Paula Frazer – Straight outta tarnation
“I guess I’ve always liked…not hugely dark, but mysterious things,” says Paula Frazer. “Mysterious, or even sad music. It’s really moving.” She smiles warmly, her hands cupped around a mug of tea, the sun streaming into the kitchen of her home in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood.
Frazer is speaking of Indoor Universe, her first album as a solo artist, released last year on the indie label Birdman in the U.S. (Fargo and Evangeline in Europe). Frazer’s been writing and recording her own material for at least a decade, but this is the first album on which she’s billed herself under her own name. On her previous three collections — two of which, Gentle Creatures and Mirador, were released through Reprise and the arty British label 4AD — she used the band name Tarnation.
“I wish I’d done it in the beginning,” Frazer says of going by her given name. “But I always thought, well I’m playing with a band, it’s not just me — even though as Tarnation I played with lots of different musicians. I used the name for six years, and the longest I played with anybody was about a year.”
“It’s funny,” she adds, “I’ve played longer now with my keyboard player [Patrick Main] under my own name than I did with any single musician while using the name Tarnation.”
With Tarnation, Frazer developed a distinct sound that mixed introspection and melancholy with hints of twang and the sweeping grandeur of spaghetti western movie soundtracks. Nodding to a diverse group of inspirations — from Ennio Morricone to Lee Hazlewood, Patsy Cline to Roy Orbison — Frazer’s melodies and lyrics spiral out of the speakers with brooding shades of mystery and sadness. At the forefront of it all is her voice, an immediately striking instrument of shimmering beauty, seemingly tailored to enhance the music’s haunting moods. As if in touch with worlds long ago and far away, her tone has an aged quality, yet it’s so very present.
“My father was a Presbyterian preacher,” says Frazer, “and my mother played organ and taught piano.” As a kid in Georgia and later Arkansas, she sang in the church choir and started playing piano at age 4. “Back then, the music I listened to was what she listened to: Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Gershwin,” Frazer recounts.
Moving to San Francisco in the 1980s, Frazer played in punk bands Frightwig and Cloister, but also balanced this energy by singing with the Eastern European women’s chorus Savina — music her mesmerizing voice seems particularly suited for. She formed Tarnation in 1992; the band released its first album, I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, a year later.
Frazer admits that her solo debut isn’t really a huge departure from her Tarnation work. Songs such as “We Met By The Love Lies Bleeding” and “That You Know” are slow, dreamy, and moody, while the wide, dramatic gestures on “Deep Was The Night” show that her fascination with dark, churning rhythms and bold spaghetti western arrangements is still intact.
On the other hand, Frazer’s arrangements here do sound, as she puts it, more “spacious.” Where “Deep Was The Night” is deliberately thick and rich, others feel more spread out. The keyboards are up-front on “Not So Good, But Not So Bad”; the strings stand out on “That You Know”. The quietly chilling “Gone” builds with reverb-heavy guitar strums and Frazer’s gently quivering voice, but gains breadth from the spooky tympani, tubular bells and glockenspiel that echo into its far corners (“That was my infatuation with Phil Spector and Scott Walker,” Frazer grins).
While it sounds like a heavy, brooding affair — and in some instances, it is — the mood on Indoor Universe is actually more self-reflective than down-and-out. Instead of reaching for pills, needles, or bottles of gin, Frazer’s characters are more prone to assess the damage, acknowledge the pain, then pick up and move on.
And the songs are rarely specific. “‘Stay As You Are’ was a song I was inspired to write about my mother, who passed away when I was 21,” Frazer explains. “But it could be about someone you’ve lost, or someone who’s maybe still in your life but far away.”
Stylistically, perhaps Frazer’s biggest departure is a handful of pop songs, which are partly due to the influence of her keyboardist/collaborator Patrick Main. “Mean Things” has a funky, swirling keyboard riff that’s borderline bossa nova. On “Everywhere”, the combination of Main’s lively piano, Frazer’s vocals, a small horn section and a bouncy rhythm even brings to mind the Carpenters.
Frazer has a new batch of songs ready to record, tentatively for an early 2003 release. In the meantime, she’s preparing for a short European tour and also working on a song for an upcoming Bread tribute album.
“I’m gonna do ‘Everything I Own’,” she says. “And I’m probably going to record it here,” she gestures, “in my hallway.” She claps twice, and the sound echoes softly between the wood floor, narrow walls, and tall ceiling. “It sounds great: natural reverb.”