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Sunday, May 8, 2005

Reflecting truth and beauty

Mirah gets by with a little help from her friends

Special to The Japan Times

Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, who writes and performs under the moniker Mirah, records for K Records, the proudly lo-fi label headquartered in Olympia, Wash., and run by indie rock's most dedicated iconoclast, Calvin Johnson, singer in band Beat Happening.

News photo

Though trends in rock and pop come-and-go faster than you can say "Puff Daddy," K Records has remained a constant for 20 years in terms of professional sensibility. Johnson practically invented the do-it-yourself aesthetic, which isn't limited to recording, but extends to album art (handmade, for the most part) and distribution. The label is a real family, whose artists commonly participate on one another's records and even tours.

Mirah's three solo albums on K were produced by Phil Elvrum, the leader of the Pacific Northwest psych-pop collective The Microphones, and they are true collaborations. "One of the most important things Phil taught me was how to successfully subvert my obsessive carefulness," Mirah writes via e-mail from her home in Portland, Ore. "He taught me a commitment to the authenticity and beauty of the final product. I got ideas from Phil about playing with sounds and trying weird things in the studio."

The final products are definitely authentic and beautiful, but those qualities have more to do with Mirah's pliant soprano, which is youthful without being cloying, pure without being artless. She grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, but didn't start singing and writing songs until she attended university in Washington State in the 1990s. Her voice contains the cosmopolitan confidence of urban rock and pop (she's been known to cover Bruce Springsteen in concert) while her songwriting is mostly of the hothouse variety.

"I think I definitely fall into the confessor category [of songwriters]," Mirah say. "I suppose I attempt to reveal myself via allegory, so I could be considered a storyteller as well. But, admittedly, first-person is my mode."

Nevertheless, her newest album, "C'mon Miracle," seems more outward looking. Whereas the songs on her previous record, "Advisory Committee," were about desire and longing, several cuts on "Miracle" move beyond the merely interpersonal. "Maybe I'm just getting older, wanting to feel more stable," she explains. "I want to rest in good feelings rather than bad ones. I want to be part of the world, but I'm also feeling a bit cocoonlike about my personal life."

There's nothing cocoonlike about "Jerusalem," though, a catchy pop song in which Mirah comes to grips with her feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "After all you've been through," she sings in the chorus, "You should know better than to become/the wicked ones almighty God once saved you from."

"I was asked to contribute a song to a Chanukah compilation," she says, explaining the song's genesis. "That's how it came out, because I was thinking about Israel/Palestine and being Jewish. The song was rejected because it was too political, so I put it on my album."

The same sort of feelings went into her most recent collaboration, an album called "To All We Stretch the Open Arm," which she released last year with the Black Cat Orchestra, a Seattle group that plays folk music from Europe, Asia and Latin America. Recorded shortly before the United States invaded Iraq, the album collects songs by Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, Stephen Foster, Leonard Cohen and others that have a distinctive antiwar message.

Mirah met the Black Cat Orchestra when they were playing at the wedding of some mutual friends. "We played a song together that we practiced a few times in the parking lot of the grange hall where the dinner was being held," she recalls. "After that it seemed like a collaboration would certainly work out. We discussed themes for the record and because of the imminent war and our intense feelings of opposition, we decided to make an antiwar album. We researched songs, went to libraries, found melodies and words we liked, and then recorded."

Though her music is intensely personal, it's obvious that Mirah relies on this kind of camaraderie to make it more interesting than it would be if all it involved was her and a guitar. "C'mon Miracle" also includes two haunting songs she wrote and recorded in Argentina simply because she was visiting a musician friend who had moved to Buenos Aires.

When she comes to Japan, in fact, she'll be sharing a pair of backup musicians with Tara Jane O'Neil, who has traded the free noise of Rodan, the band she used to play bass with in the 1990s, for acoustic guitar songs that, in contrast to Mirah's music, have more to do with mood than meaning.

"Tara and I have toured together twice in the U.S.," Mirah writes, but, more importantly, "We're friends."

Mirah: May 14, 7 p.m., Shimokitazawa Shelter, Tokyo, 2,800 yen ([03] 3466-7430); May 15, 7 p.m., Matsumoto Hot Lab, 2,800 yen ([0263] 39-1677); May 16, 7 p.m., Namba Bears, Osaka, 2,500 yen ([06] 6649-5564). Mirah & Tara Jane O'Neil: May 17, 7 p.m., Cafe Independents, Kyoto, 3,000 yen ([075] 255-4312); May 18, 7 p.m., Nagoya Tokuzo, 3,000 yen ([052] 733-3709); May 19, 9:30 p.m., Matsumoto Second, 2,800 yen ([090] 7434-9087); May 20, 7:30 p.m., Thumbs Up, Yokohama, 3,000 yen ([045] 314-8705); May 21, 7 p.m., Shibuya O-Nest, Tokyo, 3,200 yen ([03] 3462-4420). All prices are for advance tickets.

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