Right at the hook, 30 seconds into the stylishly staged video for “Hands All Over Me,” the second track on Tamaryn’s latest album, Cranekiss, she spins around in a whippet of glittery green fringe, her silhouette soaked in blue and purple light. It’s a moment of arrival, setting into place the rest of the clip’s louche, slightly scopophilic vibe—soft-focused, flashing, refracted lights wash over her as she performs in a Koreatown peep show booth, zig-zagging out of reach of the slew of male viewers trying to get a piece of her.
With her previous LPs The Waves (2010) and Tender New Signs (2012), the New Zealand-born, New York-based musician, born Tamaryn Brown, crafted gorgeous, introspective works featuring textured guitars and lush ballads. But Cranekiss, out on Friday via Mexican Summer, is a different proposition altogether. Stacked with big, layered swooning hooks, slinky and powerful vocals, and an ’80s-esque throughline that recalls the isolating intimacy of Cocteau Twins, the 10-track album, co-written by Weekend’s Shaun Durkan and produced by Jorge Elbrecht, is unabashedly unafraid of setting aside subtlety in favor of a sophisticated celebration of the pop song. We caught up with Tamaryn earlier this summer by phone.
COLLEEN KELSEY: You’ve said that this is an album that you wanted to make for a while. There’s been a switch in production, a different sound, a little bit of lightness. What was the driving force behind making that kind of album at this moment in time?
TAMARYN: I think that from the beginning of me making music, I always had it in my mind to combine things that I like to listen to in a way that I had never heard before. But on my first two albums, I had a lot of self-imposed limitations as far as production and instrumentation. It was really inspiring for us at the time, because those limitations allowed us to push ourselves as songwriters and gave us a strong sound that people could recognize as ours, like wearing a leather jacket every day. A uniform. They know it’s you—and that’s great—but my original intention wasn’t to be a shoegaze band or to be derivative of one sound.
So when I had already done two and a half albums, I knew that I was going to have to push myself to keep evolving. I parted with [former collaborator] Rex [John Shelverton] on really good terms. He knew what I wanted to do and it wasn’t totally his thing. I had wanted to work with Jorge Elbrecht, the producer of this album, for years. I’d been a fan of his band, Lansing-Dreiden, in the early 2000s, and then his band Violens. The other co-writer on the album is Shaun Durkan of the band Weekend. When I was writing and recording Tender New Signs, he and I were really close. We lived in Oakland and we were sharing lyrics, just giving each other creative and moral support. That evolved into us writing demos together that we were considering being a potential side project. Some of those demos ended up making it on to this album. It’s been a long process of everything coming together. It wasn’t like I just said, “Oh I’m going to reinvent now! I’m sick of what I did!” I respect what I did in the past and I love what I’ve done in the past.
KELSEY: I feel like you’ve approached music-making from a totally different way than you have previously. What was that process like, contending with all these new production components?
TAMARYN: On this record there were no rules at all. Anything was possible. I think that can be really dangerous for people, but I was already very aware of Jorge’s work. For Lansing-Dreiden, he created a synthesis of different styles at once, and he did it before a lot of other people. That’s what made it feel so visionary and new to me. That’s why I was a fan. I knew he could do that same process with different influences. There’s a whole other batch of things that I brought to the table or Shaun brought to the table. [Jorge], aside from being a great producer, he’s a great pop songwriter. He’s a great sonic, textural, emotional chord progression guy. When you bring those two people together, and then bring me into the picture, I felt like it was a really great combination.
KELSEY: What’s your writing process usually like?
TAMARYN: I’m very much into collaboration. I think that collaboration is the road to making something great. I respect artists that are more autocrats and are in control of their own projects, but it’s not really my style. I’ve always had that partnership.
KELSEY: Something that immediately comes across on this album is the bigness of it, the sweeping epic-ness of it. I don’t want to say it’s a romantic record, but I think in spite of some of the lightness on the album, there’s a really compelling dark thread of sensuality and sexuality. Were there any touchstones that guided the structure of the album?
