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Interview – Tara Simmons (25/5/2007)

July 3, 2009

Tara Simmons sits in front of her computer, bathed in the light of her large red lamp, her beanie clamped onto her head. She sings in a soft, soulful voice, as her computer emits strange sounds like cello drones and bass bleeps. To her left, sitting on her green couch, a young guitarist picks at his acoustic. To her right, a drummer adds flourishes from his kit. Her piano sits to one side, momentarily ignored. I watch this domestic scene as part of a small crowd dwarfed by the size of the QUT performance space where Tara Simmons has recreated her lounge-room.

Two years later, Simmons sits across the table of a Fortitude Valley café. She laughs as I remind her of the night she stepped out onto a limb. She had been nervous at the concept of performing with something as static as a desktop computer. Her background was in piano and cello, both dynamic, aesthetic instruments, but the computer was a beige box which required the merest point-and-click. Plus, at five foot nothing, Simmons was in danger of being hidden from the audience by the monitor.

There is a reason why they are called personal computers. Yet Simmons found a typically inventive way of presenting one to an audience. “The best way I could perform it was to replicate a room in my house and just pretend I was performing at home. Then it became a really cool idea – instead of having to leave my comfort zone, people were being invited into my comfort zone,” she said.

It would be easy mistake to think Simmons hides within her comfort zone, especially given her slight frame and how she absentmindedly hugs herself protectively during out interview. But I quickly discover a lot about Tara Simmons is not as it first seems. Rather than hiding in her comfort zone, she is determined to push her boundaries and open herself up to new ways of making music.

Her one-time musical world consisted of “piano singer-songwriter ladies” and what she considered creative, alternative bands on Triple J. Her lectures encouraged her to take music technology courses, where she learnt about sampling, computers and studio tricks, while immersing herself in what she calls “crazy, really screwed-up electro-acoustic” music. Suddenly the music on Triple J sounded very pop.

Her music is also pop, but skewed and nuanced. She has neither abandoned piano balladry, nor produced music entirely filled with electronic beats. Her music is somewhere in the middle, merging the warmth of her acoustic instruments with fluttery beats influenced by Cornelius, The Books and Manitoba. A typical song is “The Recycling Bin Song”, from her latest EP, All The Amendments. Beneath her quiet, voice, an acoustic guitar picks a gentle, circular riff, while a cello offers soft accents. Underneath it all, her computer yields shakes, scrapes and rattles in a slow, idiosyncratic groove.

These beats are intangible yet strangely familiar. Rather than using synthesised drums, she created her own beats by recording everyday objects. This allows her to discover unexpected sounds, as in the song she was currently writing. “I started sampling kitchen utensils, but it was really bizarre. I ended up with these really quite pop sounding beats,” she says. Both visually and musically, Simmons enjoys taking ordinary things and doing extraordinary things with them.

Consider another lounge, garish red this time, on which Tara Simmons sits hugging her legs. What I took to be an over-exposed photograph she quickly reveals to be another of her sleight-of-hands. The lounge is not one you will find in her home. In fact it doesn’t exist. She created the shape out of scrapbooking fabric, which she then scanned into her computer. A friend superimposed an image of Simmons over the top to create the final shot.

This visual trick adorns the cover of her debut EP, “Pendulum”, which last year gained the attention of Triple J. The national youth broadcaster selected her as a Next Crop artist, and featured the track, “Everybody Loves You”, with its snatches of cello, harmonica and beats created out of things from her desk. She hopes such interest eventually allows her to make a living out of her music, but this means mixing popularity and experimentation. Simmons acknowledges she must compromise her sounds to succeed, which is why her forthcoming debut album will include some up-tempo, commercial songs. But this is Tara Simmons, and any compromise will be on her terms. “I’m not a rock-pop band, but I am,” she says.

Her band is definitely not your typical Triple J line-up. In addition to her piano, cello and laptop, it features two other cellists, a double bassist and a drummer. The cello isn’t a regular rock instrument, but is versatile, able to produce melodies, bass rhythms or melancholic ambience. It is another example of the deliberate misuse Simmons enjoys. She also admits, the visual impact of seeing three cellos onstage is important. Like her lounge room before them, the cellos provide an unexpected, lush sight for rock audiences. With a tour to Sydney planned later in the year, it is just as well she no longer takes her lounge onstage anymore. Otherwise, her cellos wouldn’t fit in the van.

In 2005 I’d been invited to write a review of the original Qeensland Uiversity of Technology performance by one of Tara Simmons’ lecturers. Also on the bill were a laptop artist and an attempted Improv performance for real instruments. Said lecturer, a flatmate of my girlfriend, wanted my opinion as an outside to pass on to her charges. Needless to say the image of Tara and her beanie remained in my head.
Two years later I was trying to formalise my years of community media with a journalism degree. Needing to write a profile piece for an assignment, this visage of Tara popped back into my head, and I approached her via her website. I hadn’t personally met Tara before this interview, and was thrilled she accepted. The interview ranks right up there with Ben Kweller and Tim from Death in Vegas as one of the most pleasant interviews I have ever conducted.
Sadly, I was unsuccessful in getting this piece published professionally, despite great marks. The real knock in the teeth was emailling Brisbane’s Courier Mail one night to offer the interview for free. I’d discovering they had never interviewed Tara before, and felt positive. Unfortunately, on opening the Courier Mail the very next day, there was her picture, complete with interview in the context of the Q-Music Awards.

It was eventually published on Rockus but the site shut down a short time later.

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