The Duality of Self
Jun 02, 2009 Web Exclusive
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn grew up surrounded by nature. The indie-pop songwriter is used to observing the Ying and Yang in life, after coexisting on a farm community in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, surrounded by her strong Protestant mother and aunts, and the warm Jewish culture on her father's side. After attending college in Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College, she began experimenting on her 4-track recorder the sounds that would eventually become her debut album You Think It's Like This But Really It's Like This. At the same time, her longstanding collaboration with the lo-fi production wizard Phil Elverum, of The Microphones and Mt. Eerie fame, began. They were perfect foils for each other but intertwined ideas so well on Mirah's 2001 followup, Advisory Committee and 2004's C'mon Miracle. All subsequent releases have revealed a musician in love with nature's tenacity and precious beauty. Though Mirah hasn't had a new solo outlet for her muse in five years, she's kept busy with remix albums, insect-themed concept records, and various collaborations. She also moved from Olmypia to Portland, Oregon. The two-pronged meaning of her new album, (A)spera (Latin for hope and adversity) is palatable considering her divided background and her role as a gay female musician working in a highly male dominated indie-rock universe. Mirah talked with us about the implications of her new project on her general outlook, how she was sheltered from the pervasiveness of what she calls "dude rock," the counsel she would give President Obama if she was in his advisory committee, and the story behind (a)spera's curious extraterrestrial cover.
How's it going today? What have you been up to?
Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn: I am planting some seeds and I'm writing a really, really long list of things I actually have to get done.
What kind of seeds are you planting?
I'm planting some basil, beets, sweet peas, sunflowers, and some peppers. I don't know, lots of stuff.
Do you have a pretty big garden in your backyard?
Yes, I do. I planted a whole bunch of trees this year as well. I also have lots of berries, rhubarb, green beans, garlic. I've got tomatoes growing, plenty of stuff back there.
You're in between the U.S. and European tours. How did that first leg go?
It was a two-week tour and I got back a few days ago. I needed to be home. I love being home and it's a shame that my job requires so much travel. I love to travel but I just have non-compatible likes.
Speaking of traveling, for C'mon Miracle I read that it was partially spurred on by a trip to South America. (A)spera has a very pan-global sound to it. Was it the same type of genesis for this one?
It is true that two of the songs off C'mon Miracle I wrote and recorded in Argentina. I was visiting my friend Bryce who lived there at the time. I also play music with him. I did begin writing one of the songs for the new album while I was in Mexico ["The World is Falling Apart"]. I wrote one of the other songs while my girlfriend was in Brazil. But I don't think of it as though I experience life in order to write songs about those trips. Life is life, songs are songs.
I had a question about that song's lyrics. That one, "Gone Are the Days," and some of the other tracks can be taken as a global disintegration but also a personal one. Is that how you viewed it?
Both of those songs had broad themes to them rather than a view of one small life. I had been reading this book called Germs and Steel and then I went on this trip to Mexico. I was thinking about the experience of drastic and devastating change and ultimate destruction of one's society and life. I was also thinking about the conquest of the Americas and human history where there are these empires that rise and fall. Sometimes they self-destruct and sometimes other humans overtake them.
That's interesting that you were thinking about that because I was watching this History Channel program called Life After People that hypothetically explores what the world would be like if all the humans vanished. It's crazy how fast nature would take over.
Yeah, nature's strong! We've been trying centuries—inadvertently maybe—to destroy the planet but everything is still sprouting up. The roots are still breaking through the concrete. There's the hope that we won't succeed in the ultimate destruction of the planet but it takes more than hope to stop that from happening.
That being said, hope is one side to the two-sided Latin title of (a)spera. Can you talk a little bit about that? Ultimately, do you think this batch of songs is representative of adversity or hope?
I would say it's about fifty percent for each side. I think it's important to sway each direction to maintain motivation. Sometimes when people have an attitude that says, "everything is going to work out" you don't follow through with actions. You just happen to have this really positive attitude. There's only so much that mindset can do. I do believe a positive consciousness can spur a positive change in the world but there needs to be action as well. Sometimes you need that other-side-of-the-coin moment. It'll bring you down but if you don't spend any time feeling the weight of challenge and adversity then it's hard to find the true motivation to work against that negativity.
