As cultural and commercial circumstances conspire to shorten the creative lifespans of musicians, it is of no small note that Tara Jane O'Neil has been recording music for 16 years now, an anniversary marked by the release of A Ways Away, her sixth solo album, and her first for K Records. Of even greater note is that A Ways Away is the finest album O'Neil has ever made, the ideal synthesis of her sometimes divergent talents for textural experimentation, folk-inflected traditionalism, and the characteristically Quarterstick Records harmonic instability of her pre-Portland Louisville youth. That this album is her current career capstone is saying a great deal, given that her discography includes not only an impressive body of solo work, but also genre-defining records (though which genres, exactly, who can say?) with seminal bands like Retsin, the Sonora Pine and, lest we forget, Rodan.
Since moving to Portland in 2004, O'Neil has firmly enmeshed herself in the local creative community, frequently collaborating with a stable of Portland musicians (to say nothing of her interdisciplinary work with legendary ex-Hazel dancer Fred Nemo), including Mirah and Valentine's regulars like drummer Geoff Soule, bassist Bob Jones, and violinist Osa Atoe, all of whom contributed to A Ways Away, generating a rich soundscape for O'Neil's delicate voice and beautifully measured guitar work. I spoke with O'Neil about A Ways Away on the occasion of the album's release this week.
MERCURY: You have one of the most distinctive and lovely electric guitar tones in contemporary music. The opening notes of A Ways Away album opener "Dig In," with their warm, reverberant tremolo, make me feel like I'm listening to John McLaughlin on In a Silent Way or a player from that era and tradition. Forgive the total tech-headed-ness of this question, but how did you arrive at your current instrumental setup? What does it consist of?
TARA JANE O'NEIL: You are a nerd to get that. Awesome. I have always loved John McLaughlin's guitar on In a Silent Way. There's also the early Staples Singers' guitar sound somewhere in there. I have a 1975 Gretsch Beast that contains some magic, for sure, and a couple of inexpensive pedals. It's all about touch though, isn't it?
I think of you as primarily a guitarist and singer—and there's plenty of gorgeous string and vocal work on A Ways Away—but it seems to me that several of the album's highlights like "Dig In" and "A New Binding" hinge on distant, twinkling percussion loops. What is the role of percussion in your music?
Percussion and pulse play a huge role. I could say all kinds of things about what a beat does in a song. But I'll talk about the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra instead. I throw out tambourines, get people to hit other things at all of my shows. I am playing a song and they are accompanying me. Sometimes it switches and I follow them, but at some point it becomes like a chant. Repetitive and irregular percussion played by many people at the same time is one of the most exciting things I can think of. I'll leave it at that.
Did you make the cover art for A Ways Away?
Yes. It started from a photograph I took at a friend's gallery installation. The things that weren't really there in her piece are the things I used—my silhouette and the blue light that created the silhouette. What grew around and in those shapes is a cipher tree.
Tara Jane O'Neil performs at Fontanelle Gallery (205 SW Pine) on Thursday, April 30, with super-secret guests playing super-special sets.