“Let me be your mentor.”
-Tarah Who?, “Manners”
She took the stage; stories permanently etched from wrist to neck, her hair shaved on one side with the rest parted, allowing the opposite full strands to dangle and wildly match the energetic performance. By the end, red had stained her guitar strings and dripped to the floor from her fingertips, the strobe spotlighting the blood through the haze. For Tarah G. Carpenter, music is in her, and she’s fine exposing her passion.
Tarah Who?. It’s not a question that needs to be answered. Tarah Who? is a rising statement in the progressive punk/grunge scene. However, the duo of Carpenter and Coralie “Coco” Herve is prepared to become a brand whether the world is ready or not.
They are an independent band. Though the industry has been over-saturated with amateur acts for quite some time, Tarah Who? has built a solid following the last half-decade. Yet, their end game isn’t necessarily overwhelming stardom, but rather motivating others to push through the obstacles that make sustainability difficult in the music industry—and having fun throughout the process.
Carpenter said, “I hope to inspire women to play and dare to do what they want to do, and everyone as a matter of fact, regardless of their sexuality, religion, race, etc. My end game is: if WE can do it, EVERYONE can.”
Though people have fought mightily for progression, female lead singers in rock music still must overcome hindrances that delay recognition and relevance.
Herve explained, “I don’t understand that in 2021 there is still this thinking. The best will be for artists to be respected for their art and not because they are a man or a woman.”
Tarah Who? has not only showcased their talents, but has proven their value, and are leading a new charge to shift the narrative.
Carpenter was born in France. Many, especially visitors who have only experienced the country through stories, view the culture as romantic in a sense. Their musical tastes are deep and moving, and many French audiences expect poetic lyrics and masterful production from classical to pop. At 14, Carpenter decided to self-teach herself the drums. At the time, it wasn’t common for a lady to be aggressively slamming sticks against cymbals, snares and toms.
“I remember when my dad said that it was not an instrument for girls. I didn’t take it as a rebellion but more like ‘I don’t care I still want to do it’,” Carpenter said.
Even the drum teacher at a music school in Paris brushed away her aspirations based solely on assumption. Little did they know, Carpenter had already been practicing over tracks and playing in a band. It wasn’t the norm, it was too different, and it had been that way for quite some time.
“I found out a year ago or so that my mom had always wanted to learn how to play the drums, but my mom was born in 1943, so for her time it was really not something girls, women did. Especially after the war.”
The norm had been challenged.
Though she was an experienced stateside traveler since she was 10, Carpenter moved to the United States as an exchange student at 15. Positioned in Kentucky, she fell in love with America, though she had always been drawn to the culture. Her English teacher in France would praise her grasp of the English language. After earning her baccalaureate, she saved all her money and headed way west at 21 with just a guitar strapped around her shoulder and one piece of luggage in tow.
It was just years before she was learning to break musical barriers on the drums, and now she had thrown herself into a sea of intimidation and dreamers. She was in Los Angeles. With no plan or contacts and little money, she landed in Koreatown, and she knew her voice had to become louder than all the screamers.
A writer needs to be knowledgeable in a variety of industry and societal aspects. They don’t just understand their genre and instrument, they understand music as a whole. They don’t just understand their experiences, they understand the issues that affect their surroundings and beyond. They find a relation in human behavior through past actions and modern affairs. They’re capable of processing an obscene amount of content, and using the information to produce something to share with the world they are emotionally embedded in.
They also need to be able to rock out.
As Tarah Who? was first being formed, another French-native moved to Los Angeles. Herve came to the states from Brittany, France, but her and Carpenter’s similarities and bond didn’t just stop at language and culture. She was a drummer since 10 and a well-versed music lover. After Coco graduated from the Musicians Institute in 2018, it was time for the duo to define and perfect their sound and start their legacy.
Music has the tendency to repeat itself every three decades. This doesn’t necessarily mean the sound is the same, but rather the style and attitude. The ‘60s and ‘90s brought us great rock, boy bands, and emotion; the ‘70s and ‘00s also gave the world great rock, disco and dance and high energy; the ‘80s and ‘10s spread pop throughout every genre, fantastic experimentation and some strange fashion choices. The ‘20s will give us yet another rock revolution.
In the ‘60s and ‘90s, societal conflict led to progressive voices rising from every form of status, and the start of the ‘20s have been no different, maybe even more demanding in that sense thus far. Also, perhaps these chance comparisons are subconsciously due to the generational bonds we have with our parents, or perhaps, on a less complex psychological note, we’re just in need or nostalgic influence. Fans get that with Tarah Who?.
