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.
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.")
The glittering appeal of Mirador led to some soundtrack work for Frazer on films, including Break Up, Joy Ride, and Ridley Scott's 1997 Golden Rasberry Winner, G.I. Jane. (In the big scene where Demi Moore -- buff, bold and bald -- is accused of being a lesbian, Frazer's "Two Wrongs Don't Make Things Right" plays in the background.) Away from the silver screen, Frazer also helped out on projects with friends from the neighborhood: Ralph Carney (I Like You (a Lot)) and Dan the Automator from the Handsome Boy Modeling School. On "Sunshine," an Automator cut from Handsome Boy's 1999 release So, How's Your Girl? Frazer can be heard singing along to overdubs by Sean Lennon and -- mamma mía! -- Father Guido Sarducci. She's also lent her talents to tribute albums for both John Denver ("Leaving on a Jet Plane") and American Music Club's Mark Eitzel ("Hollywood 4-5-92"), as well as to two tracks on last year's Shanti Project AIDS fundraiser. In addition, Frazer appears on 1997's wildly successful Cornershop release, When I Was Born for the 7th Time. The Indo-British pop troupe originally wanted Nancy Sinatra, but through dumb luck and a good voice, Frazer ended up singing a duet with Tjinder Singh on "It's Good to Be on the Road Back Home."
"I just happened to be in London, and they needed a female vocalist," Frazer says. "I went in and did it, and they ended up choosing mine. Cornershop was huge in Europe. Of all the things I've ever been on, it did the best.
"I never got paid a cent for that," she adds with a hint of bitterness. "Not a penny. They didn't even pay for my taxi! But it was good publicity. I'd say a lot more people would know me from doing that than any Tarnation stuff. So hopefully it won't be too much of a problem to go to Europe just under my name instead of Tarnation."
Frazer has been across the Atlantic six times, and, like Jerry Lewis, she's big in France. With her new bandmates -- keyboardist Patrick Main (Oranger, Jolly and the Fade), bassist Jeff Palmer (Granfaloon Bus, Mommyheads) and drummer Jim Lindsay -- she's planning another visit to the U.K. next spring.
"We want to tour and play music as a living," she says. "It would be great to find an independent label that had enough money to do that without all the bad strings that are attached. You know, having to compromise your sound. That's probably too much to ask these days. There's really not that atmosphere in the record business."
4AD -- since absorbed by the artsy Beggar's Banquet -- honored the end of Frazer's contract but declined to resign her. Birdman Records, Frazer's new label (owned by Dave Katznelson, who worked with Cave, the Flaming Lips, Mudhoney and Shane MacGowan in the talent-development office of Reprise), is set to release Indoor Universe this April. Judging from the demo, the album should signify a radical departure from her country-and-Western efforts. This time Frazer is aiming for a more densely orchestrated sound -- one influenced by '60s pop like that of the Mamas and the Papas and Burt Bacharach, with some fun twists she'll blame on the bossa nova. "This Is a Song," for example, recalls the breezy feel of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," and "Not So Bad, Not So Good" features bittersweet girl-group harmonies and what painter Bob Ross might call a "happy little clarinet." But "We Met by the Love Lies Bleeding" whisks away any cheerfulness with a sombre-sounding acoustic slow dance, one in which the narrator literally bursts into flames, cools to ashes and is scattered by the wind under the moon and stars. Roll over, Sylvia Plath.
As doomed romantics tend to flock together, it's hardly a surprise that Frazer has become a collaborator with local rock heroes the Czars -- admittedly, huge Tarnation fans -- who first sought out her talents in 1998. "I got a phone call from Simon Raymonde in London asking if I would come out there to sing with them," Frazer explains. "I hadn't met them before that." Frazer's work for the ex-Cocteau Twin's Bella Union label found its way onto last year's exceptional Czars release, Before...But Longer. She's heard on "Val," the album's single, as well as "Get Used to It" and a gorgeous cover duet of "Leaving on Your Mind" with vocalist John Grant.
"She came out for a week, and we hit it off from the start," Czars bassist Chris Pearson recalls. "She's a very sweet person and a great singer-songwriter, and she really does have the spirit of Patsy Cline in her voice." So much, apparently, that the Czars have invited her back to help on their fourth ("more piano-based," as Pearson notes) album, which is currently under way and scheduled for release next July.
As far as comparisons go, Frazer could do a lot worse than being linked to the lady who fell to pieces. At least it's not "Judy Garland fronting the Velvet Underground." Or "Roy Orbison's bastard orphan." Or "Yma Sumac on a hayride to hell." (The Czars get compared to Dead Can Dance and the Doors all the time, but do you hear them kvetchin' about it?) Supplanting "legends" has run the music industry ever since John the Baptist lost his head over Salome and sent A&R guys looking for the Next Big Thing.
Then again, it's every woman's right to be herself -- if only for an incarnation or two.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.