Who Are…Tamaryn

Marissa G. Muller

By Marissa G. Muller

on 10.19.12 in Who Is...?s

File under: Sweeping dream-rock with diaphanous guitar riffs and New Romantic lyrics

For fans of: Cocteau Twins, The Cure, and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

From: California

Personae: Tamaryn and Rex John Shelverton

Tender New Signs


The contrast between the cover art for Tamaryn’s Tender New Signs and their 2010 debut The Waves is telling: A lush array of fuschia petals signifying new life, growth and resilience have replaced the barren, vast red-rock landscape, and singer Tamaryn’s distant figure is gone altogether. That may be because Tamaryn retreated from public life while writing the follow-up, so much so that she and guitarist Rex John Shelverton worked mostly long-distance, exchanging ideas and notes via email and phone. “The title of the record is an impressionistic idea of little glimpses of hope and little openings of life when you feel shut off and hopeless,” she explains during a rehearsal for the group’s upcoming tour. Even though Tamaryn closed herself off from the world while writing the album, Tender New Signs is lyrically their brightest collection of songs to date, lined with slivers of optimism like “Found a way to feel again/ We don’t have to see half blind.”

eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller talked with her about their fresh approach, bending gender roles in rock and creating her own universe through music.

On her move to L.A.:

L.A. is pretty magical. [Like NYC], it feels like anything could happen at any moment. You can also have a lot of privacy. I sort of went into retreat and hid in my apartment and didn’t really talk to people this year. I spent a lot of time writing lyrics, holed up in Silver Lake and not seeing people at all. It’s not like New York, where you have to be surrounded by thousands of people at all times.

On the artwork for the album:

Only two [other] people had any influence on the record: Rex and Shaun Durkan (of the Weekend), who did the artwork and individual covers for every song on the album. I want to be subtle about it, but the artwork is flower petals and [Durkan's] cum. I was thinking, “Nothing says more about life than that.” It’s romantic and emotional. I wasn’t sure if I was going to tell anyone, but it’s beautiful. I wanted something surreal yet hyperreal. Those petals are real – vivid and detailed – and the paint and other stuff make it fluid, ethereal.

On working long-distance with Rex John Shelverton:

My writing process was different this time around – we wrote long-distance. Rex came up with little ditties on guitar and then I would come up with arrangements, melodies and lyrics. We’d pass songs back and forth and then fully flesh it out, and [ultimately] recorded the album in San Francisco. The distance works well, because if we’re in the same space we distract each other. It’s better to be alone.

How the distance informed their sound:

The album is all about duality – feeling isolated, but at the same time, connected. A lot of my lyrics are about feeling alone and disconnected. But at the same time, there’s this optimism throughout the record, a really romantic view. After a lifetime of disappointment, never extinguishing hope. It’s not “We Are the World”; it’s a subtle, personal outlook.

On maintaining optimism through her art:

The only thing I really believe in is creativity, and I feel like being alive can be tragic without it. There’s a lot of pain and suffering, but all human beings are connected – whether or not you sit on your computer all day. You can access all of these emotions and can’t totally desensitize yourself to them. My connection to spirituality is through art.

On the romanticism in “Afterlight”:

Lyrically, it ties everything together; simple, romantic lyrics with dissent. There are a lot of lyrics on the album about love – real, universal love versus romantic love, and the personal wisdom you gain between the two. I’m interested in taking classic themes and connecting to them so that they feel important to me – and hopefully to others.

On hoping listeners will project their own experiences onto the songs:

Great art, which I would hope to one day make, leaves things open-ended enough where the artist is connected to it, but it feels spacious enough for anybody to step in and connect to it. That’s why great films have these endings that leave you talking about them for days.

Music is so emotional, and we approach it emotionally. Everyone wants to say our guitar sound is “huge,” and I’m fine with that, but the reason we do it is because it has this vast sonic thing happening where you can hear the melody but the reverb gives it this magical quality that you can hear your own things inside. It’s interactive. On the other hand, it’s so simple and has bass tracks, drums and vocals – not much there, but all of this space between these huge modulating sounds creates a confounding symphony.

On challenging notions of gender in rock:

There are some songs I’m writing through a male perspective – in “The Garden” I switch between [genders] in the verses. When I think of shoegaze – a label we often get – like early Verve, Stone Roses, Ride, I see these boys’ club bands getting sweaty and making epic pop songs. I thought it would be interesting to do that but have [a] feminine perspective as the voice. I took influences from Kate Bush and singer-songwriter stuff I grew up listening to and applied it to [shoegaze].

I’m interested in the archetype and ideas of androgyny. My mother and godmother were Jungian and that stuff had been in my brain forever. That’s what most rock songs are about, anyway: relationships. In so many songs, guys are talking about women and you don’t hear them talking about themselves all that much. It’s all about the muse. I like coming from the perspective of a muse, the feminine energy on the other end of it – being desired, but also feeling alienated. As a woman, you want this other fulfillment that often times a masculine persona isn’t able to give. All of these different ideas are cool to use in a song, but it’s not an essay. It’s just a line in the song.

On making music her career:

Being in a band is strange, because you’re creating a universe to escape the one you live in, but then you have to invite other people. You’re trying to create a space for yourself but then you open it up to everyone. It’s a total ego trip for everyone in a band.

Music is not rewarding in the physical sense. You don’t get a lot of money – or any most of the time. But it fuses with your emotions. It can be transcendent. We’re not the biggest band in the world and we’re not rich, but we have affected people in the way that some of my favorite music has affected me.