“I have never written a song just to write a song,” Carpenter shared.
Does this signify the return of the quality album in the industry, something that has vanished since probably the ‘00s in rock music? As a ‘90’s teen, a CD was something of value, and every last track was part of that experience. In the modern world of digital downloads, all a band needs is a hit or two, and maybe land the audio for a commercial.
Both Carpenter and Herve have deep-seeded roots in “older” rock. From strong female-led ‘90’s acts such as Alanis Morissette, Bikini Kill, Björk, The Cranberries, The Distillers, Garbage and Sonic Youth to classics rockers like Bon Jovi, Heart, Joan Jett and Journey, the women of Tarah Who? have a superior catalog of influence.
Her love for these artists, and her drive, allowed Carpenter to enter the industry and a valuable network.
Jason Orme was, and still is, an established guitarist from the ‘90s on. He served as Morrisette’s guitarist, and provided support for other strong female artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Natasha Bedingfield, Michelle Branch, Idina Menzel and Kelly Clarkson. He has since added production to his credits.
Orme first met Carpenter when she was a teenager. He was on tour with Morrisette and they were playing a show in Paris. Carpenter attended the concert and was able to linger enough after the show to have a conversation with Orme. They would connect each time France was a tour stop, and after Carpenter moved to Los Angeles, their contact became more frequent. It wasn’t until 10 years after they met that Orme began to truly hear what Carpenter had to offer, and with production now a part of his resume, the timing worked out perfectly.
Orme said of their relationship, “It just kind of developed over time. She’s really got a voice, and she has something to say.”
Carpenter fits in well with the role of a strong female voice who has the ability to reach an audience. Orme has always respected her work ethic and independence, and it’s partially why he was excited to work with her and Herve.
“I have a lot of respect for her because I think she really sticks to her gut feeling on things. If it doesn’t feel right in her gut, and if she’s not representing herself in a way that she really wants to, then she doesn’t do it.”
Though Tarah Who? is in a good position when it comes to their genre, they still face an uphill battle. They have their sound, they have an audience, but now there is a call for broader respect.
Progressive punk, grunge, hard rock and other closely-related genres have one thing in common: they are male-dominated. Yet, female-led acts such as Evanescence, Flyleaf, Halestorm, Lucina Coil and The Pretty Reckless have been able to maintain successful careers in the mainstream rock world. Not to mention the previously aforementioned acts dominated the ‘70s-‘10s. The industry isn’t necessarily the issue, though.
Gender norms aren’t something that musical artists themselves live by, but rather audiences and listeners tend to be more focused on what is standard.
Carpenter said, “We had an interview with a French radio show not too long ago and there seems to be, still, an issue with female artists playing rock, metal, etc. Here in L.A., I feel that women, in general, are able to express themselves more in whatever area they are in. It is very refreshing.”
Cultural differences and mindsets are important to consider for international acts, and when placed in the right scene, it enables any musician with more opportunity and to be taken more seriously. And though the artist shares a common ideology with their colleagues, ignorance and sometimes strategy can delay progression.
Orme added, “I think women are held to a different standard sometimes than men. That’s something they still have to fight.”
There is also the danger that comes along with being a female in not only a male-dominated genre, but in front of male-dominated audiences. Precautions need to be taken, and there have been instances where both Carpenter and Herve have felt uncomfortable, even at risk from persistent vulgar drunks.
“We usually are able to either calm them down or they get kicked out,” Carpenter explained. “We as artists can’t really get into it since it is also our show on the line.”
It is a difficult balance. Carpenter and Herve, who tour alone most times, must be careful of not only the information they provide, but from any sort of physical altercation or theft. On the other hand, they also have a name to keep and a brand to promote. The duo does it the right way: through their music and onstage presence. They don’t need shock value or degrading sexiness to prove they belong or draw an audience in, and most spectators appreciate the genuine act.
In 2014, Tarah Who? released their debut album, Little Out There. It screamed progressive punk and grunge with loud rhythm, low riffs and heavy distortion and Carpenter’s signature blunt lyrics.
Carpenter admitted of her style, “I am not good at making up stories or using metaphors. When I write I have this burst of emotions, and I am about to explode. Well, I actually do end up in tears of anger or sadness. For a few minutes, I am just writing and writing until my hand hurts and almost until the dark cloud is gone. I feel like I can breathe again.”
