Q & A: Mirah

“I used to have dark-framed glasses. And on one of my first shows out of town, a girl said, “You sound like Lisa Loeb!” Or, like, I loved Edie Brickell in 1988, but I don’t sound like her. Why hasn’t anyone ever suggested that I was influenced by Billy Bragg?”

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Much like the Microphones, the band from which she spawned, Mirah has found herself in the netherworld between a thriving indie pop scene and the unsure, expanding terrain of experimental folk. But with each passing record since the turn of the decade, this Portland eccentric hasn’t so much made it a point to shake off these misnomers as further mine her own abilities and uncover a voice of her own. For her latest record, (a)spera – Latin for the intertwining of aspirations and difficulties – Mirah takes that adventurous spirit to its furthest limits yet, and American Songwriter caught up with her to find the details.

Where am I catching you at?

I’m at home in my kitchen [in Portland], making myself breakfast. Actually, I didn’t eat yet. I had a show last night and it was a later night than usual, so I actually slept late, which is rare, but kind of welcome, ya know. So I haven’t gotten breakfast in myself yet, but it’s a very beautiful day.

So it’s been about four-and-a-half years since C’mon Miracle, and (a)spera seems like it’s had quite a lot of time invested in it. Have these songs been on the back burner for awhile?

There are a few on there that, at this point, are three years old. Maybe even four [laughs]. It’s been a very long time. I didn’t want to rush anything. I think maybe the oldest one is “County of the Future.” That probably wins the prize. And then a couple others – “The River” and “Education” are also pretty old. It’s a good overview, really, of the last several years, because a number of songs were literally written a day before I went into the studio. I think that gives a good breadth of time span for my life and process.

Yet it doesn’t sound choppy at all – like these are your old ones, and these are your new ones. You have plenty of consistency between the songs.

Bingo! It’s so nice to hear you say that. I’ve never recorded an album in one studio with one producer/engineer person. I’ve always mixed it up, whether it was four-track stuff plus stuff I did in the studio, or these two or three different studios. I know that some people have [very serious voice] the way they mic the drums. Period. They always mic their drums the same way; they treat them the same way. And I’m like, “Hey! For this one, how about I record the vocals in the bathroom!” There’s no consistency in the process, even though that’s the goal.

It seems like you spend a lot of time on each song, that you don’t rush through anything.

I don’t rush through most things, actually. I’m sort of a slow, thorough person. I mean, that song “The River,” I can’t tell you how many hours we spent just talking about it. Considering and listening, listening again and thinking about it. I think that Tucker [Martine] did a great job also, adding himself in and respecting my very slow process.

To me, that’s probably the most difficult track on the album.

Difficult how?

Not just because of the length, because I’m used to listening to long songs, but when you come off all these other track that are constantly shifting and bringing in new sounds, you get “The River” that’s this monoilth just sitting in the middle.

That was a difficult one to approach, because, as I wrote the song, it was a song that had many verses, and it didn’t really have a chorus. There’s no refrain. When I went in to record the basic tracks – I was going to lay down the guitar and vocal, and then we were work from that – I’d never really even recorded a rough draft at home, so I had no concept of how long the song was. I knew that it started at point A and ended at point B. So when we laid it down the first time, Tucker said, “Wow, that was about eight minutes there.” And I was like, “Wow, huh, ok …” So I think this song is just slow. That’s how it was coming out of my body, and I tried to change it, but it didn’t take.

You mentioned “Country of the Future” earlier, and that seems to be the one I keep coming back to. How did that song evolve for you?

I mostly write on the guitar, with the vocal part and the lyrics at the same time. But every once in awhile, I’ll do one that is just a cappella, where I’m just sitting around or taking a walk. “Light the Match,” for example, from Advisory Committee, was one like that. To me, that’s writing a full song. It has all the parts and all the changes, and I can imagine the instrumentation and how to fill it out. But my body is the only instrument that I write it on. So that one, I was on my family farm in Pennsylvania in the winter time and my girlfriend was in Brazil, and I wrote it for her.

A lot of people can’t do that. They need some kind of instrument to back them up.

