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Paula Frazer's Eerie Beauty

The sound is chilling, wordless — trilling notes that are at once inhumanly high and pure and deeply, spiritually moving. As the song moves along, it picks up momentum with strummed Latin guitars, spaghetti-Western percussion, subtle runs of piano notes. Yet the voice hovers above it all, clean, pure and otherworldly. This is Paula Frazer, once known as Tarnation, lending her unforgettable voice to her first studio album in four years. The song is "Watercolor," an Ennio Morricone-flavored highlight from Leave the Sad Things Behind, due out in late September on Birdman.

Paula Frazer, who is influenced as much by Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and Nick Cave as by Morricone, has been making music all her life. She grew up in rural Georgia and Arkansas, honing her voice early on in her minister father's church choir and taking piano lessons from her mother. She was 9 when she picked up the guitar, and a young teenager when she started playing in local cafés, parks and open mics. "It's funny, I was kind of braver then than I am now," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I don't think I could do that now. I would just go to café owners and managers and ask if I could just play, and you know, I didn't get paid a lot. A lot of times I just got food or something. But it was fun."

Frazer moved to San Francisco in the early 1980s and, for a time, played with a series of female-centric punk banks — Trial, Fembot and Goths Frightwig — before launching Tarnation in 1992. With this band, essentially Frazer plus whoever she was playing with at the time, the singer began exploring the orchestral, country-influenced textures that have marked her work ever since. As Tarnation, she recorded her 1993 debut I'll Give You Something to Cry About, followed by the haunting Gentle Creatures on 4AD in 1995 and then Mirador on Matador two years later. She began recording under her own name in 2001 with Indoor Universe.

When asked about the transition from Tarnation to today's eponymous solo project, Frazer admitted that the difference is really not all that great. "I don't know why I didn't just use my name in the first place," she said. "I guess I kind of hoped that I would have a band at some point."

She added, that, ironically, she has now played longer with current bandmates like Patrick Main than she did with anyone associated with Tarnation. "I figured out at one point that I had played with seven different drummers, five different bass players in Tarnation," she laughed.

Her current band includes Main (also of Oranger, and a songwriting partner for seven years), and Court & Spark veterans Scott Hirsch (bass) and James Kim (drums). On the record, she is joined by a whole host of San Francisco-based friends and collaborators — among them the Moore Brothers, pedal steel guitarist Tom Heymann, and Kronos Quartet's Joan Jenrenaud. Recorded last June at Prairie Sun Studios with longtime producer Dave Katznelson, Leave the Sad Things includes songs that predated Frazer's 2003 demo compilation, A Place Where I Know. "Watercolors," she explained, was one of several songs that made an appearance on this four-track collection, as a video clip, "Of course, it sounds very different, just because I'm playing it in my hallway."

The title track, as well, was an older song, Frazer explained: "We did a recording of 'Leave the Sad Things Behind,' many years ago, and it was on a sort of a b-side release that just had a few songs on it, maybe 1992."

Frazer was never happy with how the song had been recorded, and fittingly, since its lyrics are about wrestling with the past, she continued to work on it, finally capturing its gorgeous potential last year.

The song, which includes the line "You've made a prison of your past," is about moving forward, using experience without allowing it to limit one's possibilities. "I'm really talking about somebody else, or myself, or really anybody who can't help but sort of be a prisoner to their past, because they say, 'Oh, God, it's going to happen again,'" she explained.

Still, she concedes that forgetting about the past isn't a solution: "You're made up of all the experiences that you've had in your life. That's what makes you the person you are. That's why cloning won't work. Know what I mean?"

The title track, as well as the pedal steel-infused opener "Always on My Mind," evoke Frazer's traditional country influences, a far cry from today's commercially tainted, politically conservative country singers. "I don't know anything about contemporary music, but I grew up listening to Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison, stuff like that," she said.

Asked what she likes best about Patsy Cline, she replied, "Her incredible voice. She's able to invoke a real sadness. She has some happy songs, but the ones that really get to me are the sad ones. There's really nobody like her."

Yet while Frazer's best work offers the emotional directness and sheer vocal beauty of someone like Patsy Cline, she is also fascinated with the sweep and contradictions of Ennio Morricone's dense orchestral sound. "I think he's just amazing," she said. "Nobody ever did anything like he did up until the point where he did it. Weird things like putting opera singers with banjos, or having opera singers sing really weird stuff and putting a mouth harp in. Classical strings with some kind of strange percussion. It's just amazing. It's still amazing, so many people have copied him."

She added that although she wrote "Watercolors" as she always does, laying guitar and voice to 4-track, she always knew the song would be bigger and more colorfully instrumented. "There were certain things that I really wanted to happen in that song," she explained. "I wanted it to have a distorted guitar at the end, and beautiful strings. That was another thing that Morricone did that I thought was really cool, where he would have a distorted guitar with strings."

In addition to her solo work, Frazer recently contributed a cover of "Everything I Own" to Birdman's Friends and Lovers, joining Rachel Goswell of Mojave 3, Oranger, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer and Cake in a tribute to Bread. "I've always loved Bread," she said of the cover. "I grew up on Bread. My mom liked them, too. It was kind of that soft rock, 1970s stuff... like Bread and the Carpenters."

Her sole problem with the record, she said, is that nobody covered "Diary." She also sang on an upcoming Handsome Boy Modeling School record, and is planning a tour with the Moore Brothers. "They are just incredible," she said of her touring partners. "They remind me of the Hollies... They're two brothers and they have incredible voices; they play guitar and they basically pass the guitar back and forth between them for every song."

When we talked, Frazer had just seen the Moore Brothers play live the previous night, part of three consecutive nights she’d spent at San Francisco shows. "There's so many great bands that play here," she said, "There's actually something else tonight, but I don't know if I can make it. I'm pretty tired. I need to get some work done." — Jennifer Kelly [Wednesday, August 31, 2005]

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