Entertainment » Music

Mirah + Thao = new album, new tour

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jun 3, 2011

When it comes to female pop cultural icons within the queer community, there is a certain inner circle of divas who get away with first-name only status, most prominently Cher, Madonna and Gaga.

But for many in the community, particularly the lady-loving ladies out there, Mirah is an artist equally deserving of membership in the queer elite. Born in Philadelphia but now based in San Francisco, Mirah (full name Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn) has enjoyed a musical career dating back to her 1997 debut, "Storageland." In the decade-and-a-half that's followed she has continued to expand upon her lo-fi, folk-pop sound into such a decidedly gorgeous albums as 2004's "C'mon Miracle" and 2009's "(a)spera."

And, never one to rest on her laurels, Mirah has another new album out this year, this time a collaboration with fellow San Fran singer-strummer Thao Nguyen. Their self-titled debut, featuring a brief cameo and production help from new Afro-indie darling tUnE-yArDs, is hued with intimacy in some places, bombast in others, but is always enthralling, the profound depth of both moods lending a certain amount of credence to the rumored romantic attachment between the two.

In the midst of her tour in support of she and Thao's debut effort, EDGE had the chance to speak with the ever-engaged artist about her musical and activist roots.


Mirah-style

EDGE: How has this tour been going? You’re just about to launch its second leg beginning in the Midwest, correct? How does this tour, in support of your new album in collaboration with Thao, compare with your first experience touring with her?

Mirah: It’s pretty good, the biggest difference is that, with a new album now, it’s an entirely different set list than last time. Last tour, we were playing songs from each others’ back catalogs and the personnel in the band consisted of people I’d been playing off and on with over the years as well as her regular band, the Get Down Stay Down. It was a band mash-up. This tour, we decided to have an all-female band and did it sort of Mirah-style, where every time I’ve gone on tour with a band it’s been either a slightly or radically different lineup of people. We’re having a very estrogen-fueled cross-country tour.

EDGE: About the new album with Thao, which I think is phenomenal by the way, did you have any nerves going in about the collaboration? It can be difficult to marry one’s style to another artist, particularly one whose style seems so different on the surface. Were you nervous how your fan base might react?

Mirah: I had no nervousness or apprehension. I actually feel very familiar with the territory of working collaboratively. If you look over my catalog, a number of my releases have been collaborations, the projects with Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Black Cat Orchestra, Spectratone International, plus the remix album where each track was a collaboration with a different person.

And I’ve never actually considered whether or not any of my artistic decisions would alienate a person who had decided at some certain point during my career that they liked me. It never occurred to me before and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. [Laughs] But it’s a new process. I do enjoy it when other people enjoy what I do, but I don’t really know what other people want so all I can do is just sing what I feel.

EDGE: What was the most challenging aspect of making this new album with Thao? What about the most rewarding?

Mirah: I think one of the most challenging things about seeing this project through to its birth was literally just the scheduling of it because Thao and I worked on it with Merrill Garbus [tUnE-yArDs] as a co-producer and I haven’t even seen Merrill since then! She and Thao are both so busy and I’m pretty busy though I like to take it easier because I’m older. Nailing down dates to all be in the same place together was challenging.

But recording this album was my favorite recording experience to date, I think. I really love having an expanse of days all in a row in the same studio with the same group of people. I’ve actually never done that in my 12 or however many years since I’ve been doing this. It was really fun because the energy is able to build and be maintained, keeping that momentum instead of seeing it dissipate.


Hates interviews?

EDGE: And what has it been like sharing the songs with folks picking up the album or coming out to the shows?

Mirah: That’s been really fun. I’m not sure if people who don’t record album understand the timing of these projects. Often times, you write and record the songs many months in advance of other people hearing them so there’s that lag time where you have no response. It’s incredibly gratifying when you get to the point of release of an album and for myself, by that point I’m always like, "Oh, that old song?" The response has been great, even in the very first shows of the tour, we’d start a new song and people would whoop and holler even though the album was out just a week before. That was very exciting.

EDGE: You’ve mentioned before that you’re not exactly crazy about doing interviews -- you told AfterEllen.com you were trying new strategies to make them fun. How has that strategy been working for you?

