Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn is a songwriter and musician living in Portland, Or. She is releasing her new album (a)spera Tuesday, March 10th on K Records. Her selfless and buoyant personality made it hard not to indicate within the written transcript when she would laugh, because her voice always seems to carry her humor and smile when she speaks.

---mid-conversation about talking to people you don’t know over the phone---

No, like, if it was like, “I’m supposed to call this stranger at 10:00, and this stranger at 11… I would just, I don’t know…

It’s like any other relationship though. If they want to talk to you, they should just call you. Right?
That’s right.

You’re the hot shot, you’re the big stuff.
I don’t feel like a hotshot today.

Yeah, what was up with that? An emergency dental procedure?
Well, it turns out, I could have talked to somebody at 5. But we could only get the appointment at 3, and I wasn’t sure if they were going to try to do something or not, to a phone or something.

Yeah, I broke a tooth yesterday, on nothing hard. It just broke, I think have a crack. Think… Actually, I looked it up! This is why I’m in a bad mood. Because this thing happened yesterday, and then I spent all day until I went to the dentist looking it up on the internet, you know, self diagnosing myself with the worst possible case scenario.

And, then I went to the dentist, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was gonna be, but it’s still really expensive.

So, you cracked it. Does it hurt?
Well, I can’t… I can’t drink anything.., I kind of keep my tongue pressed against it if I have anything else in my mouth. Cause it’s not like the nerve is exposed…
I learned a lot about tooth anatomy!

I’m sure. Were there pictures, and now you’re also an expert…?
He drew pictures! He drew little pictures, and I learned about the, you know, the dentin, and the pulp, and that the pulp is sort of like, how do you… it’s like, sort like little bubbles…

Is it under the enamel?
It’s under the enamel, and under the dentins, and then the nerve, which is in the root, extends these little hairs, like little teeny-weeny nerve hairs from the nerve into certain little spots in the pulp, and so the reason my tooth is sensitive is not because the actual nerve is exposed, but because the little mini hairs, the mini nerve ending hairs are exposed a little bit.

So it’s kind of the equivalent of having a scrape that’s right on top of the skin that stings like heck.
Yeah, if it’s brushed, or a breeze blows on it, it’s like, Yeoah!

And you can’t have cold water, or hot tea, you can only do bland and lukewarm.
Yeah, and I only ate apple sauce! I was like, I can’t chew… I’m kind of a spaz about my health. If anything is the slightest bit wrong I obsess over it so I can try to fix it. And I know, if I would just stop obsessing and relax a little bit, I would be fine. It didn’t help my teeth, at all, to spend all day on the internet looking at worst case scenarios.

But now at least you can try to convince yourself that, now that you know you were just looking at worst case scenarios, it could be worse.

And, I mean, it’s almost… as if you could almost look at that as a positive? Could be worse.
I could probably do that. If I wasn’t so goddamn pre-menstrual I might be able to.

Yeah, you could just not have that tooth.
How about tomorrow? (laughing) How bout tomorrow I’ll look on the bright side

Haha, tomorrow, yeah. But, as an artist, you can be like… you’re trying to be edgy. This is just one of those days, and you can play it off like that.
Uh, huh.

Ok, well actually, that does kind of lead us to the internet thing. You were looking up all this information…
I was looking up ‘cracked tooth’, and I decided I had ‘cracked tooth syndrome’

Cra…Is that…?
CTS, and yes, it’s an actual thing. And it’s why, when I went to the dentist a couple of months ago, and I’ve had this pain for the past several months, they said “well, looks healthy, we don’t see anything wrong. Looks like your teeth just shifted around in a way that turns out to be uncomfortable, you should just wait until they shift back.” And I was like, “Alright, here’s 70 bucks.”

But when I looked it up after it cracked off yesterday, I was like, “Ohhh, that’s what I had.”

But anyway, what question were you going to ask?

