Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn (born in 1974) came up in the fertile Olympia scene of the late ’90s. She was part of the K Records renaissance along with bands like the Microphones, the Blow and Old Time Relijun – all highly distinct, idiosyncratic groups with Calvin Johnson’s influence perhaps manifesting in the form of a primitivist or intentionally naïve approach. Mirah’s early records, Parts of Human Desire (1999) and You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This (2000) are DIY mini-masterpieces that express a punk sensibility through broken drum machines, reverb-drenched guitars and ukulele, singing with frank sexuality in an occasionally child-like voice. Even through tape hiss and out-of-tune upright pianos, once can glimpse the broad compositional range and orchestral pallete that Mirah would develop.
Her more recent albums, (A)Spera (2009) and Thao & Mirah (2011), are mature, complex and immaculately-produced. It’s subtle, rewarding music driven by Mirah’s rich, agile voice. With just a quick look at the highly-qualified list of players for (A)Spera, you get a sense of how much has changed since her early days of “banging around” with a four-track by herself. Her lyrics are more abstract, her presence more assertive and her ideas are laser clear. The one real mainstay that’s never wavered, is an emotional forthcoming completely free of pretense or exaggeration.
I caught up with Mirah via phone as she was preparing material for her recent collaboration with Thao Nguyen. She was extremely easy to talk to, laughed frequently, and thought hard and out-loud about each question. She’s both serious and self-deprecating, and uncontrollably candid – knowing she should probably be more protective but perhaps unable to force a professional, distanced stance, which is a large part of what makes her work so enjoyable.
The Rumpus: You seem overtly conscious of playing with your relationship to tradition. I’m curious what tradition means to you as a songwriter.
Mirah: I think that I have come at it backwards in a way because a lot of what I’m doing as a songwriter is not incredibly intentional. There’s a moment that happens which creates the song or the actual idea for a song, and then I’m like, “Oh, it’s this kind of song.”
I do notice that my songs fit all over the map, even in terms of the colloquialisms in them. I happened to be playing this really old song for my friend Thao [Nguyen] and it felt like I was character acting. It was super old timey. It was steeped in a really specific tradition, but I didn’t write the song thinking, “My goal for this is a really traditional old timey sound.” The songs come out with their references intact, almost unheeded by me. It’s like they existed somehow before they met me with their relationship to the tradition, and then they just end up coming through me at that moment because of my relationship to some certain kind of music that I’ve listened to in my life. I know that sounds a little bit woooey.
Rumpus: Do you perceive yourself as part of a tradition of songwriters?
Mirah: I have a hard time really claiming my place as a songwriter or as doing anything of import really because I feel like I’m tooting my own horn in a way. It seems kind of like big-headed of me like [fake hoity-toity voice] “Oh yes, I see myself very much in the tradition of Bob Dylan, I think I’m the daughter of…”
Rumpus: That’s something I’ve talked about with a lot of people. How do you be a songwriter in the shadow of Bob Dylan? Is that something you think about?
Mirah: I think some modesty actually serves me in this by just accepting that I am an instrument. I’m not trying to match up to an ideal as some kind of challenge. It’s more like I use the family tree of music and song that I feel has fit me as an encouragement; like it’s a bed to rest in rather than a challenge to try to better myself over, to try to…
Mirah: Yeah, I’m not trying to win a contest. [Laughs]
Rumpus: That’s a good way to put it. You mentioned, “a moment that happens,” when you’re writing a song. Can you talk a little about what that is?
Mirah: I do experience something pretty commonly with every song; there’s some moment where it clicks into its own life with its own emotional impact that I feel, and even though technically I’m the one writing the song, it’s like watching a storm come in. “Here comes the wind,” and then you feel it. It can be very emotional for me actually, and that’s one of the signs that I know to keep going. There’s one word that kind of hits me in an emotional way, and then I think, “Oh, this thing is alive and it’s my responsibility to nurture it and see it through to completion.”
Rumpus: In hindsight, looking at the songs that triggered that emotion while you were writing them, do you feel that you can trust that emotion? Do those tend to be the songs that carry weight for you later?
Mirah: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s where a lot of my own intelligence lies; listening to my soul trying to tell me something, trusting my emotions. Sometimes I can be really stubborn and not listen well, and then it just gets stronger.
Rumpus: Some of your songs are really straight-forward emotionally, but others have a greater degree of abstraction. In your more recent songs you play with greater ambiguity – things that could be read in multiple ways – or there’s some element of fictionalization, of distance from a personal experience.
