Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn is blessed with a pure, sweet voice, a talent for inventive songwriting, lyrics of subtle humor and intimacy plus one of the most charming names in rock. A daughter of organic farmers and a graduate of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington — the premiere finishing school for young feminist indie-rockers — she quickly found her mark as a singer of intimate folk-punk, as political in her way as her neighbors in the riot-grrl movement, but unafraid to pursue emotional resonance and connection the quiet way.
Storageland consists of 10 songs, many of them under two minutes. Mirah really hit her stride with You Think It’s Like This but Really It’s Like This, an ingenious blend of the direct and the oblique: bald-faced declarations of love and concern, coy acknowledgements of sexual desire and little peeks inside a rich inner world. The album’s many charms include “Sweepstakes Prize,” a simple melody with a toe-tapping bassline that would be at home in a rumbling Eddie Cochran song; the quietly mesmerizing “La Familia”; and the ravishing (if unspecific) love song “Person Person,” an ode to a faraway friend or lover (or perhaps both). Mirah plays with wry lyrics and wordplay in the style of pre-rock cabaret singing — she has a jazz background — and the occasional nursery-rhyme stylings don’t deny the lyrics’ emotional weight. “Here’s a question that’s been tested,” she posits on one track, “Tell me: If we sleep together / Would it make it any better? / If we sleep together / Would you be my friend forever?” You Think It’s Like This is both sexual and sexy; despite the indie budget and occasionally haphazard arrangements, there are a lot of make-out moments. The emphasis is on quirky/quiet, but You Think It’s Like This isn’t all acoustic; there are buzzing and clattering electronic noises and a few noisier songs.
The Advisory Committee full-length and the concurrent Cold Cold Water EP, which recaps many of the same songs in solo acoustic renditions, demonstrate Mirah’s strengths in both the spare and the ornate. “Cold Cold Water,” the album’s undisputed centerpiece (which appears in pared-down form on the EP), is a breathtakingly orchestrated wide-screen epic, with sweeping strings, rushing timpani and crashing cymbals — a major display of extroversion and unselfconscious grandeur from an artist who previously worked mostly in miniatures. The jagged “Apples in the Trees” swells into a glorious chorus about the glories of life on Earth; the solitary strummed acoustic guitar on the EP version carries as much emotional import. “Make It Hot” could be Nina Simone by way of Elliott Smith. (Khaela Maricich of the Blow, another Olympia-Portland friend, did the Western-themed artwork on the Cold Cold Water EP.)
C’mon Miracle is unapologetically ambitious, with more guests, a broader musical template and evidence of influences from Latin America and beyond. Some of the ambition is immediately rewarding: the potent personal/political rejoinder to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in “Jerusalem” is enriched subtly by strings and electronics. “The Light” makes the most of longtime producer Phil Elvrum (of the Microphones and Mount Eerie)’s production flourishes. Tango-influenced touches from a visit to Buenos Aires enliven “The Dogs of B.A” and “Don’t Die in Me.” But her reach occasionally exceeds her songs. The live acoustic solo performance of a heartrending (and sexually frank) breakup ballad, “We’re Both So Sorry,” carries more weight than the overly fussy production on the album, with its double-tracked vocals and overt musical gadgetry. But all in all, C’mon Miracle offers the most depth and breadth in Mirah’s discography to date.
2009’s (a)spera is undeniably the prettiest record of Mirah’s career. With string quartets, dulcimer, mandolin, harps and other handsome baroque flourishes, “Generosity” and “Shells” are some of the loveliest compositions and arrangements in her catalogue. “Country of the Future” includes some of the tango touchstones previously seen on C’mon Miracle, while “The Forest” is buttressed by a somber brass section. But that prettiness shouldn’t be taken as flimsiness: a deep core of ecological connection underlies the stories and lyrics. (a)spera has farmers planting seeds, divers retrieving mollusks from the sea floor, whales and clouds, every living and nonliving thing connected at the most intimate level. “While We Have the Sun” is particularly rich in its imagery and allusion, rewarding a careful reading of the lyrics set to a lilting xylophone melody. Production by Elvrum with Tucker Martine accentuates the delicacy of Mirah’s delivery and diction.
The 2010s saw a slower sequence of Mirah studio records, but a host of collaborations. In 2011 she teamed up with DC-via-Olympia-via-San-Francisco firebrand Thao Nguyen, of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, on a canny Kill Rock Stars record called Thao & Mirah. Thao is the more aggressive bandleader, singer and guitarist; Mirah accentuates a quieter, intimate presentation. It’s an effective collaboration partly because it allows each woman to perform somewhat against type. Producer Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs brings polyrhythms, chattering percussion and unusual instrumentation to “Eleven,” a surpassingly joyous paean to holding onto love. (That’s an mbira providing the dominant melody.) The appealingly feisty “Rubies and Rocks” has a swinging New Orleans-style horn section and tight harmonies. Thao and Mirah alternate lead vocals on “How Dare You,” over a memorably odd synthesized percussion track that sounds unnervingly like flatulence. The fingerpicked acoustic guitars on “Hallelujah” (not the Leonard Cohen song, but the chorus bears a conscious similarity) sound a lot more familiar. Thao & Mirah doesn’t sound much like Mirah’s solo records or, for that matter, Thao Nguyen’s records.