Well Ok (I’m stumbling over my words now that it’s a real interview) … what’s your time schedule like?
Oh, you mean how long can I talk to you?

Yes, well, I’m not sure I, you know…
Oh, well, it’s usually like, you know, 20-30 minutes.

Okay, all right then we’re good.
My girlfriend went on a run for when I’m on the phone, and she usually runs for about 30 minutes.

She’s like you’re hourglass, and when she comes back, it’s time to do something else?
(laughing) Yes

Ok. Well, what I was going to get at was: when we were first trying to get a hold of you to do this interview, your agent informed us that contact with you was pretty limited because you were out a farm…
Yeaaah, I was with my family in Pennsylvania. I make maple syrup there with my brother. And I’m sorry that I spaced that out, I didn’t even write it down, I don’t know what I was thinking of.

Haha, oh no, I mean, I thought that was awesome. A lot of people…
(laughing) you mean it was an awesome excuse to flake out? “Oh, I’m sorry I missed your phone call, man! I was making making maple syrup and I must have lost track of time…

Did you grow up in that atmosphere, that environment?
Well, I grew up mostly right outside of Philadelphia, on the main line, I don’t actually know what it’s called… But when I was younger we lived in a number of different places that were more rural, and one of them was an adjacent property to a farm, which is still in my family, which is where my mother and her sisters grew up. And it’s in north eastern Pennsylvania. And I still have two aunts, and an uncle, and a cousin, and a nephew who live on the farm. And in the spring my brother and I meet up there, and usually his partner and two kids are also there, but I went early because my record release is right in the middle of sugaring season, which is so inconvenient (laughing) and I know a lot of artists complain about that!

I know! As I understand, artists usually try not to release anything, or schedule tours, in the middle of sugaring season.
I know!

So you do still make time to go help out, despite your schedule…
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been doing it the last 10 years. And there are a lot of benefits of my involvement, because I live on the west coast, and actually, the first year that we did it was the year my first nephew was born, and I just wanted to spend some quality time with my family, and meet my new nephew, and the timing of it was right during sugaring season, so it was just something I did every year.

I used to go back for longer, I used to go for 7-10 weeks, but now, I would just miss my girlfriend too much. So now I just go for a month.

Well, in no particular tangent… with your music a lot of times… that just seems like a very outdoorsy kind of experience.
You’re right, it’s extreme-outdoorsy

I guess there’s sort of a consistent underlying, or maybe completely blatant, theme of nature sometimes in your music. It’s even been described as being kind of “naked. Would you say that fits within your life, and do you think that’s accurate?
Yeah, it is accurate. I mean, it makes me wonder sometimes… I guess I can think of lots of examples of music that doesn’t hold that within it, that doesn’t hold nature or nakedness in it. There is a lot of art and I suppose I don’t involve that all the time.

The rare occurrences of purposeful songwriting or musical endeavor in my catalog, I feel like there’s no really intuitive or impulsive, sort of, from green or land influence.

Would you say that from 12 albums in 12 years—maybe not just through nature—what kinds of things
inspire you?

Wait—I haven’t had 12 albums, have I?

Well, that that includes everything, I think.
Oh, wow. Oh (laughing) that makes me feel impressive!

Yeah, I think that’s what I counted on the discography. I mean, that’s pretty prolific.
Some of those are probably the EPs…

Those are including the EPs, you’re right.
Like the 7 inch Yeah, I guess there’ve been a lot… Um, cool, wow… that makes me feel good.

Does it? Good, that’s why I’m here. That’s what we do at Epilogue.
I’ve actually been learning a lot of things from my interviewers lately that I never… You know, I mean, I do what I do, but I’m not always paying attention. (laughing) I know what I’m doing… I learned recently from an interviewer that, wait… what word was it? Uh oh…

Wait, it was the word “bones”… the word and/or imagery of “bones” is in like, 4 out of 10 songs in my new album? And they were like, “So what’s the significance of that?” And I was like, “uhhh…”

Because… It wasn’t a planned significance. And I could maybe make something up and that would probably be true, but… it wasn’t a planned significance.

