Mirah, Thao and Mirah
One thing that distinguishes artists from everyone else is their hyperattention to their surroundings. Specifically, good lyricists (and that means songwriters and poets) see beauty in even the most mundane of things. And there's no better example of that than Mirah, who maintains a Tumblr account that features nothing but pictures of discarded banana peels she finds on the streets of San Francisco. She claims on the site that she doesn't think this has anything to do with her music, but I must disagree. It's all part of her creative package. This is exactly what makes songwriters artistic: they see purpose in everything, even (really, especially) in things that most of us never notice.
What other creative outlets do you have besides songwriting?
I love to cook. The last time I toured, I brought a little hot plate and made food in the green room. Food on tour can be the biggest drag, even if it's good. I don't want to eat out every meal. Cooking on tour and at home is a creative outlet for me. My body and mind can be completely relaxed. I don't always need to be moving to be thinking and making something. That what the creative process is about: you're not really thinking about creating. It's more about allowing yourself to rest in your natural state. It's good to find a couple of activities that can lead you into that state and not put all of your expectations for that feeling of creativity on one thing, no matter what it is.
Why cooking? You're not the first songwriter to tell me that. And a lot of songwriters also tell me that they get song ideas when they are doing something with their hands. Do songwriting ideas come from that experience?
It's related more to bringing myself into a relaxed state, which then can contribute to a creative moment. It's not like I'm cooking and singing at the same time. Laughs. It has more to do with its encouragement towards my general state of relaxation.
But one activity that does get me singing is riding my bike. I do think that physical movement, whether it's housework, yardwork, cooking, or exercise, all contribute to that. Even sitting on the train, looking out the window, my field of vision is constantly being replaced by the next moment I'm casting through. That's a really fertile creative experience, whether I'm on a train, or biking, or walking. A lot of people like driving for that reason.
Chris Difford of Squeeze told me that he writes on the train for the same reason you cited. And there's a lot of scientific evidence to show that physical exercise gives you a big boost in creativity and higher order thinking.
I totally believe in that. My need to move is related to my need to make things. It's a good thing that they make each other happen.
Do you consciously make movement a part of your creative process?
I'm not extremely organized about my creative time. It's hard to have a regular schedule when I tour so much. Writers I know and have read about, like novelists and poets, all have a schedule. They get up, have breakfast, talk a walk, then write. Every day. And that sounds so dreamy to me. If I could, I would work in an hour of exercise and other activities to boost creativity. But that's impossible for me, since I have a different schedule every day.
What happens more often is that I schedule exercise, or movement of some kind, into my day. Whether it's running, walking, or bike riding. There must be movement. Unless I am sick, I'm in motion most of the time, and creativity follows. There's something about the commitment and challenge of exercise that makes for creative moments.
But when it comes to actually writing, are you disciplined? Do you seek out inspiration or wait for it to come to you?
Both. For years, I was stubborn and thought that I couldn't make inspiration happen. I thought things had to line up just right, and I had to be in the right place at the right moment. But in the last couple of years I've had experience with deadlines. That's something I never used to consider, since I was in this super indie lo-fi world where no one expected anything from me. It allowed me to never experiment with anything other than waiting for the muse to strike. But now, I've had great experience with deadlines and expect myself to produce work by a certain time. And I'm proud of myself for that, because it shows that I'm not the same person and that I can change.
I recently heard an interview with Tom Waits, and he talked about a time he was stuck in traffic in LA and got this amazing idea for a song. But he had no way to record it or write it down. And he said out loud to the muse, "Listen, if you are serious about this, and you want to be born through me, come back when I can give you the attention to deserve." And it worked!
How aware of you, just in your day-to-day life, of how much your environment can inspire you?
I am almost painfully aware of many things. I've had to work with myself to handle things I can't even control, like sounds. I hear all of them. I remember when I first starting playing shows, if I was in a cafe and there was a refrigerator humming or the barista started using the steam wand, I had to stop playing. I am very sensitive to people and their energy; going out into the world can be sensory overload, but I really enjoy it. I enjoy being in lots of different environments. I notice everything on the street, under my feet, all the weird trash and vegetable refuse. In fact, I started a Tumblr account of discarded banana peels on the street.
But are you looking at these things as song ideas?
Yes, it's a soft awareness. It's not a sharp awareness. My thinking mind goes in and out; sometimes I notice things, other times I lose grip on all the sensory input. And I think it's those moments when I come up with ideas, since I'm processing what I've just seen or heard. I used to be attached to writing things down and capturing melodies ands word immediately before they fled. I had to teach myself to relax, because that tight grip and level of stress ends up stifling a lot of ideas.
How aware are you of what works and what doesn't work in your own process?
I do spend time trying to set things up so that they reflect the ideal image of what I decided was the perfect working space. It's crucial to know what works. But the most important thing is to be open to changes in parts of your process and to not be afraid throwing things out that no longer work.
Take me through your songwriting process.
Movement is part of it, and sound is movement. It's vibrations moving through air. My guitar provides me with movement, and it's an exciting tool. Songwriters get to work with pen, paper, and sound. I've written many songs just in my head; I come up with a melody and words inside my body. I might be in a plane, in my kitchen, on a walk, on my bike, or on a bus. But I've probably written most of my songs while playing my guitar; I'm alone, but not really. Instead, it's like being with another person, since I can have a conversation with my guitar. It can be saying something while I'm not.
Do you know what a song is going to be about before you start with the music? How often you start with a topic?
I've had that experience within the lyrical content, where I don't know what the song is about as I write the words. It's only after everything is written that it starts making sense. I kinda like the song but I'm not sure why, and I don't know if it makes any sense. I sit with it for a while and fiddle with the words. Eventually I understand it.
How do you know when a song is done?
Some have felt incomplete until I took them into the studio. There something about being in the studio that really helps. The recording process enables the song to feel complete. But now that I think about it, I actually think that they feel complete when I start sharing them with people. There's something that feels incomplete when I'm the only person who's heard it.
How do you think you've matured as a songwriter?
The ways I've matured are related to my earlier creative invention that Ive retained while being able to broaden the scope of my lyric attention. Part of what makes me feel like Ive grown is that I haven't left all of my younger self aside. I've had moments where I've tried to kick off those young parts, but I think it's a nice way to honor my creativity by still having a relationship with my younger impulses and deeper connection with the arts I make.
Last, who are some of your favorite authors?
When I was younger, I read almost exclusively fiction. But now I've started to read more non-fiction.
I recently reread To Kill a Mockingbird. Wow, what a beautiful book. Some of my other favorites are Another County by James Baldwin, Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart, and Thom Spanbauer's book The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is an all-time favorite.