Perceptual Fields

Tara Jane O'Neil brings her haunting indie rock to town

Champing at the bit to interview neo-folkie singer-songwriter Tara Jane O'Neil--an indie-rock legend thanks to her work in pivotal bands such as Rodan, Retsin and The Sonora Pine--I was a tad disappointed when her publicist said she prefers to conduct interviews by e-mail.

Reluctantly, I agreed, anxious to ask about her work in those previous bands, her solo career and the creation of her hypnotic, beautiful songs, showcased most recently on her fourth solo CD, In Circles. Also, I wanted to ask what the hell was up with the following description from her record company bio:

"TJO has been creating a symbolic register of her own cosmology for years now, but never has the relationship between her sound art and her songwriting been more immediate and complimentary (sic). On In Circles, she has created a newly respiring perceptual field of sound and vision for the listener to step into."

Responding via the Internet, she wasn't so sure herself. "I guess you will have to go through my entire oeuvre to get that one. My friend wrote it."

Or you could go to Solar Culture Gallery this Sunday night, Nov. 12, to listen and watch while O'Neil plays the songs live. Sir Richard Bishop, of Phoenix's avant-garde Sun City Girls, will open the show.

Those enamored of O'Neil's haunting songcraft--maybe even those who aren't--will have lots to think about when considering the delicate atmospheres on In Circles.

With the exception a few guest appearances by friends of hers, O'Neil plays all the album's instruments: guitar, "trick" guitar, bass, drums, melodica and percussive devices of all sorts. There are no keyboards or synthesizers on the album.

In addition, "A Sparrow Song" has flutes, bells and a delicious folk-rock acoustic-guitar hook that either Paul Simon or Marc Bolan would die for. "Blue Light Room" sounds like Mazzy Star with Neil Young's pedal steel player sitting in. "Need No Pony" is based on intensely gentle acoustic picking that will remind many of Fairport Convention with a backdrop of apparently electronic hums and drones.

But those spooky sounds are probably just the result of O'Neil manipulating her guitar in various ways, although she demurs when asked about her recording techniques. "I've always made sounds in secret with the guitar, but I cannot decipher my magic language for you."

She quietly sings about the earth turning, flowers blooming and birds being lonely as if breathing out the words, the texture and sound of her voice somewhere between those of Sandy Denny and Kristin Hersh. Hearing her music is like exploring a trance state, as she conjures the spirits of Nick Drake, John Fahey, Joni Mitchell and Robert Fripp.

But, like Fahey and Fripp, she also can create otherworldly soundscapes during instrumental tunes.

Sometimes, O'Neil can say more without words, she wrote. "I don't need literal meaning a lot of the time. It all feels the same to me. Like I could write a song about a bird, and it doesn't have words, or I could write a song about a bird and tell you all about it in English verse."

O'Neil said Retsin played in Tucson in the mid-1990s, but that the upcoming performance will be her first solo gig here.

"I missed a show there many years ago because of a broken vehicle and slept in the desert," she wrote in her e-mail.

She declined answering any of the questions I sent about personal life, childhood and growing up in Kentucky; she only briefly addressed her history in other bands.

O'Neil, who now lives in Portland, Ore., wrote only, "I remember learning a lot and having a great time with my friends and being young and then also growing up and learning about all the bullshit in the music biz."

It would seem that O'Neil doesn't stop playing music. She has played with, or appeared on the albums of, artists as diverse as Come, Sebadoh, The Naysayer, Ida, Papa M, Jackie-O Motherfucker and King Cobra. But she also didn't spend much time answering questions about those experiences.

"All those bands, and all the other collaborations I've been a part of, have allowed me to explore ways of relating with people and sound in ways I wouldn't sitting alone in my room. Some are challenges, and some are just a real good time with friends. Both (are) the best."

Although O'Neil's gig is a solo performance, she never rules out the possibility of collaboration. Who might sit in when she plays Tucson?

"Sometimes I get other people to make sounds with me. ... Could be anyone: Sir Richard Bishop, my merch girl, (fellow Portland musician) Jason Bokros, you."

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