Yeah, it just came through in the music… Because how long does it usually take you to write an album?
Well, this new one [(a)spera- (2009)] took me so long, it took me so long. Actually, several, 2 or 3 of the songs on the album, I think I wrote them years ago. Like, a while after C’mon Miracle [2004] but way before Share This Place [2007] or even the Joyride: Remixes [2006] project, or any of that stuff. And I wasn’t… I didn’t really set myself to task with actually giving myself the time and space to write an album for a long time, and so the songs that were written earlier that are on the album, they sort of came out when they were ready. But at that point I wasn’t like, “Okay, I’ve got these 3 songs. Now I’m gonna…”

…Write more songs about bones?
Yeah.you know… I do other things. Sometimes I’m like “I’m going to go to Pennsylvania for a month… to stay in the woods!” Or, you know, I didn’t decide because I was going to work on these couple of other sort of side projects like Joyride and Share This Place.

So those were side projects… or would you call those side projects?
Well, I guess I would call… I don’t even know. I think it’s sort of a convenient category just to differentiate them—at least to differentiate Share This Place and say the Black Mountain Music Project [2003]—from albums that are like ‘Mirah-solo-albums’ because the ones that are Mirah-solo-albums say: Mirah. (laughs) Like that’s the name of my band. You know, Joyride was a little bit less of a side project, but it is in a separate category, than, you know, a new album, because it was it was solo material, previously released.

Lets go from there. In Joyride you worked with different dj’s right?
Yeah, most of them we just communicated over e-mail. Some of them were people I knew, and some of them were close friends of mine, like Khaela from The Blow, or Bryce Panic, who’s an old friend of mine. He’s been on almost every one of my albums. And some people I knew from Olympia. But several—a number of the people—I still have never even met: we only communicated through e-mail, and never even over the phone. Which is sort of funny. It actually seems sort of apt for the kind of album that it was. “And they only communicated electronically!”

Using technology! Absolutely, when so much of your other stuff has had a de-emphasis on technology?
Yeah, I mean, all the other stuff it was like “Me and Phil brought mattresses into the studio, and slept there! And woke up in the middle of the night and recorded! And then we made oatmeal!”

I guess we’ve determined that wasn’t necessarily a side project. But with Share This Place, which was kind of a concept album, not exactly a Mirah-thing—it’s been said to be more playful, maybe in your approach to music?
With those, there’s actually a lot of intense subject matter on that album. But if I’m writing songs from the first-person perspective as an insect… I don’t think that you could… I think it would be hard for people to view it without a sort of playful edge, you know? Cause it’s like, I’m writing about “I’m a fly!”

And whether or not the bug is going to be crushed, it’s bordering absurdist…?
Yeah, even though, it’s absolutely a serious album. You know, if I was to chart out everything that happens lyrically on that album, it’s probably my most intense work to date. There’s so much life and death on there, and longing and misunderstanding—it’s really rich, actually. But I can see the ‘playful’ aspect of the concept itself.

Just bringing yourself out of your normal position in life.
That was one of the whole points of it—to say, “Okay, how can I explain all of these things from a totally unexpected perspective?” in order that, when people listen to it, they could enter into that perspective in a way they’d never done before, because really thought about things from that angle. I hadn’t thought about a lot of things in those angles before writing the album, before studying up for the album.

Where did the idea for the album from come?
You know, it was sort of a lark. Lori Goldston, who I’d collaborated with before, she and her partner Kyle Hanson—they were the original members of the orchestra called The Black Cat Orchestra in Seattle—it was an institution in Seattle for a number of years, and I had met them through our mutual friend Pat Mailey who runs Yoyo Recordings in Olympia. Pat is who recorded my first ever release—official release—on a one sided 12 inch record, now out of print, and um… thank God… (laughs).