Her methods are full of emotion and energy, but nothing is ever forced. Everything is developed with thought. After Little Out There, Tarah Who? released three EPs, Federal Circle of Shame (2016), Half Middle Child Syndrome (2017) and 64 Women (2020). Recently, a slew of singles have been available for streaming, including their latest release on Feb. 16, “Manners.”
Though many of Tarah Who?’s songs contain aggressive riffs, anger and sadness, like “Copycat,” “Pantomath” and “Swallow That Pill,” the band does showcase versatility. “Human To Be” slows the tempo and promotes acceptance and hope within personal frustration, and “Hurt,” “14 Months” and “In A Rush” bring a deeper, softer musical touch to their cadence.
Tarah Who? has shifted their sound a tad. Little Out There had more of a standard ‘90’s rock feel, especially on tracks such as “Rainy Day” and “Too Much Thinking.” The best thing about the album, however, is full balance. It’s loud, heavy, up-tempo, but can shift and transition into melodious ballad songs like “Here All Ears” without any abrupt choppiness. In music, or at least in the past, it’s not just about inner-song structure, but album structure as well.
Releasing singles and EPs are a newer strategy recycled from decades ago. It works on many levels, especially for independent bands. However, Tarah Who? has proven they can write an album, and another full release like Little Out There, not necessarily a retreat to the sound, but rather the structure, may push them further into the scene—and even more so in the community.
The EP title 64 Women isn’t just some random grouping of females; it has significance. On Nov. 19, 2014, 64 women were detained at an immigration detention center in downtown Los Angeles. Carpenter and Herve also reference the Manchester bombing at Ariana Grande’s concert on May 22, 2017 in the track “Numb Killer.” Through the hard riffs, the punk-grunge sound and attitude, there are important messages connected to Tarah Who?’s music. Carpenter sings about accepting yourself, loving one another despite our physical and ideological differences, and affairs that affect society as a whole.
Tarah Who? can possibly be an influencer—an important one, that is, not the pointless millionaires on social media. Fame isn’t a primary aspiration because there are drawbacks to that level of status. It’s sometimes just about developing a core audience in order to make a living and keep doing what an artist loves to do. That happens on and off the stage.
Carpenter said, “I think that it is the responsibility of any influencers, musician or not, to inspire others in what you believe is right. If you are able to make an impact on someone, you should try to make a good impact. For instance, voting, Black Lives Matter, etc.”
One such cause in Carpenter’s heart is the LGBTQ+ community. “For communities like the LGBTQ+, the way I am making an impact is by not hiding, nor do I need to mention it on every post. The way I see it is that if I want the LGBTQ+ to be ‘normalized’ (because I think it is normal in the first place) is just to be. Do your thing.”
She lives her life as she chooses, and if she receives any flack for her style or preferences, she realizes that sometimes reaction is useless. It’s regression in a way. When issues are brought to light, and norms are challenged, it’s about progression, and the petty arguments only hinder our development as a society.
Orme added to Carpenter’s plight, “The thing that always impresses me about her is her drive. I think Tarah can keep moving forward and do what she wants, but she’s putting in the work of probably 20 people.”
What’s most impressive is that Tarah Who? remains an independent band, which comes with freedom. However, there are the financial uncertainties and the stresses of booking gigs and managing tour logistics. Yet, one of the main issues an unsigned artist faces is being taken seriously. Tarah Who? works just as hard, or even harder, than other acts in the industry; they don’t sit around and wait for opportunities to be presented.
Orme said, “In my experience they are some of the hardest working musicians I’ve ever met. Tarah is so dedicated and their story is deep and touches on so many facets of what it takes to be an artist and remain true to what you want to put out into the world.”
Tarah Who? just wants to be heard.
Tarah Who? has a great opportunity to lead a new charge of female empowerment, as well as being an influential act for young musicians. It’s the story you always hear about, but one in which the ending still needs to be written. Carpenter and Herve can be more than a talented rock duo, they can be an industry symbol of perseverance and progression.
Herve simply said, “I hope we can, as humans and with our music, make the world better. I know it’s cliché, but that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Tarah Who? is doing exactly that. Cliché or not, that’s something we can all aspire to achieve with our respective passions and talents. You just have to go for it whether the world is ready or not.
Carpenter added, “We want an open-minded audience.”
And that Tarah Who? audience is set to grow.
Featured image courtesy of Maria Quintana