Mirah: I’ve noticed with the songs on (A)spera the topics that I was addressing tended to be a little broader, and I was not necessarily purposefully using more cryptic language at all but trying to use language in a different way and approach songwriting more as writer; more like prose and poetry rather than as an editorial. I do think that the emotional impact is the same for me though, because I know what I’m talking about [Laughs]. Yeah.
Rumpus: How exactly did you go about trying to approach writing more “literarily,” if that’s the right word?
Mirah: I’m doing more deep listening, which is part of the role or job of the songwriter. I think with a lot of songwriting, songs sing themselves to you tonally and also lyrically. And it’s not necessarily your own visual memories that are writing the song. It’s like there are words that you can catch out there and you have to be able to see and hear them.
I was trying to listen more, and challenge myself more; not necessarily taking the easy thing. Trying to gather something, put it on the page, and decipher it myself, find its meaning.
Rumpus: This is central to one of the things I’m most interested in – trying to discuss or define songwriting as its own literary genre. I’d be curious to know what your relationship is to literature, and if you see lyric writing as similar to writing poetry, or if not, what’s different about it.
Mirah: I do feel like it’s definitely more related to poetry than other forms of literature, but it’s almost like cheating sometimes….
Rumpus: Wait, what’s almost like cheating?
Mirah: Writing a song. It’s almost like cheating-writing because you don’t have to finish your sentences, you don’t have to use any punctuation, no one’s going to edit your work. It’s so wide open. People just grunt and that’s a song. You can kind of do anything.
I do feel songwriting is a bit of its own creature and the writerliness of it…it’s freeing. It’s good for people who have an innate resistance to any restrictions whatsoever.
Rumpus: Why do you think it is so wide open? Why can you really get away with anything, like you’re saying?
Mirah: It’s because of the music. The music goes into people in a totally different way than words. There’s air, there’s the sound of words, there’s touch, there’s music. All of those things have a really distinct way of meeting and entering people’s bodies and souls. It’s the most beautiful part about humans; that we make music. [Laughs]. It’s a very special way to communicate with ourselves and each other. So when you’re talking about lyrics in the context of music, it’s not just about what the words mean, and what you were thinking about when you wrote it. It’s not cognitive in that same way. It’s almost like music turns words into touch, which is hard to describe, like the feeling of your shirt on your back. It’s a pretty delicate thing to try to put into words. You just feel it.
Rumpus: So the words don’t live independently from the music?
Mirah: I was recently playing in this music festival and they had sign language interpreters for all of the musicians. You had to send your lyrics in beforehand, for the interpreters to study and learn so it didn’t all have to be improvised. So I sent the lyrics ahead, and we were rehearsing there and the sign language interpreter was there at the rehearsal and said, “Oh, I have a couple questions for you,” and she had some questions about the lyrics and the meaning of the lyrics in some of the songs from my recent album [(A)spera]. Specifically from, “The Forest” and “Bones and Skin.” I hadn’t had to sit down with anyone and try to describe, in a distinct way, what I was getting at. It’s not that she didn’t understand the words. Each word has a definition. You know what words are. But I hadn’t considered what a person who’s doing sign language interpretation for music, for songs and poetry, has to do. They basically have to write a poem to use an analogous feeling to the feeling that the composer, the writer, is trying to imbue. That seems so hard to me, because it’s different than just translating word for word. That’s the challenge with all literary translation, when books or books of poetry are translated into other languages. Word for word wouldn’t make sense. Or even if it made a certain kind of sense, it could easily miss the point entirely of the feeling the original writer was trying to get across.
I had to step back into the moment of writing the song, put together the references that came up, remember some of the original content and try to put other descriptive words to the intention of the song.
I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I didn’t realize how hard this is for me to talk about.
Rumpus: Keep it coming.
Mirah: I’m a terrible sentence finisher. I think that’s why I’m a songwriter. When you write a song, there are no rules, and I think that I talk as if there are no rules. But then I run this great risk of no one understanding me at all.
Rumpus: Do you think that that’s part of the inclination towards art – expressing something that you can’t express otherwise?
Mirah: Absolutely. Every form of communication is for the purpose of feeling, experiencing, sharing. Everyone has their own intense journey through life, and you don’t want to do it all alone. It’s really meaningful to be able to share with people. Whether it’s your political beliefs, or what goes on for you emotionally, or keeping track of history.
