irah’s voice is a versatile thing of beauty, childlike and endearing one minute, haunting and rich the next. The nomadic Philadelphia native’s latest full-length, Changing Light, recorded over several months in multiple cities across the United States, is her most mature effort to date, a moody, sonically nuanced effort informed by heartbreak and Sinead O’Connor’s more melancholic output.
Yet one thing hasn’t changed over the years since Mirah dropped her still-memorable 2000 debut, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This — she’s still affiliated with K Records, the revered Olympia, Wash., label founded by her good friend and frequent collaborator Calvin Johnson.
CityBeat recently connected with Mirah, who answers questions with uncommon candor and more than a hint of nostalgia for how things used to be.
You have called Changing Light a breakup record. Why were you interested in tackling such a specific theme this time out?
Here’s the deal: I had a breakup. Then over the course of four or five years I wrote some songs and recorded them. And then when I had to write a one-sheet to try to turn it into a story, because I’m supposed to come up with one really concise description of the record, that’s what I came up with. (laughs)
So it’s true, but it doesn’t really mean that much because probably 78 percent of Pop music records could be filed under that category. I had to call the record something. What do you think I should have called it?
Well, it’s interesting in that, unlike a lot of “breakup records,” the lyrics are fairly cryptic. Did you not want to be too literal so that the listener can more fully immerse themselves and can inject themselves into what you are writing?
Hmm, I don’t write songs in order to sell them to people; I write songs because that’s the craft that I work in. But it is true that with a successful song — meaning a song that can reach people on some level — the goal is to connect to as many people as possible through this one set of words. In my opinion, if things get too specific, then there is no room for the listener. A lot of people say that about various kinds of work in the arts — you have to leave room for the viewer or the listener, or else they can’t connect and you’re just telling them something which may or may not be interesting to them.
I read that you recorded the album in a variety of places, including some of the contributing musicians’ living rooms. How do you think that impacted what the album became?
From a logistical and technical and production standpoint, it definitely posed some challenges, but you know how sometimes when you don’t have all of the perfect tools in your hand you end up making a more beautiful thing that you wouldn’t have made otherwise? So in a certain way making the record by myself and biking around with a hard drive in my backpack to people’s houses to record this or that track, I think ultimately it had a positive effect on the record because there were so many people involved. I traveled around with it. We recorded in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Portland (Ore.), all over the place. And I didn’t really have a choice — I wasn’t really living anywhere at the time, so the album was my charge that I took care of.
I also read recently that the record that had the biggest impact on you growing up was Sinead O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which you bought even though you had never heard her music. It’s kind of crazy to think about how much things have changed since 1990; you can now listen to pretty much anything you want at any time.
Yes, I had read a Rolling Stone review of the album, which spurred me to buy it.
It is crazy how things have changed — even just since I have been doing this — writing songs, recording them, putting out records and touring. Every day confounds me. I miss how it was. I do, because it made some kind of intrinsic sense to me.
Honestly, I can’t even look at Facebook for one second without feeling irritated, but that’s like the only way anybody knows about things now. I can’t figure out how anybody knew about shows or bands or anything before. I mean, when I first started touring we didn’t have cell phones and it was fine, it was great.
There are some things that artists post on their Twitter accounts that I just don’t want to know. It impacts how I interact with their music on some fundamental level. It breaks a necessary suspension of disbelief.
I agree. It’s kind of distracting that I’m always expected to interact with the world at large. I’m just a person. I want to stay in my own life. There’s this pressure to always be sending things out. But I also want to keep doing what I’m doing and I want people to come to shows and I would like for people to hear my music, so I’m sort of caught. I have to do it.
One of the other things that has changed is the role of record labels, yet you continue to be affiliated with K, which is still a kind of revered indie label. How has that longtime relationship informed you and your music?
I grew up in a family in which my parents were self-employed and they developed their own work and had a business. They just sort of figured out the way that it made sense for them to have and run a business. I feel like that is actually what informed me initially, and then moving to Olympia and getting involved with K and working with all the people who were making music in the Northwest at that time, it wasn’t a big leap for me be like, “Oh, you can just make your own plan and do it yourself.” I was like, “Great, this makes sense for me to be here right now and doing this with a whole bunch of likeminded people.” ©
MIRAH plays a free show Thursday at MOTR Pub with Death Vessel. More info: motrpub.com