Fade Away Slow: An Interview with Tamaryn

When a musician describes one of her tracks as "an early Madonna song if it was produced by My Bloody Valentine", you know you're in for something special.
Mexican Summer

“For years I’d been playing music that had a lot of rules against things like electronics, samples, different kinds of recording,” the New Zealand-born, New York-based artist Tamaryn explains. “I really liked that sound and it was pretty cool, but I always wanted to explore other territory.”

Cranekiss will be Tamaryn’s third full-length album. Like her two previous offerings, 2010’s The Waves and 2012’s Tender New Signs, she recorded with bandmate Rex John Shelverton. But she’s got a new team on this album, and it marks a significant shift away from the guitar-focused sound of her previous work.

Her forthcoming album explores that new territory, bringing in a whole new array of electronics, synths, samples and more. Her previous style allowed her to focus on the songwriting, she said, and that remains important, but she was excited to explore more creative terrain in her new work.

“Even though there’s still an element of things I’ve done before sonically and emotionally, I was more restrained before because the music asked for that. And now the music is asking for me to really go for it.” For this album, she teamed up with a new bandmate, Shaun Durkan of the band Weekend, and a new producer, Jorge Elbrecht. The first single from the album is already out, coupled with a video. “Hands All Over Me” explodes in a shower of sparkling visuals, while musically it represents the poppier side of the album. She describes it as “an early Madonna song if it was produced by My Bloody Valentine.”

Each song on the forthcoming album inhabits a different statement, she says, resulting in a range of different styles and musical archetypes. Her favourite is the track “Last”, a mid-tempo ’80s pop song reminiscent of Simple Minds, featuring a chorus where “I get to do these really powerful high notes that I’ve never really sang anywhere other than karaoke.”

Recording a new album with a new bandmate, a new producer, and a new sound might seem daunting, but Tamaryn looks back on the process fondly. “It really went sort of effortlessly, and had this magic quality of creativity,” she enthused. “Everyone had strengths and everyone really gelled; recording the album was the most effortless, fun, enjoyable, creative experience that I’ve ever had.”

A lot of the magic, she said, was owing to producer Jorge Elbrecht, who has also worked with noted indie acts like Ariel Pink, Violens, and Lansing-Dreiden among others.

“The studio experience was really, really positive and enjoyable. It was an honour to see the way Jorge Elbrecht worked as a producer. There was a lot of funny experiences throughout. Jorge is really into alternative nutrition and things like grounding bracelets, where they plug you into the wall so your polarity is grounded, and he would strap me in before I’d sing, and he would have giant leaves of fresh aloe vera. Those kinds of experiences were really memorable and I look back on them fondly.”

Collaborations and Influences

In addition to her new studio album, Tamaryn’s also explored soundtrack work, which offers a different form of creative release.

“Making records is my preference but working on soundtracks is very rewarding in its own right. It’s a very different experience because obviously it’s not traditional pop song writing, it’s more open and abstract, and you watch the films as you’re creating the sound and you get to sort of guide the audience’s emotions throughout watching, which is really fun. Creating tension and release, and knowing how to build something and knowing when to make something chaotic, so that people are going to see the visual that they’re watching in a different way. I find it really fun.”

Last year she collaborated with Drew McDowell on the soundtrack to a Bret Easton Ellis short film, Are You Okay. McDowell, who’s known for his work with the experimental electronic bands Coil and Psychic TV, has been a friend since they met in New York several years ago. Their collaboration aptly demonstrates the breadth of her musical interests.

“He’s just a really great person in general,” she said. “He has a lot of modular synths, and that’s the world that he’s well versed in. A lot of the stuff he does is more experimental but for this film that we scored we took that unpredictable nature of modular synths and tried to push it into a more melodic, kind of John Carpenter ’80s movie soundtrack realm. And that was really fun. He’s got a lot of strange instruments, like percussion made out of propane tanks and little electronic analog boxes that are made to create different frequencies of noise that you interact with by touching them. He’s a really cool guy.”

But an even greater influence on her work is Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore. Earlier this year she was offered an opportunity to interview him for V Magazine. A fan since the age of 13, the daunting offer was one she couldn’t resist:

“I’d never interviewed anybody before. I’m not a journalist, and when I was offered the opportunity I was really nervous. But he was incredibly kind, and gracious. I think I learned a lot about doing interviews talking with him, even briefly, because I thought that he had answered questions in a sort of reserved way, so that when I got off the phone I was a little disappointed. But when I transcribed the interview and saw what he had actually said, I realized that he had been doing it for many many years and was a complete pro and did give me just enough information. He just knows how to do it. But it was a huge honour. I think that he is the greatest songwriter ever. He has written more great songs than anyone I am a fan of.”

Making Music in a Changing World

In the interview with Gore, Tamaryn speaks with a sense of wistfulness about the era that produced bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure, one where creative bands pioneered a very new style of music and achieved a degree of fame and recognition which eludes many artists today. But when we spoke about the difference between past and present, she emphasized that as much as she wishes she could have been part of that scene, it’s important not to lose sight of the creative forces that shape the present as well.

