Tarnation – Who in Tarnation?
Actually, the band did have a trumpeter play the part before Frazer decided to sing the track. “I do that a lot on songs,” she says. “On ‘Like A Ghost,’ the background vocal, I thought that it could be violin possibly, but I ended up singing it. Or sometimes I’ll have a melody in my head, and we’ll have a guitar do it, just to make it different.
“I do see my voice as an instrument,” she continues. “But I don’t want to overuse it. That could happen very easily. It can come off being wanky, just like a guitar can come off being wanky.”
Frazer credits several sources as helping to inform and shape her singing, from the timeless jazz intonations of Billie Holliday to the classic country crooning of Patsy Cline. Roy Orbison’s overwhelming sadness also can be felt in her songs; the haunting “Big O Motel” on Gentle Creatures was about Orbison. Frazer also expanded her singing style through performing Eastern European music with the Berkeley-based Savina, a woman’s choir that specializes in Bulgarian choir music.
What hasn’t changed on Mirador is Frazer’s writing. She still covers the same ground of ghost stories and lost loves, dipping into the darkness that goes along with the territory. It’s not surprising that she finds Nick Cave a strong an influence on her work. “Like a Ghost” and a continuation of “The Well” from Gentle Creatures cover past lives in haunting fashion; even with the more dynamic band, Frazer’s voice emotes a sadness of loss.
The one instantly noticeable change of pace on the album is “Little Black Egg”. It’s a pure power-pop song made famous by a ’60s Florida band called the Nightcrawlers, mining the same vein as vintage Buddy Holly or the Bobby Fuller hit “I Fought The Law”. On the album, Tarnation plays it straightforward and powerful, and it stands out against Frazer’s heartwrenching ballads.
Mirador was co-produced by Dave Katznelson and the band, but only after a bit of a struggle. “I feel we were lucky because Reprise was really pressuring us for a while to get a known producer,” Frazer explained. She considered trying to get John Cale for the job but ultimately decided against it. “I was afraid he might take over because he’s a really intense person. I know he works well with some bands that maybe don’t know what they’re doing. But we already knew what we wanted.” Frazer says the end result of the work with Kaztnelson was well worth sticking to her guns for. “It came out really reflecting what were about instead of having a [producer’s] trademark,” she says.
After the sea of change Frazer has weathered, it appears the pieces are finally falling together for the band. Tarnation has found quite a bit of acceptance in Europe; Frazer has high hopes for the album overseas. “The first single (‘There’s Someone’) already sold out. It was only 2,000 copies, but it’s a good start,” she said. Tarnation has split its distribution deal, choosing to stay with the smaller 4AD in Europe, while going through Reprise in the North America. “4AD just seem to be more organized [overseas],” Frazer said about the iconoclastic label that released Gentle Creatures. The label also shot a video (the band’s first) for the second European single, “Your Thoughts and Mine”, and will tour Europe in the spring.
As for the States, Frazer is hedging her bets, seemingly happy to work Europe for now and worry about this side of the Atlantic later. She says the European attention might have been part of the catalyst that got the band in the direction she’s been striving for.
“You can flop around the stage and it’s funny and you have a great time playing for your friends,” she says — even when that home crowd includes folks such as Isaak and Eitzel. “But when you play for an audience where you don’t know anybody, you want to get yourself across better.”
Jon Maples writes and edits in exile from San Francisco, where he has developed a distaste of any phrase that begins with the word “cyber.”