Mirah: It’s interesting to note that every day is different and that is as wonderful as it is challenging for me. I had an interview last week and it just.. I think I didn’t do quite the right job of preparing myself. I had just come back from a run, hadn’t eaten yet and I was hungry. Something was going on and I was so grumpy. That poor girl. I was terrible like some super bitch!

I have had shows, too, that have turned into disasters because I hadn’t eaten the right food or enough food before, which I don’t know if I should say that’s sweet or embarrassing. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also sort of sweet because as adults we are just big children and we’re really not all that different as we progress through our lives. The basic self-care can be challenging even as an adult and some days we do a good job and other days not. I really love running, riding my bicycle is one of my absolute favorite things to do and I practice meditation so I try to take good care of myself in those ways. I do really benefit from time alone so that I’m ready to offer myself up to the world and the world can find me pleasant.

EDGE: I understand you had a very musical upbringing within your family, but what was some of the first music you found yourself gravitating towards -- what was some of the first music you bought with your own money?

Mirah: I still listen to some of the great music I was exposed to from birth since my parents had this huge record collection. I would have to say that I was born in 1974 and by the time I was capable of going to a record store and buying something for myself, ’80s pop was a huge part of my childhood. Just as much as Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan were there, Cyndi Lauper was right there too. I had Cyndi, I had Prince, the Thompson Twins, Duran Duran. The first stadium show I went to was Duran Duran and that was a big experience.

I also have a very distinct memory of being in seventh grade and reading a review of Sinead O’Connor’s ’The Lion and The Cobra’ in Rolling Stone and I’d never heard of her before. All the other bands I was hearing on the radio, but I felt the urge to go to Tower Records on Roosevelt in Philadelphia and buy that on tape, which was a huge experience for me and started me on a bit of a soul journey discovering that I was really interested in, excited by and empowered by female musicians in particular. I was all over Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and then there were the Indigo Girls. All of my friends in middle and high school started listening to Pixies and the Smiths, and I liked them but felt like they belonged to those other people while Sinead belonged to me. It’s funny to think about how I was starting to figure things out as a kid.

EDGE: By "things" are you referring to the fact that Sinead, Tracy, Suzanne and the Indigo Girls are all queer icons? Do you think this may have had something to do, even subconsciously, with your attraction to their music?

Mirah: It was not conscious at all! There’s this funny story of Mirah in high school where I had heard this band at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, these two African women called Casselberry-Du Pree and I thought they were so awesome. I saw in the paper a few months later they were playing at the University of Pennsylvania and I was probably 14 or 15 and had my tight group of high school friends come with me. We walked in and all these people were so excited to be there and afterward my friends send to me, "Mirah, did you notice that the audience was all women and we think some of them are lesbians." I hadn’t even noticed! I guess it just felt so normal. I think the story kind of explains itself.

I feel very lucky I didn’t experience a lot of alienation based on my sexuality and didn’t have gender identity issues as a kid. I was always an odd ball and totally weird amongst my classmates, but there were other things about me that people thought set me slightly apart and I’d always been kind of proud of them. I’d leave school for a month at a time and go do the Peace Walk. I was a nuclear activist from the age of 12. Some kids made fun of me for that but, yes, Mirah at 14 felt like it was just so normal to be in an auditorium filled entirely with women and lesbians.


Her activist roots

EDGE: And what point did you know you wanted to make the transition from someone who creates music as a hobby versus a career? Did it flip like a switch or was it more gradual than that?

Mirah: Definitely the latter rather than the former. I actually feel like I only consciously started choosing this as a profession and lifestyle like last year. I was living in Olympia, Wash., where I started playing guitar and writing songs and it was definitely a community where almost everyone I knew was involved in music, performance or visual arts and there were all kinds of events and performances we would put together mostly for ourselves in our small, weird town. My career grew out of that.

Last year or two years ago, I was finding that I think this is what I want to do, this is what I’m going to claim as the thing I do for a living, the big project of my life. It’s been gradual, accidental and serendipitous. I’m very happy go lucky about it, but now I would like to see what would happen differently if I apply myself a bit more. There’s a beautiful allowance in Olympia for people to develop at their own pace and not follow the rules, but I’m 36 years old and there’s a part of me that has become serious about the rules now. I’m trying to learn about them and how to work within them.

EDGE: And, as someone with such deep activist roots, what role does keeping up on current political and cultural events and headlines play in the music you create today?

