Tamaryn Tells All
On the cusp of releasing her third album, Tamaryn opens up about her unconventional upbringingwhich includes fleeing NZ under duress—and her search for self through art.
Tamaryn is on the phone from her New York City apartment talking about cults—Jonestown, Children Of God, that kind of thing. "This wasn't that," she says, referring to the hippie commune environment in which she was raised in New Zealand in the 80s. "It was one charismatic woman and a lot of people believed in what she was saying...”
When Tamaryn is at her relaxed best she has no qualms being candid. A few months prior to this call, I traveled to Levitation Festival in Austin, Texas to meet with her. Despite being a relative unknown compared with the other acts on the lineup, such as Tame Impala and Jesus And Mary Chain, Tamaryn was invited to headline the second stage. Two albums into her career and the singer hasn't had as much recognition as she'd have liked. Journeying, celestial tracks such as "Mild Confusion" have seen her compared with shoegaze artists of the ancient and recent past (Cocteau Twins, School Of Seven Bells), but she wasn't anywhere near the same level in terms of reputation.
It's frustrating for her. In her dressing room that night, ahead of her show, she seems nervous answering questions about her forthcoming third album, Cranekiss (out this August via Mexican Summer). The second we finish she straps a couple glowsticks round her wrists as bracelets, offers up a glass of champagne—“I put it on the rider even though I don't drink"—and leads me side-of-stage to see one of her all-time favorite bands: Primal Scream.
She flings her translucent limbs about to “Swastika Eyes” next to a very sedate Sky Ferreira and Diiv‘s Zachary Cole Smith. They nod and smile while Tamaryn introduces them to her friends, including Ian Astbury from 1980s English rock band The Cult and his wife Aimee Nash of dirge rockers The Black Ryder. People are drawn to Tamaryn: they want to dance with her, and get a closer glimpse at her Perspex raincoat. As we dismount the stage to ready the singer for her late night set, she tells me that, together with her mom and godmother, she was exiled from New Zealand when she was only seven years old because of her family's questionable activities.
“Nobody's ever really told my story,” she says. And then she laughs: "Well, let’s save that for another time." And off Tamaryn skips into a hazy Texan sunset.
Listen to the premiere of Tamaryn's new song, "Softcore," below.
Getting to know the at-ease Tamaryn Brown involves exchanging Blur puns via Twitter, having philosophical debates about Lana Del Rey over email, obsessing over Depeche Mode, discussing the best Gallagher brother, and accepting the fact that despite having never visited Liverpool, Tamaryn can name more Scouse bands than Ian McCulloch himself. Her encyclopedic enthusiasm for music both intimidates and thrills. She's clearly highly intelligent but self-deprecating and humble with it. Which is why several weeks following Austin, when Tamaryn decides it's now time to talk about her early years, I find myself unfazed by something that could sound quite alarming if just thrown out on a whim. “Cult is a dangerous word,” she says over the phone that Friday night. “People have described it as that though.”
Tamaryn's mother and godmother were both Jungian psychologists who met in the 60s. (There is never mention of a father figure). Her mother opened one of the first Primal Scream centers in San Francisco—the form of therapy was utilized as a cure for neurosis and adopted by the likes of John Lennon, who practiced screaming to eradicate unrelieved stress. Tamaryn describes her godmother as an “unreal woman” who passed away roughly nine years ago in New Orleans where she eventually settled. She wells up when discussing her teachings—which incorporated the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung believed in “archetypes”: thoughts from the past and our unconscious that form part of our genetic make-up. These ideas have the capacity to unite people of various cultures all over the world via art, literature and, of course, music, which Tamaryn believes has unique healing powers.
“She was incredibly intelligent and psychic,” she says. “People came from all over the world to do sessions with her and live with her for months. They believed they were changing the collective unconscious.” Together with her mother, Tamaryn's godmother (whose name she never utters) were commissioned by the government of New Zealand to open a halfway house for abused teenage runaways.
“I was there for seven years with about 30 brothers and sisters, kids who had been in different gangs: Mongrel Mob, Black Power… Some of them white, some Maori, some mixed,” explains Tamaryn. “Everyone was into breakdancing, Guns N’ Roses, whatever. There was a serious sense of youth culture surrounding me.” Things took a turn for the worse when the New Zealand government got wind of what was going on; Tamaryn skirts the specifics. “You're dealing with under-aged children. Her unconventional ways included letting them date. When that got out, shit got weird.”
Shit got weird in the form of a week-long news agenda against them. Locals graffitied the house. Tamaryn remembers running down the street: “People were chasing us. Someone had a knife when I was on a bus.” Her godmother kept moving “like a gypsy,” and whenever she picked up, so would everyone else—Tamaryn, her mother and her godmother's disciples. When I ask what generated such a backlash, Tamaryn offers vaguely, “People are just so affected by ideas and the way you present them.”
