Mirah and I chatted on the phone, then a tiny bit in person after her show at Trinosophes this week. Listen to the phone interview (plus my whole radio show, even):
The audio includes my two-hour radio show, plus a smidgen of the next DJ’s. Mirah stars for the first 1.5 hours, and the interview begins about 30 minutes in.
Artist = “Song title”, Album title. [Notes.]
1. Mirah = “Take me out riding”, The old days feeling
2. Mirah = “Gone are all the days”, (A)Spera
3. Mirah with the Black Cat Orchestra = “The light”, To all we stretch the open arm
4. Mirah YomTov Zeitlyn/Ginger Brooks Takahashi & Friends = “Pure”, Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project
5. Thao & Mirah = “How dare you”, Thao & Mirah
6. Mirah YomTov Zeitlyn/Ginger Brooks Takahashi & Friends = “Oh! September”, Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project
7. Mirah feat. Tender Forever = “Low self control”. [video]
8. Mirah = “1982 (atari)” Storageland
9. Mirah = “La familia”, You think it’s like this but really it’s like this
10. Mirah and Spectratone International = “Community”, Share this place
11. Thao & Mirah = “Rubies and rocks”, Thao & Mirah
12. Mirah = “No direction home”, Changing light [video]
13. Mirah = “I am the garden”, Changing light
14. Mirah = “Pollen”, You think it’s like this but really it’s like this
15. Mirah = “Cold cold water”, Cold cold water EP
16. Thao & Mirah = “Sugar and plastic”, Thao & Mirah
17. Santigold + Diplo = “Icarus”, [Some sorta exclusive album]
18. Tune-Yards = “Little tiger”, Bird-brains
19. Kate Bush = “Army dreamers”, The whole story
20. Suzanne Vega = “Pilgrimage”, Days of open hand
21. Gaze = “Static”, Shake the pounce
22. Enon = “Daughter in the house of fools”, Hocus-pocus
23. Belly = “It’s not unusual (the usual mix)”, Moon
24. Envelopes = “I don’t even know”, Demon [which is Swedish for “demos”]
25. FKA Twigs = “Two weeks”, LP1
26. Xeno & Oaklander = “Jasmine nights”, Par avion
27. Actress = “Towers”, Ghettoville
28. Santigold = “Disparate youth”, Master of my make-believe
29. Dr. Science [the science of shampoo]
At the time of this conversation with Mirah (here, the audio and text are an edited version of a longer chat), she was on the East Coast waiting to get on the road again with her band.
Mirah: I’m standing on the sidewalk in front of our tour van.
the Liz: Oh, great! Tell me a little bit about your setup when it comes to driving around; what’s your van like?
Mirah: Well, right now, we’re traveling in a 15-passenger van. Bandago changed their vans, so now they’re all black, and people give us looks on the highway. I think maybe we look like secret spies, secret service agents, or something like that. I don’t know. It’s a big van, and it’s filled with a tumble of a whole bunch of instruments. There’s five of us total in the van right now, so, you know—keyboards, drums, violin, viola, guitar, another guitar, a bass, and some other stuff. That’s what it looks like.
Liz: By the time our conversation is broadcast, you’ll be playing a show tomorrow at Trinosophes in Detroit.
Mirah: Oh! Yes! Tomorrow, in Detroit!
Liz: Thank you for coming to Michigan.
Mirah: Of course! I’m happy that I get to come back. I feel like it’s been a long time. Maybe even a couple of years. I feel like I’ve always had good shows there. I’m excited.
Liz: How excited are you for the Pacific Northwest part of it? Because that’s your old stomping grounds…
Mirah: I’m very excited. I moved to New York a couple years ago, which is great. And I feel great about the move, and my life is really good there, and I’m closer to my family again on the East Coast…but I really miss my friends on the West Coast! And in the northwest in particular. So I’m excited about that. And I of course planned an extra week at the end of that tour to visit…and I also got this very wonderful offer that I get to receive an award—a sort of certificate of recognition from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, just for having been doing what I’ve been doing for so long. So that’s another reason why I’m staying for an extra week, and I’ll be in Portland for that. I cried when they sent me the email! Tears of joy. Just to clarify.
