Artist Spotlight: Mirah

Let’s start where I started with Mirah. If you can, I’d like you to put headphones on for this track, so you can hear everything — every intake of breath, every vibration of the string quartet, even the slow decay of the timpani. You can even imagine you’re sitting in your car in the rain, like I was when I first heard this song.

That was “Cold Cold Water,” the first track off of Mirah’s second full-length album, Advisory Committee, and it’s one of those rare moments when an artist and producer happen onto each other at just the right time in both of their careers. The producer was Phil Elverum, of The Microphones/Mt Eerie, and the time and place was Olympia’s K Records in the early 2000s.

This whole album is full of tracks with heavy atmosphere, balancing and amplifying Mirah’s vocals, but only “Cold Cold Water” aims for those epic heights. The other songs have the same intimate subject matter, and the same images that will become recurring motifs throughout her career: nighttime, changing seasons, wind and rain, fire, stars. But Elverum keeps the orchestration spare on these other tracks, from the suggestive “Make it Hot” to the affirming “Monument,” which relies less on naturalistic imagery and more on a direct appeal to its subject.

Mirah’s next album, C’mon Miracle, came out in 2004. It’s a little more airy, eschewing its predecessor’s darker orchestrations for a lighter but no less substantive sound. These freer arrangements give Mirah more room to pull her voice down into soft and breathy depths, and she takes full advantage of that opportunity. Elverum produced again, and it was around this time I read a review referring to him and Mirah as “the Missy and Timbaland of indie rock.”

“Nobody Has to Stay” shows early stirrings of a Mirah trademark: lyrics that refer to “we” as well as you or me. While we do encounter this in confessional-style music, Mirah does it more often than you’d expect. Some of her later songs rely exclusively on the we pronoun—acknowledging that a relationship between two individuals is about more than just how each of those individuals relate to each other, it’s also about the shared experience, the collective entity that is us.

“The Struggle” is a model of restraint on Elverum’s part. Musically, it would make perfect sense to put a string quartet on it, or an electric guitar and bass combo with amped-up vocals. But he held back and let Mirah keep her voice soft, almost failing to register on the high notes, and added nothing but a barely strummed guitar and minimalist drum kit, matching the lyrics’ plaintive regret. Only a reverb-heavy marimba between verses seems unusual, but the hollow tone fits in perfectly with the overall palette.

After getting this record, I decided I was a Mirah fan after all, and maybe I should explore her earlier work. I picked up her first full-length, You Think It’s Like This But Really It’s Like This. Fun fact I learned from Wikipedia: in the 1990s, Mirah and Kimya Dawson worked at the same vegetarian café on the campus of Evergreen State College. If that does not tell you all you need to know about this album, then I just don’t know what else to say.

Hipster stereotypes aside, it’s still a solid album. Like a lot of singer-songwriter debut efforts, it does suffer from a feeling of being all over the place, probably due to it being a collection of songs that were written over a long period of time. That’s an assumption I have made, and it may be completely wrong.

Looking backward after hearing her later efforts first, you can see the directions that Mirah and Elverum grew in. There are hints of the future, like Mirah’s double-tracked vocals that don’t quite line up with each other on the chorus of “Sweepstakes Prize.” The fuzzy sound on this track almost seems like an attempt by Elverum to reclaim the derogatory description of songs that sound like they were recorded in someone’s basement.

Mirah’s next album was (a)spera, and it’s OK. Musically, lot of the tracks seem to have analogues from her previous records—“Generosity” is orchestrated like “Cold Cold Water,” “Bones & Skin” is another “Promise,” from C’mon Miracle. “The Forest” is easily the standout song, with lyrics that capture the contradiction of wanting to grow and advance, while also lamenting the loss of our old ways. Elverum’s production keeps Mirah’s vocals just barely above the subdued electric guitar and martial horn section, like she’s only one step ahead of the encroaching world.

I can’t really explain it, but I do not like that video.

Another thing I can’t explain: why did I read the Pitchfork review of Mirah’s next and so-far latest full-length album, Changing Light? Music reviewers! You don’t have to one-up each other with your adjectival avalanches and thesaurus verbs. “ ‘I will go to the desert,’ Mirah sings on opening track ‘Goat Shepherd,’ and the arid invocation lingers even through the verdant ballads.” Barf. Not only is this writing overwrought, it’s not even accurate. “Goat Shepherd” is mostly an angry regret song, this allegedly being Mirah’s “breakup” album. But it’s also a strident fuck-you to our world’s leaders, in keeping with the latent undertone of lefty protest music that’s always hidden just beneath the surface in Mirah’s works. (She cut a cover album of political songs in 2004, and C’mon Miracle’s “Jerusalem” finger-wags Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.)

Furthermore, this whole album is the farthest thing from “arid” that Mirah has ever recorded. Changing Light has none of the lo-fi sound that Elverum and K Records are known for, which may be due to chamber pop impresario Jherek Bischoff’s presence. Other new things on this record include synthesizers and autotune, or at least a vocoder. Mirah’s typical dynamic shifts are smoothed mostly away, and she even sings like a pop star, pushing her voice beyond the twee indie-girl sound she’s always settled into, now more Adele than Tiger Trap.

Beneath this shimmering, Daniel Lanois-ish production, Mirah’s lyrics are a little more direct, her compositions a little more conventional. Maybe that’s what makes this a breakup album: her emotions no longer hide behind conceits about mountains, snow, and forests; they just stand there, raw and unclothed.

Let’s close with “Fleetfoot Ghost,” a track about hope and heartache reminiscent of sad Lucinda Williams. It reminds me every time I hear it that, like me, the girl from “Cold Cold Water” is now a middle-aged person who’s seen what real problems are, and she’s learned that there’s a cost to getting older and wiser.