Chosen One: Tara Jane O’Neil
Interview with Tara Jane O’Neil.
“I went into the fire to meet you
And through the fire we walked”
—taken from ‘Elemental Finding’
Words: Mark Carry, Artwork: Tara Jane O’Neil, Photograph: Megan Holmes
“what sunflower”, 2008, Tara Jane O’Neil.
The beginning of 2014 marked the eagerly awaited release of Tara Jane O’Neil’s latest full-length record, entitled ‘Where Shine New Lights’ on the prestigious Chicago-based independent label, Kranky. The Kentucky-born visual artist, song-writer and musician has long been synonymous with independent music, having collaborated with fellow-luminaries Papa M, Ida, Mirah, Michael Hurley, Jackie O’ Motherfucker, and the King Cobra. In addition to the plethora of stunning collaborative projects, O’Neil has scored soundtracks for film and theatre, composing instrumental music under the moniker Strange Clouds. During the 90’s, the Kentucky-native played in the duo Retsin and Sonora Pine. The latest solo work ‘Where Shine New Lights’ is the follow-up to 2009’s ‘A Way’s Away’ that contain choral voicings, and electronic and organic elements masterfully woven together.
The album’s defining moment arrives on part B with the torch-lit ballad ‘Elemental Finding’ that contains O’Neil’s ethereal vocals, warm instrumentation of acoustic guitar and percussion. The elements of water, light and fire are beautifully interspersed in the sprawling sonic canvas. Towards the song’s close, the lyric of “Take a look at yourself in the water” resonates powerfully. The heartfelt lament ‘The Lull The Going’ is an achingly beautiful lament. ‘This Morning Glory’ is built on a gorgeous acoustic guitar-based melody that is taken from folk’s age-old tradition but feels mysteriously new; belonging to the here and now. An intricate arrangement of strings serves the vital pulse to ‘The Signal, Wind’. A post-rock infused ambient web of sound is effortlessly formed on The Necks-esque ‘Glow Now’. One of the record’s empowering crescendos ascends on ‘The Signal, Lift’ where a brooding melancholia seeps into the immaculate instrumentation of banjo, guitars and drums.
“Where Shine New Lights” is available now on Kranky.
“Tara Jane O’Neil”, photograph by Megan Holmes.
Interview with Tara Jane O’Neil.
Congratulations Tara on your latest album, “Where Shine New Lights”. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions in relation to this stunning masterpiece. I love how the layers of instrumentation effortlessly ebb and flow throughout, from the utilization of choral voicings, guitar, percussion and a myriad of other sources that conjures up a haven of enchanting sound. Please talk me through the recording of “Where Shine New Lights” and the aims you set out from the outset? You must feel deeply proud of this record.
Tara Jane O’Neil: Hey thanks. The record was a real odyssey. It was recorded at different times over 3 years. There were hurricanes and Kickstarter campaigns, and it was recorded in Portland, Woodstock, NYC, Los Angeles, Louisville. In some ways it was an exercise in getting out-of-the-way and letting the album take its own time and shape. My first thoughts about what I wanted it to be were not the thoughts that took over two years into it.
Recurring themes throughout the record come from the elements: water, light, fire, air and Earth. As ever, there is a beguiling atmosphere captured on every cut on the album, where an intimacy is formed between the artist and the listener. Furthermore, a vivid sense of solitude emanates from the embers of these works. Can you please discuss the wonderful title, “Where Shines New Lights” and the themes that connect the twelve songs together?
TJON: “Where Shine New Lights” is a question and also its answer. There’s a lot inside this record. I would betray it to break it apart and decipher its prompts. Just like any other music I put in to the world, it changes as soon as I play it for someone, or play the music with someone. Once it’s out of my own head and room, it’s a part of the environment where it is heard.
‘Elemental Finding’ is one of the album’s defining moments, a stunning tour-de-force in minimalism and captivating song-writing. The lyric of “I walked into the fire to meet you / And through the fire we walked” evokes such vivid beauty and raw emotion. Would I be right in thinking that this song opened a gateway for the rest of the album to come into being, Tara? I would love to gain an insight into the construction of ‘Elemental Finding’ and your memories of writing/recording?
