Mirah released her first album in 2001—this May, she’s releasing her first record on her own label. Photo by Terrorbird Media.
I started listening to musician Mirah when I was in high school, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to interview her about her new album before she performed in Los Angeles this spring. I’ve always been inspired by Mirah’s ability to write music that feels intimate and human and approachable, and that speaks frankly about sex and desire and self-exploration. Mirah is primarily a vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter who started making music in the late 1990s in Olympia, Washington, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. She released four solo albums with K Records and on May 13th is releasing her new album, Changing Light, on her own independent imprint, Absolute Magnitude. Here, I got to talk to her about intentionality in her songwriting, what it’s like to put an album out by herself, and what she’s looking for in a band-mate.
AMELIA AYRELAN IUVINO: You’ve been on tour recently to promote your album. You know, I think it took me a good long time of being a music fan before I realized that people went on tour to promote new albums. I thought that they just went on tour when they felt like it.
MIRAH: Actually, I did only go on tour when I felt like it for the first ten years that I was playing music. It’s not that I didn’t know the rules, it’s like I didn’t even know there were rules. I didn’t even know that there was some way that you’re supposed to do it. Now it seems very obvious. You make the thing, and then you promote the thing, but it never occurred to me. I only ever just did what seemed fun or interesting. It didn’t have to do with any expectation of some promotional, strategic plan.
At what point in your musical career did you stop needing to do other work for money?
It’s not a stable job. I haven’t had to have a job besides music for a number of years, except for one year where I decided not to tour and I worked at the farmer’s market, and it was the best. It was so great! I had a schedule, and I got all the free vegetables that I could possibly want. But there must be some kind of tipping point for people where they actually feel like, “I won’t have to get a job again.” But I worry every single day, like—I’m 39. I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and I’m not, like, Really Famous! I’m not like, selling millions of records, or even hundreds of thousands. I’m selling tens of thousands, which is amazing. I feel so blessed! It’s great! And there’s no security at all! I just try to have everything at least break even, you know. I mean, that’s why making a record is just like, “Sure, why don’t you just run that card for $10,000. And I’ll have a pre-order campaign. Hope it works out!” That seems totally crazy, although for people who are more used to the business side of things, maybe it doesn’t seem so crazy. But I’m just used to, you know, within a 24-hour period, you pay for gas and food, and then you make some money at the show. For gas and food. It’s really simple. I guess it’s good for me to try to picture things bigger, but I’m too much of a punk and not enough of a businessperson.
This is what I want to ask you about, though. It’s about releasing this album independently, and how that was for you, and what went into that process.
Well, I had decided a long time ago that I wanted to make a new record. I’d started writing songs. I was going through a lot of transitions, moving, and then moving again a bunch of times. Having this idea that I wanted to make a record, knowing that I didn’t want to put it out on K anymore, because it’s sort of like K [Records] is my family of origin, and then I wanted to individuate. I felt like I haven’t even lived in Olympia for a long time, and now I’m from myself. I’m not from there, I’m not from K. And I just wasn’t really identifying with them as strongly as I had when I first started putting out records and that was my home.
It seems like you’ve had a lot of homes, places you’ve really invested in and put time into and adopted.
Yeah, I have, and because there was a succession of those places, it just started feeling not correct. Not up to date with my current self. Even musically, I feel like the music that I was making and wanted to make didn’t necessarily fit in with the other bands that were coming out on K. And it just seemed like, “Okay, time to move on.” I’m not a band that puts out a record every year. I’m not on that schedule. And that’s partly because I’m mostly just doing everything myself, so it’s slower. And I’m not making music as a strategic businessperson. I just write songs and record them because that’s what I’ve learned how to do. That’s what I’ve learned that I can do. That’s what I’ve learned that I’m good at and that I enjoy, and so I’m not trying to make it big. That would really be helpful if I did, but it’s not a strategic venture.
It must be a lot more work to put the album out yourself, though, right?
