Interview: Thao and Mirah

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 04.26.11 in Interviews

Thao & Mirah

Thao & Mirah

In November 2009, singer/songwriter Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn moved to the Bay Area, and a friend of hers suggested that she should collaborate with a couple of other indie musicians who’d recently moved there: Thao Nguyen of Thao with the Get Down Stay Down and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-YarDs. After an initial gig by Thao and Mirah proved fruitful, the two of them toured together (as Thao and Mirah with the Most of All), playing and singing on each other’s songs. Later, they joined forces again to record an album as a duo, with Garbus co-producing (and contributing one song).

Thao & Mirah is an airy, jubilant record with a D.I.Y. air – and it’s not the end of their collaboration: Zeitlyn and Nguyen will be spending May and June touring together with a full band. eMusic’s Douglas Wolk spoke with them separately as they prepared for the album’s release.

The two of you started playing together shortly before the Noise Pop festival last year. How did the idea of just playing a show together expand into touring, making an album and touring some more?

Mirah: Those are just things that both of us do anyway. It’s sort of like, if you make a friend and they also happen to like going on long bike rides and cooking elaborate meals, you probably say, “Oh my gosh, you like to do that too? We should plan to do that next week together!” It seemed natural to do what we normally do, but together.

How did the process of making this record compare to projects you’ve done on your own?

Thao: I think I was a lot more relaxed than I normally am – it was a side project for all of us, organized for the joy of it. It was a lot of fun, and there was an incredible sort of energy from being at the helm with these other women. I love my band, and everyone I’ve ever made a record with, but it was really meaningful for me to make a record with friends that I don’t get to see that often. It was a very fortunate intersection of time and scheduling.

Your co-producer Merrill Garbus also wrote the first song on the album, “Eleven”; how’d that come about?

Mirah: When we made the album, Thao and I each brought five songs to the project. But we started feeling like 10 songs isn’t quite enough for a record, and we also realized that during the 10 days of main recording time, we hadn’t fully taken advantage of Merrill’s input. So she laid down all the backing tracks, and then Thao and I both wrote vocal parts, and we managed to all make it into the studio for one more day. The first track ended up being “Eleven” after a lot of negotiations. We almost didn’t put it first because it’s pretty distinctly different from the rest of the album, but it can also be said that every track on the album is pretty distinct from every other track.

When each of you are writing and arranging, how do you make space for the other’s contributions?

Mirah: Thao is an excellent guitar and banjo player – she plays a bunch of things. She plays guitar really well, and she fakes it so well on a bunch of other instruments that I don’t think she’s faking it, even though she says she is. I feel pretty confident in my skills as a songwriter and as a singer, but I think of my guitar playing as being blocky. I’m pretty precise, and I like working with people whose playing is more watery or windy. Thao can help do that on a lot of my songs – her guitar contributions to “Hallelujah” are so crucial to that song. It adds a whole other dimension when I’ve brought songs to Thao and allowed her to round them out.

Thao: I loved working on “Hallelujah.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. I was around when she was composing it, so I was writing the lead guitar lines while she was writing the song. I liked that process. I love Mirah’s voice, so the parts of my songs I had in mind for her were very vocally based.

How do you think your respective approaches to making music are aligned or compatible, if not necessarily the same?

Thao: The way we go about writing songs is very similar, in that they start very simply, with each of us on guitar. And there’s a lot of effort put into our songwriting, a lot of time composing lyrics. It was funny to write to this deadline – I think I have more experience with having to record before any songs are in existence yet.

Mirah: I feel like we’re both open receptors. I am aware of the relationship with the muse, or with inspiration as an artist; I see that as being something that you can cultivate but not force, that you can invite but not expect. I feel like Thao might also view it that way. And I don’t actually see that as unique to us, I see it as unique to artists who commit themselves to their work.

You’re working with the social-advocacy organization Air Traffic Control on your tour. How are you involved with them?

Mirah: One of the things Thao and I both felt very strongly about was that, if we made a project together, we wanted to use the public platform of releasing this work into the world as a means to communicate our own wishes for change and social activism, and that’s what Air Traffic Control does. They call themselves “issue-agnostic” – they just support artists in dealing with the issues that matter to them, and help them do that.

Thao: They’re an amazing organization – I’ve worked with them quite closely for the past year or so. For this tour, every city we go to, we’ve asked Air Traffic Control to get us in touch with organizations that are in line with the causes we support, focusing on domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse. I think they’re an incredible asset, an incredible way to help and go beyond yourself. Especially given this line of work, which can be very self-involved.