“You have to amp everything up x a million to look even the littlest bit good/crazy/cool/original.” So notes Tania Bowers on the blog of Via Tania, her nom de musique. It’s true, and so she does. I get a lot of press releases every day, often regarding artists I’ve never heard of, but Bowers’s caught my eye to the extent that I blogged about her twice, more or less exclusively on the strength of her images. First she posed as a post-pop Pocahontas, and then she appeared in the guise of a Penguin Classic.
Fortunately, Bowers’s music is also more than a little good/crazy/cool/original; her quiet new album Moon Sweet Moon is coherent and atmospheric, with ambiguous lyrics that get under your skin. It’s the latest step in a long musical evolution that began in her native Australia in the early 90s, when she and her sister Kim performed together in the noise-pop band Spdfgh (the name says it all). She quieted down for an EP released as Sunday, and for the past decade has been creating music as Via Tania. She’s now based in Chicago, where she spoke by phone about her look, her life, and her music.
It was your visual presentation that first caught my attention. How much attention do you pay to your look?
My background is in advertising, and I love photography—working with photographers, styling things. For years, though, I considered my music to be a whole different thing. It was honest, it was true, it was important, and it wasn’t at all visual. In the last few years I’ve changed my whole mind on that. Now I think that visuals are really important because as an artist, it’s everything—it’s every facet of how you present yourself, not just the audio stuff. I don’t want to be 100% made-up every day; that’s not me. But I love quirky stuff, and when I get a new idea I want to use it straightaway. If I feel like dressing up, I will. If I feel like wearing jeans and a t-shirt, I’ll do that. I can’t always present myself as the same character…I change my mind too much for that.
Speaking of visuals, tell me about the “Wonder Stranger” video.
It was a year ago that I met the director, Michelle Ruiz. I saw she was talented and had good taste, someone who could help get my point across. It was just her and me and the director of photography on the shoot; I get intimidated with a big crew, so I said it’s got to be really simple. We turned a room in my house into a little set. it was one of the easiest projects I’ve ever done. It was her idea for me to be cooking or making something, and I went out and bought the flowers and things.
You’ve gone from noise pop to experimentation with electronics to this very quiet, contemplative album. Is this it, or are there more changes to come?
I think the core of my songs have always been similar—I start writing them myself with my guitar or keyboard. But I’m going to want to make every record different. There are so many things I’m into aesthetically.
Making the album was a roundabout process, crossing at least three continents. Do you think that’s reflected in its sound?
Well, I made it by myself without much funding, so it was a challenge to figure out how to do each part. It ended up taking quite a few years—a bit too long, but that’s just how it happened. I hope to make many more, and not take so long next time! Anyway, the process of making the album might be there in the way it sounds. Already people have said that it’s one of those records that’s a slow burn; they listen to it several times, and then something clicks and they’re like, “Oh my God, I love it!” Maybe because it took so long to make, it takes a while to sink in. There’s a cumulative effect.
You play a large ukulele.
Yeah, it’s a baritone ukulele. I got the biggest small guitar I could find! When I moved from Melbourne to Chicago I wanted a change. I wanted to play something new. I wanted to concentrate on writing songs, but I needed something accompanying it. I was trying to concentrate on the folk side of writing songs, and I thought a ukulele would be perfect. It’s such a little thing, you can’t get carried away creating elaborate arrangements.
Who are your influences as a vocalist?
I go through different phases. Number one is Nina Simone. She’s so incredible, though we couldn’t have more different voices. Hers is deep, husky…amazing. Then there are the people who just sing, like Jolie Holland. I love when she just sings; it’s very natural, it just comes out. It doesn’t sound like she’s thought about what she likes to sound like. For a long time, I was into this Swedish woman, Stina Nordenstam. Her vocals are so tiny. She really influenced me, but now I’m into different stuff.
And now you’ve landed in Chicago. Why, and for how long?
I’ve never stayed anywhere for more than four years since I was 20. After a few years, I’m maxed out. I had a wealth of friends here, and fun work. I love the musicians here; on any night, you can go out and see amazing stuff. What I have to manage to do is to be able to travel when I need to. I’m trying to go to Sydney for a few months next. Different cities have such different things to love.
Any plans to come to Minnesota?
I’m working out a spring tour, and I definitely want to play there. I like Minnesota. I used to teach a summer-school design camp, and I got to know Minneapolis. It’s a great city. I’d love to come back and play some shows there in the new year…when it’s stopped snowing.