Intricate Introspection

Singer-songwriter Paula Frazer weaves gorgeous alt-country from ashes of Tarnation

Melancholic alt-country doesn't get much more haunting than Leave the Sad Things Behind, the new CD by singer-songwriter Paula Frazer, whose former recording project, Tarnation, was one of the most under-appreciated acts of the 1990s.

Frazer's rich voice--imagine a trilling but earthy croon that is equal parts Patsy Cline and Sandy Denny--is the focus of a lush sound that combines the elegance of 1960s "countrypolitan" arrangements, a hint of Ennio Morricone spaciousness, Roy Orbison's in-the-dark obsessions and subtle psychedelic folk-rock touches.

Frazer's tunes simultaneously radiate and encourage introspection. She won't argue. "A lot of times, the audience that listens to my stuff is a lot of homebodies," she says by phone from her renovated Victorian home in San Francisco.

Nevertheless, the 42-year-old Frazer will take her show on the road for a short American jaunt and a more-extensive European tour. She'll appear Oct. 13 at Plush.

"My interests and influences are mostly old music, at least from the '60s and '70s, and we try to do as much as possible of our recording in the old way," Frazer says.

"We start out with 2-inch analog tape for the basic tracks. But then we move on to Pro Tools afterward, because it is so easy, and the music is going to be digital anyway when it comes out on CDs."

Frazer was born in 1963 in South Carolina, and she moved around the South throughout her childhood, accompanying her Presbyterian minister father and piano teacher/choir leader mother as they moved from church to church.

The Frazers spent a good bit of time in the Smokey Mountains of Sautee Nacoochee, Ga., before moving to Eureka Springs, Ark., where the teenage Paula was introduced to her two loves: music and weaving.

She began weaving as a 16-year-old apprentice, paid to train under a professional by President Jimmy Carter's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a program that compensated both artisan and apprentice for their collaboration on a civic project.

She continued working as a weaver when she moved to San Francisco in 1981 and started her own weaving business in 1997. She looms handwoven scarves, shawls, handbags, blankets and purses, using natural fabrics such as cashmere, silk, cotton, mohair and merino.

"I love the process of weaving," she told the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2003. "It's meditative in a way, and I like the problem-solving aspect of it."

While developing as a weaver, Frazer also explored her musical abilities. She played piano, saxophone and guitar as a child, and in her home were often heard such artists as Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell, Bread, the Carpenters, Badfinger and, of course, the Beatles. She played in a new wave band as a teenager.

If Frazer experienced a musical turning point, though, it came when her mother took her to her first concert, part of Neil Young's late '70s Rust Never Sleeps tour. At about the same time, mother and daughter began working as ushers for arena concerts in the Little Rock area.

"We saw all the big rock bands' concerts at the time, and some pretty interesting combinations: AC/DC with Cheap Trick, Blondie with Van Halen," she remembers.

These opportunities combined with her mother's more traditional background to give Frazer what she now considers a rich musical education.

She began playing in bands almost as soon she arrived in San Francisco in the early 1980s--with the Goth-punk band Frightwig, as well as groups such as Trial, Pleasant Day, Fembot, Cloiter and Virginia Dare.

Frazer began Tarnation in 1992, using a wide range of musicians on each of that band's three albums and subsequent concert tours. Easily among the most accomplished alt-country records of the mid-'90s were Tarnation's Gentle Creatures (1995) and Mirador (1997).

Tarnation was never really a conventional band. It comprised Frazer and the musicians who happened to be playing with her at any given time. Members of Broken Horse, a former Tucson band that had relocated to San Francisco, accompanied her on Mirador. By her own estimation, Frazer played with no less than seven different drummers and five different bass players during Tarnation's run.

She also has appeared as a guest singer on record and in concert for Cornershop, Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, Sean Lennon, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Mephisto Odyssey and Tindersticks.

Frazer started recording under her own name with Indoor Universe in 2001. A Place Where I Know in 2003 and Leave the Sad Things Behind followed, all on Birdman Records.

Although the new album arrived in stores only a few days ago, Frazer and company finished recording it a year ago, and she's already moved on to writing new tunes, she says.

"I still love the songs on the new record, and I'm looking forward to performing them, as well as some of the older material, but I'm also in a different place than I was when I wrote them. I mean, some of the sad songs I wrote in the early '90s almost seem like they were written by a different person."

For Frazer, performing older songs is an interesting phenomenon, because, with some artistic distance, she can be more objective about the emotions and situations to which the songs refer. It's almost as if she's covering her own music.

A rotating lineup of veteran San Francisco-area musicians have populated Frazer's solo recordings, including players with experience in Sister Double Happiness, Oranger and Secret Chiefs 3, among others. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, formerly of Kronos Quartet, appears on the new album, as do San Francisco's much-loved Moore Brothers on backing vocals.

Although the backing band lineups may change, Frazer has for the last seven years collaborated with keyboardist Patrick Main on arrangements, scoring and production. Because of his other obligations, Main doesn't usually tour with Frazer.

When she performs in Tucson, Frazer will play guitar, accompanied by the Moore Brothers (Thom on keyboards, Greg on bass) and Warren Huegel on drums. The Moores, who have released several albums as duo, will open the show with their own set.

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