in 2002 in Kyoto when Tara Jane O’Neil was touring. It was a transcendental musical match. Their collaborative album was released in May on K Records in the U.S. and Sweet Dreams Press in Japan. SLUG caught up with TJO via email while on a staycation in Kentucky.

SLUG: Describe a little bit about yourself and your musical background.
Tara Jane O’Neil: I have been living in the northwest since 2003. I was in New York and Kentucky before that. Been playing music publicly since 1992. I make sounds and songs. I do soundtracks, experiments, three-chord jams and I like to play with the ecstatic tambourine orchestra and I like to play with friends on specific collaborative projects.

SLUG:
Remember when you were in Retsin? I think I have some 7 inches of that band, with your drawings. What do you think of those now that you’re older and wiser?
TJO: I do! I think it was a good way to spend my 20s. I learned about writing and arranging and recording. I haven’t heard much of that stuff in a while, but some I have and it sounds pretty good. I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself much wiser.

SLUG: I know that you, as a performer, use a lot of mixed media such as video installations. Do you make your own films for those? Are those things that would accompany a live performance?
TJO: I only do those things sometimes, and usually in Japan, where there are facilities I can use. Sometimes I make the videos and usually a friend does it. I’ve done a couple of art shows with video realities. I’m actually doing one this week at a museum in Louisville. I made the blue smoke video that plays on a loop in the fireplace of a reconstructed wooden renaissance room. There is an actual unicorn on the mantle piece, and my friend Letitia Quesenberry is doing the video projections while I play.

SLUG:
You’re also known as a multi-instrumentalist, do you have a specialty? How about Nikaido?
TJO: I guess guitar is my primary instrument, but I also feel percussion pretty deep and in a way I can articulate. I think Nika probably identifies as a vocalist––and she is fierce as that.

SLUG: What external events do you feel inspired by? Many people write songs about love or loss, do you feel like you follow those same sorts of patterns? What are you moved by?
TJO: I’m influenced by everything around me. Whether I choose to process these moments and subconscious feelings into some kind of song is the work. I follow patterns of writing from a place of love and of loss and that’s important to me. The lyrical stuff tends to follow that train. The sound stuff does, too, but somehow it’s still a challenge to write words of joy and have them follow my artistic aesthetic.

SLUG: Describe a little about the collaboration between you and Nikaido Kazumi. How did you meet?
TJO: We met in Kyoto on tour in 2002. I was instantly smitten by her spirit and her song. We have toured together every time I’ve gone there.

SLUG: How did you end up actually deciding that you wanted to collaborate? What was the situation where you felt the connection despite the language? How did you overcome the language barrier? Had you previously toured/performed together?
TJO: In 2008 I was set to do another tour in Japan and I asked if I could do a recording of some sort with Nika [Kazumi]. We had done three tours together before and I wanted to do something special. Our friend Norio, who organizes the tours, also made the recordings logistically possible and is putting out the Japanese edition of the album on Sweet Dreams Press. There are all kinds of ways to communicate without words. I suppose it is in these modalities where we have our connection.

SLUG:
In your press release, you mention that often you’d draw pictures, act things out and use other forms of communication during the recording process. Did you feel challenged by the language barrier? How did this push you forward in your own artistic integrity?
TJO: It’s just something you have to take slowly. And also, it is an exercise in letting go of fixed ideas. We got together to collaborate and it was a pretty true form. We improvised everything initially and sometimes discussed what we might want to do, but usually we just started to play. When we did the few overdubs, there was discussion and drawings and body language to articulate the idea. That was never frustrating––sometimes it was funny.

SLUG: You went to Japan twice to record, where did this happen? What equipment did you use? Did you both engineer it?
TJO: The first time we worked at a small home studio outside of Kyoto in our friends’ house … a few hours of singing and banging around were captured. We also went to Biwa Lake to do some recording outside and ended up at a café while a crazy rainstorm raged outside. The second time was at the Guggenheim house in Kobe. It’s up on a hill by a train track overlooking the sea. It was empty. We had a floor tom, a guitar amp, my guitar stuff, a melodica, two SM57 microphones, my computer and that’s it.