And so I met them through Pat, and we had talked about working on something together and we recorded an album that was mostly covers called To All We Stretch the Open Arm.

And that was kind of a political piece?
Yeah, well, we conceived it as an anti-war album. That was like, you know, the beginning of the Iraq War, and that was our… I was never really sure if it came off to people as how it was intended. I mean, we did write it in the liner notes, but I think that probably our song choices were a little bit obscure in terms of what would have been more generic choices of anti-war cover songs, you know?

That you weren’t singing ‘four dead in Ohio’ …
Yeah, and you know, some of them were like, instrumental numbers, like “O Cant Dels Ocells.” It’s the song that Pablo Casals would play at the end of every single concert, and he vowed to play it at the end of every single concert… Oh wait, I just read his autobiography… He was going to play it until there was vast liberation in Spain? Or until the fascists were gone, or both of those things (laughing) I can’t actually quite remember. But he was an activist, and that song is instrumental. I guess it would take a little bit of looking into for someone who wasn’t familiar with the song, or Pablo Casal to be like “Oh, I get how, in context, that is an anti-war anthem.” But anyway, I’m making this a really long story…

That’s completely okay.
So we worked together on that album—they live in Seattle, I live in Portland… or at the time I wasn’t living anywhere—but we kept in touch and always intended to work together again, and Lori has been a part of my live band at various points. They had an offer from the TBA Festival in Portland, which is the Time Based Arts Festival, to do… something… they just sort of had a slot, and they thought it would be fun, since that festival’s in Portland, to collaborate with me. And Lori happened to be reading—she’s an avid reader and always has very good book suggestions—she was reading this book by Jean Henri Fabre, who was this entomologist guy who wrote in the late 1800’s early 1900’s in France, and she just happened to be reading those books and was really getting a kick out of them, and was like, “How about bugs?” when we were trying to come up with the concept of our collaboration.

So, yeah. Kind of a lark. If any other kind of book had happened to be on her bedside table, the project might have been about… tree bark or something, or plane fuselages.

Are most of your musical endeavors located around the Pacific Northwest around Washington and Oregon?
You mean recording projects? I have actually only recorded maybe one… Okay, I recorded two songs with my friend Bobby Burg in Chicago, one of which is on Advisory Committee [2001] ‘The Sun’ it’s called. And then the other one that I recorded with him ended up on a 7-inch that Modern Radio [Records] put out, out of Minneapolis, and then it was re-released when I made up The Old Days Feelings [2008] also on Modern Radio, and that one was called… I can’t remember, it was an old song. So yes, two songs I recorded in Chicago. One song, which is also on Old Days Feelings, I recorded in Philadelphia. And I think that literally, those are the only songs that I have recorded outside of Olympia-Seattle-Portland.

I think that’s it, out of my entire catalogue, even my home recordings—I never recorded when I was back east

So you went to Evergreen College in Olympia.
Yes, yes I did

I have a friend who went out to Evergreen and he managed to build a house in the woods.
Oh yeah, it’s a good place to build a house in the woods. A lot of people go there and build houses in the woods.

Is that where you started your career?
Yeah, definitely. I didn’t even know how to play the guitar until my second year at Evergreen.

It sounds like there’s a strong sense of community in that area—all the artists you’ve met and worked with—how much in your career have you found yourself influenced, maybe not directly, but by working and collaborating with your peers, and furthering yourself as a musician?
I don’t think I would have ended up making music of my own, and having this as career, if I hadn’t moved to Olympia and met the people who I met when I met them. I didn’t have plans of doing anything with music before I went there. I mean, I’ve always loved music, but I didn’t play an instrument and I didn’t write songs. I didn’t really know people who were in bands. I was pretty dorky actually. And I have to say, when I moved to the northwest I started to realize that even if I, growing up in the area from 17 to 20’s and now I’m in my 30’s… all the kids around here are really cool. They all play music or write zines…

I definitely had political consciousness as a child, for sure, and I acted upon that. You know, I traveled, and smart and fairly well informed for a kid but there was nothing cool to do (laughing) and no one was doing anything cool. Where I grew up, there was literally nothing. And I grew up outside a large city—I grew up right outside Philadelphia.

