I’m The Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings, 1964–1971 archival music collection out 5/6 (Anthology Recordings)
Norma Tanega’s I’m the Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings, 1964–1971 is a comprehensive survey of the pioneering folk artist’s two commercially released studio albums, an unreleased album, and a trove of unheard demos.
Before playing a pivotal part in folk music’s cultural crossover in the ‘60s, Tanega was a curious little girl born at the very end of the ‘30s to a multicultural Navy family in Long Beach, California. Her parents often brought her to Los Angeles for piano lessons, and eventually Tanega earned an MFA at Claremont College, where she studied classical composers like Aaron Copeland and George Gershwin. Amidst her academic pursuits, Tanega learned to play acoustic guitar and autoharp by following Joan Baez records and hanging out at the Folk Music Center, a music store and performance space in Claremont that exists to this day.
After college, Tanega landed in Greenwich Village in 1963, and became active in the coffee house scene and early protests against the Vietnam War. Working summers as a camp counselor in the Catskill Mountains, the up-and-coming producer and arranger Herb Bernstein caught Tanega perform at the camp, and introduced her to songwriter Bob Crewe. The trio found their first collaborative success in 1966 when Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog” rocketed to #22 on the American and British charts (#3 in Canada). Her debut full-length of the same name followed that year, which saw her perform on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and Where The Action Is, and tour North America with artists including Gene Pitney and Bobby Goldsboro.
That same year, Tanega traveled to England to tour in support of Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog. During rehearsals for the British music television show Ready Steady Go!, Tanega met Dusty Springfield. The pair became fast friends, then partners in a committed long-distance relationship. Tanega moved to London to be with Springfield, for whom she also went on to write and co-write a number of songs.
While in London, in 1969 Tanega recorded Snow Cycles, a second album that would never see the light of day, and I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, eventually released with little fanfare in 1971. As heard on the first half of I’m the Sky, the same whimsical and joy-filled spirit guides all three of Tanega’s studio albums, and provides a colorful stage for her idiosyncratic meter and songwriting. Tanega’s lyrics touch on love and adoration to introspection and melancholy, while her music offers an eclectic take on popular folk-rock and psychedelic sound of the late ‘60s.
The second half of I’m the Sky opens a rare and intimate window into Tanega’s songwriting process with a collection of demos discovered in Tanega’s Claremont home. Unfettered by instrumentation save for a single guitar on most songs, Tanega’s voice soars across the mid-range and above the six string reverberations, openly musing on life and love. More than merely sketches, the demos capture an essence of Tanega’s songcraft, and a tangible translation of the emotional range which sets her work apart from the banality in certain folk music of the era.
In 1972, Tanega returned to Claremont and shifted focus to her visual arts, teaching ESL, and participating in her surrounding community of LGBTQ experimental artists. She kept recording and performing music with a number of local groups as well. While Tanega, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 80, is essential to California’s legacy of folk and experimental music, she’s also essential to the canon of folk-rock writ large. Tanega left behind an exceptional catalog of music encapsulated in part on I’m the Sky, but, more than anything, she left an enduring expression of what it is to be free.