Tara Jane ONeil is like the Daniel Boone of Indie Rock. From the very dawn of her career — as a founding member of Rodan, Retsin and The Sonora Pine — to her decade-long solo stint, ONeil has blazed sonic trails in favor of following trends, making a name for herself as a guitarist, singer/songwriter, producer, film scorer and visual artist.
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t give that aspect of her work a great deal of conscious thought. She’s not out to set the Indie Rock world on its ear, she just does what comes naturally.
Take the tour for her fifth and latest solo album, A Ways Away. ONeil is playing guitar with tourmates Mount Eerie, whose frontman Phil Elverum is playing drums for ONeil, and she’s hoping to recruit the other band on the bill, No Kids, to join in the cross pollination. And then there’s the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra, whose membership is composed of, well, you.
“I throw the tambourines out to the audience for some songs and we all play together,” says ONeil from her Portland, Ore., base. “It’s really good. It’s the best part of the show for me.”
With A Ways Away, ONeil crafted a set of songs that, in her mind, seemed to hang together as an album as opposed to a collection of tracks that just happened to coalesce around the same time. And while she feels as though A Ways Away contains certain thematic elements, she stops short of tagging it with the dreaded “C” word.
“This was kind of a body of work with an album in mind, but I wouldn’t call it a concept record,” says ONeil. “It’s closer to a song cycle but not entirely that either. It was definitely a collection of songs that were meant to be together. There are certain musical themes that recur. I actually started writing while I was on tour. When I play live I take the opportunity to use the format to do some improvisations so some of the songs were borne of that.
It was all kind of within a year-long period.”
As far as lyrical inspirations, ONeil is less inclined to discuss specifics, preferring to let the songs reveal themselves to listeners on a personal basis.
“I had my mind on some specific things during that time,” ONeil says. “There’s a lyric sheet and the vocals are mixed pretty high. It’s all in there.”
A Ways Away, like a fair amount of ONeil’s work (as well as the projects to which she contributes), is a masterful display of atmospherics and texture. Mixing Jane Siberry quietude and Math Rock precision with Indie Rock passion and Ambient intimacy, ONeil invests A Ways Away with a quiet elegance that sounds like a sonic summit meeting of Adrian Belew and Brian Eno. Although conceived in part through her improvisational explorations, A Ways Away benefits from ONeil’s deliberation in the studio.
“I went into the studio to do basic tracks for four songs and I haven’t done that in over a decade,” says ONeil. “And that was borne out of the fact that they were written live and so they had to be performed in a way where (it) had to be just the guitar player responding to the other musicians instead of also being the engineer and figuring out crafty ways of making sounds happen. That was really different and pretty awesome. I still prefer working at home. I find the studio really stressful, but in this instance it was appropriate and really fun.”
ONeil worked with a variety of friends and peers on A Ways Away, including Mirah, Jana Hunter, New Bloods’ Osa Aloe and Fuck’s Geoff Soule but she reserves special credit for her longtime collaborator Dan Littleton. ONeil and the Ida guitarist have worked together on a number of occasions, most notably on their excellent 2002 collaboration, Music for a Meteor Shower.
“Dan came to do some guitar work and some vocal stuff but mostly to be my chaperone, which was kind of cool,” ONeil says with a laugh. “We have a lot of stuff recorded. It’s an on-going relationship; me and Dan are really old friends.”
One of the big differences between A Ways Away and ONeil’s previous solo outings is the definitive song structuring on the new album. Although there is still plenty of ONeil’s trademark texturalism — a hallmark of her live presentation — this album definitely presented itself to her in a more sonically compartmentalized fashion.
“When I’m writing, I like to leave space for sound but it was tricky with this stuff — I felt like there needed to be a pretty solid song to rest inside the sonic stuff,” says ONeil. “The sound stuff is always on my mind, but the song stuff demands more attention. Usually I don’t get to have that kind of fun until it’s time to record. It’s the same as the live thing. It’s kind of my favorite part, to just make soundscapes, but when I’m playing live, I kind of have to play the songs, which is the reason I like to meander a bit on stage. Now I’m doing it with just the guitar itself. I used to bring all kinds of stuff on tour for those moments when I was a little more indulgent with it. Now I’m doing it with just a guitar, which is fun.”
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