Tara Jane O’Neil is arguably one of the underground’s most underground musicians. Though she’s been making music for over 25 years, darting from influential labels like K Records to Kranky, the 44-year-old musician hangs in the shadows, releasing unassuming music knitted in soft, experimental, and melodic tones. Her music is moving in the same way Grouper or Weyes Blood may be, but without a cult following that brags about her as part of their musical knowledge. O’Neil’s latest record, this year’s excellent self-titled LP, sees her tackling death, among other things, in a strangely uplifting way. So titling it after herself, someone who is fully alive and full of life, may seem at odds.
“I’ve been called a singer-songwriter a lot because and I didn’t relate to that—my songs are intimate and companions, but there’s a lot of other stuff in my music, plus that’s such a gendered term—but this time it felt appropriate,” she explains over the phone. Birds chirp in the background. It seems too fitting, like her words about relaxing into her own skin are mirrored around her. “I’m so old now,” she continues. “I can do whatever I want. So this became a solution to a musical equation I was looking for on the last record, writing intentional songs and just seeing how it goes.”
Because O’Neil has a long career full of intimate moments and dark shadows, we interviewed her for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. Now Tara Jane O’Neil becomes even more telling, though maybe not in ways she expected.
DIGBOSTON: If you could have any type of wings, what would they be made of and why?
O’NEIL: The old avian standby seems to work pretty well for the birds. Let’s see. The thing that comes to mind is crow wings. I hear them and they’re so shiny and strong and black and blue, and you can really hear them when they go by. So yeah, I’ll say crow wings.
DIGBOSTON: What’s the biggest opportunity you’ve blown?
O’NEIL: I guess college. I dropped out to be in a rock band, but that’s not even an opportunity I messed up. Everything turned out great, but I definitely blew off college… and I’m really happy with the result!
DIGBOSTON: Where is the best beach or body of water you’ve ever been to?
O’NEIL: I just had a show at Miami Beach. Before the soundcheck, I just got out of the van and went in the water. It was great! It was white sand, turquoise water, and I was joyful. A nice counterpoint to the day. No beasts, chill people.
I’ve been to Hawaii once and the black sand beach at the bottom of the big island in the tuna district—I forget the name of the beach itself—is wonderful. It’s volcanic sand that’s crazy to see. A good place to go. Definitely a “what the fuck” type of place, in a good way.
DIGBOSTON: This reminds me of Joshua Tree the place, but let’s take it in a different direction: Where do you stand on U2?
O’NEIL: Well, I did go see that concert for that album when I was in high school, and that’s where I got off the U2 train. When I was younger, they had this U2 line at Red Rocks Studios that circled on HBO or something. Cable was new then and they only had so many things to play, so they played that a lot. It was good. I really liked it a lot. Bono used to wear his pants real good [laughs]. They were just a great band then. Everything that’s happened since is confusing to me because I haven’t paid attention, and it’s not really my jam. I say pre-Joshua Tree U2, I’m totally down with. Post-Joshua Tree U2, I don’t want to talk shit.
DIGBOSTON: If you could spell your name a different way than how it is now, how would you spell it?
O’NEIL: I would take out the apostrophe. I tried to do that for a few years and nobody went along with it. It’s kind of confusing. I don’t feel there needs to be any punctuation in a name. It’s just my name. I know it’s an old tradition, but I don’t want it. Just letters.
DIGBOSTON: Do you have any laughs that you’re embarrassed of?
O’NEIL: I have a kind of cackling chuckle that I hear myself doing sometimes. It’s really sincere, but I don’t like it. It’s like a piccicato laugh. I don’t like that. You don’t have to hear it. It’s not a menacing laugh. Just a [tries to laugh] like a diaphragm spasm.
DIGBOSTON: What are two of the best things about living in Cali? What are two of the worst?
O’NEIL: The nature everywhere, the tremendous vistas and variety? I’m totally into it. I also like the people. Tremendous variety in them and a freedom to be whatever kind of person you are.
The bad stuff would be the people [laughs] and how they’re really caught up in certain appearances. Also the pollution of the nature, at least in Los Angeles where I live.
DIGBOSTON: What’s your favorite Prince album and why?
O’NEIL: Yeah! My favorite Prince album is Sign of the Times, especially side three. I don’t know, it’s just his height. They’re the best songs. It’s just the best. There’s no way to even talk about it.
Then there’s this bootleg called Dream Factory that’s music from that time—it’s a double record, Sign of the Times—but there’s other versions of it that rules. That whole period I’m into. I was 14 when that came out, early in high school, and I think I’ve listened to that record more than any other record, ever.
DIGBOSTON: Did P!nk the musician get too much fame or not enough?
O’NEIL: It seemed like she worked hard to get it, so I’m glad she got what she got. I don’t know much about her career, but she seems like a reasonable person. I’m down with P!nk. No strong feelings.
DIGBOSTON: What’s something you’ve recently realized you’re grateful for?
O’NEIL: Nice one. Hmm. Grateful? God, that is so personal. Let’s just leave it at I’m grateful to still be alive and free to roam in the ways that I get to. It’s kind of blanket, but…
DIGBOSTON: What’s the most meta thing you’re heard or learned?
O’NEIL: I don’t know. I don’t think about that too much even though I’ve learned a lot of weird things in life. I get my mind blown all the time! Let’s just say gravity? I’ll tap out on this one because it’s such a big question and all I’ve got is a big answer [laughs].
MIRAH & TARA JANE O’NEIL. WED 5.10. GREAT SCOTT, 1222 COMM. AVE., ALLSTON. 9PM/18+/$12. GREATSCOTTBOSTON.COM