Paula Frazer, live at the Heavenly Social, April 2001, digital photograph by Josephine Lloyd
Here with me now in the studio, I've got Paula Frazer, former singer with Tarnation. Hi Paula, welcome to AVDeck. You've just released your solo record, 'Indoor Universe' and you're over here in Europe for some live dates, can you tell us more about this?
Well, I've just released Indoor Universe on Evangeline Records, and Fargo in France and I'm just over, really initially I just came over to play with the Tindersticks in Brussels, that was the main reason for coming over, but I was also able to get a couple of small solo shows at the 12 Bar, and I'm also playing tonight, May 16th, at a place called Heavenly Social.... and those just came as a second thing to this one original plan. I'm also going to sing in Paris with the Tindersticks this weekend as well.
-So, how did you manage to get involved with the Tindersticks?
Well, I guess because I met them first, I was familiar with them before this, like many years ago, when their albums first came out, I loved them and everything, but we went on a short tour on the West Coast with them and played in Vancouver and Seattle,I guess we only played those two shows so it wasn't really a tour, but that's how I met them. And they also came out to see us play once, when they were in San Francisco, at a club where we were playing... and that's kinda how we met, and I got a call out of the blue from their manager asking if I would sing with them in Brussels.
-So was that you solo, or in Tarnation that they saw?
When I was calling my band Tarnation... now I don't call the band "Tarnation" anymore...I kinda stopped using that name about three years ago.
-okay, cause I was going to say, was it ever a proper "band" or did you ever just think it was a collection of people that were assembled together to play your songs? Because you had quite a changing line-up really, didn't you...
Yeah.. well originally in 1991 when I started calling myself Tarnation or whatever, I had hoped that I would get a band together that would be more of a committed band, and we'd write music together, and it just never happened...it was always, from the beginning, either me playing solo under the name Tarnation or playing with different musicians all the time... sometimes recording with people and they couldn't continue after that, or they moved away, or they couldn't tour... just various things going on. Finally I sort of gave up and just decided not to call it that... but at that point I was already using the name Tarnation, so I kept that. it seemed like almost every album I considered just using my own name but I finally decide to stop using "Tarnation" three years ago.
-So, did you think using the name Tarnation restricted the type of music you made as well?
Well, I don't think it would have had to have, because you can just kind of do whatever... but it does give you the idea that it's going to be kind of like country-ish, I think... not that that's any big deal because I think that some of the songs could kind of go either way... but it's kind of nicer maybe using my own name in that way that it sort of opens up.... a little bit less of that. instead of people saying "Oh, Tarnation", like "Oh, what in Tarnation" and think that it's going to be really country and western or something, which I love, but I also love other kinds of music. So this album is a lot more diverse, not just because of that reason...
-I've noticed that this album has had comparisons to the Tindersticks, especially the first 4 songs, probably the guitar playing..
Well actually I'm not too surprised on the first song cos they're doing kind of bossa-nova-ish, that sort of style too.. but really what inspired me to do that was actually the Beatles from the 60's, you know, even though it sounds nothing like that, that sort of rhythm that they used a lot... and so did Roy Orbison in the 50's. it was more based on that kind of rhythm and then the strings and everything came in, doing parts that I normally sing (laughs) you know, so I didn't sing those parts, the strings did 'em.
-I was talking with Heidi Berry about that last week and she was saying that they add so much to a song... it is really only this album that you've been using them... there wasn't that many on Tarnation, that I can remember.
Well on 'Mirador' we had one person playing, but there was more like the single cello or violin or the combination of the two, and we used a horn on one song... but yeah, this album is a lot more orchestrated.
-Going back to 4ad, how did you end up getting signed to the label? What's the story behind that?
