Timothy Renner and Tara VanFlower are no strangers to the Terrascopic community. Renner has appeared at several Terrastock festivals and the myriad projects of his career have been closely followed by the 'scope, whether it be Mourning Cloak, Stone Breath, The Spectral Light and Moonshine Firefly Snakeoil Jamboree, Moth Masque, or solo efforts released as Timothy, Revelator and under his own name. Timothy is also an accomplished artist who designs the artwork for all his own releases along with the T-shirts and posters for two of the Terrastock festivals, and the front cover of one volume of Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine. He also runs two labels (Dark Holler, Hand/Eye) that have released material by the trio of Skye Klad, The Does, Fit & Limo, Barlow/Petersen/Wivinus and Lamp of the Universe. He has also reissued several of Martyn Bates’ (another Terrastock veteran) releases and is about to unwrap the definitive box set from legendary British folkies, The Trees.

Tara VanFlower joined Lycia in 1994 and married frontman Mike VanPortfleet two years later. She has released several solo albums, a book of illustrated poetry and written two novels, all of which are discussed in the following interview, conducted by Jeff Penczak with the assistance of Silber Record chief, Brian John Mitchell, who just released the debut album ‘In The Garden of Ghostflowers’ from their new collaboration, Black Happy Day. We begin by asking Tara how the project came together.



Tara, many of our readers are probably familiar with your work in Lycia. Is it true that you started out as a huge fan of the band and later traveled all the way from Ohio to Arizona to meet Mike and ended up contributing vocals to a few tracks and Mike eventually invited you to join his band around 1994?

Yes, that's exactly how it happened. I was recording demos with my first band when I heard ‘Ionia’ [Projekt, 1991] and knew I needed to know Mike. I wrote to him and we became friends and he asked me to sing on a couple of songs that were supposed to be for compilation appearances but ended up on ‘The Burning Circle and Then Dust’ [2xCD, Projekt, 1995].

You contributed ‘Beneath the Moon’ to Timothy’s ‘Folklore of The Moon’ CD-R subscription series. Is that where your first met and began discussions for Black Happy Day?

No. Timothy and I have been friends for several years now and via that friendship we decided to work together.

This is somewhat of a departure from the ambient/experimental sounds of your solo albums and the work you did with your husband in the Lycia project. What attracted you to this more traditional collection of songs?

Timothy attracted me to it actually. He's such a good friend and both of us share a love of traditional bluegrass. My entire family is from West Virginia and my grandpa played fiddle, so it's part of my heritage. Honestly, I just think the album came out the way it did because it's who we are. It wasn't a set plan from what I recall.

Timothy, I know you’ve been a fan of this style of music for a long time now, incorporating elements into your work with The Spectral Light and Moonshine Firefly Snakeoil Jamboree, Stone Breath, and your solo releases. What initially drew you to the rural folk tales of Appalachia?

I find it interesting that people, including Tara, hear ‘…Ghostflowers’ as a traditional album, despite the traditional roots of some of the songs. I hear it having much more in common with what I was doing in Mourning Cloak than anything I did with the Jamboree. I was drawn to Appalachian folk through the music - as soon as I heard non-commercial American country music, Appalachian folk, "old-time" music, etc., I was just stunned. I fell in love.

I’ve compared elements of your album to a sort of wyrdfolk Fairport Convention, perhaps doing for old time Appalachian music what they did for the traditional British ballad. Do you see a connection between those two styles of music – the traditional British ballads and American Appalachian folk tales?

Well, I think it's been pretty much established as fact that they are related - with variants of the same ballads appearing both in the UK and America. I guess these survived a bit better in Appalachia than in other parts of the U.S. because of the isolation and the importance/respect given to music there?

Where did you discover the tracks that you interpret here, such as ‘The Leaves of Life,’ ‘Edward,’ ‘A Lyke Wake Dirge,’ and what were you looking for in selecting the songs to cover?