What does your Jewish heritage and faith means to you in this juncture of your life? Has it changed since you were younger?
I grew up in a household that had a Jewish cultural sensibility and at the same time not. My dad's family is Jewish, my mom's family is Protestant. The vast majority of my neighbors and classmates were Jewish. I didn't realize that that could possibly be unusual until I went to college [Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA]. It's not like I was a naïve or un-traveled person but I grew up where I grew up on the east coast and I remember having a moment after arriving in Olympia that felt like a realization of "oh Christians!" Here they are. I identify culturally as Jewish although not singularly because of my dual background. My family observed Jewish holidays and traditions in my household but we are also macrobiotic hippies and those aspects of my rearing were even more informative for me, in terms of how I identify as a person than the Jewish ones. I don't necessarily see myself as a person of faith. It's more cultural and personal than religious for me. The question of God as an entity wasn't really a part of my world. My environment was full of lots of discussions, and certain temperaments, and foods. I'm a person who moves through the world without a really strong religious identity.
I see what you mean—I have friends from college that grew up in a Christian background but they prefer the Jewish culture to the more traditionally individualistic Protestant church. There are of course exceptions, and I can't say I know what it's like to be Jewish, but it seems from what you've said that the Jewish culture is fellowship-based first and foremost.
Yeah, that might be true. There are so many factors as far as what any particular culture entity means. There are politically leftist individuals who identify as being Christians, there are the Quakers and Jesuits. That's really different from conservative, right-wing Christian cultures. There are so many different versions. It's ultimately very personal.
I think the fact that you are from the Portland music community, and are a female homosexual making art gives you a unique perspective on the indie-rock world. To some, just being a woman is already different.
It's interesting. I came of musical age in Olympia, Washington, where I lived for ten years. I had some awareness that the rock world was very male-dominated but that was so hidden from my specific experience. For a long time I was able to deny it. It was not the foremost thing that was in my mind when I thought of myself as a woman making music in the industry. People would ask me about it and I would go, "I don't know what you're talking about." Everyone I knew in Olympia was female or queer. I didn't know that many dude bands. That was fortunate and naïve at the same time. Not purposefully of course. I was lucky to be surrounded by all these strong women musicians. I recently went to South By Southwest for the first time and I was like, "oh dude bands!" [Laughs] There are so many bands that play SXSW—it wasn't all guys. At the night showcase that I played a lot of the bands were female-fronted or all women. But the rest of the industry is still pretty male-dominated—from writers and media people to record label folks, booking agents, and festival coordinators. Calvin Johnson started my record label, K Records but Mariella Luz has been more the powerhouse behind its success for years now. It's very much a co-pilot situation between those two. Mariella does a good deal of the outreach stuff and she was at SXSW. I choose to work with a lot of women. There's a positive symbiosis about being a woman working in this field who chooses to work with other women who work in the industry. It was interesting to go to the festival and have the reminder that just because I make choices the way I do, we haven't completed the changes that still need to happen. Not to say that great advances haven't been made. It can be easy to sweep the feminist movement under the rug of history and forget to give respect and gratitude to it but changes were made. That was a really powerful time. These days, women are still paid less than men and there are still barriers in place even if many have been addressed legally or bureaucratically. But it's always harder to change minds than rewrite law. There's still racial and gender profiling. Just because we elected a black president doesn't mean we've arrived. I'm thrilled that that happened in my lifetime though. My friends and family were all Barack Obama supporters during the election—though now if I had a chance I would ask him to do some things a little differently [laughs].
Since we've passed the 100-day mark for Obama's presidency, what would you tell him if you had the chance to do so?