Rumpus: Would you say that impulse to share is essentially the purpose or function of your work?
Mirah: Yeah. All of my work. There are some songs that feel more like I want to impart a specific feeling of possibility or awareness, and some of them where I’m just singing my song and trying to share my self.
I know that a lot of songwriters write about a break up. It’s a really popular topic. I think heartbreak is the number one thing people write about. I could say that’s narcissistic somehow because they want everybody to admire how pained they are. But I actually do think there’s something beautiful and uplifting about knowing that you’re not the only one who is experiencing or has experienced that kind of devastating loss. Everyone’s experienced that. [Laughs]
What I try to communicate is that there’s a lot of crossover between that feeling of romantic heartbreak and this devastating feeling of knowing that we’ve punched a hole in the planet and it’s spilling out oil and destroying the Gulf of Mexico and the ecosystem and seabirds and every creature. There’s a person or this place that you love and then it’s being lost, and you feel helpless about it. Or you feel empowered to take a stand and do something. There are correlations between the personal and the grander scheme of things.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little about the consistency of references to water in your work?
Mirah: That’s very interesting. I also had an interview right after (A)spera came out and the interviewer said, “I noticed that four out of the ten songs talk about bones.” And I was like, “Really!?” I had no idea I had done that. And now water. I’ve actually looked up water in dream books because I noticed it being a big a theme in my life. As a child I had recurring dreams about tidal waves. I was terrified of water actually. I didn’t like to take baths. And the sound of a flushing toilet in a public bathroom made me run away screaming [Laughs]. I was really scared of water. I learned to swim kind of late. It’s a theme in my life that I’m trying to reconcile myself with water.
Also, poetically it’s just useful, because it’s a force of the world. A lot of forces of nature end up in my songs. They’re like the emotions of the planet.
Rumpus: Touching back on this notion of heartbreak, one of the things that really struck me about your first official release, You Think it’s Like This But Really it’s Like This, was how happy it was in some ways.
Mirah: Mm hmm.
Rumpus: And then immediately after that on the next record the sentiment shifts.
Mirah: There is a very palpable difference for me between some of my earlier songs and where my later work has gone. If I were making my dream set list for tonight’s show, I’m probably not going to include a whole bunch of stuff from the album that I made when I was 23.
I know what you mean about that tone. We’ve all had these experiences. You’re born and then you’re on your own, you start having relationships, you’re developing relationships to the world and your wider community, and then disappointing things happen. I remember the break up that was the impetus for some of those earlier songs and I felt really cocky like, “Well, you’re going to dump me, but I’m still really awesome!” I don’t know what I was thinking. Things progress and more disappointing things keep happening, and you’re older, and you start feeling your body change, and your family changes. Suddenly it’s like, “Wow, I am alive and things will just happen in small ways and then it’s over.”
If I’m going to hold this whole vessel of my life I have to have the emotional stamina for it. It’s not that useful to just toss things off and say, “Screw you.” There’s a deeper message of holding all of the things that you experience in your life and that you’re going to experience. You can’t stop the rough stuff from happening and you’re never going to. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean go crawl under the covers and never talk to anyone and never do anything. It means, hold it. Just hold it.
I feel like that is what you’re hearing in the difference between my earlier and later songs; that progression that I’ve had in my life. I’m this young artist and I’m going to write this cute song about tossing off the person who broke my heart. And then the later songs are like, “Oh man, it’s just so much deeper than that.” [Laughs]. I’m not the only one who’s experienced that, so it’s a way of honoring myself and honoring all the people in the world [Laughs].
Rumpus: Then how do you feel about that earlier work? I’m detecting a bit of a dismissal. You used the word, “cute.”
Mirah: You picked up my subtle or not so subtle language. I have listened to the album [You Think it’s Like This]. Every couple of years there’ll be some reason to. I don’t sit down and listen to my own recordings very much, but when I do, it’s really educational for me. It’s easy to forget what it sounded like, or what I was capable of. When I listen to it now I think, “That’s actually really cool. I was cool.” [Laughs]. I spend so much time feeling uncool now, I can listen to some old recording that was me going into this dark studio at night with my cassette 4-track and banging around on a bunch of broken equipment literally, and coming up with a song that ends up on So You Think You Can Dance. “Wow. Huh. Okay.” It helps to encourage me. I’m not just making everything up from scratch all the time. I do have a personal artistic history that I, myself, can draw on. It’s not just that I can make something and put it out into the world and other people can do whatever they want with it and I’ll just forget about it and move on. It’s useful for me to spend time appreciating some of my earlier work. Maybe I should listen to that album actually [Laughs].