Tara chose ‘Edward,’ which we learned from Jean Ritchie's version [available on the CD, ‘Ballads from her Appalachian Family Tradition’ (Smithsonian Folkways, 2003)]. The other two are songs I was working on solo versions and brought to Black Happy Day. For me, ‘Leaves of Life’ has a very Marian view of the crucifixion; sad and beautiful - yet it is plainly spoken. I first heard this on a Watersons’ album[, where it appears as the subtitle to ‘Seven Virgins’ from their 1965 Topic release, ‘Frost and Fire’]. ‘Lyke Wake Dirge’ I've heard in many versions over the years and always wanted to do a version. It's a traditional funeral song - I was bound to do a version some day.

You’ve both covered a lot of different musical styles during your careers. Do you ever find it hard to keep your projects from bleeding into each other, musically speaking, or do you find that your varied tastes imbues each project with an element of surprise that keeps both your and your listeners alert and open to exciting tangents?

TIMOTHY: I almost always know exactly what I'm working on and how I want it to sound. I'm not always successful in the latter, but it makes perfect sense to me. I think there is a fairly logical connection - hopefully a progression - through everything I've done.

TARA: I just do what I do. How it comes out is a mystery to me. I don't mind if projects bleed into each other. I would assume that's natural given that all creativity comes from the same place essentially.

What type of feedback do you get from your fans. Is there ever a sense of frustration (on their part) that you seem to jump all over the stylistic map and they’d like to pigeonhole you to be more consistent and stick with just one or two styles instead of a half dozen or so?

TIMOTHY: I've had people ask for more Stone Breath or more trad stuff - but I think by now people know I'm going to move wherever I feel inspired. Hopefully people can hear that connection or progression wherever I go.

TARA: I don't personally feel like my music “jumps all over the map.” I get mostly positive feedback from people saying they like the fact that what I do isn't so set in stone and they like the fact that I'm using different styles as opposed to standard or typical styles. I'm fortunate in that people expect a certain level of quirkiness from me.

How do you manage to keep all of your projects alive and exciting?

TIMOTHY: Music is still very exciting to me - despite all of the disappointments from the business side of things, I still really love making songs. It's one of the only ways I can communicate with strangers I think.

TARA: I feel like I haven't even begun to understand myself or how to utilize myself, so it's still very exciting. There is so much I still want to do.

Do you ever feel that a project might need to be nurtured more to keep it in the audience’s mind?

TIMOTHY: Quite a few folks have told me I should call everything I do "Stone Breath" or whatever - but Stone Breath had certain goals and certain guides and, despite what some people may think, it was a band starting with the second album, not my solo project. It wouldn't be fair or right for me to release solo albums and call them Stone Breath. This comes down to a question of aesthetics vs. marketing. I don't think about marketing when I'm drawing a picture, and I don't think I should have to worry about it when I'm making music either. That said, I think my future albums will be released under just one name, not counting Black Happy Day.

Timothy Renner - self-portrait

TARA: Hmm... well, I suppose if a person's goal is to sell lots of records then yes. Unfortunately, years of being let down has taught me not to trust record sales and to worry about writing passionate music. I don't do anything to make money, I do it because I have to and want to. I hope to reach people only because I want them to somehow share this with me.....but I believe the type of music we do is something that won't ever be successful by hitting people over the head with it.

Nurturing is a motherly word though, so yes, I want to nurture my music; but only for the sake of love and care, not to sell records.

How do you decide what project to work on next as far as recording and releasing a new record, or are you working on all of them simultaneously. For example, Timothy, I understand that you recently decided to sunset The Snakeoil Jamboree, Stone Breath and it’s sister band, Breathe Stone. Is that true and what led to that decision?

