MUSIC/THE NEW SHOEGAZE The Waves. The title of the first album by Tamaryn is big and elemental. It’s also dramatic and literary, invoking the writing and the death of Virginia Woolf and evoking the ocean’s fatal pull in a classic Romantic sense. Tamaryn’s music is all of these things.
The vast, vague, cacophonous yet harmonic sound that Melody Maker deemed shoegaze back in the late 1980s has made a strong return in recent years, but Tamaryn — comprised of Tamaryn and producer-instrumentalist Rex John Shelverton — distinguishes itself from the pack through epic scope and high fidelity of production, and most of all, through sheer force of presence. Shoegaze so often buried rock’s persona in noise’s capacity for jouissance that the sound became (and remains) a too-easy way to mask a lack of musicality and personality. Not so on The Waves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more confidently unique rock album this year. On “Haze Interior” and “Dawning,” the result is literally awesome.
Tamaryn lives in the Bay Area, but I have to go through a publicity company to arrange an interview, and our conversation takes place over the phone, on a hot afternoon, after she’s found a place to park her car in the East Bay. This roundabout route to getting in touch with the lady herself is fitting, since much of The Waves‘ tension generates from the mysterious way in which Tamaryn moves through the huge and dense sounds that Shelverton generates. “To go into something that loud and overwhelming and do something completely restrained — that was the real challenge,” she says, after sizing up my own voice as that of a young person. “You play music like that in a practice space and you as a singer don’t hear a note coming from your voice. You have to go from muscle memory. It’s about finding your place in the sound.”
It’s easy to connect with Tamaryn on the subject of music, because her appreciation of it is as immense and intense as the album she’s made. When I mention that aspects of The Waves remind me in a flattering way of the ’90s group Curve, she’s appreciative. “The British [shoegaze] bands were all so specific and very restrained,” she says. “Bands like Curve were more in your face. Curve is what Garbage wanted to be — you can see the direct line.”
Tamaryn’s lyrics, guiding the listener through deep oceanic contours, ranging from choral winters to coral flowers, possess a strong sensory quality. She agrees. “Sensory is a perfect way to describe it,” she says. I wrote the lyrics in response to my experience of the music — my experience of being part of the song. There are performers that realize they are not playing an instrument — it’s almost like they are a participant, a part of the audience that is moved by the music to respond and perform. Ian Svenonius of the Make-Up had another band where he’d walk onstage and go, ‘I like this music,’ and start to be inspired. I always thought that was really cool.”
Without a doubt, The Waves is a San Francisco album, with lyrics written at Fort Funston, and music by a surfer — Shelverton — from Half Moon Bay. The album’s final track, “Mild Confusion,” draws from notes on a psychiatric patient that Tamaryn came across during a day job, and it brings the more classical doom-laden aspects of the opening title track to a specific, realistic modern realm. “It’s very extreme here, with water on three sides, and it can be totally inspiring,” Tamaryn says, amid talk of the Golden Gate Bridge’s beauty and tragic lure. “If you come to San Francisco with plans to destroy yourself, it will let you. But if you come self-contained, with a strong personal or creative identity, you can use the energy of the city to inspire you.”
At the moment, one of Tamaryn’s chief sources of inspiration is fellow singer and recent Guardian cover star Alexis Penney. The night of our interview, she assists Penney onstage during a Some Thing drag performance at the Stud that concludes with Penney being pelted with long-stemmed roses. Penney is also the nude star of the video for Tamaryn’s “Love Fade,” which uses Derek Jarman’s films for the Smiths as a touchstone. “Alexis is like everybody’s muse,” Tamaryn says. “He’s amazing.” The friendship makes perfect sense, because Tamaryn is no slouch when it comes to iconic and androgynous imagery: she looked to the rare monograph Trans-figurations, Holger Truzsch’s photo collaboration with Veruschka, when putting together band portraits for The Waves.
A few nights later at Honey Soundsystem’s BUTT Bias mixtape listening party, and then later by text, Penney is more than happy to repay the compliment. “I remember the first time I saw Tamaryn,” Penney writes. “She is so striking and startlingly beautiful, with a piercing gaze, and you can tell she knows exactly what she wants. She’s definitely lived a life and is full of stories, but also retains that same real-life mystery that pervades her music. Her music is so her in essence, almost as if she was even singing the guitars and drums. Composed, but very raw and real and spontaneous, with a voice that is so powerful. Which is funny, because when she’s speaking she’s so girlish, but when she sings she’s definitely channeling spirits — there’s primal earthy old magic in her voice, even when she’s whispering.”
The Waves is an album of staying power and growing rewards because of the subtle and understated way Tamaryn adds human emotion to the Slowdive-like dinosaur yawns and Loveless-era My Bloody Valentine blur of Shelverton’s guitar. Tamaryn makes no bones about the fact that she has set out to create an album that can stand alongside those bands’ best recordings, and the work of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, who she simply refers to as “my heart.”
“The kinds of things I write are always bittersweet,” Tamaryn says, as our conversation falls again into the subject of favorite music. “It’s my experience of life and that’s the music that makes me feel better. I feel that music is so liberating and it has the biggest impact on you because it captures how you feel about yourself. I’ve given up on my dream of having a fulfilling personal life — I’m more interested in making sacrifices in order to make the music I want to make. Being able to make a record I’m proud of is more fulfilling than some day-to-day activity.”
with Weekend; DJ sets by oOoOOO, and Nako and Omar
Sept. 15, 9pm, $8
647 Valencia, SF