TIM HUGHES talks to baroque ’n’ roll star, Oxfordshire’s own Tamara Parsons-Baker.
INTENSE, dark and quirky, Tamara Parsons-Baker is far from the usual image of the demure girl singer-songwriter.
Classically beautiful and possessed of a startlingly gorgeous voice, the 24-year-old guitarist may initially look and sound the part. But forget whimsical observations, twee lyrics and dreamy melodies; our Tamara is made of harder stuff.
Her songs are less about boyfriend troubles than murdering one’s own children. But, she says, that’s just the way she is.
“I play baroque pop,” she says. “I like exploring the dark and tragic side of things. I guess it’s quite intense, but, for me, the lyrics are everything,” she adds.
“The message is so important. It’s the first thing I listen for in a new song. Good lyrics have a massive effect on me so I try to get them right.”
She goes on: “Most songs regurgitate the same old stuff about love, and while that is fine, I try to find a different take on it. I don’t like doing the same thing."
Hence that tale of murder – innocuously titled I Stuck It Out – in which the heroine of the story is driven to despair and eventually murders her own offspring.
“I read a lot of stories and poetry,” says Tamara. “That particular idea was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, but also stuff in the news about parents who take the lives of their own children, which is surely unthinkable. In fact, friends with kids can’t listen to that song – it’s too disturbing.
“But even in that song you have sympathy for the woman, despite what she does, as you can see how damaged she is.”
“I do sing about the dark side of things,” she goes on. “But it’s also fun – and not all depressing.”
Tamara is a genuine Oxford artist, growing up in Forest Hill, and studying at The Cherwell School, in North Oxford. But it wasn’t until she left the city that she gave vent to her musical talent – picking up a guitar for the first time while living in Tokyo. She taught herself to experiment and become the musician she says she says she always wanted to be – a mistress of the emotionally drenched ballad.
When not playing solo, she performs with her band Tamara & The Martyrs – aka Humphrey Astley and Tommy Longfellow, of Sextodecimo fame, and Tom Sharp from Smilex.
On the band’s forthcoming album, however, she is set to be joined by a more rarefied crowd – one of the finest choirs in the country. “I am hoping to record with the Choir of Brasenose College,” she gasps.
“When I was writing one of the songs I imagined a choir singing it, so I went to Brasenose and asked the director of music. They are a very good professional choir and it would be amazing to work with them at the chapel. It would be crazy but it could just work!”
Tamara’s next solo outing is a set at Beatnik Albion bookshop, in Jericho, Oxford, on June 14, which she will follow with a gig with The Martyrs at Riverside Festival, in Charlbury, next weekend. They promise to be very different sets.
“My solo stuff is more dark and personal,” she says. “It takes you somewhere else. Where as the songs I write for the band are more like bluesy-Americana.
“With my solo stuff you come away wanting to kill yourself, but my songs with the band are a different beast. We are much more upbeat and theatrical together. It is more stupid but fun.”
While Tamara’s debut solo album is in the pipeline, the finishing touches are being made to the band’s debut – the eyebrow-raising Girl Jokes About Boy Parts. The title hints at another side of Tamara’s craft – it is very girl-centric. “I’d call myself a feminist and I think it’s important to represent women in music,” she says.
“There are lots of talented women in Oxford, but quite often I’m the only one on the bill. It’s so male-dominated and there aren’t many opportunities for starting out. It’s hard for new musicians to integrate into the scene. Especially if they’re shy like me. Girls have to grow some balls”
It has to be said, she doesn’t seem particularly shy on stage with the boys in her band – who all come from macho hard-rocking backgrounds.
“I am an organised task master. I am outnumbered in the band but I keep the lads in line,” she laughs.
“After all, boys just want to be told what to do, and have you organise it.”
And what advice would she give to other women with something to say? “If you want to do something, do it! And if you are going to do it, do it 100 per cent. You have to be committed to it; there is no point doing anything by halves.”
And that includes getting some weighty issues off one’s chest.
“If I’m going to sit there depressed then the audience can feel it too. And don't worry too much about feeling sad. It will be over soon.”
“Darkness can have a positive effect,” she adds. “You have to take the journey; it’s cathartic.”
* Tamara plays the Beatnik Albion bookshop, in Jericho, Oxford, on June 14.
Tamara & The Martyrs play the Riverside Festival next weekend. See opposite for details