All three of those bands were aspects of Stone Breath really. Prydwyn and I had planned to end Stone Breath after one more proper album - the ideas that we had generated in that band were growing quickly into something else. At the same time, I began to feel like ‘A Silver Skein Unwound’ was as good a parting bow as we were likely to give. It made sense to me to end things there. There is nothing bad between Prydwyn, Sarada, and I - we are closer than ever and continue to make music together. This had more to do with ideas and principles than anything else. I really can't explain the entirety without getting into some very personal beliefs and the sort-of mythology of Stone Breath. I might as well say the position of the stars showed us it was time to move on.

I also thought that ending these bands would satisfy some people who said I have "too many bands" - the thought was I could focus on Moth Masque; but Alicia [Moth Masque is the duo of Timothy and Alicia, who is also in Funeral] moved and we no longer have compatible recording equipment so that band is effectively ended as well. And then I thought I could focus on Black Happy Day.

I usually work on one thing at a time. Fairly obsessively. Lately, I've tended to see my albums as being more and more like plays. Each has its own story, time, and place. This makes it quite easy for me to separate them.

Tara, same question about Lycia. Have you and Mike officially abandoned the project or will it be resurrected in the future given the right set of circumstances, such as an attractive economic incentive from a label wanting to release a new Lycia album?

Well, as of a few weeks ago Lycia is indeed recording again. Mike has decided it's time to resurrect the old machine. David Galas is recording with us as well. We're just hoping for an album's worth of work and we'll see what happens from there.

You’ve both also ventured beyond the band dynamic to release solo material. What attracts you to working alone? Is it simply that you have musical ideas that don’t fit the band’s style, or do you have material that you want to record and release and you’re too anxious to sit and wait for the other band members to get together?

TIMOTHY: Some things are personal - either messages to loved ones or devotional works - that just need to be solo works.

TARA: I started recording solo material because I had things I wanted to do that just weren't appropriate within the framework of Lycia. I've since realized how much I love having control over what happens musically. I like making something from nothing and it being totally who and what I am. I also really enjoy working with others, though, and hope to work with a number of different people.

You’ve both managed to enjoy pretty successful careers outside of mainstream label support. Has that turned into a blessing, being able to control your own destiny, or is it frustrating to have to wear all the label hats: marketing, tour support, etc.?

TIMOTHY: I'm absolutely horrible at self-promotion and marketing for myself. I just can't do it. And I don't have the money to hire anyone to do it for me. That's pretty much what it's about these days, even in the so-called "indie" world, you need publicists and agents - in short, MONEY, to get any sort of sustained attention. I don't have money. I grew up through the DIY hardcore/punk scene where the bands never put themselves on a level above the audience and where all business dealings were simple and transparent. It seems to me that, today, most of the underground is a sad mirror of the major label bullshit we used to rail against.

I rely on the kindness of a small group of people who seem to appreciate what I do. They buy my records and if they book a show for me and cover my expenses, I come to play for them. I am extremely lucky to have even this - which may mean small profits, but it is a great success to me, in my heart.

TARA: I hate the business side of music. I'm not a businessman and I'm not a good cheerleader for myself. I want others to handle that aspect so I can just concentrate on creating. I would love to be with a label that had a lot of money to throw at me, but that's not ever going to happen. But yes, freedom to do what you want is a wonderful thing that should always be encouraged and, thankfully, I've been afforded that luxury.

Timothy, how are Dark Holler and Hand/Eye progressing? I’ve noticed that you’ve branched out beyond your own projects and have released material by the likes of Martyn Bates and Lamp of the Universe and will soon have the definitive (and legal I might add) Trees retrospective.

In this post-iTunes climate, it's hard to tell how things are going. The label pays for itself - I think that's more than many small labels can say these days. The Trees set is going to take every penny, so we'll see what happens after that.

You’ve chosen to release your new album on Brian Mitchell’s wonderful Silber label, a favorite of ours almost from the onset. Timothy – why not release this on one of your labels? Which leads to a bigger question, how do you decide which label to release your material on?

