Interview: Brooklyn Singer-Songwriter Mirah on Music, Emotion, and Evolution
“I’m just out here watching clouds / I could be famous for doing this,” Mirah sings on “Lighthouse.” Later, in our interview, she will tell us that she is a cloud-watcher.
The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, who has gifted listeners with a versatile discography bursting at the seams for nearly two decades, watches the world pass by. Then she sings about it.
A few months ago, Mirah released Understanding, her sixth full-length album beautifully exploring the simple moments that make us wholly human. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the moments that make us human but shatter us in fragments too, like the breathless quality of falling in love or the stomach-drop of turning the news on any day of the week in our new America. Through jangling electro-tinged anthems and tender ballads, Mirah simultaneously simplifies and complicates the human experience, a feat she can accomplish only thanks to her cloud-watching nature.
Understanding opens with “Counting,” a pulsing guitar-driven track suggesting a darker angle to follow (that’s not quite the case, though there are some heavy moments). It’s a call-out track with a chill running through it, Mirah’s breathy croon coolly reminding us that “We love to death our money / We love to death our gods” above the jarring buzz of distortion and percussive slaps. Next comes “Information,” a gentler approach to another plea in which Mirah addresses the political toll and social terror plaguing today’s world. It’s a call for compassion, this ballad-meets-anthem that modestly implores listeners to try a new perspective. It’s as powerful as it is tender, a striking balance only Mirah can hit.
“Lake/Ocean” is icy in its smooth, rapid-fire electronic elements and searing guitar riffs. When Mirah sings “My heart’s elephant-sized with love of life / But in the dark it’s too loud, loud, loud, loud,” we’re treated once again to her remarkable ability to give words to feelings we probably couldn’t. The song feels longer, somehow, than its 2 minutes and 44 seconds, slinking and bursting with sonic details that fizzle far beneath Mirah’s lax vocals. On “Lighthouse,” a plinky drum pad opens the track before joining a more robust arrangement of sunny keys and guitar, more sugary than its predecessors, and emanating a calm warmth that envelops listeners for the remainder of the album. “Blinded by the Pretty Light” is the loveliest heartbreak you’ll ever endure. It has a subdued beauty, possibly one of the most underrated moments of Understanding. There are no sonic eruptions here or unexpected turns, just the slow roll of a tender narrative as Mirah sings that fleeting gut-punch line: “You want to forget how it feels to be lonesome.”
Halfway through Understanding, we get “Ordinary Day,” a refreshing and slightly dizzying fall into the languishing arrangement of synth buzzes and warbling percussive shimmers. It’s a standout track on the album, this utterly unexpected merger between Mirah’s soft contemplation and zesty daydreaming. “Hot Hot” comes next, dripping in more dreamy synth. A mesmeric slow burn before brief rock-fueled howls are thrown into the ether, the track itself is trapped in a disarming reverie. On “Love Jetty,” Mirah offers a sun-kissed summertime anthem led by her soft, soulful voice floating above steady pop percussion and the angelic echos of a choir harmony.
Nearing the end of Understanding finds “Sundial,” a reinterpretation of Mirah’s string-based title track of her Sundial EP released last year. The new version nixes those soaring strings in favor of an acoustic-driven, more stripped-down cut that allows her voice to be at the forefront of a throbbing, swelling folk arrangement. Understanding ends with “Energy,” raw and unassuming in a bare-bones (until it’s not) conclusion to such a stunningly schizophrenic record. Here, Mirah croons some of her best lyrics in the company of just her acoustic guitar — the twang and wail of tender strums — before evolving into a fully fleshed-out arrangement touched by big brass elements. It’s a dynamic end, strong and heart-heavy, meant to be enjoyed alone at top volume. Savor it.
On Understanding, Mirah proves once again that watching clouds makes us better people. Time and time again, she has spun gold out of day-to-day trivialities. This time, she explores the universality of love over an endlessly interesting gamut of sonic intricacies, from electronic swells to acoustic strums to thick percussion and so much more. The result is, as always, almost unbearably beautiful.
Listen to Understanding below and connect with Mirah on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Read on for our exclusive interview in which Mirah chats with us a bit about the new record, being a cloud-watcher, her personal evolution, and a whole lot more.