Some songs, they’re not going to find a way out, unless you’re holding an instrument. A lot of times, if you learn something new, like a new finger-picking rhythm or a new chord inversion, or pick up a ukulele when usually you play the guitar, then all the sudden it’s, bam! There’s a song. I don’t mean to seem cheesy new age, but it’s like they’re floating around out there, like beings that want to come into existence and they need some sort of conduit. Some of them need the conduit of an instrument, or a certain one. And some of them only need a body. I think “Country of the Future” was like that. Cheesy new age [laughs]. That’s me. Only a little bit, or a lot. I’m not sure. Someone else can be the judge.

That’s interesting it started out like that, because it’s probably the instrumentation that catches my ear the most.

I knew that it had tons of percussion, and I wasn’t sure if it was quite a samba, but I knew that it would have a lot of syncopation. Obviously, because of the lyrical content, I thought it was kind of Brazilian. But there’s so many different Brazilian rhythms that, when we’d actually recorded the song, I’d sung it with different … should I call them co-workers? My friend Bryce Panic, who plays drums on the album a lot – actually, on every one of my albums – we had a way of working with the song that we’d gotten used to. Then, for the recording, my girlfriend was actually taking samba drum lessons at the time, so we got her teacher in, who’s actually from Turkey. So he was playing the surdos and said, “I hear this rhythm that’s actually north of Brazil, like Bahia.” Then he played it a different way. And when we brought our viola player in, Tucker had this thought for that descending line, and we thought, “Right! Bollywood!” It was fun moving along with it and being unafraid to open up to whatever idea scurried through the studio.

Was it intentional to have producer Phil Elvrum less on this album to distinguish it from earlier ones?

Our working relationship is great and we discovered a long time ago that we enjoy imprinting each other’s work. But I went through a cranky period in making these albums where Phil was very involved. And I loved all of his additions, but I was listening to a test pressing of my first K [Records] album, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This – we’re issuing it on vinyl finally, because there were only ever a thousand made – and the song “Water and Sleep,” I was so, “This sounds kind of like a Microphones’ song.” I could kind of hear my songwriting, but it’s very much influenced by him. So there was a midpoint between then and now where I decided I wanted to be viewed and heard as having my own audible imprints on the work that I’m producing.

On a similar note, it’s such a crutch in music criticism to compare female artists to one another. And I’m guilty of the same thing. When I hear “The Forest,” I think of Joanna Newsom, or when I hear “While We Have the Sun,” I think of Bjork’s Vespertine. Does that bother you?

I know exactly what you mean. When I first started playing, my very first tour in ’97 or ’98, before I was even on K, I used to have dark-framed glasses. And on one of my first shows out of town, a girl said, “You sound like Lisa Loeb!” Or, like, I loved Edie Brickell in 1988, but I don’t sound like her. Why hasn’t anyone ever suggested that I was influenced by Billy Bragg? That was one of my first inspirations. And it’s because he’s a guy. Male straight men are the most common human on the planet, and everything else is “the other,” which has to be distinguished through language as “female singer/songwriter.” Sometimes it’s irritating when it’ feels demeaning, when someone can’t just say, “You’re awesome.” They have to say, “You’re awesome in exactly the same way, but a little bit less so because this other person did it first, as this other person.”

And when people find out that you are gay, they take it that much further.

Like, “Oh my God, You sound like Melissa Etheridge!”

To get back on track, it seems like you’re most comfortable in that space between hummable hooks and something a little more chaotic.

If I look over the catalog of my songs, there are a few that have a chorus, but they’re few and far between. I don’t know why, but I feel most of my songs end up being, “There’s the A section, then there’s the B section, and then there’s the C section. Then the song’s over!” The song “Jerusalem” from C’mon Miracle is such a pop song structure, but it’s a very meaningful song, so I like that it came out that way. I’m glad that the poppiest song I’ve ever written is about things that I really want people to think about.

So is it that you’re just trying to keep yourself interested?

Exactly. That’s my quote that I use. You knew it. It’s a challenge to me to serve my own desire for experimentation and writing based on just what inspires me, not based on some formula that I’ve discovered works for me. So it’s a challenge to balance those desires for all these disparate sounds while making an album which comes across as being a unified listening experience.

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