If at all possible, I would rather release my own works on other labels. I think they can promote me much better than I can myself. But even if I wanted to, I couldn't have released this album on Dark Holler or Hand/Eye - all of the money is set aside for the Trees set. Tara had an existing and happy relationship with Silber, so it seemed like a positive choice.

Tara, you’ve had a long and fruitful relationship with Silber, both with your solo albums and Lycia’s later releases and reissues. What attracted you to them?

I've been best friends with Brian John Mitchell for years. It seemed totally natural to work with him since we trust him and relate to him on a personal level as well.

I’ve noticed that you both make use of the MySpace community to promote your projects. Has this been a valuable tool, or do you think it’s too overwhelming for fans to wade through thousands of band pages to find something that might interest them?

TIMOTHY: I think it's a good tool. I've gotten a couple shows booked through MySpace contacts, sold a few records, and met some nice people and bands. I'm sure most people don't take the time to listen to the music or do anything more than just add another friend to their collection, but some do.

TARA: I think the benefits far outweigh any sort of negative. My only regret is that I don't have the time to dedicate to truly connecting with as many people as I'd like to. I have met so many wonderful people via MySpace and have also shared my music with people who otherwise would have never heard it.

Tara, you’ve recently published your first novel (‘Violent Violet’) and have another (‘Violet Misery’) on the way. Is this a sequel, or merely another story about the same character?

It's a sequel and is setting up the third story which is only about a quarter finished.

Do you listen to music while writing to get into the mood of the work? If so, your own work or someone else’s?

I don't listen to music while I work because it distracts me, but whatever I happen to be into at the time I'm writing does have a bit of a reflection on what I'm writing. Either I choose to listen to things that relate to the story, or somehow what I'm listening to evokes some kind of mood or imagery I feel relates to the story.

Do you find a big difference between creating stories through lyrics and writing a short story, or is the process the same and only the medium is different?

It's different. I like writing stories because I have absolute control over it. Writing lyrics can be confining in a way because you have to make them fit the music and flow of the song.

You’ve also collaborated with the Italian illustrator, Daniele Serra on a volume of short stories (‘Lives of Ilya’) and a poem (‘Bone’) under the name Blood Bone. How did this venture come about?

We met on MySpace! He wrote to me asking me to look at his work and we became friends quickly and decided to try to work together. It's really been a wonderful experience. Despite the language barrier he somehow manages to evoke the perfect imagery from my words. It's beautiful.

So with the first album under your belts, do you plan on doing any gigs in support or is the live show not in the immediate future?

TIMOTHY: I would play a show tomorrow, and tour, too, given the right conditions - but I fear those conditions would be next to impossible to meet.

TARA: Ditto

Speaking of which, what’s next for both of you, individually and as Black Happy Day?

TIMOTHY: I'm ready to start on the next BHD whenever Tara is ready, but I don't think that will be for some time. We know what it's going to be, we just have to get the time to make it. I recorded a raw album for Insurrection Records which is just me and a banjo made from a cigar-box, recorded live at my home. One stereo mic and a tape recorder. This is called ‘Primitive Recordings.’ That should be coming out soon. I'm currently working on something with Prydwyn, Fred Burkhart, and Shane Speal - a sort of follow-up to "Hoofbeat, Caw, & Thunder" called Crow Tongue.

I'll probably then just keep releasing my secular music under that name, no matter what kind of music it is. I also have a book contract - for a non-fiction book which I will write and illustrate and will be published in 2007/2008.

TARA: I'm currently working on Lycia material and have several writing projects going, including a photo/poetry book with photographer Blair Black. I have also done some vocals for Jason Wallach and Craig Pilliard for their Vizionz project.

Interviewed by Jeff Penczak; co-ordinated by Brian John Mitchell. D
irected and produced by Phil McMullen © terrascope online, October 2006.

For more information, check out the Silber website at www.silbermedia.com/blackhappyday