Liz: I’d love to ask you about that. I really liked your article that was published in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls book.
Mirah: Thank you! Although the hysterical thing about that article, that I didn’t quite realize until afterward, is I discuss “how cool and easy it is to make a multitrack recording in your bedroom using two cassette recorders!” Which is so hysterical, because probably every kid who’s ever read that article has multiple digital devices that have multitrack recording capabilities on them, and maybe they’ve never used a cassette player or recording device. But! That’s what I used when I was first starting out…
Mirah = “1982 (atari)”, Storageland
Mirah: In college, my first recording project that was just for myself was on two cassette recorders. I played my guitar and sang into a tape, and then I played it back into the room. This is so low-fi! It’s like the lowest-fi possible, I think. So I played that back into the room while recording into a second cassette recorder, so I could have double the vocal, with some harmonies. So that was, you know, back in the day.
Liz: So that was in the late ‘90s, and I guess there were some people who were still using cassettes back then…? I can’t remember…
Mirah: I was totally using cassettes! My first two records both have songs on them that I recorded on my—well, what I just described, that was before I got my Tascam cassette 4-track recorder. That was my college graduation present from my dad; I still have it. And my first two records have a number of tracks that I recorded onto just a 4-track cassette. That was ’95 or ’96 when I was doing those things.
Liz: It may be true that some people have digital devices, but something you said in the article was that music can be accessible to everybody. You mention that you can just get boom boxes and cassettes from a thrift store, for example.
Mirah: Yep. It’s true! It’s one of the more important lessons or things that I learned while living in Olympia—I was inspired by the community of artists and musicians who were there at the time that I was finishing school and deciding to stay in that community. People were just doing. It wasn’t like you had to wait to get some kind of training or certification or take a bunch of lessons to know how to do things “the right way.” We were not that concerned about doing things “the right way.”
I don’t think that—if I had been living in a community where I had to go through a lot of official steps or certifications or even approval—I would have started making music. The fact that I could start off sloppily, in a way, and just naturally—that’s the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing today. It’s because I was afforded the freedom to just do, even though I didn’t know what or how.
Mirah = “La familia”, You Think It’s like This but Really It’s like This
Liz: You mentioned your first two albums, and at least your first one was on a cassette tape…
Mirah: A bunch of it. Not all of it. Probably somewhere around five were on my 4-track, and then other ones I recorded with Phil Elvrum, from Mount Erie, at Dub Narcotic Studios, which was just sort of like a big, messy recording playground in this huge upstairs warehouse space, with these huge windows. Totally no sound insulation at all! There are seagull screams all in our recordings, because they were just big warehouse windows. We had some amazing equipment to work with, but it wasn’t a fancy studio.
I actually still feel so uncomfortable recording in isolation booths. I’ve sung in them once our twice in my entire recording life, and I always feel like, “Who took the world out?” It always sounds so weird, and I don’t enjoy it. I really enjoy singing in a space and singing with the space. I was very impacted by my early recording experiences and experiments. And even though I have continued to…like, I used Pro Tools on this last record, and I’m not still in Olympia with the seagulls. But I still incorporate that sensibility into what I make.
Liz: That might relate to this DIY ethic…In that article that you wrote for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls book, you say how important it is that you make it yourself—so important that you say, “Make it yourself! Make it yourself! Make it yourself!” What is so important about that to you?
Mirah: I think it’s important to find out who you are. There’s a lot of possibility to be told what you’re supposed to be—in school, or by other people, or maybe even by your own expectations, or comparing yourself to other people. Aspirations are great. If you admire someone else’s sound, or something that you hear or see, and that inspired you to make something—great. I think “danger” is the wrong word, but there’s a possibility to be following someone else’s path and not even knowing that’s what you’re doing, instead of discovering who you are. What do you sound like? What does your voice sound like? There’s a lot of pressure to produce work that fits into some certain category…And it’s understandable pressure, because it’s hard to do this and keep doing it and be able to make a living at it.
