There was no shortage of fireworks at last Friday's CMJ showcase put on by The Hours and High Rise PR at Norwood. Woody Harrelson and Gerard Butler stopped by, a fight broke out toward the end, and the Aussies were out in full force, including Sydney's currently unsigned Sherlock's Daughter, in town for the month to record an album in New York, and a DJ set by the Midnight Juggernauts. Though soft, one of the most intriguing performances of the night came from opening act Via Tania. Before she went on, singer-songwriter Tania Bowers actually prevented the building from flooding. "I found this bathroom on the third floor that was quiet, and I was doing my warmups when all this water started rushing out of the wall because the pipe broke," she says. "When I came out everyone thought I was some MacGyver or something, but all I did was turn off the main [pipe]."
Born in Sydney, the 34 year-old chanteuse, grew up playing music and went on to form the garage pop act SPDFGH with her older sister Kim as a teenager, opening for bands like The Breeders and Bikini Kill when they came to town. Always writing songs for herself, she broke off from her sister at the age of 21, moved to Chicago's Ukrainian Village and started composing her own songs. With a big whispery voice and a quirky guitar-drums-and-synthesizer sound that draws on jazz, punk, and hip-hop, her just-released album, Moon Sweet Moon, could easily become the soundtrack to your next breakup, or the next Zack Braff film, or both. We chatted for a bit about the album before her Saturday night showcase at Joe's Pub.
SLENSKE: Where would say your sound comes from: Australia or Chicago?
BOWERS: It's weird. I don't know, not Chicago. I don't think there's particularly anything that makes me want to make music that's right around me.
SLENSKE: Why is that?
BOWERS: I think that's because I've been writing my own little songs ever since I was a kid that it really hasn't been such an environmental thing. In my head I just think my songs are my songs and they come out of my head or who knows. They're very rarely about what's immediately around me. They're way more internal. Maybe over a long span of time my musical aesthetic has changed a little bit more, but when I think of Australian music I think of something that's influenced by seventies-eighties pub rock. And even if it's cool indie music I can still here all these dude rock bands in pubs. It's still like that. Here hip-hop came in the eighties, big things sweep America, whereas Australia is always kind of stuck in this classic rock thing.
SLENSKE: And your stuff is so soft, dreamy in a way. Does that come from writing songs as a kid?
BOWERS: Honestly, I've never thought about that part of it. People have said, ethereal or this or that, but it's never been intentional.
SLENSKE: How did you get into music?
BOWERS: I was always into music. My mom had us enrolled in music classes when we were in grade school, like extracurricular guitar classes and piano classes and musical theater stuff. And I have two sisters and we all sort of grew up making our own productions on the weekends.
SLENSKE: Like little tape-recorder things?
BOWERS: Tape-recorder thing, asking everyone in the neighborhood to come over on Sunday night because from Friday we'd work on variety shows all weekend.
SLENSKE: Are your parents artists?
BOWERS: No, they're both schoolteachers. So in that way they were very creative. But I feel like that's what maybe gave me the confidence when I was a teenager when I was trying out different kinds of music. I think I had already done a lot of stuff in my past, in my childhood, and I knew what it felt like to be on stage and to sing my songs, even if it was just to my relatives.
SLENSKE: Well you and your sister formed a band.
BOWERS: Yeah, my older sister [Kim]. We were in a band for a good seven all through high school and a little bit into college, and Australia is a small place and at the time it was a big deal when the Beastie Boys came to town, so immediately we got to know the promoters, and we were like 16, and we were totally in everyone's business trying to find out how we could play with bands that we loved. We were all girls and it was such a novelty back then so whenever Bikini Kill or Elastica or The Breeders came to town we would support them.
SLENSKE: What made you go do your own thing?
BOWERS: I think just growing up, realizing my true songs were the ones I wrote by myself in my bedroom. Because I always wrote those all through the days when we had played our garage pop music but I always had my songs that didn't suit that, so I just started getting more serious about that because when I was 20 I felt like I was so sick of pubs, and I want to make [joking voice] really mature music. I sort of just naturally wanted to do something really different.
SLENSKE: There's a lot of these notions of home and identity on the album. Is that because you're between places all the time?
BOWERS: It might be from that and it might just be the idea of just–it sounds really cheesy–but just getting to know yourself. I'm always changing and evolving and I feel like trying to find where that is, and sometimes it's like the goal keeps shifting. It's probably got to do with that. I first moved to Chicago in 1999 and I have been back and forth a bit. I was there for a few years then I was totally over it and then I moved to Melbourne because I never lived in Melbourne and then I decided to come back after a few years of that.
SLENSKE: So where do you want all this to go? Because you seem a bit reluctant.
BOWERS: I do?
SLENSKE: Yeah, a bit.
BOWERS: It's only because I'm not...I don't know I think to make music and make it this career and have everybody hear it there's two things going on; you're either a total ego-maniac and those people go really far because that's the sort of energy you need for it, or you just really love making music. You don't have to love the lifestyle. So much of it is really difficult, but I can't...honestly I'd be miserable if I decided to do anything else.
SLENSKE: You're not going to be a schoolteacher?
BOWERS: Yeah, I'm not going to be a schoolteacher. Now and then I have fantasies of being happy at a full-time job, but I've never had a full-time job, so this is it. This is my life. It's not like I'm reluctant to do this, I'm just not an ego-maniac.