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We Ran Through the Rain with Mirah and Talked Breakups, Activism, and Strap-Ons

Mirah filled us in on where she's been for the past four years.

Sometimes when you’re interviewing an artist, you end up running from the rain and discovering a cat hotel along the Brooklyn waterfront–at least that’s what happened when we spent the afternoon with singer Mirah. By the end of the afternoon, we were both completely drenched. For Mirah, the rain didn’t matter; she reveled in it with the same bold spirit she’s displayed in her music over the past decade.

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In her latest endeavor, Changing Light, it’s obvious this spirit is still strong. Mirah has no filter when translating her own life into music, or tackling a breakup with brutal honesty like she does on her fifth solo album. It has a darker, more melancholy feel, which she counters with sweet, layered vocals. That doesn’t change the fact that her lyrical metaphors in songs like “Oxen Hope” and “Fleetfoot Ghost” still cut like knives. Changing Light was a rough transitional period for her but Mirah has come out on the other side with grace.

Changing Light also marks a new direction for Mirah because it's a lyrical and literal declaration of her independence: from a past breakup and production-wise. This is the first album Mirah has released via her own imprint, Absolute Magnitude Recordings, and she recruited a lot of friends and collaborators to help out on the record: Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Mary Timony, Emily Wells and Heather McEntire (Mount Moriah).

Mirah filled us in on where she's been for the past four years, breaking up with her former songwriting partner Thao Nguyen, and that time she sung about strap-ons.

What's happened in between your last record, four years ago, and this one?
Mirah: I was living in Portland. My ex-girlfriend broke up with me right after I released Aspera. I started writing songs before I left, but I had 4 years of just moving around a lot and trying to figure out what I was doing while I was actually making the record. I was just doing it really slowly.

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Your music has always consisted of simplistic, gorgeous melodies and rhythms but this is a little more complex. Were you looking to change things around this time?
I was trying for something a little different. It’s not fun to make the same thing over and over. This was my version of being like, “I’m going to give myself a very slight makeover.” It’s so slight you might not even notice, but maybe you do.

There was more layering in the vocals, which was super cool.
The human voice is my favorite instrument. I think it’s the best one and we’re all born with one. I love having access to multi-tracking tools so that I can layer my own voice or singing with other people. It’s the best.

What’s one of the harder topics you talk about in your music?
I actually feel like the political songs. “Jerusalem” is my most direct song about a political issue. Even if you can’t tell what I’m saying, I’m obviously talking about a political issue. I wrote “Monument” as a call to action essentially. It’s meant to inspire people to keep doing social justice work in particular.

Has anyone ever approached you about how they relate to your music?
I do have a lot of activist friends that love the song “Monument.” I’m not a very good activist myself.

But you are in your songwriting.
Some people are really incredible at multitasking and I ended up just being able to do this one thing, which is making music. I’ve also managed myself. Not always very well, but that’s what I do. Thao and I were working with this awesome organization in San Francisco called Air Traffic Control. (They’re re-branding and are going to change their name.) They help people like me who are too overwhelmed with planning the next tour to incorporate some social activism into their work. It’s a pretty amazing platform to be able to be on the stage every night for a week or a month and talking about people. There are ways, even if you’re me and you’re not a great activist.

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What’s the most open thing you’ve talked about in your music?
It’s funny. I’ve always been out as a queer person. I have songs about sex and love, but there's one song where I talked about strap-on pricks from a long time ago. You can probably find it somewhere–on some four-track EP–but I don't remember what it’s called [laughs]. I’ve moved on in my songwriting. I’m not longer writing songs about strap-ons. There are deeper issues to get at in life.

So, are you and Thao (Nguyen) still close?
We haven’t talked about working together again. It was actually a miracle that project ever came to fruition. We’re both quite busy and it’s really hard to match schedules with someone else who does what I do–same with Merrill [Garbus of tUnE-yArDs]. She produced our self-titled record with us. We just all met up in this one magical moment and then went our separate ways.

How have you grown since then?
Even though some people might be surprised to hear me say this, I’ve mellowed out a lot. I’ve worked on my reactivity. I can really get in a bad mood quickly and I’ve tried to develop some self-awareness when that happens. I have some pretty great people around me that help with those things. I think about my past relationships and the fights I used to get into with some people. I just can’t believe that I made a stink about something and I can’t imagine doing that now. That’s not something that happens in my relationships now. Sorry to all my exes. I was such a spazz [laughs].

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Ilana on the fence about cat hotels. She's on Twitter - @lanikaps.

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