Tara Jane O’Neil s/t out 4/21 on Gnomonsong.  Pre Order HERE

Tara jane oneil 2017

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein writes: “I may say that

only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me

rang and I was not mistaken.” When I first met Tara Jane ONeil, about 25 years

ago—and more particularly, the first time I saw her play—this bell rang. I was not


TJO is my friend. But not all friendships are shadowed by—haloed by,

really—this firm apprehension of genius, the simple awe that derives from

witnessing irrepressible, astonishing forces and capabilities rushing through a

fellow human.

These forces have been rushing through TJO from when she was but a kid

playing in the hardcore, math band Rodan, through her multiple, wide-ranging

collaborations with local and international players, through her eight solo albums,

which constitute some of the most beautiful, intricate music I’ve ever heard, and

which I’ve been grateful to have as a wise, stimulating soundtrack to my adult

life. And now there’s Tara Jane ONeil, her eighth solo offering.

TJO’s music contains multitudes. Even individual songs—like 2009’s “Dig

In”—feel like they’re both stadium anthems meant to be accompanied by 40,000

lighters held aloft and also deeply intimate affairs, whispered straight to your soul

in the darkest corner of your bedroom. In the swirl of TJO’s sound you can often

hear everything from her native Kentucky bluegrass, various avant-garde multi-

instrument traditions, Philip Glass, Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, Roberta Flack,

and more. Always more. When TJO puts her head down on stage and starts

creating her soundscapes, her iconic straight hair hanging like a sheet of rain

between audience hunger and face, you can see the music possess her, just as

surely as she possesses the music. The mystery becomes how the technologies

at hand—from seemingly endless pedals crocusing at her feet to simple bells

she’s tossed to the audience—work together to crescendo her music into an

occasion for ecstatic dispossession, to be shared in by all.

TJO describes her new record as a “singer-songwriter” endeavor—a description

which could apply to much, if not all, of TJO’s solo work. But there is something

uniquely satisfying about this record’s willingness to offer individual songs qua

songs, and to foreground her voice and lyrics. Unlike some songwriters, whose

lyrics have the aura of sophistication because they’re essentially nonsense, or

whose lyrics end up pretty banal once deciphered, TJO’s lyrics always repay the

effort to discern them. She is a poet at heart, whose chosen phrases and images

aim to communicate truly as much as to burrow and sound. As her vocals, lyrics,

and melodies emerge into plainer sight on this record, it feels like an act of real,

earned generosity. I get the feeling that she’s holding this record out to us, palms

upturned, in the gold California sun; I already know it’s going to be one of my


Some geniuses eventually get plucked out by the mainstream and lauded; some

stay cult heroes, which usually makes the rest of us happy—they never sold out!,

etc.—but it’s not necessarily pleasing to the cult hero, who doesn’t understand

how or why all her cultural capital and respect from other artists doesn’t translate

into, say, getting her teeth fixed, or not having to work for shit money at a movie

theater when she’s not on tour, or why other people with half their talent regularly

get mega real estate in the New York Times, and so on. Most artists feel

ambivalent about any combination of the above happenstance, which, for better

or worse, exceeds individual control or aspiration.

This isn’t a new story. I mention it only because TJO seems to me as crucial,

original, and affecting as artists such as Bon Iver or Catpower or others who

have seized hold of a wider swath of cultural bandwith than she has, or at least

than she has to date. I don’t necessarily think she’s “waiting for her day”—her

music speaks for itself, will live on, and already has many devoted fans around

the world (she’s big in Japan, as they say; in this case, it’s quite true). But I think

it’s worth noting that there’s a certain insistence on opacity, experiment,

dissonance, dissidence, and variety in TJO’s musical life that has likely played a

part in keeping her aswirl rather than pinned down or made central.

There’s also that small issue of being female, and gay, in the music world, be it

the world of art rock, soundtrack composition, punk rock, and so on. How many

artists are as at home on Quarterstick as on Mr. Lady? How many as at home

jamming with countless indie rock dudes and touring with Amy Ray? How many

as at home playing the Whitney Museum as well as the skankiest punk club or

queer venue?

Until the hammer comes down on us all—and even then—we’re living in an age

in which music is more readily recognized as emanating from and belonging to

people of all genders and sexualities; the media’s attention to the victims of the

tragic 2016 Ghost Ship fire provided but a dribble of spotlight onto one of these

vital youth subcultures. When TJO and I were coming up, there weren’t quite as

many names for what we were or what we were doing, though certainly there

were some (it was the time of Bikini Kill, after all). Nonetheless, we persisted. In

TJO’s case, she pioneered. Like so many others, I basically just ran after

whatever I saw in her, praying for a shred of that confidence, of that natural claim

on innovation and presence that she seemed to possess. (I’ll never forget seeing

TJO play with Come in the mid-90s, and promising myself on the way home to at

least try, as a writer, to do whatever it was that I’d just seen Thalia Zedek and

Tara Jane do with their guitars.)

I probably don’t need to note here that female genius, especially in music, has

been a hard force to reckon with or even recognize. Even a 30 year veteran

innovator like Bjork has recently had to make plain her role as composer,

arranger, mixer, and technician, lest those acts of creating get erroneously

attributed to whatever male happens to be in the room. And besides a few recent

figures—Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, etc.—the role of the veteran rock chick has

been a harder one to inhabit than that of the pre-supplied Keith Richards model.

As TJO puts it (somewhat inflating her age, I feel the need to add, as she and I

were born but a year apart): “If I had a beard I would be the elder statesman

troubadour type. But really I present as the veteran lady who looks pretty good

for her age but not rock n roll fuckable anymore, and the dudes never could get

in here cuz it turned out that I was gay all along. You see I’m in trouble here.”

Whatever kind of trouble this is, it’s the very best kind. In her music and life, TJO

has modeled a new place to stand, new sounds to make, a new kind of artist and

human to be. Her career is all the more remarkable for her music’s willingness to

investigate quiet, minor, and fugitive sound even as her career at large has taken

no prisoners. We are unspeakably lucky to be alive at the same time of her

making and being—to behold, in real time, the unspooling of her unremitting

ingenuity, voyaging, and grace.

Maggie Nelson

Los Angeles, 2017


At the invitation and by the design of Mark Greenberg, half of this record was recorded mostly live at Wilco’s Loft Studio in Chicago with a band that included James Elkington, Gerald Dowd, Nick Macri, and Greenberg himself. Another half was made in TJO’s home studio in California with Devin Hoff, Wilder Zoby, Walt McClements and string supervisor Jim James. This album also features the voices of Chris Cohen, Carolyn Pennypacker-Riggs and Joan Shelley. Tara Jane ONeil plays guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion.

Tara Jane O’Neil is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and visual artist. She composes and performs under her own name and in collaboration with other musicians, artists, dancers, and filmmakers. As a solo artist he has released eight full-length albums internationally.  O’Neil was a founding member of Rodan, the Sonora Pine and several other bands. She has collaborated on recordings and stages with Papa M,  Michael Hurley, Little Wings, Marisa Anderson, Catherine Irwin, Mirah, Mount Eerie,  and many many others. She has performed at clubs, galleries, and DIY spaces around the world and venues such as the Centre de Pompdou, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and All Tomorrow’s Parties.  She starred in the cult classic film Half-Cocked.  Her visual art work has been shown in cities including London, Tokyo and Portland and has been published in three monographs.

TJO will be touring the US, Japan and Europe.