Liz: I see what you mean, and it’s a sort of empathy with yourself in a very pure way. So if we can use that to think about your quest to empathize with bugs for a moment: Your album, Share This Place, that you recorded with Spectratone International, is an album of songs about bugs. What was your research process like when you were preparing to make it?
Mirah: The subject of doing a song cycle about insects was Lori’s idea. Lori Goldston is an incredible cello player from Seattle. She and Kyle Hanson had been in The Black Cat Orchestra for a number of years, and they reformulated with a couple other musicians to form Spectratone International. It was myself and those guys who came up with this “concept album” of doing a song cycle about insects.
Lori is an avid reader, and she had come across the writings of this French entomologist named Jean-Henri Fabre, and she was really struck by his writing, his passion, his enthusiasm for his subjects of study: These insects. He was identifying with them. He wasn’t just using scientific language; he’s a great writer. There’s a lot of heart, a lot of caring, in the way he wrote about these bugs. She was struck by that, and we were batting around ideas. We wanted to do a project; we thought it should have a theme; what have we been inspired by recently? And she brought Fabre’s writing up. And I went to the library and got out a stack of his books, and I was like, Wow! This is good. This is a treasure trove.
It was a great experience writing that record, because I had never…In most of my songwriting, the subject has been myself, my observations, my perceptions, which is great, but it was a really useful break to take from having my own thoughts be the only material to draw from, and instead I was drawing from this incredible, smart, literary entomologist from the early part of the century. I learned a lot.
Mirah and Spectratone International = “Community”, Share This Place
Liz: Was it easy for you to empathize with bugs? What are your general feelings about them?
Mirah: Oh, I feel good about them! They play some pretty important roles in our ecosystem. So I’m not creeped out by them; I like them. I think that my ability to live together with them was impacted positively through the process of studying for and writing that album.
Liz: I like the title–Share This Place.
Mirah: It’s also a great hinge for describing a lot of things about our social and political worlds and how we can survive, really. We can’t just use everything up and destroy what we are scared of and expect that life is going to continue. That’s a recipe for The End, I think.
Liz: What are you reading right now?
Mirah: The last book I read is called The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula Le Guin, which is a book I’ve known about for years, but I hadn’t read it. I just finished that; it was really great. I decided recently that I wanted to start reading more science fiction, specifically by female science fiction authors.
But tour is not the best for me for reading. There’s too much going on—stress, lateness, all the stuff that happens on tour. Or short spurts of precious alone time…I’m more likely to want to go for a walk than sit down and read a book.
Liz: So you are seeking out science fiction books by female authors, which leads me to this question that I have: Interview Magazine mentioned something about how Beyonce was an inspiration for the album that you and Thao created. Is that true?
Mirah: Wait—is that what I said? Let me try to think for a second. Well, Beyonce is inspiring. That’s undeniable. I think a lot of people would agree with me there. But was Beyonce specifically…? Oh! I know what it was! It’s because Thao and I did two main tours, and the second one, which happened after the record came out—we had an all-female band.
The two of us were like, It’s so awesome that Beyonce, who could have whoever she wants in her band, committed to having an all-female band. I mean, she’s not the only person—we could have named a number of people, like Sweet Honey in the Rock…I mean, we could have named a great number of people, a group of women who are playing music together! But that’s where that came from, because she has an all-female band. And Thao and I had an all-female band for that second tour.
Liz: Not that Beyonce is necessarily designated as “our spokeswoman for feminism” or anything, but I think, de facto, she becomes some sort of icon that allows us to assess feminism in a very public and prominent way. Does she practice and promote a sort of feminism that you can get behind?
