PREVIEW: Mirah is not a robot, Josiah Hughes, FFWD Weekly, July 23, 2009
Pacific Northwest singer-songwriter brings a distinct humanness to the Folk Fest
“I’m not a robot,” Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn says on the phone from her Portland, Oregon home. The Philadelphia-born singer-songwriter, who has lived on the West Coast for nearly two decades, is assuring me after a phone glitch gives her voice a weird, sci-fi drawl.
Performing under her first name (pronounced mee-rah) since 1997, the indie-folk songstress has explored everything from bedroom recordings to vast, sweeping concept albums about insects, collaborating with everyone from Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum to world music impresarios the Black Cat Orchestra.
No matter how diverse, the common thread through all of her work is always her soul-baring vocals, thought-out lyricisms and simple guitar strokes. It’s the kind of music that could never be made by a robot.
“The consistent things that I bring to projects are my voice, the actual sound of my voice and my mind, the way it puts words together and the words it chooses,” she explains. “With any songwriter, that’s what unifies their work. I know that not everyone in their seven-album career chooses to have one that’s about insects.… I could be singing about toes and aliens and it would sound just like a Mirah song. That’s the sound of my soul coming through.”
The desire for diversity in Mirah’s work has been there from the beginning. Her first song was written for a course in her first year at college. Now, in an impressive 13 releases (including EPs), she has collaborated with countless performers, told stories both personal and fictional and, in the process, become a fantastically consistent songwriter. “I’ve become conscious of the fact that I’m a songwriter,” she explains. “The first time, I didn’t have any identity attached to it and I didn’t have any goals attached to it.”
Her second full-length album, Advisory Committee, was the record that first inspired her obsession with diversity. The album was marked with Elverum’s distinct production on half its tracks, a fact that eventually distracted audiences from Mirah’s songwriting. As a fan and close friend of Elverum, she needed to distance herself from his trademark fuzz and branch out into her own territory. “I never felt like I didn’t like Phil anymore,” she says, “but I did feel the need to distinguish myself artistically so I could be sure what sounded like me and what sounded like him.”
From there, Mirah decided to embrace diversity with every project. “I really stubbornly feel like I need to approach every project, every album, every song as a new day,” she explains. “I think that’s the respectful way for me to treat my songs. You’re not going to name all of your kids the same name.”
The diversity and breadth of her work culminated on her most recent full-length, a(spera). Marked with harmonious, orchestral instrumentation and some of Mirah’s strongest writing yet, the record is a remarkable achievement from the Oregon transplant. Bringing in old collaborators (including Elverum, who still contributes to her music), a(spera) is arguably her strongest work yet.
Still, Mirah is always looking ahead, now considering an album of songs without lyrics. “I have this idea that I want to try to write music that has vocal parts but no words,” she explains. “It occurred to me that maybe I’m too cerebral and I need to get out of my head.”
All of this comes from a desire to expand and explore at every opportunity. “I’m not going to make the same album over and over again, because I’m too fascinated by the world and all its possibilities,” she says. “If I could expand ever more and work with ever more people and instruments and recording studios and instruments, then I would. Maybe someday, someone will pay for that.”