TAMARYN: I think probably the ’80s and ’90s were the last time music was made that I really respond to, [but] I didn’t want to make something that was just a throwback. I think every artist that you like, or even artists that have defined their own times, they’re definitely looking to the past as a starting place. It’s just about how you infuse your own personality, your own message, and your own ideas into it. The record is supposed to be really sensual and sexy. I think these days a lot of music is super-minimal. Anything from like, R&B and even Top 40 stuff, it’s one beat with one tiny melody that comes in; it’s all vocals and jumps these days. I appreciate that, but what we tried to do on this album was making sure the songs were strong enough and came through all the texture and all the sound. It was about balancing that. If you have a lot of textural stuff happening in music you get called shoegaze, or whatever, and then it becomes about the sound and not about the songs. I very much wanted this album to be about the songs. Even though there are moments of dreamy, big beautiful guitars, there’s always a strong chorus, and there’s always a pop structure, or a really strong beat, or a really strong melody. Nothing’s hiding.
KELSEY: How has it been evolving your voice as an instrument?
TAMARYN: Jorge pushed me really hard to go for it with the vocals. I definitely am singing in a very different way than I ever have. I have this feeling that I can do anything with my voice, I just need to have the right setting for it. A lot of things I’m doing on this album were inappropriate for things I’ve done in the past. On the old records it felt like I was singing less and it was more about the vibes. I was looking to influences like Stone Roses and things that were more the sound of a bunch of dudes playing together and some cool guy just kind of talking over it. On this record, there’s a nice range, there’s definitely songs where I’m just cooing and talking and whatever, and then there’s songs where I’m full on singing like Madonna.
KELSEY: Has there been anyone who’s influenced you the most as a vocalist?
TAMARYN: A lot of people. I wouldn’t say there’s just one. In the studio with these guys we would reference like 20 bands. That’s the way our brains work: “Let’s do a drum kind of like this… Do a vocal kind of like this… Let’s do an OMD part here… Let’s have a big epic pop chorus here…” It was a lot of that. So, on this record, I was influenced vocally by anything from like Tears for Fears, to INXS, to Cocteau Twins, all over the place.
KELSEY: I know you’ve moved around a lot. You were more recently in the Bay Area before moving to New York, and I know you lived in New York before that. Does the switch affect you creatively?
TAMARYN: I think I question a lot how where I live affects me. I don’t really identify with that at all. I mean maybe The Waves, that album felt kind of San Francisco, but I don’t really think in terms of that. Relationships affect me, what I listen to affects me, like where I’m at emotionally, the state of my mental well-being.
KELSEY: I know you collaborate on creative direction projects with the Dum Dum Girls, one of which was with Bret Easton Ellis. How important are the visual elements for you for an album? How do you strategize that? I absolutely loved the music video for “Hands All Over Me,” which, going back to what I said about the album, had that louche grandiose epicness to it.
TAMARYN: The visual side of being a performer or in a band is, to me, as important as the music. I know not everyone shares that same opinion, but when I’m writing songs or working on lyrics or coming up with an idea, I think about videos as I’m in the studio. If I had all the money in the world, I would have the most amazing videos ever, you know? You’re saying grandiose, and big; if the song warrants it, I try to push the visuals as far as I can.
As far as creative direction stuff goes, that informs what I do in a big way. It was a way to let go of the ego as being the centerpiece of the project, reassessing why I do what I do and where my creativity is rooted. It was a really great experience to be able to not to be the girl, the face, the performer, and just be extraordinarily creative and have ideas. It was super rewarding to do, if not more rewarding, because the potential neurosis and insecurities of being the front person of something were dissipated. I was just able to have ideas and have fun and be creative. It kind of reinvigorated my view of all that stuff for my own work. I got to do things that I would never be able to do with my own.
CRANEKISS IS OUT THIS FRIDAY, AUGUST 28, VIA MEXICAN SUMMER. THE SAME DAY, TAMARYN WILL CELEBRATE ITS RELEASE WITH A PERFORMANCE AT LE POISSON ROUGE FEATURING SAMANTHA URBANI.