Although she’s repeatedly flirted with mass-market breakthrough, Mirah celebrates the fact that she’s still accessible to her fans. Her beguiling voice and gentle guitar have earned a fervent core audience, which tends to feel a personal connection with her song and lyrics. This is especially true for those identifying with songs written from a queer point of view.
For nearly a decade, Mirah released her work exclusively through K Records, serving as a touchstone of the quintessential Northwestern indie label’s characteristic sound. However, leaving out remix releases and her collaboration with Thao Nguyen, Mirah hasn’t released a full-length since 2009’s (a)spera. With Changing Light, due out May 13th and currently available for pre-order on her own imprint, Mirah is taking the reigns on recording, releasing, and promoting an album (with a little help from her friends, naturally).
She discussed her nervousness about the self-released album, her place in the sexual politics of pop music, and the little bursts of joy that make these efforts worth it.
How’s your day going so far?
I tried to plan it well but… I think I use lateness like a drug. I just end up running around and biking around. Now I’m walking up to a nice view of the Hudson River with a large magnolia branch in my hand.
Anyway, things are good.
I noticed Changing Light has a remarkably sleek and “produced” sound compared to much of your previous work.
I would agree with you, and it’s hysterical that I attained that, which was my goal. Considering how I recorded Changing Light and where I recorded it, I’m still surprised I ended up getting it to sound like that.
It was recorded over the course of three to three-and-a-half years… in a whole bunch of different places. Four different states, a million living rooms, a few recording studios very briefly… But it was very much done at home. The record began with me working on demos with a good friend of mine, Christopher Doulgeris, who at the time lived where I lived in Portland, Ore. [After] we started recording demos, I moved to San Francisco and he moved to L.A. It was a really long, drawn-out process. I was moving a lot: eight times in a couple of years. I ended up in New York and decided I really needed to finish this record. Some of the songs are actually the demo tracks we worked with and continued to layer. Some I ended up just starting from scratch when I got to New York.
On paper, it looks like the most chaotic, disjointed project ever. But the final product sounds like this great, cohesive record — at least, that was my goal. That’s actually a great parallel to my own life. You know, from certain angles my life looks really chaotic and disjointed. Like, where am I landing? What am I doing? At the root of it all, I really try to have some focus.
On this record, it’s all personal. There’s no fiction. Though, on all of my albums there’s really been only a few cases where I was writing with a character voice that I was trying on or telling a story I hadn’t experienced myself.
Listening to “Gold Rush” on Changing Light reminded me of the feeling of “Cold Cold Water” from your 2002 album Advisory Committee, with its swirling strings and cinematic feel. It made me think you’d be great at recording a score or soundtrack for a film.
I would love to do a soundtrack. I do feel at this point like I might even know how. That’s a great example of a project where I would know which of my incredible team of music friends to [bring in] on it.
When I first wrote “Gold Rush” on guitar, the whole structure was there. It didn’t strike me as having a relationship to “Cold Cold Water” because there was no orchestration yet. I hadn’t gone into the studio — I hadn’t filled out the cinematic proportions it ended up taking. Once I did [head into] the studio, I worked with a good friend of mine named Jherek Bischoff (The Dead Science, Xiu Xiu) for the string arrangements on a number of the songs. He had written a bunch of string and horn arrangements and I went out to Seattle for the recording of many of those. As [“Gold Rush”] was taking shape, it gradually became this song, which did have a [sonic] relationship to “Cold Cold Water.”
It’s actually the reason I didn’t put it first — I almost put that song first on the record. The record was really hard for me to sequence because I felt all the tracks were pretty strong. There’s not really any filler, so there wasn’t a song that was like, “Oh, this is the obvious single, which I’m gonna put first, and these are the average filler songs we’ll bury in the middle.” Every one of them could be the first song, and every one of them could be the third or the last.
I think many people latch on to the personal-sounding tales in your songs around love and relationships. I’ve always wondered if they’re based on actual events or if you’re writing from a character’s point of view.
On this record, it’s all personal. There’s no fiction. Though, on all of my albums there’s really been only a few cases where I was writing with a character voice that I was trying on or telling a story I hadn’t experienced myself. The biggest example was I did a project called Share This Place, where I wrote from the perspective of insects, like a fly and an ant. Obviously…
You didn’t experience that yourself!
… I did a lot of anthropomorphizing to tell an engaging story about a fly.
But yeah, by and large, if you look at my whole discography, there’s not a lot of fiction there. That’s a really bizarre thing about my job. There’s a lot of exposure…
I can see that. Do you get a lot of personal feedback from fans, like people walking up and telling you how they identified with your songs?
I’ve personally had the interaction a lot, where someone will approach me after a show, or occasionally on the street or subway or something. It is a very personal connection, and it’s fitting to the position I feel I reside in, in the music world or music business.
I never have been and probably never will be inaccessible. I’m very accessible as a person and my work communicates that I am. So when I encounter people at a show or a subway platform, there are often hugs involved [laughs]. That really means a lot to me, knowing that I can reach people and that I’m playing a positive role in their lives in this remote way… That I’m helping people with whatever. Even if it’s that I helped them mop the floor of the café when they were done with work for the day. Or if I helped someone who has experienced loss… There are all kinds of stories [I’ve heard] from people on how my music has played a role in their lives. It’s really meaningful to me.
I do want to tell you that your music helped me. I first heard your songs when I was in my late teens — I grew up in a conservative family and was secretly realizing I had attractions beyond the “straight” paradigm. I was struggling with what label to apply to myself and what it would mean. When I first heard songs of yours like “Make It Hot” and “We’re Both So Sorry,” I tried to puzzle out whether they were written from the point of view of a girl singing to a guy, a girl singing to a girl, or what. Eventually, I realized it didn’t matter what gender was singing to what gender; the songs were about intimate personal feelings that exist in all relationships: gay, straight, or otherwise. That idea made me feel better about myself, more valid. So, thank you!
