The eight-foot-tall-man, four-foot-tall-woman mash-up is as American as hipster bingo. Google it. Seriously: Some basic instincts come into play when a big lug teams up with a little waif. He gets to protect something he can handle. She gets to be protected by something gargantuan.
Oakland beatmaker Alias and New York songwriter Tarsier share this dynamic, as evinced by their quality new Anticon recording, Brookland/Oaklyn, and the live version they played as a quartet June 8 at SF’s Bottom of the Hill.
All 110 pounds of Rona “Tarsier” Rapadas stood center stage, saying next to nothing to the crowd of one hundred Anticon beatheads who showed up for the CD release party. To the rear, an equally quiet dude by the name of Burgess Tomlinson cued samples and ran live on a Mac PowerBook, while next to him consummate guitarist Matt McCullough silently worked the E-bow. MC Brendan “Alias” Whitney, working behind a stack of electronics, introduced Tarsier, helped her plug in her petite Taylor acoustic guitar nicknamed “Li’l Tay,” and dropped the skittish beats that backed her breathy vocals.
“I’m really shy, which is so ironic because of what I’m doing,” she says the next day at Gaylord’s Cafe in Oakland. “And I wasn’t drunk enough. I was more drunk in Seattle.”
Sitting beside her with an empty beer mug, Alias, a tall, pot-bellied Irishman, will drink nearly anything wet and alcoholic during shows, but more for fun than confidence. He’d sipped a Heineken throughout the previous day’s hour-long set, but seemed as much at ease behind his mic and MIDI production center as a center fielder in position. Even when he stepped forward to bust out a minute-long percussive rap that drew the biggest applause of the night, it seemed almost effortless.
The thirty-year-old Maine native has been rapping with the Oakland hip-hop label Anticon since the early ’90s, and has shared stages with DJ Krush and the Roots. Tarsier, on the other hand, had never sung professionally, let alone toured, prior to this collaboration.
Their big guy-li’l gal dynamic stretches back even further. After a decade of rapping and beat work, Alias went instrumental with 2003’s Muted. That year in New York, ambient and electronica pop artist Tarsier went apeshit for it. It was the kind of music she took everywhere and sang to, so she bashfully requested some beats from Alias.
“People ask to pay me for my beats and I say no,” Alias says. “But this time it was different. I sent her four tracks and said, ‘Add your vocals and we’ll see what happens.'”
“I remember FedEx showing up one morning at 9 a.m. with a package from her,” he says. “I put it in and matched the beats to the vocals in ProTools and my jaw just dropped. It was amazing. I worked on it from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. that night on what was going to be the track ‘Rising Sun.'”
Alias may have been stoked, but Tarsier wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight: “He sent me an e-mail saying he really liked it and he put the vocals right up front,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Uhhhhhh. ‘”
Tarsier had sung a bit in junior high, but considers her unique voice a curse. The combination of her long vocal cords and petite frame result in a breathy, low-yet-feminine moan that says, “Protect me. Make me some food.” Couple it with her oblique, vowel-per-minute delivery and it’s easy to see why she gets compared to Björk.
The next 21 months were spent swapping files via mail as Alias coaxed Tarsier to the front of the mix. “By the end, she’d send me these seven-page e-mails like, ‘Turn the vocals up at minute 1:30,'” he says. “I was like, yessssss!”
The resulting album layers Alias’ fat, skitter-step 80 BPM tracks over Tarsier’s breathy, stretched vowels. When it works, such as on tracks “Anon” and “Ligaya,” it can sound like DJ Shadow meets Björk. At its less innovative points, it can be mistaken for avant-pop from the 1998 Great Expectations soundtrack — remember its one-hit wonder, Mono’s “Life in Mono,” with the chorus Ingenue/I just don’t know what to do? No? You’re lucky.
When it came time to tour, Alias even taught the novice how to pack. “One pair of jeans, some underwear and socks, and T-shirts,” he swears. “That’s it.”
“Bren’s way — it works,” she says.
Look, she calls him Bren. Anyway. The two will take a short break this summer as Alias plays some shows in Europe and works from his Oakland home, where he lives with his wife, two pit bulls, and two cats. Tarsier, meanwhile, will abandon New York for her old stomping grounds in the Los Angeles Basin to record with Burgess and stay with her parents. “It’s really a time of flux,” she says.
The two reunite — with badass tech dude Tomlinson and equally badass axe handler McCullough — later this summer. Be sure to catch the act and give it up for the little lady when the big guy says so. Ms. Shy responds well to encouragement. … and if you’re mean to her, Alias could stomp you.