Yeah, it’s funny because I actually have a lot of people helping me with all of the different necessary steps. I hired a project manager who helped with a lot of the album art design stuff and communicating about a lot of the manufacturing details with the manufacturing house. K is helping me with the distribution of the record. It’s an independent release with support from K, because the record is still going to be distributed by K. So I have all of these different people helping me with all of these different aspects, but I’m like the boss, and I have to approve everything and coordinate everybody. I’m not that good at it, but I did it, and everything turned out great, so I guess maybe I’m better at it than I think I am. But, yeah, it was a lot of work. I mean really, if I could have just been on tour for most of the past year instead of being in front of my computer writing emails and coordinating all of these details, I would have totally chosen tour over that. Because when you’re on tour, sure, I don’t get enough sleep, I miss being able to cook food for myself, and my body gets bored in the van. There are things about touring that are uncomfortable and it’s great! You get to play a show every day! It’s so fun! It’s different every day and some shows suck, and then the next day you’re really bummed and you feel like quitting, and then you have an amazing show and you’re so psyched. So it’s just a wild ride.
I know you’ve said that this album is about a lot of transitions that were going on in your life at the time. I read a press release that said it was about a breakup, but I also wanted to ask what the album represents for you, and what kind of things are in it that tie into your other work.
It’s funny, you know, one of the reasons why, when we were writing the one-sheet, we were like, “Well, I guess, you know, sure, we’ll put in, ‘It’s a breakup record,’” because people not only understand what that means, they like it. And that’s an accurate representation, in a way. But I wrote the songs over a period of four years. It took a really long time to make the record. I wasn’t working on that record every day of the four years; I was living my life. I was recovering from a breakup and doing a lot of healing. I moved like five times to several different states across the country, back and forth. I was bicoastal. I was all over the place. And because I wrote the songs over a period of four years, the songs are each about a really different stage— it’s not just about breaking up and then recovering from the breakup. It’s also about growing up. It’s interesting getting older, you know, like there are all these different stages of growing up where you feel like, “Oh, now I’m old.” I mean, I can remember being in my twenties and thinking, “Oh, this is my adult life.” I was practicing just using that word to describe myself. Like, “Yes, I’m an adult.” I had to practice because it felt awkward and not accurate, but it keeps going. And I find aging to be really fascinating. Like, today, we stopped to pee at a rest stop and we were stretching and I was looking at my knees. There are wrinkles on my knees. Like, my skin is changing. And I’m not doing that. I’m not deciding to do that. I’m not deciding not to do it, like some people, but it’s amazing to be transforming all of the time. It’s me, so I’m inside of it, but I can also watch it happening. So that’s happening on a physical level all the time, but it’s also happening on every level. Just in the last four years, I feel like there’ve been a lot of transformations for me on all of those levels. So that’s what the album is about. It’s not about my wrinkly knees. It’s about that continual process of transforming. There’s anger in there, and there’s a sort of… redemption is not really the right word, but it’s like a clearing. So it probably sounds softer than someone might expect a breakup album to sound.
Yeah. I was a big fan of You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This when I was in high school. I really appreciated the way that you wrote about female desire, and it feels like you’re still doing that on this album. I felt like there was longing and frustration at different times. So I think that’s what it reminds me of. Is writing about female desire something that you try to do?
