Tara Angell: 'I'm not just a chick singer-songwriter'

A debut dripping in smoky-voiced pain... and 'the darkest record since Black Sabbath'. Tim Cooper meets Tara Angell
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The Independent Culture

For a newcomer, Tara Angell's been around a while; it's 15 years since her live debut. For New York's best-kept secret, she has some credible fans: Daniel Lanois, the producer, says her debut album Come Down is the "darkest and truest" record since early Black Sabbath. For the singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, it's "dark, heartbreaking and tough".

For a newcomer, Tara Angell's been around a while; it's 15 years since her live debut. For New York's best-kept secret, she has some credible fans: Daniel Lanois, the producer, says her debut album Come Down is the "darkest and truest" record since early Black Sabbath. For the singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, it's "dark, heartbreaking and tough".

Lucinda Williams, with whom the thirtysomething New Yorker has drawn comparisons, puts it best: "I hear a unique, beautifully vulnerable voice. Angell refuses to sugar-coat bitter everyday tragedies, but instead fearlessly lingers in the mysterious dark, and then surprises with sweet eroticism and intangible self-empowerment."

And Angell herself? "I guess I do gloomy music," she says with a smile. That may be genetic - her father is Norwegian - but her musical inheritance is all-American: she grew up in New Jersey, was raised on Dylan and the Stones, sang blues and jazz in New York clubs, and found songwriting inspiration in Southern Gothic literature.

That's the background of Come Down, which wears its angst on its sleeve, with song titles like "The World Will Match Your Pain" and "You Can't Say No to Hell". Clearly, Angell's had her share of heartbreak. Her languid drawl and songs of pain painted on a narcotic musical canvas speak of dark nights of the soul in after-hours bars.

Which is pretty much how it was. The teenage Angell took every chance to cross the river to see bands in the city. "I went to see Dylan a lot. My first boyfriend's mother became my best friend, and she was a Dylanologist, she knew everything about him and would take me to shows - Dylan, The Grateful Dead."

After school, Angell moved into then run-down Alphabet City in downtown New York and spent several years bar-tending in nightspots like the Bowery Ballroom and The Ritz, watching the bands. "The music scene in New York was booming. In the mid to late Eighties I got to see everyone, all the great bands. I saw Nirvana, The Ramones, Bad Brains - everyone."

Her first ambition was to sing jazz or blues, but she soon realised it was not enough for her to sing other people's songs. She studied songwriting as a craft, listening to Neil Young, Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and honing her style.

For lyrical inspiration, she looked no further than her own life. "I was living with junkies, dealers, crackheads all over the place in my 'hood. I moved - escaped - to Brooklyn, 'cos it was getting me depressed. I always ended up taking care of everyone, because people I knew ended up getting hooked on drugs and it was something that sucked me in. It was very seductive, and although I was never personally hooked, I had people all round in that lifestyle. I was like a sponge, feeling their pain and trying to help them survive. It was really draining."

But also a rich source of inspiration. "When I started to develop my style, I wanted to be unique, not just another chick singer-songwriter." The answer lay in her love of literature, in particular the Southern Gothic novels of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. "I realised that instead of getting my influences from other songwriters, I could find it right there on the written page. I started taking notes, reflecting the feeling I got from reading this stuff as well as the wording and the phrasing and the ideas and the stories."

Angell's next task was to record. Taking out a $10,000 loan and gathering kindred spirits as a backing band, she approached Joseph Arthur, a protégé of Peter Gabriel, to produce. He agreed, saying he had "a vision" for the album. Two weeks later, in September 2002, they were in a studio in Catskill, New York. Five days later, Come Down was recorded and mixed, capturing all the passion and rough edges that invest it with its greatest asset - its honesty.

It's easy to throw out names in describing Angell's appeal: the lyrics of a Dylan or Leonard Cohen, a voice with echoes of Lucinda Williams and Marianne Faithfull, music somewhere between The Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, all infused with the soul of Patti Smith. Angell doesn't see or hear such stylistic links, but agrees she shares a spirit with Williams and Faithfull: strong women, and survivors.

In March 2003, Angell found a label to release her album after booking herself a live spot at the annual South By South West (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, and paying a local band to play with her. On the strength of that, she was signed by Rykodisc.

"It's 15 years since I started singing in clubs, so I guess you'd say I'm a late bloomer," says Angell, who hopes to tour the UK with Lucinda Williams (now a friend) this summer. "I don't talk about my age, because in this industry everyone is obsessed with youth. But Lucinda's at the peak of her career; she's 52."

'Come Down' is out now

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