TJON: That song was one of the first in the collection, yes. I wrote it in a day in Woodstock, recorded a demo the next, and a proper version with Dan Littleton a year later. It was not included in the in the couple of months where I was in the process constructing the record. In fact, it was the last day of mixing and that it was fit in to the sequence. So, it’s good to trust the first thought, and also the very last thought.
You are an accomplished visual artist with a seamless array of exhibitions and wonderful publications to your name. I would love for you to discuss please the relationship between sound and visual art and how one process must feed into the other? For example, your music — going back to your compelling debut in 2000 — possesses a powerful visual aesthetic and abstract detail. How does both worlds differ for you, if so, and would you work on music simultaneously alongside art?
TJON: Well… sound and vision are just balancing hemispheres here in my person. I don’t often work on them at the same time. On tour I get a lot of time to draw, then I do the show. Usually I have to sink in to a real musical brain, or in to a real visual brain. They activate senses, and the somatic sense that both music and visual art require is the real meeting point for both. Each are very much in the body for me.
You grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and later moved to New York, before living in Portland, Oregon in 2003. I would love for you to discuss your memories of each of these places and how these worlds helped shape your music and art?
TJON: I grew up in many cities. I did go to high school and start my adult life and my musical life in Louisville. It was the very early nineties and our community there in our small mid-south town was inspired and tight. There are a million records and films and other ephemera documenting some of what we did during those few years. Formative groundwork there. Some of us have left this world recently and it’s amazing to have that stuff. Louisville is a bittersweet heavy dose of deep family vibes… my time in New York and Portland are totally different beasts. I learned the next phases of everything in those places. My best friends and my forever collaborators are living in them still…
I am a huge fan of the various collaborations you’ve been part of, particularly Papa M and Michael Hurley. I can imagine that collaborating with other artists must feed into your own solo projects? How does the collaborative process differ from the solo compositions? Is there a particular favourite record you have from these wonderful collaborations, Tara?
TJON: Collaboration totally informs my playing and how I interact with different musical voicings. Collaboration is the best teacher. That communion which happens with other people while playing or doing some kind of performance is really the finest kind. I’ve been working with some dancers for the last couple of years. Improvising within a structure and responding to movement. All the work I’ve done with people on musical projects helps me understand how to invite others into my solo recordings and shows. The process of composing a record on my own with contributions from other players is kind of the inverse of going to play on someone else’s record. Sometimes I feel like a writer, working at their desk while I’m working on a mix that’s full of amazing sounds from different players. The actual playing, whether I’m a guest, or I’m inviting people to play on something I’ve written basically requires the same spirit of listening and getting free within a certain criteria. And my favorite records in the pile? Well I love them all, they were all really special times. But for today… Catherine Irwin “Little Heater”. Papa M “Whatever, Mortal”. Ida “Lovers Prayers”. Danielle Howle “Red Candles”.
What are the most important albums out there that you feel have inspired you to make your own music? Would you have certain records you always come back to? In terms of song-writing, who would provide everlasting illumination? Also, in terms of instrumental music, what bands or particular records do you feel proved pivotal for you?
TJON: Everlasting illumination? Maybe….Joni Mitchell “The Hissing Of Summer Lawns”. Judee Sill “Heart Food”. The Beach Boys “Friends”. Prince “Sign of the Times” side 3. The Velvet Underground. Leonard Cohen. Arthur Russell. Eno. Instrumental stuff recently… Alice Coltrane “Universal Consciousness” and “Eternity”. Harold Budd “Pavillion Of Dreams”.
What is next for you, Tara? Are there new collaborations on the cards?
TJON: I would like to start an R&B soft rock group. There are a few folks interested in this endeavour but nothing to share just yet. I will continue to collaborate with my partner Jmy James Kidd on her ritual modern dance pieces.
“Where Shine New Lights” is available now on Kranky.