I’m not a very intentional songwriter, and that’s interesting to me because I’m a very intentional person. I can be very careful and tidy about things. I like certain things to be just so, and I like to plan things. I am a Virgo. But I think that writing songs is a way that I can unplug the parts that are usually all plugged together. I do have to be very specific with the words. It takes me a long time. I have to roll them around in my mouth a lot. But it’s simply emotional expression. I’m a very emotional person, and you know, I also have to function in the world. I have to then plug all these different parts together, so that I can go around without getting squashed by all the rest of the things that are happening around me. So writing about female desire? I mean, yeah, I lived in Olympia in the ‘90s. I went to Evergreen. There was a lot of very intentional work, artwork and music, that was happening there at that time, specifically the artistic expression of wanting to write about this or that thing, like female desire or, you know, female power. It’s interesting to me because I know that I was being infused with that energy by living there, but I also wasn’t a riot girl. I’m not a group-joiner. And it’s funny because that’s such an outsider group. Riot girls, like any other outsider group, it’s a very particular subculture, expression, and community. But I still didn’t quite identify because I’m just me, and there’s only one of me. Even though I felt like I was part of a community, definitely, being there. I guess a lot of my songs do contain that, because of who I am, but I wasn’t writing “about female desire.” I think there’s a distinction between having an agenda as a person and then having an agenda as a creator of publically consumed works, or works which are consumed by the public. Except for a few examples, I don’t write overtly political songs, like political rallying cries. I’m not Le Tigre. But as a person, sure, there’s an agenda there. As a kid, my whole purpose was trying to fix everything and save the planet. And in some way, I feel like I am still doing that, because I’ve come to this place where I feel like there is a lot of powerful good that can be done when people are able to connect with themselves, and therefore are able to connect with other people, and the way that that spirals out has an outwardly positive effect. I relate to my emotions and I relate to the emotions of other people and I think that can be overlooked as a source of powerful connection and action. So I feel like in my work I choose not to overlook that.
I think that makes sense. Another thing I wanted to ask you about was female collaboration in your work, because I know you released that album with Thao Nguyen, and I feel like there are so few of those kinds of collaborations where female artists just work together.
Well, I feel like I have spent a lot of time in my comfort zones. I have very supportive hippie parents—if I wanted to start studying the violin, they were like, “Great!” And if I wanted to quit the violin they were like, ”Totally fine! Yeah!” Or if I wanted to go to Russia on a peace walk they were like, “Yes! We support you!” And if I wanted to graduate high school a year early, or whatever I was going to do—very supportive. I went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Very supportive. Not very challenging. Like my parents. And there’s a part of me that feels like, “Oh, I should try to be part of the real world,” where it’s like being in one of those game shows on television where they throw you into some trap or trick. Isn’t that what the world’s like? But I’m actually not very comfortable with so many things, and I really don’t understand a lot of the ways that the world seems to be, and a lot of people, and so I like to work with people who I feel comfortable with, and I feel really just much more comfortable with women and queer people, and so that’s why I’ve done it. Because, well, those are the people who have been around me.
What else have you been working on lately, other than the tour and releasing the album?
Actually, the main thing I’ve been doing is putting together a band. Because I was on the West Coast for 20 years, and that’s where I was living when I started making music, all my music people—all the people who’d been in my band or who’d been recording with me over the years—were all in the Northwest or in San Francisco or in LA. Then I moved to New York and I was like, “Wait! If I want to play a show, I have to fly everybody from the West Coast.” I still play with my West Coast people, but I needed to start developing my musical relationships on the East Coast and in New York.
So what’s important to you when you’re talking to people and trying to put together a band? What are you looking for in people?
When I am looking for band members, I start out finding people based on who plays what, but really, the initial deciding factor about whether I even make a date to try to play music with them is whether I could live with them in a van and share a hotel room or bed or whatever. If I could imagine spending a lot of time with that person and having a good time, then they are a hundred percent more likely to be in the band. I think if I didn’t care about my connections with people, and it was really just about business and putting on a good show, and making a record—if I was only concerned with that, I think I shouldn’t even meet people first, and just have people send in auditions on tape, and I would be a hardened businessperson and I would make all my decisions based on, I don’t know, how to put on this dazzling show and bring in a million people and a million dollars. But instead, I’m really interested in having a good time. And so, luckily, a lot of people who are really awesome also can play music really well. But I find that out after the fact.
Related Reading: Thao Nguyen Writes About the Perverse Pleasure of Painful Breakup Songs.
Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino is a writer and reader currently living in Portland, Oregon who is moving to Austin, Texas soon to start a Sociology PhD adventure.