“I try not to be one of those people who thinks great things happen only in the past. Because I think every generation feels that way, and it’s very easy to overlook the important things that are happening in your own time. Because they always are. It could be in the underground, it could be in the mainstream, but there’s never going to be a time in humanity when there isn’t great art being made.”

That being said, she’s critical of the lack of opportunities the music industry provides.

“I do think that the music industry is really quite broken at this point,” she notes, “and it’s very very difficult for anybody who isn’t on a major label, with everyone controlling their careers, to really make it to the level that Depeche Mode made it to. In the ’90s there were a few exceptions, but for the most part that era [the ’80s] was the golden era of quote unquote alternative music being able to arise to levels like that. I know that in the ’90s in America bands like Korn and Def Jam and Nirvana and grunge and all that happened, but I really resonate with bands like The Cure and Depeche Mode being able to be these sort of defining pop culture [bands] and play huge stadiums and make tons of money and have huge budgets to make these masterpiece music videos and that’s just not happening now.”

While she notes that she has many acquaintances who have made a successful living in the music industry, and while she’s “open to how the world changes,” her critique lies in the way the growing online music industry tends to diminish the identity of musicians as a profession.

“The way the music industry is set up now, with nobody buying records and everything being streamed and the money coming from brand partnerships and touring, it can make you feel like making music is a hobbyist endeavour. And that is what I struggle with, which is that I believe in the music that I am making wholeheartedly, and think that what I am doing is important and valid. But it’s really hard to remain positive when you can’t make a living off of it; it’s really hard to stay motivated to push the music to that level.

“I think it’s a time in music where people are, and this might be a good thing, more inspired to make experimental music,” she continues. “I think even with pop music we’re in this sort of dadaist era of pop music where everything is becoming less and less musical and more and more conceptual and art-based. And that might just be the nature of where music is supposed to be going right now, but for my own personal power, from my own personal place, I think that it could be damaging. I think that if the press doesn’t push for people, if the press doesn’t celebrate great songwriting, it’s not going to inspire younger generations to want to learn how to be great songwriters.”

Creative, Spiritual Endeavours

While upbeat, poppy, and even danceable at times, there’s a distinctly spiritual undercurrent to Tamaryn’s music; a dreamy and ethereal dimension that complements the poppier elements. And while the thoughtful, well-read musician is known to cite theoretical influences from Werner Herzog to Carl Jung, ultimately it’s a deeply personal connection that drives her spiritual and creative expressions.

“I think that I use music as a medium to sort of navigate life in a spiritual way. It’s a place to not only have control over the chaos of my life and seek out some sort of perfection, but also a place to be vulnerable and connect with other people in the world … by sharing universal experiences and feelings with other people.”

As for many music fans, music played a formative, guiding role in her younger years. It proved to be a gift she hopes to give back to her fans.

“You know, I left home when I was really young and didn’t have a lot of guidance other than just finding music and sort of listening to what my idols said about their take on life, and navigating my own life through that. It’s like when you hear about people in Europe learning English through American movies, I definitely learned a lot about love and sex and self-confidence and visual identity through music. So when I started setting out to make albums my goal was never to sound like my heroes, it was to try and attempt at becoming one of them. And when I say that I mean making something personal and powerful enough that it reaches people in the same way they reached me.”

A Creative Life

Tamaryn’s artistic interests span farther than just music. Between the new album and her previous one she explored different types of creative direction, doing the visual and creative restyling of the latest Dum Dum Girls album with Sub Pop. She’s also been tempted to go into working with fashion more seriously. Her desire, she said, is to take on the type of large-scale projects that allow her to direct or create a whole visual world.

“Being behind the scenes, working with another artist or in fashion, I found to be just as rewarding as doing my own project. Because it would help me validate the fact that I’m a creative person, and I get something out of being creative. It’s not about trying to be a star.”

Yet it’s music that keeps drawing her back.

“There’s always a moment between albums where I think that I’m not going to make another record, and I try to figure out what the hell I’m going to do … [But] I think that doing music is obviously the most ideal place for what it is that I want to do as an artist because it reaches people on such an emotional level immediately. And also the whole visual side of it is, to me, as important as the musical side, so it’s a great medium for me. But being the face of it at times can be trying for me.”

Trying or not, she’s excited about what the future holds. With the new album coming out next month, tours are looming and her focus is now shifting to figuring out how to present the music in live form. The creative life is one of uncertainty, she acknowledges, but perhaps it’s that factor, the unpredictable potential, which is part of what lends it excitement.

“You know, making an album is like buying a ticket to your life, or something, you never know what’s going to come in. And like I said before, I don’t really think that success in the music industry has a lot to do with how good the music is at this point. It’s really a lot of luck and a lot of what you represent culturally at the time. And so putting out an album, you never know which way it’ll go. It could be an unsung record that disappears, or it could buy you the key to the world.”