One of Mirah’s most charming songwriting traits is taking the perspective of a non-human narrator. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and befitting her background as a farmer’s daughter, Mirah begins Changing Light from a livestock P.O.V. in “Goat Shepherd” and the gently syncopated “Oxen Hope.” “LC” is a sweetly sung tribute to Leonard Cohen, co-written by Mirah’s sister Emily. At least in part a breakup record, Changing Light is musically gentle but emotionally bruised, with the singer looking for comfort or collapsing in an emotional puddle of unmet yearning. In “Fleetfoot Ghost,” she rues, “You are the season I will not find again / Your weather is the reason I am wandering / And I’m just a feeling in the air you once loved.”
Amid more personal losses, Mirah took the results of the 2016 election hard, and 2017’s Sundial EP and 2018’s Understanding wrangle with some of those painful moments. Sundial (which came packaged with wildflower seeds) recasts and re-records several older tunes (including the much-recorded “Cold Cold Water”) with a string section arranged by LA producer and composer Jherek Bischoff. Changing Light’s “Oxen Hope” is revisited, as is (a)spera’s “The World Is Falling Apart.” The one new song, “Sundial,” is sung from the perspective of the plant world, offering gentle guidance to feckless humanity.
Understanding is not as compelling. Recorded using MIDI synthesizers, drum machines and Farfisa organ, it’s a 38-minute record of electronic buzzing and whirring, with lyrical content bemoaning a society overwhelmed by digital data (“Information”) or riven by disputes over God and money (“Counting”). An underlying theme is the plea to find love amidst chaos. As she quietly urges over a circular keyboard line that sounds like a circus calliope, “It’s called an ordinary day but that doesn’t describe it / What’s called an ordinary day has so much inside.”
Mirah’s influence on a younger generation of songwriters, many of them women and queer or nonbinary, has grown. In 2020, a 20th anniversary reissue of You Think It’s Like This but Really It’s Like This, was released with a full sequential LP/CD of covers of its songs by sympathetic artists. Sad13 (Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz) teams up with Mal Blum on a sunny guitar pop version of “This Dance,” WHY? and Gabby’s World do a seemingly deeply stoned version of “Million Miles.” Y La Bamba’s “Sweepstakes Prize” is arch and yearning but loses the Eddie Cochran rumble. Some of the deeper cuts get the best treatments, including Madeline Kenney’s “Gone Sugaring” and a quietly surging version of “Murphy Bed” performed by Half Waif. The most surprising take may be Shamir’s languid falsetto rendition of “Pollen.” Some performers are closer to contemporaries of Mirah than next-generation admirers: Phil Elvrum (here as Mount Eerie) performs “Of Pressure” as a thudding cacophony, The Blow does “Words Cannot Describe” with thrumming modular synthesizers, and Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak, in her Flock of Dimes guise) does a somber keyboard reading of “100 Knives.”
Along with those records, she has a vast, confusing but frequently rewarding collection of side projects, collaborations, and experimental projects. College Park Is Always Ready to Party is a live solo album recorded at the University of Maryland; 2006’s Joyride is an unusual — and not wholly successful — remix album by collaborators and allies including Elvrum (credited as Mount Eerie), the Blow and others from the Olympia scene and beyond. Like many indie remix records, it’s less in the direction of dance records than an experiment in imposing the strictures of laptop-pop and a variety of dance subgenres on Mirah’s intimate little songs. To their credit, the producers generally don’t track her singing onto generic beats and stretch them out club-style; they let a lot of the indie quirks shine through. Some of the tracks lean toward accessibility; some add foreboding to once-welcoming songs. A twinkling version of “La Familia” is chiming and singsongy, but the “Chopped and Screwed” mix of “Jerusalem” is a painful dirge. The ominous clattering rendition of “Cold Cold Water” could win you bets in a Björk soundalike contest. The double CD is barely 80 minutes long, with enough chaff that it should have been a single disc.
In terms of conceptual breadth, it’s hard to get higher concept than an album about insects produced in cooperation with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Seattle International Children’s Festival, honoring the work of a French entomologist and the Insect Play by the brothers Čapek (as in Karel Čapek). Share This Place: Stories and Observations is an extended ode to the insect world, extolling its virtues of cooperation and diligence and duty in contrast with our own. It’s a delightful record, surprising and fun in its topic and as musically sophisticated and well-played as any in Mirah’s catalogue. Somewhere between indie-folk and chamber-pop, with a variety of Balkan and Middle Eastern elements, this is an elegant album filled with entertaining lyrical touches.
In classic K tradition, Mirah has appeared on many of her friends’ records (and vice-versa), including the 29-minute Songs From the Black Mountain Music Project with Ginger Brooks Takahashi. If the record sounds like something that could have been written and recorded in a hurry by a few friends in a mountain cabin, that’s because it was. This mostly improvisational album doesn’t carry much weight beyond the lovely “Pure” and “Oh! September,” which features the goofy yet endearing exhortation, “Let’s make a song on the 8-track tonight.” To All We Stretch the Open Arm is a collection of politically themed covers (Dylan, Cohen, Stephen Foster) along with a few Mirah tunes that appear in other formats on her own albums. That Old Day’s Feeling in 2008 was credited as a Mirah record, but is another largely collaborative effort with Phil Elvrum, Calvin Johnson, Doug Martsch of Built to Spill and other Pacific NW friends. It is extremely casual and surprisingly graphic in its joking lewdness, with horn sections and party shoutalong vocals.