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Norma Tanega

Idioma disponible: inglés
First known for her bouncy 1966 hit "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog," singer/songwriter, experimental musician, teacher, and painter Norma Tanega had a longer and more complex career than that song might suggest. Though the title track of her 1966 album was a whimsical mix of Greenwich Village folk and mainstream pop, the signs that she was an individualistic artist were already in the sardonic tone of "You're Dead" (which found new life in the 2010s as the theme song to the film and TV show What We Do in the Shadows) and "Hey Girl," her subversive take on Lead Belly's "In the Pines." When her early success wasn't repeated, she continued to make music on her own terms, whether writing songs for her lover Dusty Springfield or collaborating with Blossom Dearie in the early '70s, adding touches of psych rock to her 1971 album I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, or creating avant-garde sounds with later projects such as Ceramic Ensemble, Hybrid Vigor, and Baboonz. By the 2010s, Tanega was recognized as a free spirit and innovator, with artists such as Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants, and Thee Oh Sees adding her songs to their repertoires. Tanega was born in Vallejo, California in 1939, to a Panamanian mother and a Filipino father who was a bandmaster for the United States Navy and eventually led his own band after 30 years of service. After moving to Long Beach at age two, she started classical piano lessons at age nine. She was equally passionate about visual art, and directed her high school's art gallery during her senior year. She attended Scripps College on a full scholarship and earned her MFA from Claremont College in 1962. During this time, she studied the work of George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland, and learned acoustic guitar and autoharp by playing along with Joan Baez records. With her studies completed, Tanega traveled Europe, then moved to New York City in 1963. Living in Greenwich Village, she became a part of the thriving folk music scene. Along with working at a mental hospital, where she'd perform songs for the patients, Tanega also worked summers as a music counselor at a camp in the Catskill Mountains. Producer Herb Bernstein saw her perform there and introduced her to producer and songwriter Bob Crewe, most famous for his work with the Four Seasons. Tanega signed to Crewe's New Voice label in 1965 and released her debut single, "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog," in 1966. Inspired by her real-life pet (which she owned because her apartment building didn't allow dogs), the song mixed folk-rock with New York pop-soul production. It became an international hit, reaching number three in Canada and peaking at number 22 on the U.S. and U.K. charts. The song's popularity spawned covers by Barry McGuire, Art Blakey, and the Jazz Crusaders, as well as versions in Danish, Dutch, and French. To promote "Walkin" and her full-length album -- also called Walkin' My Cat Named Dog -- Tanega appeared on American Bandstand and Where the Action Is and was the sole female performer on a North American tour that included Gene Pitney, Chad & Jeremy, and Bobby Goldsboro on the lineup. Later in 1966, she toured England and performed on the TV show Ready, Steady, Go!, where she met Dusty Springfield. The pair hit it off, and Tanega moved to London to be with Springfield. Along with painting, Tanega spent her time writing songs, many of which Springfield recorded. These included "No Stranger Am I," which first appeared on Walkin' My Cat Named Dog, and "Come for a Dream," which Tanega co-wrote with Antônio Carlos Jobim. She worked with Blossom Dearie on a song that appeared on Dearie's 1970 album That's Just the Way I Want to Be. She also pursued her own music career, recording a 1969 album, Snow Cycles, that was never released. Tanega was more successful with 1971's I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, a set of songs inspired by her relationship with Springfield that added touches of psych-rock to her sound and featured contributions from the Viscounts' Don Paul and producer/keyboardist Mike Moran. However, the album didn't repeat Tanega's earlier chart success, and by 1972, her relationship with Springfield was over. Tanega returned to Claremont, California, and embarked on a long career as a teacher. Along with teaching art, music and English as a second language in the city's schools, she became an adjunct professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She continued to paint and make music, switching from folk to more experimental sounds and often performing as a percussionist. During the '80s, she performed with the Ceramic Ensemble, a project led by Scripps ceramics professor Brian Ransom that played handmade instruments. In the '90s, she founded the group Hybrid Vigor with Mike Henderson. The duo released its self-titled debut in 1996 and became a trio with the inclusion of Rebecca Jamm on 2000's II by 3. Around this time, Tanega began working with Robert Grajeda as the Latin Lizards, whose eponymous album appeared in 2001. Two years later, she teamed up with John Zeretzke on Push. Along with reuniting with Ransom for 2008's Internal Medicine, she also worked with guitarist Tom Skelly and bassist Mario Verlangieri as Baboonz, who also released their self-titled debut album that year. Two more albums followed: 2009's HA! and 2011's 8 Songs Ate Brains. The following year, Tanega and Steve Rushingwind Ruiz issued the album Twin Journeys. By the early 2010s, the reputation of Tanega's earlier music had grown, and artists including They Might Be Giants, Thee Oh Sees, Dr. Hook, and Yo La Tengo covered songs from her first album. In 2014, her profile got another boost with the use of her song "You're Dead" in the vampire mockumentary film What We Do in the Shadows (in 2019, the song was also used in the spin-off TV show of the same name). The historic preservation center Claremont Heritage held an exhibition of her paintings in 2018. A year later, Tanega passed from colon cancer at age 80. In May 2022, Anthology Recordings released I'm the Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings 1964–1971, which collected Walkin' My Cat Named Dog and I Don't Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, as well as Snow Cycles and song sketches.
© Heather Phares /TiVo
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