Tara Jane O'NeilEXPAND
Tara Jane O'Neil
Jmy James Kidd

Tara Jane O'Neil's Gloriously Awkward Sound Remains Difficult to Pin Down

The music of Tara Jane O'Neil is wonderfully tough to stuff into a genre box. While she’s often somewhat lazily referred to as a singer-songwriter (the label of choice for any artist who plays guitar, sings and, ummm, writes songs), there’s so much more going on here.

But that’s the joy — peeling the onion. Diving deep and swimming among the pieces to see what can be found. O’Neil is a multi-instrumentalist, but that feels too technical. She’s an artist, with an intimate understanding of what a song, a part of a song, needs. Her music is lush without being overfull, dreamy without sounding at all self-indulgent. She has an amazing sense of "feel." She’s also eight years into a solo career that she tellingly considers an adventure.

“It’s interesting — I did a tour of Japan in the fall, and my label guy over there wanted to do a greatest-hits cassette,” she says. “I selected some tunes, and I called it Some Great Hits. It was pretty interesting, selecting them and then listening to that. The one time that I listened to it, to hear the evidence of my own human transformation and also how location affects the kind of music I make — it’s a real journey from my late 20s to the mid 40s, that little cassette.”

Yep, the “hipster virus” made its way over to Asia and people are releasing music on cassette tape again. O'Neil swears there’s a good reason.

“The whole noise and ambient world has been doing that, because it makes sense to have 40-minute pieces on a cassette,” she says. “The first time I went over there [Japan], in 2002, I brought all these LPs because I knew they were hard to find over there, and I didn’t sell any of them. Nobody had a record player anymore. That’s totally changed in the last several years. Everybody is on the same wave, it just gets you at different times.”

It might surprise some people to know that O'Neil has an enviable fan base in Japan, and elsewhere. She’s certainly a cult figure, a gem you have to seek out. The effort is totally worth it, and it only aids her vibe of mystery to retain that charming elusivity. There’s a good portion of her followers who discovered her through her earlier bands (of which there have been plenty).

“I love being in bands,” O’Neil says. “The ’90s, I was in my 20s. I had those two bands [Rodan and The Senora Pine], and I had a band with my girlfriend Cynthia [Nelson] called Retsin. Then I was in other people’s bands. I was in Sebadoh, Papa M — and that’s continued. I’ll play with people like Mirah, Mount Eerie, stuff like that. Being in a full-on band — I can’t really get in a van for six weeks at a time anymore. I did that for several years.”

As has always been the case, she’s doing this music thing on her own terms. She’s primarily a solo artist now, and she has as much trouble describing her sound as we do.

“I feel like what I do is at least two-pronged,” O’Neil says. “I have this side of me that’s real strong and has always been there. But there’s one side that’s very concerned with song-making, and making compositions and structures, figuring out the riddle, and also singing. And then there’s a side that’s very interested in sound-making and playing my instruments. I do a lot of work with dancers in town, modern dancers. And that’s more of a sound exploration. A lot of that stuff hasn’t been released, some of it has. I do those two things, and sometimes they collide and sometimes they coalesce together. It depends on when you meet me. There are some people who only know my early-’90s work, and then they hear me singing in a high falsetto playing some minor seventh chords, and it’s very confusing for them. And then the reverse as well. So I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me, to explain what I do.”

In the ’90s, O’Neil starred in the movie Half-Cocked, about the trials and tribulations of a young band. The film recently received a DVD release, and has some newfound popularity

“That movie is so hard for me,” she says. “They made a new print of it and they’ve been screening it recently. But I think it was forgotten for a long time, which was OK. I guess it came out in the mid-’90s. It was a little tough, because it was a fiction piece but did document an actual group of people in a time and place. But it was fictional. All of us that were in this world, there were times when there was a little dissonance between what was real and what was not. Also, two of my friends in the film have since passed away, so it’s hard. I watched that movie a couple of years ago and it’s super great to see them. But beyond that, I can’t really deal with it.”

O’Neil performs at Zebulon this week, a venue the artist describes as “the best place in L.A.” She’s still working out her set, but she suspects it will be a career-spanner.

“This is my first show in L.A. this calendar year,” she says. “I haven't been playing so many shows this year. This one will be solo, and a little bit of a jumping-off point into what I might be doing in the coming months. Also, it will be a surprise to me. I played the last record a lot last year, and it’s one of those time after a record cycle where I get a little tired of myself. So I might dig deeper into my catalog.”

Tara Jane O’Neil plays with William Tyler and DJ Ryan Weinstein at 9 p.m. on Monday, June 18, at Zebulon.

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