Tara Jane O'Neil - Biography
Having first made a name as the bassist in the Louisville avant-garde art punk band Rodan in the early-1990s, songwriter Tara Jane O’Neal was already a compelling indie-rock world when she began her solo career in 2000. Beginning with a bathroom-recording that transformed into her debut album, the meditative Peregrine (2000 Quarterstick), the multifarious artist is not only a versatile instrumentalist, but she is also a visual artist (her solo albums feature her own paintings as covers and she’s had two books of art published), film and theater scorer as well as an accomplished studio engineer. Since branching out as her own entity, the tirelessly prolific O’Neal—who also goes by Oneal and TJo—has released a total of five full-length albums and several EPs, while collaborating with artists as varied as Michael Hurley, Ida, Amy Ray and Mount Eerie in the interstices and forming the audience-interactive Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra. She also starred in the indie film Half-Cocked (1994), about a fictitious Louisville punk band.
Born in Chicago, O’Neil has relocated multiple times throughout her musical career. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, having spent the earlier portions of her career moving back and forth between New York City and Louisville, and later Olympia, Washington. After playing bass for the seminal indie-band Rodan in Kentucky, she started up the folk-pop duo Retsin with her newfound partner (both musically and romantically) Cynthia Nelson in 1993, and, while releasing several albums, she continued to immerse herself in other projects throughout the decade. Besides cameo appearances on recordings by Come and Danielle Howle, O’Neil played in the bands the experimental The Sonora Pine, Drinking Woman and The King Cobra—a feat that landed her a joshing reputation around New York City as a “band whore”—before recording as herself to kick off the aughts.
She signed with Touch and Go subsidiary, Quarterstick Records, and released her debut long-player, Peregrine, which was aptly and universally described as intimate. The album was largely recorded in her apartment’s bathtub, and was dottd with terrifically sparse arrangements and O’Neal’s ghostly, lo-fi vocals. Longtime collab friends Dan Littleton (of Ida) sat in on guitar, and Samara Lubelsi (of The Sonora Pine) on violin.
Two years later O’Neal followed up with the subdued 10-song In the Sun Lines (2001 Quarterstick), which was a montage of snapshots set to music, having been recorded in various locations from Kentucky to New York. O’Neal played all her own instruments (guitar, bass, accordion, melodica, etc), while again special contributions were made by friends—this time Rachel Grimes on piano, Noel Hawley on cello and Dan Littleton on vox. This was followed up by mostly-instrumental release between O’Neal and Littleton called Music For a Meteor Shower (2002 Tiger Style), recorded in a mostly improvisational jazz style based around guitar.
Later that same year, O’Neal returned with TJOTKO (2002 Mr. Lady), a playground for her instrumental talents, with a contribution from Cynthia Nelson on flute. In 2004, O’Neal’s You Sound, Reflect (Quarterstick) came out, a profoundly personal, barely withheld album that oscillated between dark turbulence and cheery innocence. It also featured one of her celebrated tracks, “Howl,” which she would subsequently rework later. One of the most critically regarded releases of 2006 was O’Neal’s In Circles, which the songwriter recorded in wooden cabins nearby to her new hometown of Portland, Oregon, reflecting the nature and serenity of the surrounding the area. O’Neal’s debut on Olympia-based K Records, the 36-minute A Ways Away, came out in 2009, in which, characteristic of her previous material, the most minute attention was placed into every note.
Through all of her recordings O’Neal has toured the globe and released EPs in various countries, such as The Joy Of . . . (2002) in Spain and Tracer (2005) in Japan. She also began doing the Ecstatic Tambourine Orchestra, an audience-induced frenzy where she hands out tambourines to the crowd and they play a song together (she does karaoke with the same concept, too). In addition to her deserved place in the indie rock canon, O’Neal has had two books of her drawings and paintings published—Who Takes a Feather, which came out on Tokyo’s Map Press in 2004, and Wings, Strings, Meridians on Yeti in 2007. In 2009 she released A Ways Away.
In the last two decades, Tara Jane O’Neil has become the quintessential artist’s artist.