The only genre tag as vague and reductive as “pop” is probably “singer-songwriter.” The term — which was once used to describe professional composers-turned-performers like Carole King, Randy Newman and Neil Diamond — has become a much-dreaded pigeonhole, replete with musty “retro” connotations.
Experimental artist Tara Jane O’Neil thinks that gender also plays into it. “The singer-songwriter thing is a very gendered idea,” she tells me. “Friends of mine [who are men], like Little Wings, or Will Oldham or Bill Callahan — they’re troubadours or whatever kind of archetype you can apply [to them]. If you’re a woman doing kind of a similar thing, it ends up just being the singer-songwriter tag.”
O’Neil is, technically speaking, a singer and a songwriter: She’s been writing music since she was 15 years old. Her material, however, has, up until now, borne virtually no resemblance to the Laurel Canyon canon associated with the term.
But O’Neil’s new, self-titled record finds the musician dabbling in more straightforward, songwriter-ly territory, a departure from the challenging, Pollock-like splatters of sound conjured on her 2014 album, Where Shine New Lights. “I started writing this record with the intention of writing a song record,” O’Neil says. “I often make records where a song will come out, and then some sonic stuff will come out, and I’m just working on whatever’s in my headspace at that time, and it’s not always straight-up songs. But I definitely set out to make a collection of straight-up songs this time.”
Local audiences will be able to delve into O’Neil’s new and old material when she comes to Ojai’s Greater Goods on Saturday, April 22. She is joined by experimental rock band Califone and percussionist Rachel Blumberg, best known for her work with The Decemberists. It’s rumored to be “a beautiful night of musical exploration,” and should provide a taste of something distinctly different from the standard folk, rock and reggae fare more common in these parts.
O’Neil talks about her older songs as though they’re dreams; she refers to them as “lush sonic realities” that listeners can go “sit inside of.” By comparison, O’Neil’s new record feels very much of this world. “There wasn’t as much ‘sonic trickery’ this time around,” O’Neil says.
An earthy aesthetic is reflected in the album cover, a photo of O’Neil sitting cross-legged on a picnic table in a sunny garden, strumming an acoustic guitar. It’s a heavy contrast to the gloomy, illustrated covers to some of her older albums. It’s also a poke at the singer-songwriter archetype. Tara O’Neil’s new record is as much of a tribute to the grand tradition of songwriting as it is a subversion of its more enervated tropes. The bright chords and singable refrains on songs like “Kelley” and “Cali” belie an undercurrent of intractable sorrow. It’s the juxtaposition that kills.
“To pull back the curtain, I would say that most of these songs are about living and dying, and being informed about the condition of living by witnessing dying, so that’s pretty heavy stuff,” O’Neil says. “I think with the best singer-songwriters — or just songs — there’s the sweetest, sad little turn of phrase in there that you love and that makes you feel really good. It’s like the blues; it’s a tradition.”
O’Neil was also inspired to create a more conventional, song-oriented album simply because she hadn’t made one already. “I feel like the last record I put out was, as a writer and a record maker, a successful resolution to some old ideas,” she says. “It was like I had been chasing down this dog and I finally caught it on the last record, so there was no need to do something like that again. At this point, I’ve made a lot of records — but I haven’t made this one yet.”
Tara Jane O’Neil performs with Califone and Rachel Blumberg on Saturday, April 22, 6 p.m. at Greater Goods, 145 W. El Roblar Drive, Ojai. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/events/469652703426360. For more on Tara Jane O’Neil, visit www.tarajaneoneil.com.