Frazer's Edge

Paula Frazer artfully crosses the country divide with Tarnation. As a solo artist, she sticks more to the shadows.

Patsy Cline's plane went down outside Camden, Tennessee, on March 5, 1963 -- roughly one month before singer Paula Frazer let out her first newborn squall. And while reincarnation makes for nifty tabloid copy, Frazer certainly does conjure the spirit of the Grand Ole cowgirl. At least, most music critics will tell you so.

"It is quite a compliment to be compared to her," Frazer admits in a nearly twangless, soft-spoken voice. "I don't really think I sound like her, though. I think people just like to have comparisons to describe what someone sounds like."

Though she pronounces Denver as "Dinver" on occasion, her subtle accent doesn't give away her Southern origins in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia. Even harder to pigeonhole is Frazer's sound, which is known mostly through the Western- alterna-country-surf-rock outfit Tarnation. With a gifted set of pipes tailor-made to tell sad stories, the 37-year-old singer-songwriter's personal anthems -- like Cline's -- often intersect the human universal. Whether sweetly high, mournfully low, or somewhere in between, her voice brings yearning clarity to two of life's repeat offenders: dashed hopes and cursed dreams. Sometimes it's enough to make folks pray they never see Cupid's cherubic ass again. In even darker moments she'll scrounge up haunted dolls, tired whores and the ghosts of dead lovers. But just when all seems horribly bleak and lost forever, she'll croon about girlier things, sweeter things. Like daiquiris in mason jars at the Big O Motel.

Portrait of part of a lady: Paula Frazer.
Portrait of part of a lady: Paula Frazer.
Paula Frazer with Tarnation.
Paula Frazer with Tarnation.


8 p.m. Thursday, February 22
$7, all ages, 303-477-5977

Paula Frazer, with Tarantella and Sarina simoom
9:30 p.m. Saturday, February 24
Mercury Cafe, 2190 California Street
$5, 303-294-9281

Frazer will be interviewed from 4 to 5 p.m. Thursday, February 22, on KVCU-AM/1190

Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street

Or bird's eggs (the little black ones are the best).

A lone child in a scrub town of 260 people, Frazer finally saw the big city lights of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in the late '70s when her father, a Presbyterian minister, moved his pulpit to the heart of the Ozarks. Frazer's mother played church organ and avoided indelicate language. (Instead of "I swear," she'd say "I swan" -- and when things really got bad, "Tarnation!") But Mama Frazer also exposed her young daughter to a steady stream of Billie Holiday, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, and bought her a guitar on her ninth birthday. Frazer's father likewise avoided brimstone hysterics when raising his talented choirgirl.

"A lot of Presbyterians are not that lenient, but my dad happened to be," Frazer notes. "Even when I was doing the punk-rock thing and had a Mohawk."

The punk-rock thing came in 1981, two years after Frazer dropped out of high school and moved to San Francisco. She alternately played guitar and bass for Frightwig ("female Flipper"), Trial ("peace punk"), Cloiter ("noise"), and Faith No More (agnostic metal) and sang backup vocals for autoharpist Virginia Dare. After earning a GED, she returned to Arkansas to study archeology and made a living for ten years digging up Native American artifacts -- Osage, mostly -- and notes "wrist damage" as one of the profession's occupational hazards. "It's a lot harder than doing construction, because you're actually digging, a lot of times, in really intense soils that are completely compacted, with the equivalent of a spoon," she says.

Frazer returned to San Francisco -- wrists intact -- to earn the same amount of money working in an antique store five blocks from her home in Bernal Hill. The position gave her more time for music, too, something that developed in spurts over the years. In 1989, Frazer sang with the East Bay-based Savina, an Eastern European-influenced women's choir that mostly performed Bulgarian choir music. The group's Old World sound was a blend of sixteen separate vocalists and what Frazer describes as "a squeaky-violin-and-bagpipe sorta thing," plus upright bass, accordion, and thrumming tammorras. She credits the two-year stint with teaching her "how to use my voice" and cites Yanka Rupkiana as a major influence. A natural alto with a multi-octave range, Frazer soon grew into an open-throated nightingale, hitting money notes at will -- something she eventually carried over into the world of alternative country music.

Tarnation, the band upon which her reputation is built, followed with its 1993 praise-garnering debut, I'll Give You Something to Cry About, on the small, local Nufsed label. And with country music stinking up the planet for the most part since the '60s, her group marked a welcome alternative to the unbearable lightness of Garth's Vegas. Through the help of Red House Painter's Mark Kozelek, the band's Gentle Creatures got into the hands of Ivo Watts of the London-based 4AD imprint, which eagerly released it in 1995. (4AD, incidentally, can be credited with introducing the Les Voix Bulgares phenomenon to the West in the mid-'80s, so their interest in Frazer made sense.) The follow-up album, 1997's Mirador, impressed Watts even more and led him to seek major-label distribution with Reprise. Mirador -- Spanish for "spectator" -- is a Watusi Western of sorts, combining Duane Eddy-style reverb-soaked surf guitar with all the tumbleweeds and hallucinations of an Ennio Morricone score. In a rich and beautifully disembodied voice, Frazer accompanies weepy steel pedals, cathedral-sounding optigans, singing saws, piano, Farfisa and Hammond organs.

With the direction and vision clearly her own, Frazer has governed three entirely different lineups of Tarnation in six years. Perhaps the best of these -- the grouping of guitarist Alex Oropeza, bassist Bill Cuevas and drummer Joe Byrnes -- enjoyed the fruits of the players' labor when Nick Cave specifically requested that Tarnation tour with him as an opening act in 1998. "I've always been a big Nick Cave fan," Frazer says. "Since the Birthday Party days. We didn't get to know him very well. There were a few after-parties and things, but it was such a whirlwind tour. You know, 40 shows in 44 days. He's a really nice guy. Very Victorian in his manner, very gentlemanly. He'd always kiss my hand and stuff." Australia's gloomiest Gus indeed provided Frazer with the opportunity of a lifetime, placing her in front of audiences in London's Royal Albert Hall and the Rex Theatre in Paris. (As John Lennon once said: "You people in the cheap seats, clap your hands; the rest of you just rattle your jewelry.")

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