Last week my friend Tara Simmons passed away after a battle with cancer. I see that word a lot when people talk about cancer. Battle. Like there’s a simple binary that reduces the experience of living with cancer between ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ a battle. Tara’s death suggests that she did not ‘win’ this battle, but I’m not sure it’s that simple.
The way Tara filled every day following her diagnosis with life, love, creativity, and music will leave behind a legacy that I think can only be described as a victory; a victory over an illness that threatened to strip her of her humanity, but instead only served to reinforce it.
Tara’s creative output throughout this time, and her use of social media to document her journey, are testaments to the strength of her character and her absolute resoluteness and fearlessness in the most trying of circumstances. She was immense.
In all the time we spent together, Tara expressed sadness and regret only a few times, and she expressed fear exactly never. She faced her mortality with a grace, poise, strength, and humour that was truly remarkable. Tara found herself, well before her time, on the edge of an abyss. Many people in the same situation would look over the edge and just crumble. Tara looked over. And then she laughed. And then she danced up and down the edge until the very end, singing the entire time.
Her final Instagram story voiced only two regrets. One was that she would not be around to support her family and friends in grieving her death. The other was that she would not be able to complete work on her final album. I feel privileged and honoured to have been entrusted by Tara to help her on what would be her final record, and in no small measure relieved that we were able to finish the last few songs in early January.
Tara approached her music the same way she approached her life, with an uncompromising attitude and a spirit of unadulterated curiosity.
Tara was in the studio only two weeks ago, overseeing drum parts for one of the last songs to be completed. The vocals for the final song were recorded in the palliative care ward, with Tara perched on the end of her hospital bed, summoning the strength to sing, and of course finding that strength. We spent 2018 stealing afternoons and evenings where we could, in between life and work and cancer treatments, working when she was inspired and healthy enough to be productive. We just had fun together in the studio, experimenting with sound, playing with synthesizers and any other weird sound making devices we could get our hands on, and piecing together finished songs from sound sketches we would make, recordings that Tara would bring me, and collaborations from several years ago that were never completed.
The production of this record was entirely free from the expectations of any marketplace or any audience, and I think that was quite liberating for Tara. It’s a collection of sounds and songs that exist because the making of them energized Tara, and kept her feeling productive in the dark times. She wanted to leave something behind, and I will be forever grateful I had the chance to help make this album with her.
The record would never have been finished without the generous support and help from Tara’s friends in the music community. Danny Harley (the Kite String Tangle) and Gav Parry (Yes You) produced and co-wrote one of the tracks. Dean McGrath (Hungry Kids of Hungary, Rolls Bayce) rescued two songs that had stumped Tara and me, seeing them through to completion and helping to co-write lyrics for one of them. Chris O’Neill has played with Tara for over 15 years, and contributed drums to several songs. James Wright played drums on a song. For two tracks, Tara was constantly referencing the drum sounds on the last Jungle Giants record, so we asked Sam Hales and Konstantin Kersting for help, and they generously provided additional production and what we affectionately termed ‘potato’ drums for those two songs. Kate Miller-Heidke and Megan Washington contributed backing vocals. Empire Studios and the Plutonium were generous in giving us studio time.
But mostly it was just the two of us, pottering about in our little home studios. And I’ll treasure that time forever. And I’ll miss her creativity and artistic single-mindedness forever. And I’ll hope that her final body of work finds an audience, and that people get a chance to hear my friend’s wonky pop songs, songs that mark this period of her life and serve to shed light on her experience of the human condition, expressed in a way unique to the beautiful, one-off human being that was Tara Simmons.
North is a lustrous, dark pop song propelled by a wonky beat and pulsing production that borders on abrasive. It’s darker than most of her releases to date, but there’s a certain euphoria floating above, carried by a stunning vocal performance that unfurls as the song crescendos towards its conclusion - a brilliant burst of urgent rhythms and chiming guitars. With North, Tara is on a search for direction, navigating a path to beauty through imperfection and bold experimentation and emerging on the other side with a single-minded creative vision