First of all, I want to thank you for sharing that with me. That’s exactly what I was referring to. Hearing stuff like that from people means so much to me. I could only know from personal interactions what it is people hear. I told you before, there’s almost no fiction in any of my songs. They’re all very personal, but I’m also a writer with my own style. I’m not super didactic and I’m not sure if […] songs are about this girlfriend or that girlfriend or that transgendered lover.
But I’m not using that language to address equality issues. It’s not political in that way. I’m really just creating work that expresses my experience as a human being, and as a human being, I’m also attracted to all sorts of bodies, all sorts of genders. I’m not guarded about that, so of course that’s going to make its way into my work. It was always really important for me to be “out” as an artist, partly for that reason, so I didn’t feel I had to be so explicit in my pronoun usage in order not to be misunderstood or perceived as a straight person, which I’m not. [I focused on] creating the work as it came out without having to turn my life into a political agenda. Sure, I have a lot of political agendas… there are all kinds of ways that I, on a small scale, [try] to save the sinking ship. [Laughs]
Do you ever feel burdened with all these gender political responsibilities when people analyze your songs? I mean, it seems a little unfair that people can’t just take your songs on their own merit without digging into their social significance. I feel like straight artists don’t have to deal with that as much.
I haven’t ever felt pigeonholed because of questions that were leading toward asking me what my personal politics are, or even about my sexual identity. I don’t really mind talking about those things. As I mentioned before, hearing how I have helped people through experiences in those lives, a lot of people who have spoken to me about that are young queer kids and young women.
That means a lot to me and if I wasn’t out, I wouldn’t be able to… In a lot of ways my job is a form of service, and that’s one of the ways I’m here to serve. I’m not trying to say, “I’m this amazing role model!.”.. It’s not that… If you feel yourself to be an outsider in any way, it helps to see someone you can relate to on some level. If it’s a band you like and they’re gay… whatever gang of misfits you see out there in the world. “Ooh, I’m not the only one who feels this way, or who dresses this way!” It helps people to have a sense of place, to feel they see themselves represented in the larger world. Any way I can do that, I feel very generous about stepping into that role.
From certain angles my life looks really chaotic and disjointed. Like, where am I landing? What am I doing? At the root of it all, I really try to have some focus.
Most of your work is solo-based, but you’ve done several projects in cooperation with others. A couple years ago, you collaborated on the album with Nguyen. Between that experience, as well as other collaborations with the Black Cat Orchestra and Spectratone International, what do you feel like you’ve learned from your musical partnerships?
It is correct that I’m a solo artist. It’s my name, my project. However, I’ve done almost nothing by myself. Sure, a bunch of the recordings on my first two records I recorded with my four-track, alone. I’ve always been extremely involved… I never left anything up to anyone else [solely] […] I was very involved with every step of the process of making every single record. I didn’t have a booking agent for a whole bunch of years, I would just book the shows or leave the task of booking shows to whomever else I was on tour with. So I just want to clarify that: I’m independent, I’m a solo artist, and I have had, I couldn’t even count the number of people, who have stepped into really important roles and helped me out in incredible ways. To all those people, I’m so extremely grateful. And I love working with people and I love collaborating.
The project I did with Thao, I was so proud of that record, partly because I had never made a record that fast before. I had always just really taken my time… One of the things about being on K was there was no structure. I went from having really supportive hippy parents who loved and supported everything I did, to going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where there are no required subjects, no grades, and you don’t have to choose a major; to being on K Records. There were these recurrent situations where I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me. I don’t take that for granted — I feel really lucky about it. But one thing that none of those situations taught me was how anything really works out here in the real world, which is information I’m picking up slowly.
I’m almost 40, this is like my 12th record, and I’m like, “Ooooh, so there’s like a pattern… you put out the record and then you go on tour!.”.. “Oooh, a manager, if I had one, would do these set of necessary things that I’m always just barely managing to do myself!” [Laughs]
Thao, who is 10 years younger than me, started making records earlier than me. But at the time we met, I had been “in the business” for longer. She had all these things [managers, booking agents, etc.], though, where it was like, “Oh, there’s a way you’re supposed to do things, and you’re doing them that way. I wouldn’t even have considered that!”
So you feel your background influenced the direction of your career?
That was my whole training: my parents were self-employed — we just made it up. There was no structure, no school books. It wasn’t even like I knew about [structure] and decided not to follow any of the rules. I just thought that was what life was — you just made it up. Which is great — I actually feel really happy about that. I’m a creative person, so I’ve been exploring how to creatively thrive and have an interesting life ever since I was born. That’s been my experience.
After so many years on K Records, what has the experience of releasing Changing Light on your own been like?
I have the album for sale as a preorder. I didn’t do a Kickstarter because I felt nervous I wouldn’t be able to do a good job with all the rewards! [Laughs] I’m putting the record out myself, which has been an amazing experience but a little scary because it’s just me.
Actually one of the first people who preordered the record was Christopher [Doulgeris], my friend! I’m like, “No, no, Christopher, you get as many of these as you want for the rest of your life! I couldn’t have made this record without you!”
But he preordered one of the first records. I realized that symbolizes the support people give me, their faith in me, their belief in me that I made a good thing. It’s taken this interestingly important personal place. I’m not just “selling this thing,” “Hope I make some more sales!” It’s like [in awe], “These people believe in what I do!”
I notice on other websites, people are really good at marketing things. It’s not something I’m good at… I just have my simple, “I made a record, and you can get it.” That’s my big marketing idea.