And you know, it’s possible that there was something… God if I could tell you now some of the things we thought were cool! Like, there was a punk club and they had a Goth night once a month or something. And there were these kids who were east coast scene Grateful Dead… and that was it in terms of alternative youth culture…
… that I was aware of as a child.

But out here, I just think that there’s more access. It’s something that has to do with the agencies or local groups. Like, hey, we’ve got a rock-and-roll camp for girls in Portland, Oregon. There’s a whole movement. Like, now any 8 year old girl that goes there has access to really amazing, interesting, inspiring cool stuff. Even though I was, a pretty cool 8 year old—no one ever put an electric guitar in my hand.

You had to find your own inspiration.
Yeah. And you know, in some ways I’m kind of glad I’m definitely an individual, because it sometimes puts me on the outside of things, but it’s all for the best.

Well, about being a kid, and being on the outside of things. I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times and know what I’m going to ask you. But, just because I, and all of my friends at Epilogue, are jealous… what was being on Double Dare like?

And do you appreciate how awesome that was?
Well, there were a number of things I did as a fairly young kid that I didn’t think about as being a very unique experience. Like, for example, do you know what I did with the money I won on Double Dare? Which, I wish this were on my Wikipedia page, and I know I could put it on there, but I never do things like that…

I went on the Great Peace March for Nuclear Disarmament for 5 and a half weeks. I used the money on Double Dare to pay for it, they just made you pay per day.

But you were 12?
(laughing) I was like a nuclear activist at the age of 12. I was 12. And so it’s like, I’m not sure somewhere between being on a cable TV game show and being an anti-nuclear activist who went off without her parents to walk for peace from Harrisburg to D.C. (that’s the leg I was on.)

Like, this is what I remember from Double Dare: umm… I felt really dorky in the outfit. Like, really dorky.

Even though every other kid in the U.S. thought you were the coolest thing in the world just because you were on Double Dare?
Well, I had these huge glasses. I wore glasses for twenty years, I got eye surgery a couple of years ago. And for some reason when I was a kid… well, everyone on my family wore glasses, and so my dad always took us to the eyeglass store, and we had to pick something off the twenty-dollar rack so none of them were very attractive. I mean, now there’s a lot of attractive eyeglass wear, and in the ‘80s it was just hard to come by. Like, it was pretty much all ugly, and we got to pick from the ugliest of the ugly. And I had these huge glasses that were bigger than my face, and when I had to do the physical challenge with my Double Dare partner, when we had to slide a bunch of plastic plates through slime. We had to get the dishes dirty and then put them in the rack. And all that gooey stuff got splattered on my glasses, and I spent the whole second half of the show trying to wipe my glasses off, and it looked like this blurry, hazy unclear mess. And I’ve watched the video a few times.. (laughs) Actually we have a viewing party in Olympia because people really get a kick out of it.

But I was so shy, and I was so pained in myself. Like, when I lift my arms to cheer, like, “you got something right, yeah!” Instead of fully extending my arms and pumping my fists in the air, I sort of made this weak little “Yay” and my arms are sorta pinned at the elbow. I was like, shy! And kind of nervous. And I’m still like this to this day. If there’s a lot of chaos around me, and in addition to there being a lot of chaos, you know: flashing lights, cameras, bleachers full of students from my school, and then a whole bunch of other students from another school I’d never met before. And then an announcer, and then all these helper people who are all rushing around trying to get you to do things, or do things fast, or explain things like how you roll your partner through the giant squeegee foam thing onto the sundae slide… It was so chaotic!

