Fans of Tara Terra’s memorable debut album Daughter from 2014 won’t be disappointed in the band’s May 31 release of Where’s Your Light?, an album recorded at Audiotree in Chicago and co-produced by Rick Fritz. The tender lyrics and regal singing style of vocalist Emily Blue are still present, and so is the band’s crisp production amid an airy musical landscape.
But Tara Terra have evolved. What’s striking about Light? is the musicians’ deftness at changing directions within songs, a talent also on display to a lesser degree on Daughter. There’s a harder edge and added songwriting depth to the band’s new music that Colin Althaus (guitar), Blue (vocals and guitar), Joey Buttlar (drums), and Nick Soria (bass) seem eager to share with the world after a three-year absence.
The group’s penchant for writing songs that begin soft and subtle and then transform into rockers is in full effect. Tracks on the new album such as “Trade Winds” and “In Between” are examples of that structure, but Light? is nonetheless sonically more adventurous than Daughter. The first single is “Like the Clothes,” and other tunes with hit potential include “Blood Sister,” which features a soaring chorus that recalls a groovy song on FM radio from the 1970s or ‘80s. The album's second single, "Feel Better," comes with Tara Terra's very first music video. The sublime “Overnight” contains a slow, mesmerizing chorus, which bleeds into a mid-tempo beat and then a great solo by guitar wizard and University of Illinois electrical engineering major Althaus. The song is reminiscent of the equally gorgeous “Shades of Blue” from Daughter. Another made-for-radio track is “Lorelei,” a spirited song that begins softly but evolves into a rocker and features a Fleetwood Mac-like chorus.
A big element of Tara Terra’s maturing songwriting is due to Blue. Her singing on Light? has expanded to varied registers and heretofore unchartered regions. Meanwhile, the vocalist’s introspective lyrics, sung in a crystal-clear voice, can sound sad but are undeniably heartfelt and absorbing on gentle acoustic ditties like “Write My Name,” where she sings, “Feathers grown from sacred things/But I will not follow/And I will not hold on to them.” On the haunting closing track, “I Need to Know Why,” she poses a thought many have pondered: “I need to know why/Many good people go away/And they never say goodbye/Why they fade in the dark.” Words such as these resonate.
The members of Tara Terra, all of whom are in their 20s, met at the U of I and first came together musically as a backing band for Blue, who has a 2016 solo album called Another Angry Woman. A few different musicians, including a violinist, have come and gone within the band’s sphere, but the current four-piece nucleus has been gelling and playing together for the last few years. Three of the group’s members — Blue, Buttlar, and Soria — lived together up until recently and were kind enough to answer questions via a phone interview on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Smile Politely: How has the band evolved musically on the new album?
Nick: The earliest incarnation of this band started as a backing band, but as the songwriting and playing developed, and as we all got to know each other, it kind of became more of a collective thing and not just a solo artist with a backing band. Overall, I think that’s kind of how the first album sounds. There’s definitely more of a collective band thing going on in the first album, but a lot of it were songs that were left over when it was Emily plus the backing band. So I think this album really kind of legitimizes the songwriting process as it has been for the past couple of years as being much more of a collective sort of unit. Not just one person doing all the songwriting but all of us playing a pretty important role in the songwriting as far as structure and just the way we arrange things. So I think, even though this is our second album, I would say that this is the first one that sounds like us.
Emily: Going off of that, I would say that you can hear a lot of thoughts in the process of how we put things together. The layers are less piled on top of each other, but they interweave and they interlock in a really intentional way. So our sound, our personality, all of the different personalities are able to come through on this record, whereas on the first one we were like, ‘What the f*** do we sound like?’ Who is this band?
SP: What are some of your favorite songs on the new album?
Emily: I personally love “Write My Name.” That song, when I sing it, I tear up every time. It’s stripped down. It’s super intimate, and it’s all about what the message is and just the feeling that it creates, so I get super emotional.
Joey: I think my favorite song on the new record is a song called “Feral Heart,” which we actually played on Audiotree Live, but it was called “Center Part” at that time. That’s the song that when Emily first showed it to us, we had no idea what it was going to sound like because it was a lot of distinct parts, and we didn’t quite know how they were going to fit together. We spent a long time trying to find an arrangement that made sense. And then when we went into the studio, we realized it could sound even more cohesive, even tighter, so Emily rewrote the lyrics in about 15 minutes while we were recording it. In the span of that couple of hours that it took to record the rhythm track, it became an entirely different song.
Nick: My favorite one off the new album is called “I Need to Know Why.” It’s the last track on the album. I don’t entirely remember how the songwriting process for that one went, but it was kind of like a couple of different ideas for different songs put together. It’s kind of a longer one, but every time I listen to it, it’s like its own little journey. It’s pretty amazing, and I think it’s the best way to wrap up the album.
SP: The band recorded an Audiotree Live session in December 2015. How was that experience?
Joey: Audiotree was a pretty incredible experience and an incredible opportunity to meet a lot of people for us. It ended up going very smoothly, working with some of the most professional people in the business. Rick Fritz, who was the audio engineer for that session, we ended up working with him to record Where’s Your Light?
Emily: Magically, it landed me a job as a host, so I did my first session yesterday and had a really good time. A lot of nerves beforehand, but then once the cameras are live you just somehow, if you’re prepared, just snap into a professional mindset. I had a great time with the band. The band was called Handgrenades, so I just basically hung out on air and asked them questions and kind of navigated through the session the way any host would do.
SP: Talk about Tara Terra’s songwriting process.
Emily: A lot of the time I will come up with sort of the bare bones, like 75 percent of a song or something, and then I’ll bring it to the band and we’ll basically move all the parts around or completely cut sections or revise melodies or revise chord structures. It’s like you just plant a seed and then the band will help that grow in whatever way it’s meant to grow. I love the way our band thinks about music because we’re always taking a song idea and thinking about the direction it’s headed — kind of like a story almost, but also an experience. You want your audience to be hooked from the very beginning and to follow you through this musical journey and learn something or ask important questions through the process. We’re always trying to make our music interesting and exciting, but there’s different levels of energy throughout all the songs, and I think that’s what reveals our different views, I guess, as a band and kind of the diversity of the sound. That’s what we’re going for.
Where's Your Light? comes out May 31st and is currently available for preorder at the group's Bandcamp page. Tara Terra will play an album release show at The Empty Bottle in Chicago on May 31st and at the Homer Soda Festival on June 3.