I’m sort of not quite young and not quite old right now. I’m 35 about to be 36, so maybe some of the dismissive tone you heard is me feeling a little unsure of my place in my own history. “Am I young or am I old? Am I cute or am I beautiful? Am I weird, or …who am I?” I spend all this energy working back and forth between being a kid and a grown up and I don’t even know. Maybe you do that until the day you die, when you’re a hundred years old? You never know if you’re young or old?
Rumpus: If we agree that your work is evolving and changing, what do you think it’s changing into? Where does it go from here?
Mirah: I have actually been noticing this past week, working on this new project, I’m kind of writing like some of my earlier songs. They’re a bit more direct and have a little more simplicity. Different than what we were saying about my more recent songs and how some of the language is more cryptic. I feel like the songs I’ve been working on in the past couple weeks reach back more to You Think It’s Like This era songs. I didn’t know that I was going to be doing that. Ideally I would push off from exactly where I was writing for (A)spera, and head into deeper, darker territories [Laughs]. Instead I’m just splashing around, which is probably good for me.
It was a very different experience working on the Share This Place project with Spectratone International, which was an album that’s all about insects. I’d never attempted anything like that before as a songwriter. It was much more about becoming the characters, the bugs, and I was writing a play or a musical for them, although it didn’t have a linear plot. Each song was like a little theater production. I took that experience with me into the writing of (A)spera. Through writing those two albums I started to see myself a little bit differently as a songwriter, seeing that I was capable of setting forth an intention and a subject and really applying myself as a student of songwriting, as a student of communicating these things, able to come out with a finished product. I felt really proud of the work that I did on those songs. So I imagined that the next project I worked on would progress further in that same vein. Not that I’m not. There’s just something different about it. Maybe it’s because I’m working collaboratively and I’m under this time pressure. It’s sort of like I’m whipping up whatever comes out and seeing if it’s something I can use. Which is also a good experience as a songwriter, to try to be a bit more of a production house. “All right, here’s this idea. Where can we take it?” Like I’m directing myself.
I definitely enjoy working within different contexts, with different collaborators, and in different locations. I need to keep feeding myself as an artist by working with different people. I see continuing with that. I’ve also enjoyed getting to explore different kinds of music and instruments in the last couple of years. My identity is mostly as a songwriter and lyricist and singer. I also have a lot of production ideas but I have my own limitations in terms of what instruments I’m actually proficient at and what I can do myself, so I really love working with people on the production end; just really going for it with orchestration and instrumentation and production. That’s where I see myself going: maintaining my integrity and abilities as a songwriter, but applying it to different contexts, to where I can put on a huge feathered costume and roll around in the ocean…Just keep having fun really.
Rumpus: As a sort of musical omnivore, how do you locate the center of your work? What’s at the core? If stylistically you can move in any direction, how do you make the center hold?
Mirah: The center for me is my heart, actually, and my emotional connection with the work. That’s where authenticity comes from. It’s also the first thing that hits me about other people’s work, or watching other people perform, “Do I believe the person?” Even if I don’t like what someone is doing or if I don’t like the sound, if I believe them, I do like them. I am able to appreciate them as an artist. That’s my goal, is to stay in a truthful place. And sometimes that means writing a silly song, or singing about sex or singing about environmental destruction or heartbreak, or my grandmother. The subject isn’t what the core is about, it’s about truthfulness and authenticity and that just comes from my heart and soul.
Rumpus: How do you invoke that emotional moment or truth on deadline? It strikes me as a skill you’ve had to develop; of feeling as a skill.
Mirah: It’s kind of amazing to me that all this work I’ve done has actually gotten me somewhere in terms of being able to access the feeling part even on a deadline. I think that actors probably do that, right? They’re not faking it. When you’re acting, you’re not just making it look like you’re feeling something. You actually have to feel that thing in order for people to believe you. No one’s going to hire you or come see you perform if they don’t believe you. And no one’s going to believe you if you’re not really feeling that. That comes with training and it’s not training to fake, it’s training to be in touch.
Rumpus: What is that training?
Mirah: Experience and self-confidence. The belief that I can do this, and that I am capable.