Well, back in, I don't know when it was, maybe '93 or '94, Dave got interested and he was from Reprise and at that time 4ad and Reprise were kind of working together and stuff.... and he felt the bad weren't really developed enough to sign to Reprise but it was thought maybe Ivo would be interested, because Ivo does, or at least tended to like women's vocals back then, so I guess Ivo ended up being interested and also Mark Kozelek from the Red House Painters gave him... so from two sources he got our record, and was interested. And I think even back then he was wanting me to do kind of a solo thing too, but I stuck with the people I was with then to record, and I ended up leaving the band anyway before we were even able to tour for it, so (laughs) so much for loyalty! But on my part, I felt like wow I want to do it with a band, I felt really a lot of loyalty to them.. and Ivo went ahead and went through the second record and I think he envisioned me more as a solo artist anyway. I signed alone to 4ad...
-So, the first album, was 'Gentle Creatures'. On the US version you got 5 extra tracks which were from your first album... the other tracks, were they re-recorded and put on to 'Gentle Creatures'? CosI know there's been some people asking about that first album, and it being so hard to get hold of...
Well I guess really the first album is 'I'll Give you Something to Cry About', but I always think of that as more of a demo in a way, even though it was really an album it was only released in 1000 copies by a small label in San Francisco and then 'Gentle Creatures' took a huge chunk of the songs from that record and re-released them, most of them were re-recorded, but some of them were straight off of that first record, then when they re-released 'Gentle Creatures', they took even more songs from 'I'll Give You Something to Cry About', and everything that's on 'I'll Give You Something to Cry About' is on the second release of 'Gentle Creatures'... so there's nothing else out there, other than maybe getting the artwork or something..I don't know why anybody would really try to get that.. there's only a thousand copies out there, so.. if you've got one, hang on to it kind of thing!
-Yeah! Being signed to 4ad kind of guarantees you an audience automatically just because you're signed to 4ad, so did that make the whole "leaving the label" and carrying on more difficult or have a lot of the 4ad audience kind of stayed in touch?
I don't know, I would say there's certainly a portion of the 4ad audience that may not continue to buy because it's not on 4ad, I don't really know, and certainly on tour in Europe people would come out to see us and just buy the record because it's on 4ad, cos the label had such a great following I guess..
-Like your v23 designed sleeves and everything like that... how was that, having v23 designing things?
Yeah I loved what they came out with for 'Mirador' and 'Gentle Creatures' as well.. that was done by a different fellow in Los Angeles but yeah, I love the artwork
-And also there was the fantastic promotional item, the Tarnation tequila.ithink we only just ran out of those at the end of last year actually..
I see those for sale on ebay every once in a while...
-Yeah they go for loads of money, don't they? But whose idea was it to do that?
Well I think that it might have been actually Cliff's idea? Cliff or Dan, or maybe they came up with it together,I don't know... because that was one of the things we always had on our riders, tequila, when we went on tour (laughs)... yeah, I'm pretty sure it was one of them that came up with it. Good idea!
-Tarnation also supported Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds... so how was it playing places like the Royal Albert Hall?
That was amazing, like a dream come true, you know. Would never have expected to ever have played there...
-Were you nervous?
Not really! I was just excited..
-it was a good gig that night
Yeah, it was fun cause that was the Kylie night, wasn't it, for Nick Cave. Did you get to meet her?
-Yeah, the second night. No I didn't...I guess I did see her at the after-show party, but I didn't actually get to meet her. She was hanging out with Michael Hutchence..
-Where else did you play on that tour?
We played at the Rex Theatre in Paris which is a nice old big theatre, and a circus place in Germany, that was in Munich I guess... and we played in Italy in conference centres which didn't have a whole lot of character but they were really big places, a lot of people there. We played 9 shows... 2 in Germany, 2 in France...
- I think there was the two nights at the Albert Hall wasn't there, or did you only do the one?
Two nights at the Albert Hall, yeah.
-Reading back over your biography, it says you've been in jazz bands, punk bands and even a Bulgarian women's choir! So how did you get to doing the Tarnation sound from that?