SLUG:
What do you feel that she brought out in you, and what do you feel like you brought out in her?
TJO: It was just a really safe space for experimentation and stretching out in unusual ways. Since we couldn’t do much planning before playing, we just had to trust each other and ourselves that we could find the unique mutual place we both showed up to the session to achieve.

SLUG: It seems that this project is a little bit of a departure from other projects that you’ve been a part of, seemingly more atmospheric and environmental than the typical songwriting structure of other projects. Did you improvise? Or was everything pretty well structured? How do you feel like you can communicate this to your audience during live shows?
TJO: Most of what has been widely released into the world is song-based stuff, but I actually do as much abstract or sound stuff, such as soundtracks to films or dance performances, large ensemble compositions or yoga shows. I haven’t yet figured out the best way to send these things out, but I did start a Bandcamp page for these explorations. Also, when I do song shows, I always have some kind of sonic structure I build up before I start singing anything with real structure. I like and need to do both equally.

SLUG: When you joined Olympia’s King Cobra, you moved to Olympia and got matching tattoos with Rachel Carns and Theo Kwo. How would you compare this collaboration with that one?
TJO: Those songs were highly crafted organisms, and we had to memorize them. Then we played them a lot at shows. We spent a lot of time together. Nika and I just played what came out of us when the recorders were rolling. I’d imagine our upcoming tour in Japan will be similarly unrehearsed.

SLUG:
Do you think that you and Nikaido have similar ideas as far as your musical or personal interests go? Or do you feel like the differences are what makes the album work?
TJO: Well, we are from different cultures and where we’re from informs our musical sensibilities. There is most definitely a kinship and an admiration and that’s what brought us together. The union of our differences makes for an interesting listen.

SLUG: Is this a project that you’d like to tour with? Any plans to do so? If so, will you have a translator?
TJO: I will tour there in June. We will do five shows together. Our friend Norio will accompany us as always, and help us understand each other and everyone else. Hopefully I can figure out how to get them over to the west coast to do some things.

SLUG: What do you hope to do for your audience? What are you taking from the experience?
TJO: I’m not sure what the audience will take from it. It’s experimental and often lulling and melodic. I hope the listener can feel the process of making the music. I guess what I took from this were the magical moments that are the songs on the record. It’s an exciting thing to start nowhere and with no map and find really beautiful places.

SLUG: Do you see yourself collaborating with Nikaido in the future?
TJO: I love to always.

SLUG: Do you feel like the earthquake/tsunami that happened recently in Japan affected this project in any way? How so?
TJO: Well, the recording was finished when everything went crazy. We were working on the layout and such as the disaster was unfolding. It was a strange thing to be fearful for my friends and their safety in those first couple weeks while emailing with them about the tiniest details of the cover layout. I kind of followed their lead and they wanted to keep working. So it is done. Doing the tour is a big deal in a way. It’s still unclear what’s actually happening with the nuclear reactor and the nuclear reality. A lot of musicians have cancelled their tours. I think there is a feeling of isolation in Japan, that paired with deep sadness about what has happened and what is still happening. It seems important for me to go at this exact time with this exact project.

SLUG: What are your career plans for the future?
TJO: I’ll let you know when I figure out the larger reality.

The ease of the collaboration really shines through on the album. The songs translate leisurely in a stunning, hypnotic and intuitive manner. The interweaving of instruments and vocal melodies and harmonies are as comfortable and organic as skin. Standout tracks include “Ruh Roh,” a song with sleepy start picking up into a doo-wop harmonic feel, and “Melodica Hall”––single notes blending with the sparse personal offset of Kazumi’s child-like vocals. It feels like listening to a conversation. Really though, this album is meant to be listened to from start to finish to understand the whole journey. TJO and Nikaido Kazumi set out to tour Japan in June, with possible U.S. dates in the future. More info at tarajaneoneil.com.

Photos:
Tara Jane O'Neil PHOTO: Sarah Cass Nikaido Kazumi