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Looming Large 

On her first solo album, Paula Frazer weaves together an enchanting musical quilt

Wednesday, Jun 6 2001
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Many things feel right about Paula Frazer's house. Like the long, Victorian table in the kitchen, with its matching stiff-backed chairs. Or the antique bottles lining her shelves, their rims cloudy with memories of elixirs past. Frazer, better known under her former nom de band Tarnation, has always made music that feels wondrously out of sync with the times, and it's somehow reassuring to see that her Bernal Hill home reflects her anachronistic aesthetic.

The loom, though, feels a bit like overkill.

"I make scarves," Frazer says, amused by my reaction to the enormous weaving machine. The complicated-looking loom is all spindly wood, metal, and canvas, and more than anything else it resembles a mischievous carpenter's attempt at breeding a sailboat with a piano.

As Frazer brings out some of her homemade angora scarves, it quickly becomes clear that the loom is not just some dusty curio. Weaving is both her passion and her moneymaker -- and the loom ties Frazer into a past as rich and intricate as her music.


Paula Frazer had already spent time in South Carolina and Georgia when she moved to Eureka Springs as a 14- year-old. The small Arkansas town is a Midwestern tourist destination of sorts, thanks to the 67-foot-tall, 2-million-pound "Christ of the Ozarks" sculpture erected there in 1967. When Frazer was a teen, her mother worked at the Jesus' gift store (and taught piano) while her father did God's work as a minister.

Surrounded by so much religion, Frazer took to the task of rebellion with gusto.

"I got kicked out of school for smoking pot when I was 13," Frazer says, chuckling at her bad-girl days. "I hung out with people much older than myself. ... I just couldn't put up with the normal high school stuff."

After Frazer dropped out at 16, she got her GED and spent her free time singing Aerosmith and Fleetwood Mac covers. With the arrival of new wave in 1979, Frazer abandoned Stephen Tyler and Stevie Nicks for Elvis Costello and Chrissie Hynde.

At 18 the girl with the black hair and glacier eyes struck out on her own. Having been to the Bay Area on a road trip and knowing of a friend with an empty couch, she moved to San Francisco. A few months after her arrival Frazer began playing with punk bands like Frightwig and Trial, and even had a one-show stint as guitarist for hard rock act Faith No More.

After a few years, though, the intensity of San Francisco began to grate on her, and Frazer made the first of several moves back home. She found musicians to play with immediately in Arkansas, but her music had to compete with a newfound interest: archaeology.

"I've always loved history," Frazer says, explaining her excitement at stumbling into a job upon her return to the Ozarks. "A lot of kids grow up thinking, "I want to be an archaeologist.' I was like that too. Archaeology was like a puzzle to me."

Frazer focused on lab work, sorting and cataloging the thousands of tiny items that came from nearby digs. After a brief return to the Bay Area she settled in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas and began taking the prerequisite classes for a degree in archaeology. But after a couple of years of musical inactivity Frazer packed up and headed back to San Francisco.

"I just got kind of lonely, you know. I couldn't play the music I wanted to play. White R&B is pretty popular there," she laughs. "Eh. Help. I just missed my friends."

Frazer returned to San Francisco in 1991, working as a contract archaeologist. She spent her days supervising construction sites to make sure no artifacts surfaced. ("It's alarming to see human skulls falling out of the backhoe," she says nonchalantly.) Evenings, though, she was back to making music, playing with altcountry band Virginia Dare and Berkeley's Eastern European-influenced women's chorus Savina.

And then came Tarnation. In a twist on the usual story, Frazer thought up the name long before she formed the band. Although she wrote her first songs quickly, it took her six months to round up the players for Tarnation's 1994 debut, I'll Give You Something to Cry About.

The album granted Frazer a unique place among her altcountry peers. Where other woman-fronted bands like Freakwater crafted roots music with the dirt still clinging to its tendrils, Tarnation took the traditional template in a more sinisterly celestial direction. Backed by sparse electric guitars and cries of pedal steel, Frazer's voice fluttered and soared.