Their exile led them to the state of Washington, to the small town of Roslyn nestled in the Cascade mountains, population: 700. “There were real cowboys there,” she recalls. “My mom painted our house hot pink with yellow trim and said it was Caribbean. Kids outside my window would tease me. I was a little freak with dyed red hair and I wore a glittery top hat to school in third grade. Nobody liked me. If you're an artist and you wear something that's unconventional in the town you're in then you might as well be the Devil.”
Tamaryn insists she wouldn't have changed her upbringing for anything, even though she left home at the age of 13. Again, she doesn't specify why. Music became the constant companion in her rootless existence, particularly Britpop—its foreignness, exotic and escapist. “Art keeps me alive," she says. Indeed the singer has tied her heritage up in her own creations by lining the vinyl copies of her first album, Waves, with etchings from her godmother's notebooks. I ask her if she thinks she's carrying the torch of those teachings. “For sure. It's complicated. If I have anything close to a religion it's what she's talking about. At times I feel very lost, just a random ping pong ball falling around the world.
“I don't want to come off like a delusional, pretentious asshole,” she continues. “I consider myself an artist who chose music as their medium because it can truly define people's identities. If I can't create a universe in my art where I have control, then where can I do that in the world? Eventually I hope it takes me to where I belong.”
So far Tamaryn’s music has earned an underground following. She talks of one day wanting to play to a thousand people each night, instead of a couple of hundred, as though that might be a reason why she's consciously created a more accessible sound.
Accessible to a degree. "Without sounding like Lady Gaga I wanted to make an art pop record that wasn't Top 40," she adds. First single “Hands All Over Me”—a Gary Numan-ish nightclub stalker about tempting a lover—is, for example, more dance floor friendly than her previous output, but Tamaryn was concerned about putting it out as the lead single. She's uncomfortable with how "pop star" it makes her sound. The album's core is made up of “Keep Calling,” “Softcore,” and “Fade Away Slow,” which demand repeat plays, and are far less derivative—more in line with her vision to chime with 2015 and not 1985. Her ambition with Cranekiss isn't to simply ape the past. She strives to breathe new life into it, in a most Jungian archetypes way. “A lot of bands aren't trying to challenge their heroes,” she notes.
Tamaryn takes the fact her previous work has been labeled shoegaze, or sounds like Cocteau Twins, with a pinch of salt. “I would never deny there are elements of shoegaze,” she laughs. “There are. [On Cranekiss] I wanted to take everything I’d been doing and shake it up like a snow globe to see how it all fell together."
Thematically, the record continues Tamaryn's own search for an identity too. "I can't hide any more," she says of facing the demons associated with her transient lifestyle. "Maybe before I was creating art as a way to have a universe I was completely in control of because everything could be perfect. But now people are changing just the way my life has changed. I don't know if this is making any sense…”
It does. Tamaryn is vaguely making reference to the fact that the makeup of her project is in constant flux. For the best part of a decade, from 2004, she was in a partnership with Rex John Shelverton who began life in screamo band Portraits Of The Past. They pulled apart thanks to, yup “creative differences” and at the time of making second record, Tender New Signs, a more enticing collaborator strolled over the horizon in the shape of old friend Shaun Durkan, then in San Francisco band Weekend. They'd come up with ideas together, exchanging lyrics as a line of communication passed back and forth. “At the time we were not the healthiest people, taking pills and drinking, both in mentally chaotic places,” she notes.
The ideas they parked for a future potential side project wound up forming the backbone of Cranekiss, which Tamaryn produced with Shaun and Jorge Elbrecht of Violens, another new partner in crime. “It's all open to evolution,” she says of her revolving door policy. “That's why the music is just in my name.” Shaun currently tours as the guitarist, but he might not be a permanent fixture. Most of Tamaryn's favorite bands have exhibited a blood-and-guts dynamic between two centrifugal forces—Suede’s Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler are a prime example. “I don't wanna talk about it,” she hesitates when pressed. “Whoever I write with in the future has to be someone whose had an intense emotional experience with me.”
Tamaryn recognizes that she's created a vicious circle in which she feels compelled to cut off the world to make music, then finds herself dissatisfied and alone, without a home, a family or any real grounding. I ask if she considers herself a martyr. "Now that would be extreme!" she laughs.
“I believe that creativity can heal life trauma; it's a form of therapy," she says. "If you do it well you can heal other people with similar negative experiences. I want to master that art. I know that my godmother was on her own trip but she was magnetic. She brought everyone into this world and turned every day into the center of the universe. We were in this magical kingdom.” In many ways, aren't we all just searching for the key to that door?
Cranekiss is out via Mexican Summer on 8.28.
Tamaryn Tour Dates
7.14 New York, NY @ Elvis Guesthouse (DJ set)
7.17 Los Angeles, CA @ Skirball Cultural Center
7.20 San Francisco, CA @ Rickshaw Stop
7. 22 Seattle, WA @ Sunset Tavern
8.18 New York, NY @ Elvis Guesthouse (DJ set)
Eve Barlow is taking the afternoon to research Jungian theory (by watching that film where Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung). She’s on Twitter.