Well, I grew up in Georgia and Arkansas, and I grew up listening to The Carpenters and Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline, and Roy Orbison and the Association and just all kinds of music as well as religious music because my mother was a piano teacher and played the organ at church... My father was a minister. So I'd always loved all kinds of music at the same time, even when I went through my heavy metal phase, I still would listen to Patsy Cline and stuff sometimes. But playing in punk rock bands,istill hung on to that. So, it doesn't seem too weird to me to have gone from all those things to playing the early Tarnation stuff, which was more country-ish. And the Bulgarian choir came about just by accident, I wasn't familiar with the music at all and a friend of mine was singing with the choir and I thought it would be really good training for me to sing in a choir, and I ended up just loving the music. it really was a big influence on my singing.
-What instruments can you play?
Guitar, bass, sort of percussion- I'm not great at it, but I do some of that on my demo things, a little bit of piano-I'm not great on that, keyboards-I'm like, OK... just little bits of a lot of things, upright bass and things like that. But I'm not great on any one thing I don't think, I'm sufficient on guitar mostly these days, but I played bass in lots of punk rock bands for years.
-So, would you ever think about re-recording any of the songs you did?
Maybe not the punk rock ones, but could they work nowadays?
-Some of them could maybe! Did you ever think about re-recording them?
Not really, but it would be kind of funny to try! Some of them could work.
-There's also been other projects that you've been involved in, there's been the Handsome Boy Modelling School album- were you happy with how that came out?
Yeah, that was fun... it's always so experimental when someone asks you to come in, and you just keep trying stuff until something works. it's hard to know what people want, so I went in there not really sure what he wanted me to do, so I just tried a few different vocal styles and finally just honed it down to this background thing that I sang on that.
-And you were also on the last Cornershop album as well, how did that happen?
That happened with the 4ad-Beggars Banquet connection, and I guess they were looking around for a female vocalist, they wanted a kind of Nancy Sinatra thing going on in that song... they had tried out a couple of other female vocalists, and then tried me out on it and ended up choosing mine. So that was kind of a surprise too, you know.
-Are there any more collaborations that you've got planned coming up?
The Czars have a record coming out with me singing on it... 3 or 4 songs, I don't know if they'll use all the songs or not. That's one thing... other than that, collaborations, I don't know.. there are other ideas of "maybe", but who knows.
So, we've got your new album. You're signed to Birdman in America and Evangeline in the UK, how easy was it to get signed up and find a new label? Did it all click into place pretty easily, or...
-No, it was really difficult to find a new label. I think the atmosphere in the record industry is pretty tough, especially in the last few years. Maybe it's lightening up a little bit, I don't know. But we started recording the album almost 2 years ago, and we finished it last fall. We started recording it, and I put a lot of my own personal money into it hoping that I would find a label to pay me back. So I looked around, and Birdman had offered, back in the beginning, to put it out but he couldn't pay me back the money that I'd put into it. I was unable to find another label, so I ended up going into a sort of partnership with Birdman, he put in half and I put in half to make the record. I was unable to find a record label to pay me back with an advance, so it was kind of tough there for a while, it was like "I don't know if I'll ever get it out", I didn't really know what would happen. It's not that it took that long to record, but it took a long time to settle up how to put it out and stuff like that.
-So if people can't find it and they want to order it, do you know if they can order it direct from Birdman?
I think so!
-Do you know what their website is?
I think it's www.birdmanrecords.com, and I think they can order through there, I know that they can definitely get it through amazon.com and cdnow.com. They definitely have it because I've seen it on there. Hopefully stores have it, but I haven't seen them in stores yet, I haven't really gone to look. I need to get out and do that.
-Going on to the San Francisco music scene. there's a few bands that spring to mind. You seem to get a lot of bands that stick about for a long time, there's yourself, Barbara Manning, Red House Painters, Mark Eitzel... how is the whole scene out there at the moment?
