In the four years Tania Bowers lived in Chicago she played out exactly five times. You'd never know from her unassuming demeanor and fragile onstage delivery that you were watching a woman who spent her late teens and early 20s rocking out in clubs all over Australia.
Bowers--who, as Via Tania, put out her first full-length solo record, Under a Different Sky, on Chocolate Industries in May--was born in Melbourne but raised outside of Sydney, where in 1990 she and her older sister Kim started a band with two friends from the all-girls high school they attended. Christening themselves Spdfgh (pronounced spuh-duh-fuh-guh; it was a string of letters someone's older brother was trying to memorize for a chemistry exam), they'd skip school to busk for change, playing covers by their favorite Australian bands, like the Hummingbirds and Ratcat.
They weren't old enough to get into Sydney clubs to see these bands, but they weren't about to stay home either. "We used to go to their sound checks and play their songs for them," says Bowers. It worked: the flattered bands would sneak the young fans into the club.
Spdfgh eventually expanded their repertoire to include songs by the Cure, the Ramones, and the Breeders, and in time began writing originals in a noisy indie-pop vein. Their bratty persistence paid off, and soon they were opening for the bands they loved. While Bowers was in her final year of high school some members of the Hummingbirds recommended Spdfgh to Nic Dalton, who ran an indie label called Half a Cow. He signed the band and released an EP in early 1995. "We were totally game and we were very excited about things," says Bowers. "We thought we'd do all of this crazy stuff and travel all over the world."
The foursome began touring around Australia, frequently performing with Noise Addict, a band led by the even younger Ben Lee. By the time they started work on a full-length album, Half a Cow had affiliated itself with Mercury Records. Suddenly they were on a major label, and Bowers says they felt pressure to make their music more commercial. "We were kind of serious, but we definitely weren't ready to deal with the major-label crap. There were lots of disagreements, and some of us were more serious than others."
In 1997, after a few lineup changes, Spdfgh fell apart. Bowers kept playing with an assortment of different bands, including Lee's, but a year later she'd had it with the grind. She was all of 23.
"I decided I didn't want to be in a band for a while because it was so tense, and I also realized that my songs were quite introverted and I was interested in quieter stuff," she says. She was listening mostly to gentle pop by people like Suzanne Vega and Swedish singer Stina Nordenstam. "I went through this process of not wanting to do anything with distortion pedals. It was a reaction; I wanted to do something that was the exact opposite." And she did: an all-acoustic EP released under the name Sunday. During the recording of the EP Bowers began to realize that making music mattered more to her than having a career in music. "I didn't care if [the record] ever came out, I just wanted to record for myself."
Then she met Casey Rice. He was touring Australia as Tortoise's soundman, and several Aussie bands Bowers knew had recorded with him in Chicago. Six months later, in 1999, she moved to Chicago; six months after that they were married. She sang on albums by Joan of Arc, Archer Prewitt, and cornetist Rob Mazurek, and when after a few years she began to make her own music again, some of them returned the favor. After the Sunday EP, she says, her sensibilities had drifted away from the purely acoustic and, under the influence of Rice, toward a more electronic sound. This progression is evident on Dream Of..., a set of four songs plus two remixes she released last August.
In late 2002, Bowers moved back to Australia with Rice. Before departing she finished making Under a Different Sky, an album of moody, amorphous torch songs recorded with an all-star cast of Chicago musicians. Her low, sultry vocals--embellished with subtle curlicues, unexpected note bends, and dramatic whispers--float over spare, dubwise accompaniment. Ghostly Dobro fills and warm harmonium chords swirl in and out of the mix while muffled acoustic and electronic beats throb patiently, not propelling the songs so much as giving them a murky bottom.
The album was recorded on computer, allowing each arrangement to evolve through countless permutations. For several songs producer Scott Herren (aka Prefuse 73) processed the basic tracks in his home in Barcelona, E-mailing back the results, but most of the material was reworked by Bowers and Rice in their Wicker Park apartment. "I think it's always how I'm going to make records," Bowers says. "I need so much time to think about things as they're happening. It would be a much different record if I had to do it in a month straight."
Bowers is in the States for the summer with several tours lined up to support the new album, including a national run with Joan of Arc's Tim Kinsella. She has no plans to record while in Chicago, but she has been writing new material. She'd also like to start performing at home once she returns to Australia, where she hopes her album will be out by year's end.
"I'm sure I'll keep collaborating with different people, whether it's by mail or if I can get people from here to go there--that would be my favorite thing," she says. "And maybe I'll meet people [in Australia] to work with, but I'm not counting on it. Part of me is very determined to keep making music and see what happens, but I don't want to ever make any decisions based on what could happen."
Via Tania plays at the Empty Bottle Thursday, July 17.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.