The Music Mermaid: You’ve moved quite a bit, putting down and pulling up roots in places like Philly, West Virginia, and Brooklyn. In what ways has a traveling life afforded you new music influences?
Mirah: Well, my parents moved around with my siblings and I before I was 5. This included being born in Philadelphia and spending six months on a hippie commune in West Virginia when I was a baby, but I can’t really take credit for those moves. The places where I put down my own roots are Olympia, Washington, Portland, Oregon, a couple years in the Bay Area, and now Brooklyn.
Music was always a part of my life because my dad was a deeply dedicated music lover and always took us to see live music from the time I was a small child. We would spend hours listening to his extensive record collection, and all of our family vacations took the form of us piling into the van and driving somewhere while listening to music and singing along.
TMM: You just released your gorgeous new album, Understanding. What was the production process like behind the record?
Mirah: In 2016 I spent a month as an artist-in-residence at The Headlands Center for the Arts in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. I spent that month writing and recording what ended up being the basic tracks for Understanding. I purposely didn’t put pressure on myself to be ‘working on an album’ while I was there. I wanted to just feel free to make or not make, do or not do, and that approach really worked! I ended up with an album’s worth of songs, with demo recordings that served as the basic tracks for the album.
I brought those recordings back to Brooklyn and worked with my friend and frequent co-producer Eli Crews to add some tracks and mess around with production ideas. That’s how Understanding was born.
TMM: What about the songwriting process? Thematically, the album seems to abound with this sort of dreamy stream-of-consciousness reflection on the soft spots of love, but there’s also a duality of lightness and darkness. Were there certain themes you were hoping to convey on Understanding?
Mirah: As a songwriter, I work from a very intuitive and emotionally-driven place. It’s not that I don’t have any intentions in terms of tone or subject, but I rarely begin writing with a specific message in mind, at least not consciously.
The part of the songwriting process that I enjoy most, that really engages me, is that it is a process of discovery. It’s me truly being with myself and listening. Holding my hands over a moment and seeing what rises up. I’m a thoughtful person with a big heart, and I care about the world and what goes on in it, so it makes sense that these things are part of what rises up. It does often end up working out where there is a theme of sorts on my albums, but I think that is a natural result of the way I work.
TMM: I think what I most admire about your work is its universality. There’s no in-your-face narrative going on, but instead you allow these really relatable moments to slink out of the corners so that when we listen to a Mirah album, we can sing along before we get gut-punched by your songwriting. It’s catharsis. As both a musician and a music lover, can you attest to the transformative power of making and listening to music?
Mirah: Why thank you! And the short answer is... yes. I very much believe in the self-healing and world-healing possibilities of music. As a maker and as a listener.
TMM: How has your work evolved since your debut release, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This, nearly two decades ago?
Mirah: Hmm. Big question. The biggest evolution has really been that I have grown from a young person just out of college into an adult person, about to be a mom, in my mid 40s. I’ve had all kinds of experiences, relationships, lived in different cities. The world has changed a lot since I started making making music. My dad recently died. So in as much as my work is my life, and reflects aspects of my life, all of these changes are an integral part of all of the music I’ve released. My work has evolved as I have — getting older, wiser, more comfortable in my own skin.
TMM: I read in an interview with Boston Hassle that you didn’t so much seek this record out as it did just come to you. Can you talk a little about when your process and your passion grips you and leads you to creating new work?
Mirah: I talked about this a little bit already, but for me, an important part of creating is not holding on too tight to expectations or outcomes — to really be open to the pace and the process as it presents itself. I don’t like having to rush and I don’t perform well under time stress. I’m a cloud watcher.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Mirah?
Mirah: A kids record! Maybe? I think that would be pretty fun. It would sound just like a Mirah record, but the songs would be more geared towards babies and kids. I grew up listening to all kinds of music, not just music that was made especially for kids, so I would definitely take a wide interpretation of what gearing towards babies and kids means.
Also, it’s almost 20 years since the release of You Think It’s Like This, as you mentioned, and I feel excited to do something commemorative about that.
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Featured photo of Mirah by Shervin Lainez.