Mirah: I think that she’s a powerful person. You can’t do what she does and not have an incredible amount of stability and internal power. She also works in the context of the mainstream world; she has mainstream success. It wasn’t just a joke—that we were saying, “This was inspired by Beyonce.” People who are powerful women, who are successful in the mainstream of whatever their field is, who make a choice like having an all-female band—that’s not a small statement. I mean, there are plenty of powerful female role models who are not as successful, not as visible as Beyonce. I don’t think I would choose her as my first choice…but as a cultural figure, I really appreciate that she’s in it for the people, too, I think. As much as she can be. I mean, she’s a busy lady.
Liz: How much do you think about feminism with regard to your music and what you do?
Mirah: Because of where I started out, I started making music in Olympia, Washington in the mid- to late-‘90s. It was the perfect place to be a young woman starting out making music. Most of my role models, most of my peers, were women. Super-powerful, strong women, just doing what they do, and doing it really well. It was sort of like being on an island! A magical island…
Thao & Mirah = “Rubies and rocks”, Thao & Mirah
Liz: I heard that you ran some secret cafes in Olympia.
Mirah: I did, indeed. Yes.
Liz: Do you have any good stories from that experience? Like a police bust (since they were illegal), or the best meal ever?
Mirah: We actually never had any problems with the police. We had a very successful time of it—successful in terms of socially successful. We had so much fun! My best friend and roommate, Ariana Jacob, and I were able to pay the entirety of our $300-a-month rent by running the secret café one day a week, every Sunday night. We had a different menu every Sunday. It was called the Red Horse Café, and it was named after a lamp made in the shape of a red horse that was vellum paper dipped in some kind of hardening glue, wrapped around wire that our friend Khaela Maricich made—she’s in the band The Blow. The secret café was a great experience, and we never had any problem with the police…!
Liz: Did people know when it was open because you turned the red horse on in the window?
Mirah: We advertised once. The first one, we made little handbills and handed them out, and we never advertised again. We generally would have 30 to 50 people come through, and it was just word of mouth. A lot of our friends and community members were regulars, but everybody has an extended community of friends and family and people traveling through. We fed a lot of people.
Liz: Did you get some of that experience by working in a café in college with Kimya Dawson?
Mirah: Yeah, Kimya and I both worked at the collectively run vegetarian campus café at the Evergreen State College. I don’t think it’s there anymore; I think they changed it, and there’s no longer a student-run café. But Kimya and I both worked there, pretty much from ’92 to ’96. I was gone for a year, and she maybe didn’t work there the whole time, but for a number of years. That’s where we met, was working there together.
But I grew up in a health-food family. We had a small health-food business, making natural brown rice and vegetable knishes. So making lots of food and feeding lots of people has been part of my life forever.
Liz: When are you and Kimya going to record a song together? Or have I missed it?
Mirah: I don’t know, and I should write to her today and try to make a plan for that. I don’t know why we’ve never done that!
Mirah = “No direction home”, Changing Light
Mirah: The most recent record—Changing Light—it actually took me five years, from starting to write the first song of the collection of ten until releasing it, was a five-year period.
Liz: How do you gauge whether a song or lyrics are working or not?
Mirah: This is so dorky, but often, even if I don’t write anything more for a little while—even if it takes me a lot longer and other sessions of sitting down with it to finish the writing process of the song, there is usually an emotional moment, with actual tears, where something just strikes me as Oh! This is the kernel! And sometimes that’s all I get, and I don’t finish it until a long time later, for various reasons. Sometimes it’ll all happen. But usually, the way that I know I have something is an emotional response.
Mirah = “I am the garden”, Changing Light
Mirah = “Pollen”, You Think It’s like This but Really It’s like This
Liz: Let’s wrap this up with Mirah talking for just a second about the songs of hers that she wanted me to play on the radio…
Mirah: You could really choose…it might be useful to play, for reference, something from an older record. Or you could play stuff from the new record, since that’s what we’re mostly playing on the tour. And maybe if people hear my 22-year-old voice on the radio, and they come to the show, they’ll say, “Who’s this old guy…?”
Mirah = “Cold cold water”, Cold cold water EP
Mirah = “Sugar and plastic”, Thao & Mirah