Interview: Mirah on taking risks and returning east (plays Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday)
No one would accuse Mirah of making the same album twice. Since she first came out of K Records’ storied stable with 2000’s You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This, the singer-songwriter born Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn has recorded four-track treatises on love and lust, sonic experimentations with studio whiz Phil Elverum, and a string of collaborations that cast her as everything from anti-war folkie to biology-lab sweetheart to disco siren.
But since 2009, Mirah hasn’t released an album at all — at least, not a solo album like the ones that charmed her earliest fans, filled with intimate observations and masterful melodies. Last year, she first made the funky, organic Thao & Mirah with Thao Nguyen and tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, then the one-off dance single “Low Self Control” with Tender Forever. While her next project is gestating, expect fresh takes on older favorites on Tuesday when she plays Johnny Brenda’s with a band that includes Lori Goldston (cello), Alex Guy (viola/violin/loop pedals) and drummer/vibraphonist Andrew Maguire (drums/vibraphone).
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the native Philadelphian, who recently relocated to New York after spending 20 years on the West Coast. (Talk about bad timing.) We spoke on the phone on Election Day about surviving Sandy, flexing new musical muscles and returning to the city where she was born 38 years ago.
The Key: How are you doing today?
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn: I am good today. I am in Brooklyn. It’s been a wild week.
TK: Tell me about it!
MYTZ: Let’s see. I moved here two weeks ago and before I found a place to live, there was this big hurricane and it zapped the city in kind of a tailspin, although … people are really helping each other out, and that is good. It’s just a very unusual entrance into my new New York life. … Personally, I was actually not that affected, at least in terms of my electricity never went off. There were a bunch of downed trees around here. Actually, one of the very strange things about being in New York right now is it’s possible to be in a neighborhood where … everything is totally normal, and then [volunteering in Queens], only a few miles away, and people’s lives are devastated. Entire communities, every single house is destroyed, and every single possession’s in a big sopping, heaping pile in front of the house. It’s like a tale of two cities.
TK: And then we have the complication of the election.
MYTZ: Today is the weirdest Election Day I’ve ever experienced. … I was describing it to someone as a sad Christmas or something. Like a lot of anticipation and “What are we going to wake up to discover?” But there’s just so much at stake. It’s not just, like, “Will I get a rocking horse?” … The two places where I went to do volunteer work, in the Rockaways and Broad Channel, we saw [volunteers with] Romney-Ryan bumper stickers totally helping people out. … When people’s lives were totally destroyed, none of us were being picky about who we were helping.
TK: Not to change the subject, but what brings you to the East Coast again?
MYTZ: I wanted to settle down somewhere because I’d had a couple of years of not really having a home, and I’m in a fortunate position where I can choose that ’cause my job moves wherever I do. And my family’s in Philly; most of my family is on the East Coast. I’d never lived in New York, and it’s always something that I thought that I would like to spend at least one year doing. So the project that I’m working on right now is “Live in New York for at least one year.”
TK: So what are you working on musically?
MYTZ: I’m planning on starting to record a new record that I’ve been slowly writing for the past several years. … But that won’t be till January, and so I planned this tour because I thought it would be a nice little welcome.
TK: What’s the tour going to be like?
MYTZ: Well, hopefully there won’t be a huge superstorm right in the middle of the tour. I’ve already had to refigure out a whole bunch of logistical things because of the storm.
TK: I’ve read it’s a greatest-hits tour.
MYTZ: What I’ve learned over the years is that it’s been difficult to avoid playing old songs at shows. Even times when I’ve been on tour and I’m touring my brand-new release, people mostly want to hear the old songs anyway. That’s been my experience. People love the old songs. [Laughs] I have some new songs; they’re not released yet, though, and so I’m not playing the whole new album. I don’t actually believe in that. I’d rather play a few as teasers and then please people with the hits. And then we’ll just keep moving forward until I can get the next album recorded so that the next tour can be a little bit more of the new material.
TK: Do you have a target of when you want to put that out?
MYTZ: It’s not up to me. Like a lot of things in life, it’s not up to me. I mean, my answer: ASAP. But it’s not up to me.
TK: It’s been three and a half years since (A)spera, and you’ve done a lot of collaborating in the meantime. How has working with other people outside the traditional album format informed the way you’re writing and playing now?
MYTZ: I have always worked independently as a writer and then collaboratively as a recording artist. … The only thing that’s really changed is that it’s more common that I play live music with other musicians, rather than playing live music solo. … When I did [2007’s Share This Place, a song cycle about insects, with Goldston’s band Spectratone International], that’s the closest I’ve really come to writing songs with people. And even with that, I wrote all of the words and the vocal parts, but I was given these musical structures to begin the song.
TK: I was actually thinking of something like “Low Self Control” —
MYTZ: I forgot about that one!
TK: As someone who’s listened to you and Tender Forever separately and seen you play together live, it’s not what I would have expected. I love that song, but if I had just listened to your albums and hadn’t heard what you did with, say, Scream Club, I wouldn’t have ever seen that coming.
MYTZ: Well, you have to have fun with what you do. And that song, it’s not a joke. We didn’t make it as a joke. It is an art project. And really, you can do whatever you want when you make an art project. You don’t have to make the same one over and over again. How boring is that? Artists need to break out of their shell. … Performance-related, music-related, record industry–related artists, it’s very easy to get funneled into a narrow track of people’s expectation of you, people’s opinion of you. And I don’t believe in that. … I don’t want to keep making the same album over and over again.
TK: No, everything you’ve done is different. The remix album [2006’s Joyride] sounds totally different from your collaborations with The Black Cat Orchestra [2004’s To All We Stretch the Open Arm] or Ginger Brooks Takahashi [2003’s Songs from the Black Mountain Music Project]. Each project is its own thing, and it’s interesting because they’re very much albums in a time when people seem to be getting away from the album format.
MYTZ: Right. Well, I totally am never going to move away from the album format. I mean, when I am deciding the track listing for a new project, I really do think about it as Side A and Side B. … Not only because I need to put out my releases on vinyl — and I love vinyl — I can’t let that go. I don’t want my albums to be broken up into individual tracks and shuffled on people’s iPods. And I know they will be, and that’s fine. And you know what? I have an iPod and I do that too. But I’m never gonna totally give up on the format of my childhood.
TK: Well, I’m looking forward to whatever you do next, and to seeing you in Philly again.
MYTZ: I’m so excited to play. I have to say, I’m a little bit excited to get out of New York for a couple of days, because it’s been a little bit like being trapped here. I love New York, but the transportation thing has gotten wildly difficult, and so it feels like a huge privilege and an opportunity that I get to go on this little tour right now and visit all the people in places who I love and who will show us some love. And to get out of this city just for a couple of days, and then return to it triumphantly!
Mirah performs with Mount Moriah Tuesday, November 13 at Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. Tickets to the 21+ show are $14, more information here.