It’s a tricky one for me because I spend a lot of time wallowing in self doubt. So I have to grab on to those moments when they come. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Can we touch back on the issue of sharing again? There’s a notion that art that’s made purely for the artist is the most noble work, and that if you care about there being an audience, that’s somehow selling out.
Mirah: I think that there is a purity aesthetic, like “I just make art because I’m an artist and I can’t help it. I don’t care what the critics say.” But different mediums have a different relationship with the public. If you’re in a performing medium it’s hard not to place some weight on whether or not people come to your shows, or whether or not they’re enjoying them. [Laughs]. You can choose not to be a performing musician. You can choose to just be a recording artist. But then you run into the problem of trying to earn a living and balancing the time that you spend working on your creative efforts to just getting the bills paid. You can go off the grid and live in a cabin and make whatever art you want and also provide all the sustenance you need and not interact with anybody else.
Rumpus: How do you respond to the notion that wanting there to be an audience is somehow selling out, given that you value the experience of sharing so highly?
Mirah: I identify as being an independent artist. I think people often forget that Indie is actually short for independent. For me, the word has a meaning more than what it connotes from an industry standpoint. I grew up in a weird hippy macrobiotic family where we had a knish bakery in the basement. I’ve been fortunate to have had some fairly unique factors in my upbringing. I’m also really stubborn. I’m just an independent person. Sometimes that can be frustrating, because I feel like, “How do those normal people know how to do that?” [Laughs]
Given how long I’ve been doing this professionally, I’ve only just started selling out recently. [Laughs] Even considering something like having a song in a TV show. When I first started out, I would have been have just been like, “No way man, television’s stupid.” [Laughs]
Rumpus: Would you identify your, for lack of a better word, “career” as becoming progressively more “professional?” These are horrible words, but do they speak to your experience at all?
Mirah: Actually, I am trying to do that. Like I said, I’ve been this weird, very independent person from the beginning. It’s a challenge for me to try to do anything the normal way. I meet all these younger people who are getting involved with making music these days – people have a fucking agent, lawyer and manager right off the bat. And I’m like, “Really? Oh!” [Laughs] I don’t know that playing by the rules, in the end, helps at all. I’m just writing songs and playing music and I’m not super goal-oriented. I am kind of an artist who’s doing this for art, maybe partly because I just don’t understand how people do it in that other way, which is maybe for a profession. [Laughs]. I’m still trying to figure out some of those professional aspects.
Rumpus: I think in part why I ask – I hope I don’t sound like I’m accusing you of being professional in some negative sense of the word – I guess I heard a hint of a fond nostalgia for the nights of going into the studio and literally just Playing, in the large P sense of the word, you know, playing childlike.
Mirah: That waxing nostalgia, that actually goes far beyond just the making of music. I’m not the kind of person who pines away for my twenties, but I didn’t used to think about all these annoying adult things like putting money in an IRA. I didn’t think about my future or my family.
I had a fine time in college, but I actually love growing up. I love the fact that I’m exactly the age I am right now, because of what I’ve learned in my life, about myself, and how to be a person and how to have meaningful relationships with people and how to communicate well – I thank god for learning these things. I’d never want to just stay stuck in some useless pattern [Laughs] which I might have had as a young person.
But I still have nostalgia for certain old-days types of things, like before…when me and all my friends were single and we had intimate friendships with each other. The ways in which we were in each other’s lives was really beautiful. I have nostalgia for the time I lived in Olympia. It’s similar to listening to my first record and listening to what I did on my 4-track, “Oh right, that was really fun, and I felt very free.” I listen to those recordings and I remember some of the things that I did on my own or with my community at the time. I can touch that particular kind of free feeling that is a bit harder for me to come by now. It’s not impossible to develop those things again in life, but things change. I wish my grandmother were still alive. Nostalgia’s just part of life and death.
Rumpus: How, as an artist, can you work to establish freedom, or stay in contact with freedom, when you’ve got studio dates, and writing deadlines, and tour commitments? How do you build freedom into a locked structure?
Mirah: I feel very strongly that freedom comes from within and that you can cultivate that through practicing: practicing not getting stuck. Without going into too much detail, meditating is a fantastic way to maintain your intention towards freedom.
I think that people end up feeling stuck partly as a result of not being able to move through the difficult experiences of their lives. There are some pretty beautiful and useful methods of moving through the difficulties of your life. Not just to help people with feelings of artistic freedom and creativity and imagination, but to help apply that feeling of freedom to their entire life.