I think I have a way that I like… shut down? (laughing) when it’s that chaotic. So it’s more than an exciting story like “It was awesome! It was so exciting and I won all these prizes!” But really, it was sort of awkward, and it was confusing.

But I was 12! They made me wear straight leg nylon pants, and knee pads, and this huge bobbly head helmet. And they had to tuck the shirt into the nylon pants, and I was this skinny little stick person. I mean—it was awkward. If you asked me to sum it up into one word, I would say “awkward.”

It’s still cool, for the record.
Oh, thanks.

But like you said at the beginning of the interview when you were explaining the “bones” thing: that any number of explanations of an experience would probably be true. But it sounds like from the DD experience, you went on a nuclear disarmament march—something political, outspoken—and you also learned that when things do get chaotic, you like it to be minimalistic or simple.
Yeah, I think it’s one of the reasons I’m not, like, a gear-head. I never really got into having a whole bunch of acoustic or electronic toys to play with. I’ve seen different friends of mine develop their own set of pedals or loop stations and then they have like, videos playing, and then they interact with the videos. (laughing) All of these great, and sweet complicated things, and I’m like, “Okay. Let me take off my shoes… and I’ll just play my guitar… this is the only guitar I own…”

For me, it’s been a big deal having a band, so I can have four other people and they can take care of the complicated stuff. For me it’s like, one thing at a time. Let me play the guitar and sing.

So you haven’t always had a band.
No. I played solo for years and years. And it’s been the last couple of years that I’ve had sort of revolving cast of friends. And I think it’s one of the reasons why making (a)spera was largely collaborative more so than any of my solo albums. Before if I was recording, if I wasn’t recording alone, I was with Phil, and I would be collaborating with him.

This is Phil Elverum from The Microphones, right?
Yeah. With (a)spera I branched out some more. And I think this was the result of having more established musical connections already with certain players and friends, like Tara Jane O’Neil, my friend Christopher, or even my friend Kane who is in Spectretone. He played the oud in Spectretone [International] and the kora in (a)spera. So yeah, I think that the cumulative effect of spending a couple of years playing in different band configurations and working with Spectretones and developing as a songwriter through that Share This Place project contributed to making (a)spera what it is. And it turned out pretty well.

Would you say there have been different transitions in your career? You recorded you first EP on a four-track. And then you spend a few years working with people but it’s mostly solo, and then you get a band. And then you branch out into Joyride, which has more electronic aspects, and things started becoming more orchestrated.
I think about it as keeping myself engaged and interested and continuing with my own education, self-education, learning from other people. I think everybody’s like that. Are you going to write the same book over and over? Or are you going to work on a screenplay next. I think that whatever the medium, it’s not that uncommon to try out new additions or new outfits.

So what can we expect from the new album? Or what are you trying to achieve with it?
I think I was trying to fuse together all of the elements I was just mentioning, about wrangling in my various influences and interests. Including what I learned as a songwriter working on Share This Place, which was, oh… forced material. That was new territory for me to not just go through my dream journal to like, gather ideas for songs, but to… read interesting books! I like to read, I like to keep myself informed, I like to listen to the radio, and read the newspaper. So how can I work those things into my music in was that are not didactic—and not boring, certainly—in a way that is image rich and also personal. So I think that that’s what I was trying to do. There’s a real blend of the personal and also the larger context of ‘all of us here on the planet.’ It’s totally not overtly political, but a lot of the issues I was writing about have to do with, you know: our own destruction of our environment on earth, and our own destruction of each other. But I wanted to present that in a concise. In like a package form that is sort of like “you don’t quite know what you’re getting into” and then you suck in your breath and you’re like “Oh, this is… big.”

(laughing) But I’m curious after you hear it, maybe I’m totally off the mark and you’ll get something completely different from it.

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© 2009

Mirah Interview

Charlie Naramore

Photo by Sarah Cass