I feel that the conflict we're involved in with Afghanistan and Iraq could be resolved in very different ways. I don't support drone attacks on Pakistan. I understand that's it's a complicated situation to walk into and be in charge of. As much as I have my opinions of how I think things should be, I would never want to be in that position of power. That's blood on your hands automatically and that's a weighty thing to grapple with. I wish he had been more vocal about condemning Israel's attacks on Palestine, which happened right up until the inauguration. I support the Jewish state but I also support the Palestinians. I feel a bi-national state would be a great solution and I know that's hard to put into practice. I know that's the thing with politics though, politicians feel like they have to play the game and make sure they have the right friends in positions of power. People are dying, so it's not just a game of niceness to play. I wish that he were more radical like me. [Laughs]. There are a lot of things that could be different. I could go on and on [laughs].
Well that's go back to (a)spera. I'm glad you came back with another full-length, not that you left at all with all your other projects that went on during the interim.
It took awhile to have a new solo album. There was a bit of a pause. I was just doing other projects. I can only do one thing at a time. It's hard for me to have a bunch of different pots cooking at once. I moved into a nice house with my girlfriend in Portland. I was maybe psyching myself out a bit by having the prospect of a new album hanging over me for all the time in between the last one and this one. I'm not an unstoppably prolific songwriter, I tend to be pretty careful and intentional and some things just take me a while.
How has the Portland music community shaped you as an artist?
I've been here for about five and half years. I'm not quite sure. It wasn't purposeful on my part or anyone else's but I feel like I wasn't very knowledgeable about the Portland music community until I recorded this new album. I got to meet a lot of great people. Previously, I hadn't done that part of my work in Portland, I'd mostly recorded in Olympia at Dub Narcotic, and a few other places but never before in Portland. I have more of a sense of the community now. I don't go out that much. I'm not like, "I'm going to shows every night because I live in Portland! There's this awesome music scene!" But it's true that there are a lot of great bands from here and a really active music scene.
Reading through the list of collaborators on (a)spera is quite the hearty sampling of Portland music. How did some of those collaborations come about?
I've worked with Tara Jane O'Neil for several years now. I've been an admirer of her music for a long time and it's nice that now we get to be friends and collaborators. I have my own way with guitar and if you were to draw of picture of it, it's sort of a chunky, angular graph. Tara can come in with a bunch of colored pencils and swirl all around it. It works really well in the contexts of my guitar—the way that she doesn't have a real strict pattern. She's coming to Europe with me. We're co-headlining that tour and she plays in my live band as well. Chris Funk is a friend of The Decemberists' producer Tucker Martine, who recorded some of the songs on (a)spera. When we were talking about what instruments we wanted to use and had a whole bunch of crazy ideas, Tucker said, "I should call Chris Funk." I asked him what instruments he played and which ones he owned and his list was so long! There was hardly a thing he couldn't play. I told him, "Why don't you fill up your car with whatever and come over!" My friend Christopher Doulgeris helped out too. He's in this a band called Hooliganship, which is sort of an animation-performance-music ensemble. We co-wrote "Generosity" together and he worked on the horn arrangements for "The Forest." My friend Lori Goldston played cello on "Country of the Future" and "Education" and Douglas Jenkins from The Portland Cello Project and Lisa Molinaro from Talkdemonic played on "Generosity."
I really enjoyed Kane Mathis' mandinka kora playing on "Shells."
He is a friend of mine from Seattle. I met him through Lori. That was kind of a magical studio moment. I had a really rough sketch of a song idea and I knew I wanted to record with the kora. I only heard him play it one time before when we were touring together. He plays the oud for Spectratone International too but he had brought his kora because he was going to play some solo kora shows afterwards. He pulled it out at a hotel in Boston and I was lovestruck. It has one of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard. I was determined to record something with him and I'm really happy with how that recording turned out.
For "Shells," as far as the lyrics were concerned, was that a free-thought sort of song? Have you done any diving?
Yeah, I had the lyrics and a version of the melody at first. I hadn't sung it for a couple years so I didn't know what it was going to end up sounding like. It was a friend of mine who was the diver in the song.
