If this were the early '90s, Terri Tarantula (aka Terri Moeller) would be in prime contention for a 4AD recording contract; she would've slotted ideally between Red House Painters and Heidi Berry. The Seattle singer-songwriter-drummer-keyboardist's deep, lugubrious voice—a sensual truce between Nico's stark, intimate croon and Hope Sandoval's honeyed glumness—would have connected with that British label's fan base's appetite for songs tinted darkest blue. "I've had a deep voice since I was 5," Moeller says. "On the first day of kindergarten, I scared another girl so badly she cried, which was actually pretty traumatic for both of us."
Moeller has built a reputation for her smoky pipes and deft timekeeping for local folk-rock fixtures Transmissionary Six and the Walkabouts. The latter band—which has existed since 1984—is on hiatus while main songwriter Chris Eckman produces and records with a Tuareg band called Tamikrest; the Walkabouts will likely regroup for another record in the not-too-distant future. Transmissionary Six, though, amicably split in late 2008 after much recording and extensive touring.
"We called it quits because one day we realized that we had achieved all our—admittedly very modest—goals for the band," Moeller says. "We made six records, we toured Europe four times, and it really felt like time to do something else. We wanted to stop while everyone was still feeling good about it, rather than letting it peter out later on. But to do something else creatively, you kind of have to create a hole that needs to be filled. So that's what we did."
Moeller filled that newly formed hole with Terri Tarantula (on Slovenian label Skok), a nine-track helping of deadpan vocal sexiness; personal, literate lyrics; and crystalline, crepuscular slowcore. She received help from T6 guitarist Paul Austin, Head Like a Kite guitarist Dave Einmo, Animals at Night bassist Graig Markel, and Trespassers William vocalist Anna-Lynne Williams and guitarist Matt Brown—the last of whom mixed the record, giving it the "gauzy but not glossy feel" that Moeller desired.
Seattle's musical landscape abounds with albums in the vein of Terri Tarantula: worthy, workmanlike singer-songwriter efforts that mostly resonate with friends and family of the discs' musicians. I've heard and forgotten many CDs of this ilk in my nearly seven years in this city. So for a full-length like Terri Tarantula to grip me as hard as it has is a major surprise. Attribute it to Moeller's alluring vocal gravitas and the subtle, minimalist instrumentation by herself and her simpatico pals. Adding to its luster are her hushed, gorgeous melodies, which initially seem humble, but upon further scrutiny reveal sublime contours.
"I was a drummer first, and I went that way because what always hit me in music was rhythm," Moeller says about her creative approach. "I was never into virtuoso stuff or grandstanding; I liked the groove. Al Jackson Jr. [Booker T. & the MGs' drummer] is a perfect example—he doesn't call attention to himself, he just deepens everything around him. And that got me really interested in the architecture of music—how what's at the forefront of a song isn't always what's making it special."
Like Lou Reed and Nick Drake, Moeller wrings maximum emotion and beauty out of simple elements. "I've only been playing piano for a year, so my songwriting process isn't complex," she notes. "In a nutshell, I got a chord book, learned enough to write songs, and started writing them. I wrote most of the Transmissionary Six lyrics, so getting words down was something that wasn't new to me.
"Once I have the basic sketch, I look for friends who'll add cool parts and flesh the song out. So the process is pretty quick by design. [On] 'Someone Else's Misery,' Dave [Einmo] improvised this really bent guitar part, and it became central to the song. If he'd been boxed in by really specific chord changes or direction, that's the kind of thing that wouldn't have happened. So a big part of it is just knowing when to stop writing and pass it on."
Melancholy moods run throughout Moeller's music; does she feel like this mode endures longer and resonates deeper than more cheerful material does?
"I don't make the kind of music I do so it will resonate or endure," she says. "Although those are noble things to aspire to. If I were shrewder, I'd be all over that shit. I imagine it's just my personality. Moodier music is what I'm drawn to as both a listener and as a writer. Let's just say I was never a cheerleader in high school, you know?"