Kurt Wolff, author of The Rough Guide to Country Music, was one of the early converts. "I really thought she had a gorgeous voice," Wolff says, recalling the first time he heard I'll Give You Something to Cry About. "It's got a mournful quality that's really pleasing. She just hits these minor chords that make me think of lonely nights. ... As a vocalist she's got a real gift."

That gift was also apparent to 4AD Records. The British label -- best known for putting out atmospheric groups like the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance -- repackaged songs from the debut and put it out as Gentle Creatures in 1995. By then, the players from the first album had moved on, replaced by guitarist Alex Oropeza and drummer Joe Byrd (both of Broken Horse) and a series of bassists. It was the start of the salad days for Frazer and her band, ones that would culminate in repeat tours of Europe, sold-out shows opening for Nick Cave, and weeklong residencies at Paris clubs.

Things only seemed to get sweeter when major label Reprise signed Frazer to a two-album American deal (4AD kept the British distribution rights), and footed the $80,000 bill for Tarnation's expansive Mirador album in 1997. On Mirador Frazer eschewed country for western, creating cinematic songs that earned repeated comparisons to Ennio Morricone's scores. By then Frazer was also comfortable enough with her voice to open it up full-bore, alternating a deep, sorrowful moan with her hair-raising falsetto. Frazer sounded like Patsy Cline of the Apocalypse, and, with another trip to Europe on the horizon, it seemed like the Apocalypse was going to be a pretty nice place to be.


"Mirador had been out about a year when I heard the news," Frazer says.

The news was that the head of A&R at Reprise had quit, and the new management wasn't interested in putting out any more Tarnation records. Techno, it seemed, was the label's new direction. And when 4AD was sold to Beggars Banquet in 1999, Frazer suddenly found herself without any label at all.

Oddly enough, Frazer's recent duet with Cornershop's Tjinder Singh ("Good to Be on the Road Back Home Again" on When I Was Born for the Seventh Time) had raised her profile in Europe immensely, and her songs were also starting to appear on soundtracks like Break Up and G.I. Jane. Despite the successes and growing recognition, however, Frazer had to head back to the drawing board and figure out how to manage without a label. The first decision she made was to drop the Tarnation name.

"Looking back on it, I just wish I had gone under my name and not had the name Tarnation," she explains. "But I guess I didn't have that confidence."

Frazer pauses and laughs. "Not that I necessarily do now."

It did take some sort of confidence, though, to go back into the studio and record a solo album with nary a backer in sight. The result of those labors, Indoor Universe (released in April on the small Birdman label), showcases Frazer's growing interest in more subtle things. Where Mirador painted the dramatic outer reaches of desire and destruction, the new album features a more restrained emotional palette. Her lone-woman-on-wind-swept-vista songs ("That You Know," "Deep Was the Night") are less vast, her lovelorn laments ("The Only One," and "We Met By the Love Lies Bleeding") less theatrical. The dampened drama serves the songs well, and gives listeners a chance to enjoy Frazer's impeccable voice interacting with the altcountry/Latin torch twang sound.

Indoor Universe features Oranger keyboardist Patrick Main and drummer Jim Lindsay and Granfaloon Bus drummer Jeff Palmer (here playing bass), along with 10 other friends and acquaintances who dropped by the studio to add the occasional surge of viola or timpani rumble.

Of all the album's collaborations, the fusion of Frazer's voice with Main's pop piano interludes is most likely to shock longtime fans. On songs like "Not So Bad, But Not So Good" and "Everywhere," Main's bouncy keywork leads Frazer into the kind of accomplished pop she has long admired in groups like the Association and the Carpenters.

At times, these new numbers' summery choruses and breezy flourishes make for peculiar neighbors with Frazer's gloomier meditations. But as the loom in her living room can attest, Frazer has always been adept at weaving the old and the new into something exquisite.

About The Author

Chris Baty

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