Mirah: Being aware of the world I live in on a local, national and global level is something that is very important to me even if I don’t always succeed in doing that 100 percent of the time. I live in a world where I have occupied a public space for much of my life and feel very strongly about the powerful role music can play in touching peoples’ lives in a personal or emotional way while also bringing up some of the broader issues that affect ourselves as individuals and societies. Music has a great possibility for being part of social change whether that change happens within people on a personal level or in a broader way. I am interested in doing my part to add to what I see as an amazing history of music being utilized as a tool for social change.

I do recognize that a lot of my music is not political in an obvious way, since plenty of songs are just about personal experiences, heartbreak and things like that, but that’s a universal experience that someone can also take in through a song or work of art that helps bring people together. When people are aided in being brought together, it makes the world a better place. I don’t see it as that distinct whether my songs are overtly political or so obviously personal.

EDGE: I think it’s especially not as clear a distinction for queer people living in America today.

Mirah: I think for some people it makes sense for them to not have their personal be political, and I think both ways of life are useful, effective and powerful. I have no problem with those who are not uber-activists. It’s not somehow better than people who focus on being really good people, having really amazing relationships and sort of bringing higher consciousness to their small county, workplace or school. It’s really important for people to take care of themselves and not neglect themselves or steamroll their own needs at the expense of being super activists. I think it ends up not serving the community very well.

EDGE: Do you listen to a lot of current music? Reading anything in particular? What have you been enjoying as of late?

Mirah: With music, I’m a little bit out of it but I have this obsession with the Janelle Monae ArchAndroid album. I feel like she is so truly brilliant, intelligent and super inspiring to me. Also, my friend Lori is playing in this band called Earth right now and I just got their new album. They are sort of contemporaries of Nirvana and that whole scene and ended up doing some other things for a while and now they’re doing some sort of, like, black metal. It’s really good. I also went to a show the other night of my friend Phil, who did a lot of early recordings with me, and it was nice to see him play as Mt. Eerie. He had this huge subwoofer that he played a tone to make a gong vibrate. The book I want to be reading is ’A Woman Among Warlords’ but what I’m actually reading is a boring book about running.

I recently went running down to the ocean and then up to Heights Park and had this incredible view looking down to see the surfers. I was just watching them and thinking about how wonderful it is when you’re watching other people surf because it’s almost just as gratifying. I really want them to catch a wave and when I watch them accomplish that, I feel like I caught the wave too. I can feel the movement. It’s a good experience.

EDGE: What else is coming up for you beyond this tour? I read on your Twitter you recently recorded a "summer bootie jam" music video with Tender Forever?

Mirah: Yes, and Melanie [Valera] is actually joining the band for this leg of the tour, though she’s not doing a solo set. Melanie, I and our friend Kristen made this kind of samba bootie dance song. I’m just trying out new things. I have an album I want to record but I haven’t figured out how or when I’m recording it or with whom, so I guess coming up next is figuring out the answers to those questions. I do have some new work that I would love to explore in the studio.

Mirah and Thao are playing two shows in Chicago, one at the Empty Bottle (Friday, June 3) and the other the following day (at 2:30 p.m.) at the Do Division Street Fest. Their tour continues south and then westwardly through June 23. Visit www.mirahmusic.com for more information.


Mirah and Thao’s upcoming dates include: 6/3/2011, Chicago, IL @ the Empty Bottle , 9pm; 6/4/2011, Do Division Street Fest, 2:30pm; 6/5/2011, Toronto, Canada @ Lee’s Palace, 8pm; 6/7/2011, Cambridge, MA @ The Bear’s Place, 8pm; 6/8/2011, Brooklyn, NY, Music Hall of Williamsburg; 6/9/2011, Philadelphia, PA, First Unitarian Church; 6/10/2011, Washington DC, Black Cat, 9pm; 6/11/2011, Chapel Hill, NC, Local 506; 6/12/2011, Asheville, NC, Grey Eagle; 6/13/2011, Atlanta, GA, The Earl; 6/15/2011, St. Louis, MO, Off Broadway; 6/18/2011, Denver, CO, Hi Dive; 6/19/2011, Albuquerque, NM, Launchpad; 6/20/2011, Phoenix, AZ, Rhythm Room; 6/21/11 San Diego, CA, Casbah; 6/22/11 Costa Mesa, CA, Detroit Bar; 6/23/11 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall. For more information visit her website.


Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


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