It's been hard in the past few years cos a lot of clubs are closing down, the whole dot com thing put a big dent in the music there, and just people being able to afford to stay there... we've lost three drummers to people moving away because they couldn't afford to live in San Francisco anymore. It's starting to calm down now with the dot com thing dust settling, which is sad,people getting laid off obviously, but at the same time maybe things will get back to normal, whatever that means... at least less expensive to live there. So, the music scene there, people have stuck it out... I haven't seen the Red House Painters play out in ages in San Francisco, they don't play out in very often. Barbara Manning, I haven't seen ads for her playing out... Mark Eitzel plays pretty often, sometimes he'll just go to a local bar and just play, just for people... and that's a really good way of practising, isn't it. Just show up and play, it's free... nobody knows what he's going to do, he just shows up and starts playing! So it's interesting that he does that, it's good. I can't think of who else... there's lots of bands who've been around a long time there.
-And of course there's bands like Oranger, you've got two of Oranger in your backing band as well, so there seems to be a fair bit going on..
Yeah, it's a great music scene, it is just kind of difficult cos there's not as many bars to play at, and certain bars stick to their certain genre of music... but there's always great music to see all the time, either passing through or local bands, there's lots of good local bands and everyone's always really supportive of each other, y'know.
-Well a few years ago, I was handed your version of "Leaving On a Jet Plane" by John Denver, it's recently been used on the John Denver tribute album... why did you choose to record this song? Was it for the compilation, because I must've had a tape of it now for maybe 3 years..
Well I guess it's been about 3 years ago or so that Mark Kozelek was trying to put this compilation together and it just took him a while to find a label to put it out and finally Badman said they would put it out, so that was like at least a year after we recorded it, and I was calling the band Tarnation at the time we recorded it, he went ahead and released it under that name, even though I wasn't calling the band that name anymore. I love that song, and my mum used to listen also to John Denver and Glenn Campbell and stuff like that too, so that was the reason I wanted to do that, and he called me.
-What other musicians do you admire then?
The Carpenters, The Association, Zombies, Scott Walker, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday... so many I can't really think! Lots of great recent musicians too, like Low, Yo La Tengo, not that I think I sound like them or anything... there's so many great bands out there, it's kind of difficult, isn't it, to name 'em all!
-I know what you mean! Just finally, I just wanted to find out what your plans where, from now... where you going to be playing live again, do you think you're going to be coming back over again?
Well, I do hope to, but there's no plans to.I'd love to come over and play with a band, whoever I could get to come play with me,I would love that. But I'm not really sure.I'm not even sure if we're going to be able to do a tour in the States or anything, there's really no tour support. The clubs have to pay enough so that we can cover our costs... so I don't know! I kind of always come over here thinking this might be the last time I ever make it, I always feel that way.
-So basically, everyone should come and see you playing, just in case it is!
(laughs)It might be the last chance if they're interested... it's just so hard to travel, but it's not so hard by myself, but even then there's certain costs, you just end up losing a lot of money. So, without tour support, it just gets really difficult to do anything...
Do you think you might do like what Kristin Hersh did, where she's not been able to afford to have the band so she just does solo acoustic shows... could that be the way you maybe end up doing things? Because I think all the songs sound just as fantastic when you're doing it just on the guitar..
Thanks! Well, that's easier for sure. Or maybe a pared down version of the band, maybe just a couple of people or something..I'd love to tour with Patrick (Oranger), who plays keyboards and sings, we could do almost like a duet thing... but yeah, it becomes really hard, not only that but with equipment and hauling everything around, you have to have some kind of transportation... with me and my guitar, I can just hop into a taxi or go on the tube, so maybe! I know that Fargo Records, who has the distribution and licensing in France, really wants me to come over for festivals in the Fall, so maybe something could be worked out around that, so that I can come here too. We'll see!
-Well thanks for coming in for a quick chat!
interview by jo, photos by Josephine Lloyd, Paula's official website www.paulafrazer.com