San Fran songwriters Thao Nguyen and Mirah are back, and they want you to go out on a school night. On Monday, May 2, the ladies team up at SOhO for a set’s worth of tunes in support of their recently released collabo, Thao & Mirah. In addition, the pair will be digging into their individual back catalogues and dishing out tunes — and banter — for fans and newbies alike.
Like most who will be in attendance, I came at the Thao & Mirah project as a big fan of one (Thao) and a casual listener of the other (Mirah). No matter, though, as Thao & Mirah the album is as much a reflection of its contributors solo careers as it is a new venture entirely. Aided by tUnE-yArDs mastermind Merrill Garbus, the duo have crafted a record that’s part acoustic folk, part in-your-face rawk, and part quirky, marimba-filled pop (see lead single, Garbus’s “Eleven”). Below, Mirah checks in to talk collaboration, music vids, and how she’s working hard to get fans involved in more than just the music.
So, I’ve got to ask: how did you and Thao and Merrill meet? Thao and Merrill knew each other already, but I didn’t know either of them. I knew Thao’s name because she’s on Kill Rock Stars, which is a historically Olympia [Washington] label, even though they’re in Portland now. [Mirah used to live in Olympia]. But I’d seen Thao perform once in Portland. She had known my music, which wasn’t super unusual. But essentially we all got set up by an email through a mutual friend, then miraculously found the time to make a record together.
In the music business you’re meeting other artists constantly. What made Thao and Mirah click? Well, partly it was that we were all in the same area. But it’s true; I meet a ton of people all the time. …. I think in large part [Thao and I making this record] just had to do with timing. It was a miraculous convergence of timing. And also, there’s some connection that Thao and I have. I’m not really a “jammer.” I’m more like your typical singer-songwriter in that I work alone, I write my songs alone, and then I bring them into the studio or a practice space and assemble a group of musicians to bring them to life. I’m not really like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and play music.’ I’ve always wanted to be that person, but it’s not me. But for some reason Thao and I — there’s something very relaxed about the way we can do that together. That was special for me. We just clicked.
Did you do a lot of the writing for the album together, or were most of these tracks penned separately? I think we both work in a similar way, like, you write the bones of the song alone with your guitar — I often write while walking or biking — and then you bring it to the people you’re going to record or perform with. I feel like Thao works in that way as well. I felt like [writing this album] we were holding the door open for each other and creating space to allow these songs to happen. Yes, there are tracks on the album that I penned, officially, but I don’t think they would have come out the way they came out if I hadn’t been working in conjunction with Thao while she was working on her songs. There’s something very special about writing in the same moment, even if it wasn’t like, ‘Okay, I’ll write this verse and you write that verse.’ The songs she pens are very much hers and the songs that I wrote are very much mine, but, as with any type of musical relationship you enter in with someone, there’s a third entity that gets created between you. For Thao and I that was the albums and these songs. We were both responding to and contributing to this third thing that existed between us.
There’s something special about this album; it’s so true to both your styles, yet doesn’t sound like anything either of you have recorded previously. In my mind, that’s because of Merrill. I think in a large part that is true. It was awesome working with Merrill in the studio. She has such an amazing sense of how to bring a song to life. It’s a hard world, the producer world, because you come at the song as an outsider initially and then you have to get inside the song. I feel like she has a really awesome sense of how to do that. Also, having a three-person team to bring these songs to life was crucial. I don’t think Thao and I on our own could have come up with a lot of the arrangements and sounds on our own. Working with Merrill brought it into a wider focus. It was a great experience.
Were there ever any concerns or trepidations in putting “Eleven” on the album? Well, when we had scheduled the recording time, Thao and I had each prepared about five songs we were contributing to the project. By the end of our time in the studio we were like, ‘You know, 10 songs doesn’t quite do it. We should add an 11th song, just to push it over the edge and make a more complete package.’ And we loved working with Merrill and wanted to highlight her influence more — and we wanted to have at least one more song where we shared lead vocals. We wanted to add one more track to just make it feel like an even split, where we each contribute one third. And Merrill, she’s an animal. We told her kind of what we wanted and she sent us all the backing tracks, Thao and I wrote our vocal parts, and then we went in the studio and I played a marimba and there it was.
We were very aware of the fact that it was very different from everything else on the album, but rather than looking at it as an issue, we embraced it. [Laughs.] We actually made a music video for “Eleven” just the other day. At one point we were in our costumes in Dolores Park in San Francisco and we were playing the song on the boombox and there were all these kids and families around us and we see the kids dancing. It was a really funny public moment of getting to enjoy other people hearing the song for the first time.
Can you tell me a bit about your work with Air Traffic Control and what it means for folks coming to see you play? Well, Air Traffic Control is an organization in San Francisco that helps musicians nationally become conduits of activism and bring their fan bases into social justice work. … Prior to the album being finished we decided to include information about them in all of the liner notes and the press material and have that be part of our tour. We had to choose an issue — which was no easy thing — and something that Thao and I both feel really strongly about was supporting women’s and children’s services and organizations that address child sexual abuse and try to eliminate it. They helped us put a $1 surcharge on all the ticket prices. That’s one of the ways we’re engaging people from the get-go. It’s permanent on our Web site that this is the work that we’re doing. With issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse, one of the huge factors in the perpetuation of these problems is the silence around them, so bringing it into the discourse really helps.
Finally, I just want to know a bit about the live setup. Are you playing with a band? Are you dipping into old solo stuff? We do have a four-piece band, so it’s Thao and I and a drummer and a string player. We are also going to definitely do some back-catalogue stuff. We’re doing the whole new album, but I have a pretty big collection of songs and Thao has hers and we have our own fans who may just be being introduced to the other through this album, so it’s a way of sharing.
Thao & Mirah play SOhO (1221 State St.) this Monday, May 2 at 8 p.m. with openers Led to Sea. Call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.