Much of the imagery on (a)spera and many of your previous albums is from a natural vantage point. Do you find nature inspiring?
Yeah! It's one of the things that can calm me down, if I ever find myself in a moment where I'm not feeling right.
I really like that first track ["Generosity"]. It kind of reminds me of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting." I know Kate Bush is the de facto touchstone for lazy male journalists everywhere but am I getting anywhere with that?
[Laughs] That's funny. I don't do a lot of cover songs because I'm not very good at playing other people's songs on the guitar. But I've been doing a version of "Cloudbusting" live in the past year. I love Kate Bush. One of the things I love to waste time with is looking up old Kate Bush videos on YouTube. [laughs] I love the video for "Cloudbusting," I think it's really amazing. I love how wide the shots are. If I ever make a video I would definitely use that as inspiration rather than anything with tight shots and tons of fast editing. It is true that the drum beat for "Generosity" was in large part inspired by Kate Bush.
I have to ask about the album cover. If it were black and white I would have mistaken it for some old Outer Limits episode. How did that come about?
When I was recording the album I had this mini obsession with the N.A.S.A Voyager mission from 1977. It was when they shot that Golden Record out into interstellar space hoping to be found by intelligent life somewhere. I had this book about the mission. I like that idea so much. It seemed to me so quixotic and wonderful to gather music and images from Earth in such a hopeful way. The album art is in reference to that. I didn't feel like it was necessary to clarify whether I was the sender or the receiver. My friend Anna Weber made the costume.
What material did she use for those tentacles, etc.?
We went into the fabric store and I knew I wanted it to be metallic but I was picturing more of a gold. The silver she ending up finding was this weird material, some sort of plasticky plastic. I don't even know if it has a name [laughs]. It was a little bit stretchy but more in a rubbery way than spandex, so it could wrinkle. It was almost like skin.
Does "Gone Are the Days" have a cautionary message for global warming or am I off my rocker?
No, you're not off your rocker! [Laughs] In part yes. My family owns a farm in northeastern Pennsylvania where my mom and her sisters grew up. I spend time there every year making maple syrup. There was a discovery in the past year by the oil companies of this rock shale layer 900 feet deep under most of Pennsylvania, some of New York state, and maybe even part of West Virginia. This was the same type of geological formation that they found in Texas where they also found huge amounts of natural gas. The gas companies will come in and give their sales pitch to all of the farmers who are sacrificing so much just to continue working the land. It's a difficult profession to have, even though we all just need to eat food. We don't actually need most of the things we produce and consume. The gas companies come in and say, "You're going to get tons of money if you let us drill on your land!" They sign you up and before you know it the wells are exploding because of the gas leaks. It requires a million gallons of water in order to operate this hydraulic drill to fracture the shale and release the natural gas. It's just incredibly destructive and I understand burning natural gas is one of the cleanest energy sources in comparison to something like coal but the procuring of it is not benign. There are a number of songs that address energy in its various forms; how we get it, or use it, and why we need it. It's always been a struggle between humans, nature, and animals that want to survive. I feel like the scales have really tipped these days towards difficulty.
Before I let you get back to planting I wanted to ask about your longstanding collaborations with Phil Elverum. What does he mean to you as a friend and fellow artist?
I love Phil's work. I think that he's a really truthful, brilliant artist. He's also an incredibly hard worker, who is very focused. That is very inspiring to me and always has been. I really appreciate that he has taken his work fully into his own hands. The fact that he is capable of producing such great work as well as being able to take care of all the business aspects is remarkable to me. It's such a far cry from my own abilities. He has a very unique sense in the studio. It's really audible to people. Every once in awhile I hear music from people and I think, "that person is a Microphones or Mount Eerie fan." It just proves how unique and desirable his sound is. I've really appreciated being friends with him for all these years. He's offered so much to me as far as what to look for in the studio, and what to dream up. We don't spend as much time with each other as we used to because we used to both live in Olympia a few blocks from each other and we would tour together a lot. Now we have a lot more miles in between us: I'm in Portland and he's in Anacortes, Washington.
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